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.
Hey there! The kids are back at school, so I have time again to curate your weekly dose of conspiracism from around the web.
(Via Daniel Jolley:) The International Journal of Communication reports that people convinced by a conspiracy theory may not immediately change their mind again. Well, duh.
Recent research published in the International Journal of Communication … found that after exposure to a video promoting government conspiracy theories about the moon landing (segment taken from Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon), belief in conspiracy theories increased immediately after the exposure and two weeks later (when compared to people who had not watched the video). This provides, to my knowledge, the first empirical evidence that being exposed to conspiracy theories can change your attitudes for a prolonged (two-week) period of time. If you are interested in reading the paper, you can access a PDF copy here.
There’s a movie about holocaust denial starring Rachel Weisz coming. I’m in.
The case of alleged abductee Stan Romanek is such a hot tangled mess I can’t even begin to describe it. As he appears in court on child pornography charges this week, go grab a beer, head over to Jack Brewer’s UFO Trail and enjoy.
There’s a positive review of Rob Brotherton’s Suspicious Minds over at the Magonia blog. It examines the psychology of conspiracy theories, and looks like being both evenhanded and readable:
He argue that what separates them from real, established conspiracies is the lack of resolution; they are ongoing mysteries. More to the point perhaps is that what they have in common is the perception that the apparent world is an illusion, a false face. Behind the quotidian events of the world there is a “hidden hand”, a secret meaning and purpose. This is clearly a secularisation of the religious beliefs that either God or the Devil is behind the randomness of the world.
A draft of Dame Janet Smith’s report from the inquiry into Jimmy Savile and the BBC is leaked by Exaro News. This is a particularly troubling situation, because while a great deal of the conspiracist material surrounding Savile and the broader “institutional paedophilia” scare is hysterically exaggerated and speculative, and at worst – such as the case of the supposed witness “Nick” – based on what is either mental illness or outright fraud, there is plenty that is true and highly disturbing in this case.
David Icke has a new book coming out and a “world tour” later this year, so we can expect a run of new interviews across the alternative media. Here he talks to Alex Jones about “how the Public Is Programmed To Become Slaves”. I find his Infowars appearances particularly interesting because we get to see clearly how he selectively chooses his topic to suit his audience, in this case, politically right, Christian and pro-gun, in stark contrast to Icke’s own position.
Tila Tequila joins the growing flat earth revival with a wonderful Twitter rant. She demands scientific evidence! She blames the resistance to Flat Earth Theory arguments on brain damage caused by vaccines. Take that, Haterz!
How can you believe that the government would not conspire against the people, when you obviously believe to the point of constant accusation that the other party you are not in, is constantly conspiring against your party and it’s leader?
Meanwhile, Rob Brotherton contributes an excellent op-ed for the LA Times, outlining the psychological and cognitive systems and biases that mean that conspiracy theorising is perfectly normal. Still, I would have liked to have seen him twist the knife a little more by pointing out that these same systems also produce religion…
Dismissing all conspiracy theories (and theorists) as crazy is just as intellectually lazy as credulously accepting every wild allegation. The tricky part is figuring out what’s reasonable and what’s ridiculous, and we can do that only by honestly scrutinizing why we believe what we believe.
This is the abstract from my introduction, which sets up the approach of the issue:
This introduction addresses a number of approaches to the emerging field of the study of conspiracy theories and new and alternative religions. Scholars can examine how certain religious groups have been the subject of conspiracy narratives created by the wider culture, and how conspiracy narratives are mobilized within religious groups such as Aum Shinrikyo, Scientology or others. Moreover, we can fruitfully examine secular conspiracy theories through ideas typically applied to religions, such as theodicy, millenarianism, and esoteric claims to higher knowledge. Most studies assume that conspiracy theories indicate pathology—paranoia or simply stupidity. Increasingly however, scholars have begun to interpret the term “conspiracy theory” as operating polemically to stigmatize certain beliefs and ideas. The field therefore offers a microcosm of broader trends in the interplay of knowledge and power. The study of both new and emergent religions and conspiracy theories comes of age only when we cease to think of them as necessarily deviant and irrational.
More to come later this week, as I finally get my head above water with work again…
I’m a bit miffed that not only was I not invited to this conference, but I didn’t even know it was happening. Maybe THEY didn’t want me to know about it… A couple of colleagues were there however, along with a few people who haven’t published on the subject at all yet.
There’s an interesting write-up by Jesse Walker over at reason.com, in which she/he echoes a couple of observations I’ve made about the field myself. The first is that most scholars have moved past the “conspiracy theory = paranoia” paradigm as per Hofstader’s 1954 The Paranoid Style of American Politics, even if the popular press have yet to catch up:
When the conference heard from Peter Knight, author of the seminal book Conspiracy Culture, he recalled that in the ’90s his circle’s “defining mission” had been to overturn the Hofstadterian tradition, with its tendency to pathologize conspiracy believers and to be alarmed at manifestations of public distrust. Listening to the interdisciplinary crowd, he felt on the one hand pleased that the field had grown so large, on the other hand alarmed at how little his group’s efforts seemed to have influenced the work being done elsewhere.
Secondly, the different approaches have different aims and (more problematically) often start with different assumptions. For example, psychological approaches often start with Hofstaderian assumptions. Walker suggests that philosophers generally fail to turn their critiques into research programs, even when the work is the most critically sound. For my money, the answer is a social epistemological approach combining philosophical insights into the construction of knowledge/s and a contextualisation of the broader cultural context from critical social theory. With this approach, the study of conspiracy theories can go beyond looking at “irrational, paranoid” Others, and instead tell us something about how competing epistemés are constructed and maintained.