I wrote a piece for the Open University Religious Studies blog on the 70th anniversary of the first Flying Saucer sighting, and the relevance for thinking about religions. You can read it here.

The historian rarely gets to see a narrative of this type as it develops. Compared to the origin stories of Christianity or Islam or almost any other religion, the UFO narrative is well documented and its development can be charted quite clearly. Yet there may be illuminating parallels: 70 years after Jesus’ death, Matthew and Luke were just written, new elaborations on claims of inexplicable sightings, now a generation removed from eyewitnesses.

“The Hidden Hand” | Religion Compass

My article, The hidden hand: Why religious studies need to take conspiracy theories seriously, was published in Religion Compass this week, and you can read it here (if you have access). It’s an introduction to the field, and a summary of my work in this area to date.

Here’s the abstract:

What seemed like fringe concerns to most then have, with Trump’s election and Brexit and the growth of the alt-right across Europe, become of concerns of mainstream commentators. Moreover, the rise of ISIS and the increasingly overt religious language being employed in the political sphere have made the powerful combination of religion and conspiracy plain. This emerging subdiscipline cuts to the very core of some of the most pressing issues in the academic study of religion––and indeed, the social sciences more generally in this postcolonial environment. This article is intended to set out its scope and some of its future directions.

Historical Religion in Contemporary Perspective? (reblogged)

Not only is it important to consider contemporary religion in its historical context, but we need to consider the study of contemporary religion in its historical context too. Arrarnte elders, Alice Springs, 1896. Via Wikimedia commons. I recently attended a talk by Professor James Cox on cultural memory among the Australian Aboriginal people. In particular,…

via Historical Religion in Contemporary Perspective? — Contemporary religion in historical perspective

Pizzagate and the Luciferian Agenda

On 7th April, I presented a paper at the CenSAMM conference, Violence and Millenarian Movements, at the Panacea Trust in Bedford. My paper was entitled Pizzagate and the Luciferian Agenda, and you can watch the whole thing below. Here’s the abstract:

In November and December 2016, online accusations of a paedophile ring operating out of a Washington pizza restaurant led to the arrest of Edgar Welch (28) after threatening staff and firing several shots in an apparent attempt to liberate “child sex slaves”. This panic, known as pizzagate, began when leaked emails from Hillary Clinton’s aide, Mike Podesta, were suggested to contain coded language by a number of users on web forums, who began to elaborate upon the narrative until it was widely taken as evidence of a nationwide satanic paedophile ring involving numerous politicians and other power brokers. It is rare is for a conspiracy theory such as this to escalate into violence so quickly, but two things are of particular interest here. First, this ties into the satanic ritual abuse scare of the early 1990s – a phenomenon intimately tied to a Manichaean understanding of the world promoted by certain evangelical millenarian Christians. These ideas have been nurtured and promoted by high-profile independent broadcasters such as Alex Jones, for whom they are part of a sweeping millennial narrative in which a global (and sometimes cosmic) cabal of Luciferians seek to decimate the world’s population and enslave the remains.

I recorded three interviews which will appear on the Religious Studies Project in future, and a full report will appear in the BASR Bulletin next month.

[Updated 28/04/2017 – higher quality video added.]

The Month in Conspiracy

Alex Jones has publically apologised for his coverage of #PizzaGate, and specifically the allegations against James Alefantis. There is obviously considerable legal pressure being applied behind the scenes here, and it is at this point unclear how this relates to his close connections to the Trump White House. Video below, and a full transcript here.

Antarctica is a hot topic in alternative history narratives these days. Here’s David Wilcock and his latest “insider” Corey Goode on how “The Antarctic Atlantis” relates to the secret space program:

Want to know how it all fits together? This could only be improved if it was designed to look like an octopus. Or a squid, I suppose: http://laughingsquid.com/the-conspiracy-theory-flowchart-they-dont-want-you-to-see/?utm_source=feedly

Barth’s Notes on Westminster Attack conspiracy theories: http://barthsnotes.com/2017/03/24/westminster-terror-attack-the-troofers-emerge/

The autism caused by vaccination narrative gets another celebrity endorsement: https://nexusnewsfeed.com/article/human-rights/his-life-has-been-altered-forever-de-niro-finally-opens-up-about-his-son-s-autism-link-to-vaccines/

7 Questions for Sacred Matters

I was interviewed last year for Sacred Matters, a really interesting web magazine focussed on “public scholarship that undercuts conventional understandings of religion and reimagines the boundaries between religion and culture”. You can read the full thing here.

Most scholarship on conspiracy theories starts by attacking the rationality of their ideas. But to state that Jesus rose from the grave is obviously to challenge scientific knowledge too. Where are the scholars attacking the rationality of an idea that the majority of US citizens hold dear? In fact, much – if not most – of what we do as supposedly “secular” humans is not driven by the scientific method at all – including nationalism, political views, sport, even falling in love. As social scientists, our job is to describe, not prescribe, human social activity.

Conspiracy theories are a site of contestation as to how we understand the world. A conspiracy theory is not “a theory about a conspiracy” – I give lots of examples in the book – but rather something we are not permitted to think. That so many conspiracy theories relate to people in positions of power should make this even plainer. The important issue in conspiracy theories is not what is said, but whether we are allowed to say it. That scholars so often reinforce this good thinking/bad thinking dichotomy makes it clear that a properly critical and disinterested study of conspiracy theories is sorely needed.



The Week in Conspiracy, 20th Feb 2017


“Health Ranger” Mike Adams claims “I am being threatened with the ‘complete destruction’ of my reputation, my brand and my character by left-wing media operatives who have issued a new threat this week: ‘Destroy Alex Jones or we will destroy YOU.’” Poor snowflake – sounds like he’s been triggered.


Image result for growing up in the new world orderAn interesting graphic novel which wants to WAKE THE SHEEPLE. And no it’s not by you, it’s by Tom Hoover and Michael Lee:



Steve Bannon’s Apocalypticism:



Fake News is not a new phenomenon:



Winston Churchill discusses alien life in newly-found 1939 essay:


The Week in Conspiracy, 20 January 2017

By Mitch O’Connell, via BoingBoing

I haven’t done one of these in a while. That’s because all the wild conspiracy stuff I used to post is now our everyday reality, and the stuff of the regular news shows… So perhaps today is a good time to post.

John Carpenter publicly denies that They Live (1988) is an allegory for the secret Jewish control of the world:

Erich von Daniken appears on the Richie Allen Show. Yes, he’s still alive, and still promoting the Ancient Aliens thesis:

Delegates at the Contact in the Desert UFO conference see UFOs. A weird coincidence? Were these delegates more “ready” to see UFOs? Or were the ETs deliberately reaching out to them? Whichever reason, this sighting is by no means the only such example, and you might enjoy the Last Podcast on the Left’s take (but put the kids to bed first) – http://cavecomedyradio.com/podcast-episode/episode156-the-coronado-group-abduction/

The CIA have declassified 13 million documents and published them online. Most news outlets are focusing on a small number of inconclusive UFO reports. Sky news, however, focused on their tests on Uri Geller, something that Geller has claimed for a while, though not always being taken seriously. The papers provide evidence, however, stating that “As a result of Geller’s success in this experimental period, we consider that he has demonstrated his paranormal perception ability in a convincing and unambiguous manner.”

Channelled Texts in the Classroom?

During my co-teaching assignment in 2014-15, New Age Beliefs and Practises, when stuck for a seminar topic for the first week’s class, given the lack of a set reading, my senior colleague simply went to his office and produced a stack of primary texts on the New Age from the 1940s to 1990s. These he distributed among the students, asking them to try and find examples of the typical New Age elements as presented during the lecture – millennialism, Eastern religions, UFOs, “energy” and so on.

With a bit of coaxing, this worked surprisingly well. What interested me about this activity was that the students were given the data cold, and asked to interpret using what we had learned in the class. Also, it gave them the original material in their hands – unlike most classes on religion, I could actually give them a copy of the original document and ask them to leaf through it. This neatly makes the point that religion – whatever it might be – is both something mundane, and something which is continuing to happen in the modern world.

Inspired by this, I tried a different version of the same technique in my adult education course, Alternative Religions, in 2015. Rather than a book, in the session where we focussed on prophecy, I gave each student an anonymised channelled text and asked them to speculate on where and when it came from. Roughly half of the texts were “UFO” texts from the post-War period, ranging from George Adamski’s messages in the 1950s to Bashar’s in the 2000s, and the remainder were made up of more conventionally religious channelled texts ranging from the Old Testament prophets, to Aleister Crowley’s 1904 Book of the Law, to modern revivalist Christian preachers.

This exercise had two benefits. Firstly, it was quite simply fun. I deliberately “gamified” it: they were a small group, but chatty and enthusiastic, so when some – pleasingly – got it right, there was as much fun as when someone did not. In essence, they forgot they were learning. Moreover, tests have demonstrated that competition improves student’s retention of information (Worm & Buch 2014).

Secondly, without foreknowledge of which was modern and which was not, which was Christian and which was not, the students found it hard to tell the difference. Therefore they realised that the assumed self-evident difference between “legitimate” and “illegitimate” religious formations was proven to be fallacious – at least in terms of their texts and the teachings they contain. UFO Contactees in the 1980s, ceremonial magicians in the 1900s and revivalist preachers all used a common language drawn from the Bible, even though they are typically considered to antithetical to Christianity. In other words, when preconceptions were removed, the data proved to have a lot more similarity than difference, and again the point is made that without preconceptions, the difference between mainstream and alternative religions mostly comes down to expectation. And crucially, the group – apparently – discovered these facts for themselves.

From a disciplinary perspective, this is of crucial importance to me. For Religious Studies as a discipline to earn its place at the academic table, it has to do more than legitimising certain discourses at the expense of others (McCutcheon 1997). A fine ideal, but one which is often made more complicated by the concerns which drive people into the field in the first place. You cannot make a student – almost certainly raised in an implicitly or explicitly religiously normative culture – comprehend these issues simply by telling them, but you can lead them to realise it for themselves.

This exercise makes that point succinctly, and in a non-confrontational way. I can give a student a piece of religion happening right now (or at least, within memory), where they have as much context as I do. At the same time, I can challenge the perceived need to separate real religion from popular narratives, and at the same time expose the power plays of those who deem it necessary. It is a simple and enjoyable exercise, but when successful it leads students to see profound issues at the heart of the discipline. This makes it a very powerful strategy for the classroom.


McCutcheon, Russell T. 1997. Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and the Politics of Nostalgia. Oxford University Press

Worm, Bjarne S. and Buch, Steen V. 2014. “Does competition work as a motivating factor in e-learning? A randomized controlled trial”. PLoS One, 9(1).

The Week in Conspiracy, 30 August 2016

A review of Holy Hell, a documentary by Will Allen about his years in the Buddhafield, a Californian group led by hypnotherapist Michel. It seems like the tone is relatively even-handed, which means that this will be of interest to scholars like me, as well as the use of archival footage. I say “relatively even-handed” however as I have yet to see it, and there is certainly a slightly sensationalist tone to the trailer. Ideas of sexual misconduct are, of course, the standard accusation in the construction of malevolent Otherness, and has been since the Classical world, and financial misconduct is another. Nevertheless, they do happen, and there have been a number of recent documentaries (“Going Clear”, “The Family”) which trade on the “corrupt leader and his brainwashed stooges” model, which is worrying. As religious identities become more polarised, are we seeing a return to the media universally constructing new religions as dangerous cults?

Richard Bartholomew has an interesting piece of the growing presence of the more outlandish conspiracy theories in American evangelism, entitled “Jim Bakker and the David Ickeization of Christianity”:

Pentecostalism has a strong sense of the other-worldly, and its emphasis on spiritual forces sometimes means a readiness to accept claims about “occult” and Satanic conspiracies. Sometimes, pop-culture science-fiction elements may be incorporated, such as the idea that UFOs are visions of demons. However, the extravagance of the conspiracy theories now being promoted by Bakker are closer to the realms of David Icke’s imaginings than the exhortations of old-time religion or even the old conspiracy theories that were dusted off and made less overtly anti-semitic by Bakker’s old employer Pat Robertson in 1991.

James Carrion has new evidence suggesting a larger role in the UFO story for the Joint Security Control, a strategic deception unit formed during WW2 and answerable directly to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. A revised charter allowing them to operate in peacetime, as well as wartime, come into operation in May 1947, immediately preceding the original wave of “flying saucer” sightings. A long, very detailed, but fascinating read for anyone interested in the historical development of the UFO narrative, and its origins. At http://historydeceived.blogspot.co.uk/2016/08/human-deception-at-playduring-ufo-wave.html