The Ethics of Conspiracy Theories

The Ethics of Conspiracy Theories March 29, 2016

Conspiracy theories, a recent article emphasizes, are not harmless self-delusions:

In an important sense every conspiracy theory comes at some moral cost. To offer a conspiracy theory is to make an accusation. The accusation may be amorphous (‘shadowy forces run the country!’) or highly specific (‘Prince Philip ordered MI6 to kill Princess Diana!’) but by necessity ultimately there is always another human being at the end of it. And given the defensive logic of conspiracy theories, in which anyone who denies the conspiracy must themselves be a conspirator, buying into such a theory involves making more and more such accusations just to keep the theory alive.

That is not a morally neutral thing to do, however innocent spinning tales of hidden astronauts might seem. The X-Files urged us to ‘trust no one.’ But trust is in fact indispensable, from the level of everyday interactions with strangers and loved ones to the functioning of economic and political institutions. That foundational trust is deeply corroded by the all-consuming suspicion that drives conspiracy theorising.

Read the rest here.

 

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  • Grimlock

    Just to toss the torch into the dry grass…

    Does mythicism fall into that category of conspiracy theories? I would hazard a guess that not every mythicist position does. However, I also grant that some mythicist positions do.

    • John MacDonald

      Most mythicists believe Jesus was just another mythical hero, like Hercules. No conspiracy.

      • John MacDonald

        One of the most contentious passages in the debate between mythicists and historicists is Galatians 1:19, “But I did not see any other of the apostles except James, the brother of the Lord.” Carrier’s argument, if I remember correctly, is that “brother of the Lord” here means “non-apostolic baptized Christian,” not “sibling” as is generally understood. Carrier’s thesis seems problematic on this point. Why is this idiosyncratic use of “brother of the Lord” not found anywhere else in the Christian tradition? Moreover, if this usage was as widespread as Carrier thinks, why did it STOP? We don’t refer to Christians today in that way, nor is there a record that we ever did.

        • John MacDonald

          I really appreciate the edit feature!

        • arcseconds

          This isn’t a conspiracy theory itself, but rather conspiracy theorizing and this kind of reasoning are both part of a wider pattern: ad hoc postulating in order to make the evidence fit a pre-decided outcome.

    • John MacDonald

      For anyone who is interested, one of Canada’s top magazines, “Maclean’s,” just published an article about whether Jesus existed or not. Here is the article: http://www.macleans.ca/society/life/did-jesus-really-exist-2/

    • Yes, I do think it applies. There are definitely mythicists who insist that mainstream academics are unduly under Christian influence (unable to see this, although random individuals on the internet who’ve never read what the academics in question have written can apparently spot it just fine). Or alternatively will say that we are incompetent and/or insane, which really requires a conspiracy as well, to get that many imbeciles all into the same field.

      • John MacDonald

        Carrier can be very rude. And I just don’t find his theories credible. As I said, why is Carrier’s idiosyncratic portrayal of “brother of the Lord” not found anywhere else in the Christian tradition except as referring to James? Moreover, if this usage was as widespread as Carrier thinks, why did it STOP? We don’t refer to Christians today in that way (as “brothers of the Lord”), nor is there a record that we ever did. Neil Godfrey says of people like me who blog here and on Dr.Ehrman’s site that: “If you pay your fees and do not challenge assumptions or hold the professors accountable for honest and logically valid arguments and conform to the conventional constraints you will do well. I enjoyed learning on xtalk some years back and in early years of this blog had some stimulating exchanges with scholars including McGrath. But as I learned more I was able to question more and when they learned I had given room to forbidden thoughts I was ostracised, insulted and slandered.” Mythicists are just bad mojo.

      • Grimlock

        That’s a fair point.

        While I find it hard to credit that there is no Christian influence in a field which I assume is both important to Christians, and has a significant Christian majority, that does not mean the influence is excessive.

    • arcseconds

      The position that mythicism is quite obvious, but no biblical scholar has noticed, entails a conspiracy, whether the mythicist in question realises it or not.

      Well, OK, it either entails a conspiracy, a very widespread but extremely narrow blindspot, or that no-one in the world except for a small handful of amateurs is at all capable of doing history.

      To see this note that there isn’t an outcry from historians and classicists more generally about how utterly terrible biblical scholarship is.

      • Grimlock

        I agree with this formulation:

        The position that mythicism is quite obvious, but no biblical scholar has noticed, entails a conspiracy, whether the mythicist in question realises it or not.

  • John MacDonald

    I’m sure “conspiracies” happen all the time. It is a part of normal human interaction to sometimes want the real reasons as to why something happened to be withheld. This is probably sometimes true of religion too. Seneca famously said “Religion is true to the masses, false to the wise, and useful to the rulers.” For example, Serapis (Σέραπις, Attic/Ionian Greek) or Sarapis (Σάραπις, Doric Greek), was cleverly instituted as a Graeco-Egyptian god. The Cult of Serapis was introduced during the 3rd century BC on the orders of Ptolemy I of Egypt as a means to unify the Greeks and Egyptians in his realm.

  • John MacDonald

    Now Carrier is plagiarizing me – lmao. In his most recent debate about the historicity of the resurrection, at 48:00 – 49:49 of the video, he starts speculating about the possibility that the apostles were lying about the risen Jesus to create a better world: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-P_dsO2dOv4 . I have made this speculation to him many times, including in comments 2 and 3 in Carrier’s blog post from a few weeks ago about why he thought Jesus was invented: http://freethoughtblogs.com/carrier/archives/9929

    • John MacDonald

      Carrier continues to examine the conspiracy possibility at 57:37 – 1:00:35 of the video.

  • John MacDonald

    Minimalist interpretations of the Hebrew Bible (i.e. the Tanakh or the Protestant Old Testament) often consider much of the Tanakh/Jewish Bible to be a pious fiction, such as the conquests of Joshua. Borras, Judit, Jewish Studies at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, BRILL, 1999, p 117: “.. the overwhelming consensus of modern scholarship is that the conquest tradition of Joshua is a pious fiction composed by the deuteronomistic school”

    The historiography of the Pentateuch is considered a noble lie. Stanley, Christopher, The Hebrew Bible: A Comparative Approach, Fortress Press, 2009, p 123: “Minimalists begin with the fact that the Hebrew Bible did not reach its present form until well after the Babylonian exile … most the that the story was formulated by a group of elites who wanted to justify their claims to dominate … In other words, the narrative [of the Hebrew Bible] is a pious fiction that bears little relation to the actual history of Palestine during the period it purports to narrate.”

    The Book of Daniel has also been described as a pious fiction, with the purpose of providing encouragement to Jews. Carson, D. A. For the Love of God: A Daily Companion for Discovering the Riches of God’s Word, Good News Publishers, 2006, p 19: “Many critics doubt that the account of Daniel 4 is anything more than pious fiction to encourage the Jews.”