My interest in conspiracy theories is heightened by the fact that what I find wrong with them--my assessment, if you will, of why they are insane--bears a striking resemblance to what many atheist critics of religion find wrong with religious faith. Of course one can't deny that some religious belief-systems have the character of conspiracy theories (I think of Pat Robertson's troubling accounts of such things as why Haiti was struck by such a terrible earthquake a few years back). When religious beliefs take on the characte of cosmic conspiracy theories, I think it fitting to call them insane.
But I think the faith of Martin Luther King, Jr.--whose life and work we celebrated yesterday--exposes the error of the sweeping generalization. I think there were few people of the 20th Century more sane than Martin Luther King, Jr. And I think that his faith in a God of love and justice was one of the things that helped to keep him sane as he struggled to change an insane system.
I started thinking about conspiracy theories last week, when a YouTube video purportedly exposing evidence of a Sandy Hook conspiracy went viral. Those who reposted it on social media often accompanied the post with comments like, “I’m not sure what to think of this, but it’s important to think about” (to which the proper answer is “No, it’s not”).
The viral video is one popular example of an emerging Sandy-Hook-conspiracy genre. These conspiracy theories are, of course, insulting to the victims of the tragedy, to the officials who have attempted to respond, and to the American people. They are also entirely predictable and completely standard conspiracy-theory fare. In the face of national tragedies, conspiracy theorists use vague and scattered bits of data to plant the idea that the tragedy (in this case the Sandy Hook shootings) is really a government-orchestrated plot aimed at facilitating a government agenda (in this case gun control legislation). A few years back we saw a similar conspiracy theory grow up around the 9-11 attacks. In that case, it was a supposed neo-con conspiracy aimed at gaining public support for aggressive military engagement in the Middle East.
These conspiracy theories portray the government as not only secretive and manipulative, but as morally depraved: the killing of innocent school children, or of thousands of people in the Twin Towers and Pentagon, is suggestively blamed on the highest officials of government, presumably for the sake of consolidating power.
Conspiracy theorists connect the dots like ancient star-gazers constructing celestial representations of their gods. To see Orion in the sky, you don’t just have to connect the stars in a very particular way (rather than in any of a countless range of alternative ways), but you then need to fill in the empty spaces with details that aren’t there to be seen. Or, to shift metaphors, you turn isolated facts, easily explained on their own terms, into the proverbial tip of a purported iceberg.
Again, Chesterton's analysis of lunatics is instructive. The madman "sees too much cause in everything," so that a passerby's casual act of slashing at the grass with a stick becomes "an attack on private property." Kicking of the heels becomes "a signal to an accomplice." Nothing is random but is instead swept up into a singular narrative:
Every one who has had the misfortune to talk with people in the heart or on the edge of mental disorder, knows that their most sinister quality is a horrible clarity of detail; a connecting of one thing with another in a map more elaborate than a maze. If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by the things that go with good judgment.It's probably best not to treat Chesterton's comments here as an attempt to get at the essence of all mental illness--I'm sure a psychologist could pick out numerous disorders in the DSM that don't fit Chesterton's paradigm. But as an analysis of one common sort of madness, it seems quite apt. And it's an especially good fit with what is going on in conspiracy theories.
The point is this: the conspiracy theorist invests a smattering of apparently random facts and stray coincidences with portentous meaning, a meaning given those facts by their connection to an underlying story of what is going on for which no substantive evidence is available. The conspiracy narrative also builds in resources for explaining why the evidence is so scant and ambiguous, and for answering the range of objections that are likely to arise. A good conspiracy theory, in the manner of a satisfying mystery novel, weaves together seemingly disconnected facts to reveal a hidden "truth" that is both surprising and coherent. But to be received as more than just a pleasing fiction, it also needs to play into the presuppositions, ideologies, and fears of the target audience.
And when a conspiracy theory succeeds in doing this, the result can often be a rather hermetically sealed account, essentially immune to falsification. Those of us who shake our heads might raise objections or point out contrary evidence all day long (such as what this comprehensive Salon article tries to do in response to the Sandy Hook conspiracies), but with little effect on the true believer.
Of course, many consipracy theories do rely on purported facts that are demonstrably false. But the best conspiracy theories avoid blatant falsehoods rather effectively. They also, however, avoid such things as Ockham’s Razor. They pay no attention to elegance and simplicity of explanation.
Standard conspiracy theories like those proliferating around the Sandy Hook tragedy are weighted down with unsubstantiated assertions that only seem plausible from within the conspiracy narrative (in other words, it’s only once you buy the whole picture that any of the individual claims becomes remotely credible). And the facts to be accounted for by this clunky mess of unsubstantiated claims could easily be explained in other ways, ways that don’t require such runaway and presumptively unlikely speculation (as the Salon article so nicely shows).
To accept such conspiracy theories, we may not have to defy the laws of reason. But we do have to lose touch with something a little bit harder to characterize in a logic textbook--something that Chesterton calls our "good judgment."
But precisely because "good judgment" is a concept harder to characterize than the laws of logic, the charge that one has lost touch with it is easier to level. And it's harder to refute.
In fact, everything I have just said about conspiracy theories has been said, more than once, by atheists critics of religious belief in general. If we set aside the hyperbole and ridicule and philosophical blundering that characterizes so much of the New Atheist’s writings, it might well be that what remains is a criticism of religious belief along these lines:
Religion offers a compelling narrative that plays into our emotions and weaves together a scattering of disparate facts, attaching to them a significance they would not otherwise have—a significance given to them by the unsubstantiated claims about a supernatural realm whose existence is a matter of mere speculation. In this respect, religious belief is exactly like a conspiracy theory—and just as no sensible person should take the Sandy Hook conspiracy theories seriously, neither should they take seriously religious doctrines.
Is there a way to answer this objection--without lending carte blanche legitimacy to conspiracy theories?
I think so. The charge gets its traction from the fact that there is something that religious beliefs and conspiracy theories have in common. They both go beyond the available evidence to affirm a narrative picture that affords one with a distinctive way of seeing the accessible facts--a way that is different from how one might otherwise see them. But just because dogs and cats are both mammals, it doesn't follow that all cats are dogs. And it certainly doesn't follow that you should refuse to own a cat because dogs often bark too much for your taste.
One way to understand what conspiracy theories have in common with religious beliefs is to see them both as "bliks"--a term coined by R. M Hare in his response to Anthony Flew's famous argument in "Theology and Falsification." Flew worries that many religious beliefs have been qualified into meaninglessness in the effort to render them compatible with the empirical facts we know. The belief that there is a God is made so abstract that it no longer has any implications for how the world might look. And this means, according to Flew, that the belief no longer says anything about the world. It no longer says, "Things stand thus and not otherwise." Thus stripped of any descriptive content, the religious "belief" becomes meaningless. There is no longer anything that you are believing to be true.
Hare responds by attempting to show how something can be meaningful even if it is unfalsifiable, even if it can be rendered consistent with any conceivable observation. His strategy is to identify a distinctive species of belief that isn't so much a belief about what is available to be observed but, instead, is a way of seeing what is observed. He calls such a thing a "blik." And his primary example of a blik is the outlook of a madman who thinks that all English dons are out to get him, and who explains away their apparently benign behavior as a sign of their cleverness. In other words, Hare's main example of a blik is nothing other than a conspiracy theory.
But even if every conspiracy theory is a blik, it doesn't follow that every blik is a conspiracy theory. In fact, it becomes clear from Hare's analysis that he does not want to say the latter.
Hare's aim is to show how a perspective can be meaningful even if it isn't falsifiable. He uses the madman's conspiracy theory about dons to do just this. Even if the madman's perspective can be rendered compatible with any conceivable observation, it remains a distinctive perspective rather unlike the one that most people have towards English dons. The difference is made manifest by the fact that the madman behaves very differently towards--and has very different emotional responses to--the English dons around him. This alone goes to show that "All English dons are out to get me" means something different from "Most English dons don't know that I exist and those that do don't spend much time thinking about me," even if they map onto the very same set of observable facts. They have very different pragmatic implications.
But notice: if these two perspectives map onto the very same set of observable facts, then the observable facts don't specify one or the other. Instead, both are bliks--competing ways of seeing those facts. And only one of them is a lunatic's conspiracy theory. In other words, for every conspiracy-theory blik, there's a sensible alternative.
In short, all of us have bliks. For Hare, the important question is whether your blik is sane or not. Unfortunately, while Hare thinks bliks can be classified as sane or insane, he doesn't offer a mechanism for deciding the matter. Presumably, he took that task to exceed the scope of what could be done in a symposium paper.
Likewise, I suspect it is beyond the scope of what can be done in a blog post. What I can do, however, is offer an example of a religious way of seeing that, it seems to me, is rather obviously different from a typical conspiracy-theory blik: the religious vision of Martin Luther King, Jr. I have some thoughts about what makes it different--and what makes it a sane way of seeing things as opposed to an insane one. But instead of making this blog post into a book, I will do that teacher's trick and ask my readers their thoughts: How is King's religious vision relevantly different from a conspiracy theory?
What I will do, to help you address this question, is offer an overview of King's religious vision--a distinctive understanding of the Christian faith powerfully shaped by his exposure, as a young theology student, to the Boston "personalists."
In contrast to contemporary materialists, who take inanimate matter and energy to be the basic mataphysical reality, King (following the personalists) took "personality" to be the basic metaphysical reality--and he defined personality as "self-consciousness and self-direction." In other words, mind and agency, subjectivity and will.
Put another way, instead of explaining minds by reference to matter (a view he once described as "sheer magic"), King was inclined to explain matter by reference to mind. Instead of explaining away the actions of persons as the by-product of blind mechanism, he was inclined to explain mechanistic processes as having their ultimate root in a divine will. Thus, King was led to favorably quote the physicist Sir James Jeans, who said that "the universe seems to be nearer to a great thought than to a great machine."
More significantly, in seeing the physical world as arising out of a fundamental reality that has more in common with persons than with electrons, King saw the persons in the world as having "cosmic companionship" in their journeys through life. He believed that the "the universe bends towards justice" because the personality at the root of creation--the being King understood in light of the Christian conception of God--is characterized most essentially by love.
King stressed that to call God "personal" as King did "is not to make him an object among other objects or attribute to him the finiteness and limitations of human personality." King apparently saw God as that in which objects in the universe have their being, as opposed to seeing God as another being one might encounter in the universe. And he saw God's personality as the perfect and unlimited expression of "what is finest and noblest in our consciousness."
This personalism makes human beings the clearest reflection of the most fundamental reality, and hence possessed of a dignity and worth beyond measure. King thus routinely invoked his theistic personalism as a basis for the moral condemnation of policies and institutions that diminished any person. And a person was diminished if either of the two defining features of personality are undervalued or ignored or repressed. If your experience doesn't count or doesn't matter; if your freedom to act in self-directed ways is arbitrarily restricted; then a blow has been struct against that which is most fundamental in the universe.
Just as importantly, the immeasurable worth of persons was a chief philosophical basis for his commitment to nonviolence as a method of social change. No person was without value, no matter how horrific their behavior. Thus, it was policies and practices that must be opposed--because they diminished persons--not the persons who advanced those policies and practices. Nonviolence was the clearest way to make this distinction, to challenge the evil done while continuing to lift up and affirm the worth of the evil-doer as a person. For King, the nonviolent ethic of agape he endorsed showed respect for that of God in all persons, while expressing that of God within ourselves--namely what is finest and noblest in our own consciousness: our capacity for love.
There were times in his life when he almost abandoned his leadership role in the civil rights movement--but persevered because of the subjectively felt presence of this God of love, this "benign power" at the root of creation Who, in moments of prayer, became "profoundly real" to him, washing away fear with "an inner voice saying, 'Lo, I will be with you.'"
There is more that can be said about King's religious worldview, but this should be sufficient to see that it had profound practical implications for how he lived his life, how he assessed segregation, and how he responded to it. It was a way of seeing the world in direct contrast with certain other ways of seeing--such as the materialistic one he most explicitly defined himself against.
If a life is a measure of a man's sanity, I would say King was eminently sane. And given how integral his worldview was to that life, it would be incredible to suggest that this worldview amounted to an insane blik unless we want to call King a madman. But anyone who's life is as defined by a conspiracy theory as King's life was defined by his Christian faith surely would be judged mad.
So what, if anything, is it about King's faith that keeps it from being lumped with the class of insane bliks to which conspiracy theories belong?