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Today is September 11th, the day when most of us over the age of 25 wake up to a flood of memories from that day 14 years ago when the World Trade Center towers collapsed after being divebombed by two of our own commercial airliner jets.  Over the years I’ve needed a little bit of time on this day to process the emotions I felt on that original date as we watched the newsreels replay over and over again, to our horror.
My oldest child was only two years old at the time and watching the news reports on the television in the living room, as was her custom whenever she saw something fall down, she kept shouting, “Uh oh!  Uh oh!”  Before long we had to turn the TV off because the juxtaposition of something so innocent and something so vile was just too much to handle. We spent the rest of that day holding each other as tightly as we could, thankful that all our loved ones were safe in their homes.

The Day That Sparked a Movement

Besides alerting an overconfident nation of its inescapable vulnerabilities, that event helped spark a deluge of writing and speaking about the potential dangers of faith and religion, culminating in a new anti-theistic movement which would later be dubbed “New Atheism.”  What was new about this atheism wasn’t its criticism of faith but its boldness, its brashness, its unapologetically public critique of how non-rationally religion can make people behave.
The atheist community which this movement helped to create naturally celebrates skepticism, critical thinking, empirical observation and the scientific method.  It’s a nerdy, geeky bunch, and in a country still enamored with the memory of its religious (or as Flannery O’Connor would call it, “Christ-haunted”) past, it tends to attract a heavily nonconformist crowd.  Largely a contrarian bunch, the “Freethinker” community can be an ornery lot, and they DO NOT like being told what to do or how to think.
I think this is why, despite their ardor toward evidence-based reasoning, so many of those in the atheist community are nevertheless drawn toward conspiracy theories.  There’s just something so exciting and self-gratifying about the notion that you may have the truth that no one else has figured out.  It makes a part of a contrarian’s brain tingle to know that he has a perspective that sets him apart from the rest of “the sheeple” who are blindly following the masses and the corporate controlled media.

Conspiracy Theorists Among Us

I moderate a growing number of sizable online groups of non-believers who yet believe in a number of things which I would call sketchy at best.  We have our occasional anti-vaxxers and homeopathy devotees, our lovers of alternate medicine and UFO’s, our haters of GMO’s, and last but by no means least, our Truthers.
For that last bunch, September 11th is like their biggest holiday.  Today is the day they get to rehash all of their pet theories about what really happened on that day 14 years ago and what led the US government to orchestrate its own attack on itself via coordination with a wealthy Islamic extremist who clearly had personal motivation to cooperate with us infidels.  Or maybe he was completely unaware how perfectly he was playing into a sinister American plot.  The theories vary widely.
Which feels very much like the various representations of “the real Jesus” I read in college and in seminary.  One would think that if we had effective tools for getting at the truth of something that happened so long ago, we would see some kind of convergence of portraits into a more unified picture of what they guy was really like (or if he even existed at all).  But that’s not the case.
Conspiracy theories are kind of like that.  The longer you listen the more you realize that these people are all spinning their own smaller conspiracies in response to the bigger ones, like little eddies swirling around the edges of a bigger one on the outer banks of a rushing river.  They aren’t coming to the same conclusions except to say that they all distrust their government.  And frankly to some degree I don’t blame them (more on what I mean in a second).
I think the biggest difference between me and them is that they have a much higher view of what the US government is capable of accomplishing.  Maybe they’ve watched just enough shows like 24, Enemy of the State, or Eagle Eye to have come away with the impression that our government is significantly more efficient than it really is.  My feelings about the possibility of a successful coverup of the opportunistic killing of 3,000 people echo Stephen Hawkins’s feelings about their ability to cover up anything else, like Alien visitations:
I mean seriously. Have you ever tried working with a government office before?  It’s made up of thousands of big and small bureaucracies all doing similar and overlapping jobs but never communicating with one another, accomplishing half the tasks in twice the time for ten times the cost of what any private company could accomplish.  It’s the most clunky, inefficient thing I’ve ever seen.

I think I understand why these alternate views of reality appeal to so many of us.  I mean besides the natural proclivity my particular  virtual community shows toward rejecting standard narratives. There is an intrinsic appeal to conspiracy theories, and I think it goes back to something basic to human nature.

Why We Love Conspiracy Theories

Life is complex and complicated.  It can be overwhelming at times.  A million tiny things work together to produce the events of our daily lives and frankly it can be too much to take in. As rational, intelligent creatures, we love understanding our environment in order to achieve mastery of it. That’s pretty central to who we are and to what it means to be a human.  But it’s awfully hard to wrap our heads around millions of tiny things working together to produce things like natural disasters, the movement of planets, and whatever else is going to come next out of the mouth of Donald Trump.
That’s why we love conspiracy theories.  These neatly packaged explanations boil down the complex movements of whole nations—even leagues of nations—to the motives and actions of very small groups of people, sometimes even one or two powerful individuals.  That sometimes makes more sense to people like us because it’s a lot easier to wrap our heads around.  We like explanations that we can keep in our heads because it releases our remaining brain cells to handle the rest of our lives.
Conspiracy theories are shortcuts to understanding why things happen the way they do.
If you think about it, religion is the ultimate conspiracy theory. All of life, all actions of the universe boiling down to the thoughts and intentions of one single consciousness?  Of course that’s what we would imagine!  It’s the simplest idea of all, really, which would explain its natural appeal.  People in the atheist community often surmise that if religion were wiped off the planet tomorrow we would never resurrect it again.  But I disagree.  I think religion survives because it appeals to something in us that isn’t going away anytime soon.
We like boiling complicated things down to overly simplistic answers, and that’s why we gravitate toward conspiracy theories.  In a funny way, it comforts us to have an explanation—even if that explanation says that a secretive group of world leaders is out to get us all and make us gay or kill off 90% of the world’s population or whatever your pet theory is.  We would rather feel like we understand what’s going on even if we can’t control it.  At some basic psychological level, it helps us feel like we do have a kind of control.
Incidentally, I don’t have the time or the care to put into dismantling people’s favorite theories, nor am I about to spend any time today arguing with Truthers about 9/11 being an inside job.  But I think it wouldn’t be completely honest of me to neglect admitting there are a handful of conspiracy theories, if they can even be called that, which seem to make more sense to me than anything else.  I’ll just briefly list a few.

Conspiracy Theories That Might Be True

I’m pretty sure it’s safe to say that rich people have ways of rigging elections.  I don’t mean they program the polling machines or pay newspapers to lie about results. I mean much earlier in the game they help fund the candidates they like, and they own the media outlets who help shape public perception of those candidates.  In this day and age, I’ve become cynical to the point that I think anyone who makes it to the top of our political system cannot be a completely honest person.  That said, on a personal level, somehow I still am quite fond of Obama, even if he does serve the interests of the rich a good bit as well. Maybe in his case it’s insurance companies instead of oil and gas.  But everyone that high up is beholden to somebody, or many somebodies.  That’s just the way the system works.
I’m also pretty sure my country had no business invading Iraq during the Bush Jr. years.  I don’t have to believe that 9/11 was an inside job to see that people in leadership positions used national outrage to fuel a war we had no business in waging.  We entered the war hastily and under false pretenses, and to this day it can be very difficult to get people to admit that we were the aggressors in that war, not Iraq.
As a teacher who’s sitting this next year out to take up full-time writing and activism, I can tell you that our national approach to education is badly rigged for failure, and I’m personally convinced that many of the people who hold the purse strings for our public educational system actually want it to fail.  I don’t say that lightly because it’s a bold accusation to make.  But I’ve got enough sense to see the writing on the wall and I know that many of them would like to divert those dollars to private schools in order to help boost their side of the culture wars. Some of what fuels that is racism, some of it is simple greed, but some of it is another phase of the great battle for the souls of people the church would rather keep claiming as its own.
I’m also pretty sure that pro wrestling is choreographed.  But maybe I should put down the keyboard and walk away before I put myself in harm’s way…
[Image Sources: Adobe Stock, AZ Quotes]

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Neil Carter is a high school teacher, a father of four, and a skeptic living in the Bible Belt. A former church elder with a seminary education, Neil now writes mostly about the struggles of former evangelicals...