It occurred to me recently that religion might be at the root of all conspiracy theories.
The thought first occurred to me as I was reading a novel in which the main characters have a deep faith in some sort of “higher power.” More than several times in the course of the book, one or another of them says something like, “God works in mysterious ways,” or “Everything happens for a reason.” If you believe that there is a reason for everything, then it follows that it should be possible to discern that reason by closely examining the events leading up to and surrounding “that thing.”
We often obsess over reasons behind natural events – we even call them “acts of God.” How would you explain why a tree fell on your car? You would start looking at why you parked your car in that particular spot…was it your normal spot or did you deviate for some reason (God [or the Devil] made you do it)? Was the tree unhealthy or damaged? When was the last rain and how soaked was the soil? Did the wind gust especially hard or was it steady but unusually strong? What did you do wrong and is God is punishing you for it? Did God total your old car because He wanted you to get a newer, safer car? Do you lean toward attributing events to natural causes or supernatural causes?
While the foregoing doesn’t sound much like a conspiracy theory, it contains the same elements. The Wikipedia entry on “Conspiracy Theory” cites political scientist Michael Barkun, who wrote that conspiracy theories rely on the view that the universe is governed by design, and embody three principles: nothing happens by accident, nothing is as it seems, and everything is connected. The very same descriptors accurately apply to most religions.
Another source defines conspiracy theory as “an explanation that makes reference to hidden, malevolent forces seeking to advance some nefarious aim.” Drop the words “malevolent” and “nefarious” and you have a fair description of many religious beliefs.
I don’t think that religion, per se, is the cause of conspiracy theories. I think, instead, that both religious beliefs and conspiracy theories are consequences of the way the human brain (and to some degree, perhaps mammalian brains in general) is wired. That the issue of “causation” has occupied thinkers since the beginning of time speaks forcefully for the existence of a strong need to understand the connections between events. Paradoxically, it is that very same need that pushes scientific advance.
Perhaps this explains why science is so often rejected as some sort of conspiracy or as an affront to religion…each view is a conflicting alternative expression of the same desire to understand the universe.