Last night we had the traditional annual family gathering to celebrate the birthdays of all of us born in late July and early August. (Which amounts to nearly half of us.) As always, the conversation ranged far and wide. But at one point, someone mentioned a colleague who is a conspiracy theory enthusiast.
Everyone rolled their eyes, of course. But we discovered that we all know quite a few of these -- many of them otherwise sensible people. So the question arose, why are there so many conspiracy nuts these days? In answer, a theory was born:
There are some people whose psychological make-up requires not only an answer but agency in answer to the question Why Do Bad Things Happen? Random universe (i.e. "shit happens")? Not an acceptable answer. Human error? Also not acceptable. When something bad happens, it must have been caused to happen. So, who did it?
Most of the people that we know personally are good people. They may do irritating things occasionally. And they may have nutty ideas. But still, deep at heart, good people. So if their ideas are wrong-headed, it's just that they are misguided, not bad people. Note that word: midguided. So, who guided them wrong?
Once upon a time, religion provided an answer. Polytheistic religions generally have evil gods as well as good gods. Or, at least, a trickster god who does bad things (e.g. Loki). Christianity doesn't have provision for bad gods, but it does have the Devil to full the function. (Islam, as I understand it, has similar fallen angels.) If something bad happens, or if people are misguided, the Devil did it.
So, when bad things happened, the answer was already in hand. But today, things have changed. Fewer people are religious (yes, even it the US). And those who are now can communicate with others of similar mind. Once, if you didn't believe, you kept it to yourself, because all of your friends and neighbor did believe. But now, you can find others to talk to about what you all do believe instead.
However, the urge to answer the question remains. So, if it wasn't an evil supernatural power causing bad things to happen, who did it? Nobody is standing up and admitting to it, so they must be keeping it a secret. And, since there is a lot of it going around, it can't just be a single individual -- it must be a group. And working together. In short, a secret conspiracy.
If bad things happen, some nasty conspiracy made it happen. (Motives flexible.) If people are misguided, some nasty conspiracy deliberately controlled the information available to them, in order to mislead them. Etc., etc., etc.
Note that this is not incompatible with a religious belief. Even belief in a religion which already has an evil supernatural power. Nope, that evil power is merely the inspiration for the evil conspiracy that the people (even non-religious people) you know are talking about.
Conspiracy theories do not just fulfill what used to be essentially a religious function when it comes to explaining events. They also have one other religious feature: people seem to not only believe in conspiracies, but to have a compulsion to tell the rest of us about them. In short, they proselytize. (And not just door-to-door, unfortunately.)
So, the conspiracy nuts in our lives explained. Now all we need is to come up with a way to convince them that we are not interested in adopting their religion. Any suggestions?