14 October 2021, The Tablet

Outsiders - the rise of the conspiracy theorists


Outsiders - the rise of the conspiracy theorists

Keanu Reeves as Neo in ‘The Matrix’
Photo: Alamy/Landmark Media

 

The growing tendency to distrust anything tainted by association with the government, with the ‘mainstream media’, or with academic expertise, is all too familiar to a historian of religious movements

We are all conspiracy theorists now. One recent poll suggests that over 90 per cent of people subscribe to at least one belief which could be considered a conspiracy theory. Indeed, if we take the term to refer to an individual who believes that truth is sometimes hidden from the public, it is probably perfectly rational to be a conspiracy theorist.

Powerful people – from Haman to J. Edgar Hoover and from Cassius Longinus to Lyman Lemnitzer – have always conspired to commit and to hide hideous crimes. But our exposure to competing and contradictory accounts of world events has increased exponentially with the acceleration in communication technology. A sense of distrust has accompanied this process. Pope Francis seemingly acknowledges as much in his most recent encyclical. He warns that a “noisy potpourri of facts and opinions” does not always “lead to wisdom”.

Part of the problem with conspiracy theories is that they can often be arrived at by means of motivated reasoning. The belief that terrible crimes are being perpetrated and concealed by clandestine elites can generate from a pre-existing prejudice. This has certainly been the case in times and in places where anti-Catholicism has been at its most prevalent.

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