Overview:

The real conspiracies are obvious and boring—not secret and sinister.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

The Illuminati.

The Knights Templar.

The Freemasons.

The New World Order.

The Bilderbergers.

The Elders of Zion.

The Deep State.

Chances are, you’ve heard these names. Each of them, at one time or another, has been identified as the shadowy cabal running the planet from behind the scenes, pulling the strings to make world leaders dance. Of course, this short list barely skims the surface. We could add countless more from throughout history, ranging from the almost plausible to the severely exaggerated to the outright fictitious.

Conspiracy theories, like religion, seem to have a natural appeal to the human mind. They resurface again and again, sprouting like tenacious weeds pushing up through the cracks in civilization. They cling like creeping vines to every event of great significance, from presidential assassinations to terrorist attacks to natural disasters. Often, the conspiracy theories themselves stay the same from one era to the next, with the only difference being who’s supposedly in charge.

The other common trait of conspiracy theories, also like religion, is that they’re all but impossible to dislodge. Any evidence that we should see, but don’t, becomes proof of how good the conspiracy is at covering its tracks. Any evidence that outright contradicts them can be explained away as a false flag planted by the conspirators to throw people off the scent. Like any story, it morphs like an amoeba to engulf inconvenient facts.

Conspiracy theories are comforting

Many people have speculated about why conspiracy theories are so durable. One attractive hypothesis is that, in a way, they’re comforting. It sounds strange to apply that term to paranoid beliefs about the four-dimensional lizard people who are farming human infants’ adrenochrome for their Satanic masters. But what conspiracy theories give their adherents is reassurance that the world isn’t random. The universe isn’t a blind, purposeless chaos; we’re not spinning into the abyss for reasons beyond anyone’s power to change. Someone is in control, and events are unfolding according to a plan, even if it’s an evil one.

More importantly, conspiracy theorizing tells the disaffected that it’s not your fault. The game was rigged against you. Your life turned out as it did not because of your own shortcomings, but because of the machinations of enemies who could, hypothetically, be unmasked and defeated. For this reason, conspiracy thinking tends to flourish among people who feel powerless, disenfranchised or outcast. It makes them feel powerful; it makes them feel important. It’s an affirmation of their value that they can’t obtain anywhere else.

These scenarios are too neat, too simplistic, too obviously intended to be emotionally satisfying. They’re intellectual junk food.

But conspiracy theories are a mind poison. Sometimes they’re just harmless crackpottery, but often, they’re very harmful indeed. There’s always a specific group that they identify as the architect of our misfortunes—and fear is easily transmuted into deadly anger.

Medieval Christians spread blood libels against Jewish people, accusing them of poisoning wells, stealing consecrated Eucharist wafers to defile them, or kidnapping Christian children to drain their blood. Malignant lies like this fueled anti-Semitism through the ages, culminating in the Holocaust, which the Third Reich justified by claiming that Jews were plotting to weaken the German state from within.

There was also the Satanic ritual abuse panic that overtook the U.S. in the 1980s. A few disturbed people made allegations about secret cults of demon worshippers abducting children for rituals that included sexual abuse and human sacrifice. Like a modern-day witch trial, these wild claims ignited a hysteria in which innocent people were swept up and tried on life-ruining criminal charges, despite a total lack of evidence.

More recently, the cult of QAnon has captured American conservatism and spawned more than one act of violence. QAnon is an omnibus conspiracy theory, incorporating the mythology of many previous ideas in one massive mash-up. But in general outline, it postulates that the world is controlled by an elite cabal of Satanic child molesters, who will one day be exposed, convicted by heroic military tribunals, and executed in a bloody reckoning called “The Storm”.

And, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has birthed a veritable hydra of conspiracy theories. Misinformation peddlers claim variously that the virus is a Chinese bioweapon, or a harmless flu, or doesn’t even exist. The vaccine, meanwhile, has been claimed to contain tracking microchips, or DNA-altering chemicals, or harmful nanoparticles, or alien microorganisms, or the Mark of the Beast.

Conspiracy theories are fun

There’s one other trait that these fanciful conspiracies have in common and that goes a long way toward explaining their staying power. It’s alluring to believe you’re one of the enlightened few who understands how the world really works. It’s exciting to picture yourself as like the protagonist of a movie: the rebel, the truth-teller, the prophet who’s proven right in the end. It creates an exhilarating surge of righteousness to imagine that you’re fighting the good fight against absolute evil. Modern variants like QAnon even have a participatory element, encouraging adherents to “decode” its nonsense messages and figure out what’s going on behind the scenes.

In a word, conspiracy theories want to be fun. That’s a big part of their appeal. And that’s exactly why we should distrust them.

The power relationships that steer the course of world events are easy to trace. Most of them play out in full public view.

Real life isn’t a Hollywood story or a comic book, with thrilling twists and long-buried secrets that hold the key to victory and a clean dividing line between crusading heroes and cackling villains. Those scenarios are too neat, too simplistic, too obviously intended to be emotionally satisfying. They’re intellectual junk food.

However, that doesn’t mean that every conspiracy theory that’s ever been proposed is false. If I wanted to tell a plausible conspiracy theory, one that acknowledges the complexity and contingency of the real world and is even supported by evidence, I could come up with one easily. Here it is:

There’s a powerful conspiracy, consisting of the wealthy and privileged: professional investors, business owners, landlords, corporate executives, rich churches and preachers, and scions of family dynasties. It’s not hard to tell who’s in on it. Just look at the Forbes billionaire list for a start.

This elite class shapes law and policy to preserve their own power and influence, shield their fortunes from taxation, and head off inconvenient regulation that would prevent them from doing as they wish. To do this, they flood the airwaves with their message until it sinks in through sheer repetition, underwrite astroturf think tanks and industry front groups to spread propaganda disguised as objective sources of information, and hire lobbyists to steer the government toward their point of view. They launch dark-money smear campaigns against politicians who won’t fall in line, and lavishly fund the campaigns of those who do.

This scarcely sounds like a conspiracy at all, and that’s the point. The power relationships that steer the course of world events are easy to trace. Most of them play out in full public view. The real conspiracies are obvious and boring—not secret and sinister.

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...