The recent death of Jack Chick just once again reminded me how intertwined religion and conspiracy theories have been for me. As I grew up pastors changed, congregations changed, denominations changed but there was always a conspiracy theory in there somewhere. When it wasn't scheming papists secretly being behind every terrible world event it was the New World Order or the New Age movement or the Communists or the Anti-Christ (although if you were raised with Chick tracts & Crusader Comics - as I was - you'd know those were actually all the same thing really). I don't think it was just me though, if you look into it, there's a strong collaboration between religious belief and belief in conspiracy theories.
Now I'm guessing this is the part where an imaginary smug Atheist would jump in and comment that this is true because religious people are gullible and dumb and well practiced in believing unproven, unbelievable bullshit so OF COURSE they'd be easily duped! Well hold your horses imaginary commenter because that doesn't quite explain the whole picture. It's not just the religious who get into this, conspiracy theories also have a large following among some very smart, well educated, non-religious people. That includes Atheists. Remember Zeitgeist a couple of years back?
So instead of going for the low hanging fruit of "people be stupid" I'd like to offer my own explanation. Conspiracies share a lot of DNA with religion so it's not very surprising that they go together so well. They both help to fulfill an important human need and it's better to admit that than to try and pretend otherwise. Let me show you:
Here is a religious idea:
The world is a scary place. It's important to know though that God is in control. However chaotic things may look, always remember that He has a plan. If we know this plan we don't need to be afraid. If we worship God and pray to Him then we gain the power to fight back against the forces of darkness. This is how we take back power and regain control.
Here is a conspiracy theorist idea:
The world is a scary place. It's important to know though that The Elites are in control. However chaotic things may look, always remember that THEY have a plan. If we know this plan we don't need to be afraid. If we look for the clues and learn the right phrases then we gain the power to fight back against the forces of darkness. This is how we take back power and regain control.
That's what I meant by similar DNA. No one would deny that the world can be terrifying. However, something that is terrifying but going according to a bigger plan is less terrifying than something that is terrifying and completely chaotic*. As long as there is a plan and a reason then the possibility for control exists. If there are rules then you can learn to be safe by learning them.
So I get why conspiracy theories are so tempting. But having lived in that world for so long, there are some good reasons to stay away from them. Conspiracy theories are toxic to the human mind. I don't listen to them for fun, I avoid them as much as possible these days. See the thing you have to understand is that they are seductive. They make some good points, or at least they seem to. They appeal to all the bad wiring in our brains to connect dots and trace patterns that do not actually exist. We are naturally wired to take all the random events of our lives and weave them into a coherent narrative with us as the protagonist. Conspiracy theories take that to a far grander scale. They weave all the random events of world history and weave them into a grand adventure with despicable villains and then invite you to be the noble hero in that story. They exploit every logical fallacy in the book but we don't mind (or notice) because they allow us to do the thing we like most: they let us make sense of things. It taps into our primal needs - the need to feel special, the need to feel smart, the need for control - as well as our worst impulses - distrust of our fellow man, hatred of the other, the different, the foreign and of course, the need to feel superior to others. It makes us feel like we are good people, fighting a good fight while in truth making us worse people**. It inspires us to casual cruelty, callousness and smugness but prevents us from recognizing it***. It makes us feel smarter while actively making us dumber. Because it's not just that conspiracy theories offer simple answers to complex issues. No, conspiracy theories denies that complex issues exist in the first place. It's all simple black and white. Us vs THEM. I cannot abide this.
I would much rather make peace with the terror of chaos. I prefer to admit that I don't know and I don't understand. Some things will always defy our need for easy answers and while that's scary it is still reality and reality is where I want to live. No matter what the cost.
*Think of the scariest horror movies you've ever seen. They were the ones where the monster had no rhyme or reason weren't they? The ones where the monster is powerful but works according to very specific rules just aren't that scary.
**Just look up all the bile sent to the grieving parents of the Sandy Hook Shooting after that got turned into a conspiracy. Those people all thought of themselves as good people while sending the most vile messages to the parents of murdered children.
***You're not smug! You're just wide awake to the TRUTH of how the world works! Unlike those sheeple!