I like to think of myself as a “skeptic”. That just means that I’d like claims to be reasonably vetted and demonstrable before accepting them as true. Typically, this follows a fairly standardized epistemic protocol.
When something starts to smell like a conspiracy theory to me, it loses credibility with me fast.
“Oh, but you do believe in the biggest conspiracy theory ever!“, some guy quantum-tunneling through my wall announces. “To say that all religions are wrong is basically saying that everyone colluded to consistently make up the same god stories across all of history!”
No. There’s a third option here. It’s not limited to either:
- It’s true
- Supermassive conspiracy theory
It could be something else.
Why do I doubt conspiracy theories?
In short, I doubt them because the proposed mechanisms become progressively unlikely.
Consider the idea that Anthropogenic Climate Change is a hoax. In order for this to be the case, it would require a global collaboration of thousands upon thousands of scientists, with complete control of everything, from the media, to the very scientific instruments (satellites, thermometers, CO2 gauges, etc), to cook the data on every level of investigation. They’d have to maintain this for many decades.
As time marches on, the probability of this global conspiracy not being (credibly) revealed by skeptics who have access to their own thermometers, etc, becomes astronomically low.
The mechanism becomes absurd to maintain… but it ultimately comes down to evaluating the constituent components of the proposed conspiracy theory.
I don’t doubt that conspiracies happen, but the larger they are, the more prone to collapse they become.
Is religion a conspiracy theory?
This is where the third option comes in.
Suppose it’s possible for many people to believe something without it being true. Whatever the mechanism is, that could do it.
We already have a simple example – rumors. Humans love gossip – some more than others. We like drama, and we like to socialize (I say “we” – I think I’ll exempt myself from this group, but I mean statistically speaking).
Without any collusion or collaboration, person A will spread the rumor to persons B and C, who believe A because why would A lie? B and C spread the rumor to persons D, E and F, and they’ll believe it for the same reason. Before you know it, most of the community is believing the rumor, based on nothing but a mechanism that propagates false information. This does not require a conspiracy; only human psychology.
Sometimes, there’s extra peculiar things that can happen to a person, which are consistently interpreted incorrectly.
Some people suffer from sleep paralysis. During one’s sleep cycle, the brain is supposed to enter a state where muscle movement is suppressed. Otherwise, you’d be physically acting out what’s happening in your dreams, like sleep walkers do. Sometimes, that malfunctions, so that, even after waking up, the person cannot move. They feel paralyzed for a few moments.
Some people suffer from Schizophrenia. Symptoms can range from difficulty forming organized thoughts and speech, to full-blown visual hallucinations. Often, this can result in a feeling of “not being alone” or hearing voices.
Combine the above two, and one can wake up in middle of the night, feel paralyzed, and feel like the person is not alone. An interesting side-effect of how our brains work is that if we’re not provided enough information, our brains will weave some kind of narrative to try to explain the bits of data we do have.
… for some, that woven narrative is an alien abduction.
The fact that people around he world report alien abductions is not a conspiracy, if they were false. It’s probably a regular occurrence of a combinations of biological and psychological factors, perhaps primed by cultural cues (watching alien abduction movies, etc).
Religion – The Computer Virus
Darrel Ray wrote a book, “The God Virus“. I only read the first chapter… it’s not a bad book. I got distracted, and never got around to finishing (I should). The premise is interesting to me. It builds an analogy of religiosity around the concept of a computer virus.
When the news comes out that, many computers across the globe, all at once decided to go dysfunctional, it’s not a conspiracy. All the millions of computer users didn’t pick a date and time to screw up their own computers. Instead, those computers were disrupted by a program that abused how computers work, to self-propagate itself across entire networks. The normal functionality of those the computers was effectively hijacked and used to promote the program to the next computers.
Religion works similarly. Instead of hijacking the normal functionality of computers, we have a “program” that hijacks the normal functionality of human brains.
You’ve seen this program in action. This program has a number of functions:
- Make more humans (reproduce)
- Install program into new humans.
- Programming has new humans go to step #1
If you know any religious parents, who regularly take their children to church/Sunday school (religious programming camp), this is observable. Like the spreading rumor, the individuals don’t really consider what they’re doing… their own psychology is executing the code. That code is telling them that this is correct.
It sounds a bit far fetched, but we do have biological parasites that work similarly.
- Some turn ants into looking like berries, so they’ll be eaten, and carry on the parasite’s reproductive cycle.
- “When the fungus is ready to sporulate, the mycelia grow into the ant’s brain. The fungus then produces chemicals which act on the host’s brain and alter its perception of pheromones. This causes the ant to climb a plant and, upon reaching the top, to clamp its mandibles around a leaf or leaf stem, thus securing it firmly to what will be its final resting place.” (Link)
Of course, we’re talking about a non-biological virus… a metaphorical one, mostly. Though, we don’t have to appeal to analogies to observe that it happens – religious parents often indoctrinate their children… who then indoctrinate their children… who then indoctrinate their children.
Another strike against the conspiracy theory is that the different religions are very different from one another. That’s an indicator that there isn’t a conspiracy at play. It’s also an indicator that the generational child indoctrination is at work. Your religious beliefs depend heavily on where you happen to be born.
“Religion distribution” by TheGreenEditor – self-made (using sources from Britannica (, ), Think Quest , Wadsworth.com and many other sources similar to these in order to create the map with the right colours.). Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Maybe it’s a bunch of mini-conspiracies?
Ultimately, my point is, well-researched psychology supports the existence of mechanisms that can propagate religious memes without any overarching behind-the-scenes collusion. Given the scientific research in the field of Psychology, I actually find non-conspiratorial propagation mechanisms to be far, far more likely.
That’s why my skepticism of religion is not a conspiracy theory. I don’t think there’s some shadow council running the world’s religions (imagine trying to get the Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, etc, working together). I think these people can’t help but propagate their beliefs.
I think it’s a feedback loop of psychology.