In the first half of this essay, I explained the importance of engaging in dialogue with conspiracy theorists [1]. Thinkers such as Romano Guardini can provide us with the points of congruence that are needed for such dialogue; in particular, Guardini describes the bureaucratic organizations of the modern world in a way that would be familiar to many conspiracy theorists, but without falling into the many intellectual errors that tend to accompany such views. While it is true that conspiracy theories are dangerous when taken literally, they can be seen as instructive myths about the state of our society. 

The term “conspiracy theory” is a very broad label, but certain fundamental mentalities and attitudes are generally present in the worldview of those who hold conspiratorial views. I think there are four key points that we can learn, both from the content of such theories and from their popularity. 

An Unknown World

We all live in a world we hardly understand. We’re deluged with news, much of it barely comprehensible to us. We’re called on to form opinions on such diverse topics as the politics of Afghanistan and the evolution of novel viruses. Everything around us changes rapidly, giving us no time to catch up. We’re surrounded by vast systems, the inner workings of which are often mysterious to us. This is particularly true of the systems of power in the modern world. For instance, during the controversies around the 2020 election, I quickly realized that I didn’t understand the many details of our voting system. 

Even the operation of our tools seems mysterious and magical to us. Few of us understand the computers we interact with every day, let alone the telecommunications and electrical systems on which they depend and the sophisticated manufacturing processes that bring them to us. As Guardini puts it in The End of the Modern World:

The machine is swiftly coming into its own. The tool increases the natural effectiveness of human limbs and organs; early forms of the machine were hardly distinguishable from tools. But the machine’s development has been away from the implement towards something of its own that is quite different—namely, a scientifically calculated and precisely constructed functional system that is growing increasingly independent of the human body…

This transformation of process and product is accompanied by a corresponding change in the working man himself. The handicrafts, on which all preceding culture was based, are disappearing. As the machine is perfected, the intimate relation of man to his work, in which his eye, hand, will, sense of material, imagination, and general creativeness cooperate, disappears…

But even as he puts them to ever more varied tasks, gaining through them ever greater power, his own will and creativeness must conform ever more to the mechanism in question, for one-sided effects do not exist…(pg 154-158)

This state of affairs is very dangerous. In a footnote to the last sentence above, Guardini writes:

Let us take an example. If a man attacks and kills another with a club, he experiences his act directly. It is quite another thing when he pulls a lever in an airplane at high altitude, and thousands perish in cities far below him. He is capable of knowing and of causing such an act; he is no longer capable of experiencing it as act and event.

Conspiracy theories thrive in such an environment of unknowing. They strive to introduce a fundamental doubt into the mind, the fatal “but what if?” and “can you prove otherwise?”. In Technopoly, Neil Postman amusingly presents this problem:

If I informed you that the paper on which this book is printed was made by a special process which uses the skin of a pickled herring, on what grounds would you dispute me? For all you know—indeed, for all I know—the skin of a pickled herring could have made this paper. And if the facts were confirmed by an industrial chemist who described to us some incomprehensible process by which it was done (employing, of course, encomium dyoxin), we might both believe it. Or not wholly disbelieve it, since the ways of technology, like the ways of God, are awesome and mysterious.

This also makes conspiracy theories hard to rebut, in two different ways. Sweeping appeals to common sense are much less convincing in such a world. So many crazy and improbable things are true, and we know so little about so much, so anything can come to seem plausible. More particular and detailed attempts to overturn such theories end up tied in knots. Disproving conspiracy theories can involve trying to explain deep scientific or philosophic topics in the confines of a blog post or social media thread. The theorist can spin a tale easily; disproving it is difficult. 

Not only do conspiracy theories thrive in an incomprehensible environment; they are presented as the key to surviving such an environment. We’re all drowning in a sea of data, and long for the appearance of some comprehensible pattern. This desire prompts the rise of ideologies and conspiracy theories, which give people the illusion of comprehension by radically oversimplifying reality. 

An Unhappy World

The world is not only incomprehensible, but also deeply unsatisfying. We have always lived in a “vale of tears” and life was actually more difficult and painful in earlier times. Our current society, however, systematically frustrates many of our fundamental requirements for happiness. To be fulfilled, human beings need to feel they are “competent”, “connected”, and “self-determined”, at least to some degree. The constant changes in our modern economy and the general complexity of modern life, however, make it harder to develop a deep sense of competence.

In the workplace as in the rest of life, self-determination is hard to achieve. Too often, human beings become merely cogs in the sort of systems Guardini described. Human beings are used as tools and are treated as objects rather than subjects. Pope St. John Paul II criticized this aspect of modern society in Laborem Exercens:

The danger of treating work as a special kind of “merchandise,” or as an impersonal “force” needed for production (the expression “workforce” is in fact in common use) always exists, especially when the whole way of looking at the question of economics is marked by the premises of materialistic economism.

A systematic opportunity for thinking and evaluating in this way… is provided by the quickening process of the development of a one-sidedly materialistic civilization, which gives prime importance to the objective dimension of work, while the subjective dimension—everything in direct or indirect relationship with the subject of work—remains on a secondary level. In all cases of this sort, in every social situation of this type, there is a confusion or even a reversal of the order laid down from the beginning by the words of the Book of Genesis: man is treated as an instrument of production, whereas he—he alone, independently of the work he does—ought to be treated as the effective subject of work and its true maker and creator. 

The fundamentally individualistic nature of our society makes meaningful connections difficult to maintain. Even the fact that we tend to move from place to place so frequently makes the development of true friendship less likely. Individualism and loneliness combine to produce a lack of identity, a feeling of rootlessness. Conspiracy theories and cults offer the sense of meaning and feeling of connection that is so lacking in our modern world. By doing so, these movements create new, distinctively modern forms of identity and belonging; their role in providing identity and meaning largely explains their attraction. 

The unhappiness generated by these various factors has produced deeply nihilistic and apocalyptic attitudes in our society. Deep down, many simply want to see the end of it all. We can see this in our fascination with post-apocalyptic films and novels, in the increased prevalence of suicide, in our increasingly adversarial politics, and in various apocalyptic religious movements. Conspiracy theories feed into these sorts of apocalyptic, messianic desires. They frequently point toward some sort of approaching catastrophe, while holding out the promise of a better world on the other side. This is particularly true of various extremist Christian groups, who envision some sort of purifying cataclysm to be quickly followed by a golden age for the elect. 

A Hostile World

One source of our societal unhappiness is a deep sense that the world is an inimical place. We frequently interact with cold, uncaring, bureaucratic institutions. The average American has fewer friends today than before. Our society is marred by a pervasive fear of betrayal and marked by competition. As Pope Francis writes in Evangelii Gaudium:

Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. … Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.

Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a “throw away” culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the “exploited” but the outcast, the “leftovers” (53).

On a deeper level, there is a fear of the demonic world that Guardini describes, a sense that whatever or whoever is “running the show” is fundamentally hostile. As Guardini says, we have abdicated our responsibility to humanize the world. We trust in the “invisible hand” to govern the allocation of economic resources. Much of our politics is driven by the chaotic forces of social media discourse. Our cities grow or decline based on the unpredictable moves of large employers. In these areas of life, many Christians are willing to advocate for a level of irresponsibility that they would never condone at a personal level. It is well known that if the mind is left to drift, it quickly turns to evil. This understanding, however, is not applied to our society, in part because its sheer scale and complexity make rational control almost impossible. 

Conspiracy theories provide a simple explanation for these structures of sin, typically pinning the blame on a small group of evil or possessed individuals. This oversimplification leads to simplistic solutions. Many of those taken in by conspiracy theories are led to hope that evil can be eradicated by political victories, and are quick to dehumanize and demonize their political opponents. Such hopes are fed by cynical political movements that channel our societal anger against political opponents. In reality, the evil inhabiting our modern world can only be eradicated through both personal conversion and systemic change.

A Gnostic World

Our culture puts too much emphasis on the virtual and the intellectual, and not enough on the physical and the practical. This is very dangerous for society. It leads us to forget that although we are individuals because of our rational souls, we are a community through our bodies. This flight from the physical lies behind the idea of being “spiritual but not religious.” Such an attitude reduces religious practice to something that is merely inward and personal, rather than something that is rooted in a concrete community. 

In the second chapter of Gaudete et Exsultate, Pope Francis describes the problem of this contemporary “gnosticism” in the following words:

Thanks be to God, throughout the history of the Church it has always been clear that a person’s perfection is measured not by the information or knowledge they possess, but by the depth of their charity. “Gnostics” do not understand this, because they judge others based on their ability to understand the complexity of certain doctrines. They think of the intellect as separate from the flesh, and thus become incapable of touching Christ’s suffering flesh in others, locked up as they are in an encyclopaedia of abstractions. In the end, by disembodying the mystery, they prefer “a God without Christ, a Christ without the Church, a Church without her people”.

The kind of “gnosticism” to which Pope Francis is referring leads to a fascination with secret knowledge, and the idea that such knowledge is the key to salvation or success. Conspiracy theories depend on this desire, presenting themselves as the key to “being on the right side”. Christianity calls us to metanoia, a transformative change of heart. Gnostic conspiracy theories, by contrast, represent salvation as a sort of paradigm shift created by knowledge of a “deeper reality.” Pope Francis points to this problem in Gaudete et Exsultate 41: “When somebody has an answer for every question, it is a sign that they are not on the right road. They may well be false prophets, who use religion for their own purposes, to promote their own psychological or intellectual theories.”

Our contemporary “gnosticism” also produces a dualistic mentality, a vision of a battle between good and evil which is foreign to true Christian spirituality. As Christians, we know that evil is merely a lack, a privation; it is parasitic on the good but lacks any power inherent to itself. It can be easy, however, for Christians to slide back into a dualistic view of a war between God and the devil as if they were equivalent forces. Christians can come to fear that they will “accidentally” end up on the wrong side, claimed by evil against their will by reading the wrong books or believing the wrong theories. Such ideas can grow up whenever the Faith is taught in such a way that the devil becomes more “interesting” than God. In particular, the wrong understanding of spiritual warfare can contribute to such a mentality. Spiritual warfare should be about uprooting the evil tendencies inside oneself, instead of about fending off “attacks” from spiritual entities or other human beings. 

This dualism of good versus evil is represented in almost all conspiracy theories, particularly those which claim to be based on Christianity. Conspiracy theories often involve a fear that evil or Satan might win unless some particular course of action is taken. In fomenting such fear, these theories ultimately reveal a deep lack of faith in God’s providential care, even among those who are nominally religious and devout. They also manifest a fascination with exploring and learning about evil, presenting it as more real and interesting than it truly is. 

The Church is not immune to these problems of a hostile, ”gnostic” modern world. In fact, many of these issues have seeped into the Church at every level. All too often, Catholic dioceses, parishes, and institutions are bureaucratic and impersonal. Many Catholics feel profoundly alone in the Church and are deeply dissatisfied. They can’t make sense of the increasingly confusing religious landscape created by an over-intellectualized and “gnostic” attitude toward the Faith. The cover-up of clerical sexual abuse has convinced many that they’ve been abandoned by their religious leaders. All of this creates a void that is exploited by radical traditionalist leaders, just as secular conspiracy theorists exploit the void left by the failure of our secular institutions. 

Reactionary traditionalism[2] is deeply flawed in numerous ways. But we have to keep in mind that it is being presented as a solution to very real problems. Such traditionalism is attractive to young Catholics who want to live the Faith in a deeper, more authentic manner. They sense that there must be something more to the Faith and that the average American parish is seriously deficient. Reactionary thinking offers a temptingly simplistic answer to their desire for something more authentic. It provides an easily understandable identity and the fellowship of a community that shares the same convictions. That is the real tragedy of reactionary traditionalism: it distracts and corrupts those who are seeking a deeper experience of the Faith.

How Should We Respond?

With this perspective in mind, what should be our response?

First, we must examine ourselves. In our own personal outlooks, we must avoid Gnostic dualism, the division of the world into competing camps of good and evil. As pointed out above, conspiracy theorists see themselves as the “good guys” opposing monstrous, demonic, subhuman evil. We can easily become their mirror image, and we need to be aware of this danger in two different respects.

No matter how easy it may be, we can’t demonize our opponents. Personally, I struggle with this. I’m constantly in danger of succumbing to anger toward intellectual “enemies”. Instead, we should ask for the grace to see our opponents as members of the kingdom of God. Christ has triumphed, and that realization should give us magnanimity born of confidence. 

Similarly, we should have the humility to realize that in so far as there is a “conspiracy” in the modern world, it is a conspiracy of the rich against the poor, a conspiracy of systemic discrimination and oppression. In that conspiracy, we are the “bad guys.” As William Cavanaugh writes in Being Consumed

As I write this, I stop to look at the clothes I am wearing: my shirt was made in Indonesia, my jeans in Mexico, my shoes in China. My undershirt, whose label instructs me to “have a nice day” was made in Haiti, where a nice day for most people is a day when there is enough food to eat. Most of us would never deliberately choose our own material comfort over the life of another person. Most of us do not consciously choose to work others to death for the sake of lower prices on the things we buy. But we participate in such an economy because we are detached from the producers, the people who actually make our things … The “happy meal” toys from McDonald’s that we easily discarded reveal nothing of the toil of the malnourished young women who make them. We spend the equivalent of two day’s wages for such women on a cup of coffee for ourselves—without giving it a second thought. We do so not necessarily because we are greedy and indifferent to the suffering of others, but largely because those others are invisible to us.

As far as practical action, the only true way to defeat erroneous conspiracy theories has been laid out by Pope Francis in Let Us Dream. We need to dream of a better world, and then take courageous action to turn such dreams into reality. We need to build a world in which every human person is loved and cared for, in which no human person is a tool, in which the personal love of the people of God replaces the coldness of bureaucracy, in which human beings can take root and find security in the love of a community. 

Such a world cannot be built merely or even primarily at the level of international diplomacy or national politics. Working at such a level creates the “demonic” world that we need to overthrow. Instead, we need to work at the local level, where we can be guided by concrete, practical knowledge. The only solution to the incomprehensibility of our world is to act to a level commensurate with our ability to comprehend. Pope Francis writes about this in Fratelli Tutti

There can be a false openness to the universal, born of the shallowness of those lacking insight into the genius of their native land or harboring unresolved resentment towards their own people. Whatever the case, “we constantly have to broaden our horizons and see the greater good which will benefit us all. But this has to be done without evasion or uprooting. We need to sink our roots deeper into the fertile soil and history of our native place, which is a gift of God. We can work on a small scale, in our own neighborhood, but with a larger perspective… The global need not stifle, nor the particular prove barren”; our model must be that of a polyhedron, in which the value of each individual is respected, where “the whole is greater than the part, but it is also greater than the sum of its parts” (145).

Such local action is not just a matter of building community in order to “cult-proof” individuals, though that is certainly a useful thing. Rather, it is a matter of realizing that conspiracy theories are merely symptoms of a deeper sickness. They draw their power from the truth behind their distorted and mythic depiction of our world. So long as these dark myths map onto the lived reality of millions in our society, conspiracy theories and the cults they foster will thrive and grow. Only by striking at the fundamental flaws in our modern society can we destroy the myths, replacing them with the Gospel—the only story that is at once both symbol and reality.

Notes

[1]One metric for analyzing the probability of a conspiracy theory, in my opinion, is how many people the proposed conspiracy would involve and how much of reality the theory tries to explain. The more people involved and the more it tries to cover the less believable any such theory is. There’s all the difference in the world between saying that there was a conspiracy behind the assassination of JFK, and saying that there’s a conspiracy that has orchestrated everything from the French Revolution to 9/11.

[2] To clarify, in this essay, and in my writing more generally, I am using the term to refer to those who see the “Tridentine Liturgy” as objectively superior to the “Vatican II Liturgy”, and who are generally suspicious of the Second Vatican Council and the modern Popes, particularly Pope Francis. Such traditionalists are found both inside and outside the Church; I was one for many years. Those inside the Church tend to gravitate toward destination parishes run by the FSSP or ICKSP, if any are available in their area. I am not referring to mainstream Catholics who like a bit of incense or who are fond of medieval architecture, or even to those who like to attend a Tridentine liturgy on occasion. 


Image: Photo by Bernard Hermant on Unsplash 


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Malcolm Schluenderfritz hosts Happy Are You Poor, a blog and podcast dedicated to discussing radical Christian community as a means of evangelization. He works as a graphic design assistant and a horticulturalist in Littleton, CO.

Conspiracy Theories as Instructive Myth – Part Two
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