History Repeated: Religious Conspiracy Theories Then and Now
Podcast with Carmen Celestini (20 September 2021).
Interviewed by Maxinne Connolly-Panagopoulos
Transcribed by Andie Alexander
Audio and transcript available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/history-repeated-religious-conspiracy-theories-then-and-now/
Conspiracy Theories, John Birch Society, Turner Diaries, Religion, New World Order
Maxinne Connolly-Panagopoulus (MCP) 3:16
Hi, I’m Dr. Maxinne Connolly-Panagopoulus. And today I’m joined by Dr. Carmen Celestini, who’s a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre on Hate, Bias, and Extremism. She’s also a sessional lecturer at the University of Waterloo. Carmen, welcome to The Religious Studies Project.
Carmen Celestini (CC) 3:35
Thank you for having me.
No problem. So, your work broadly is looking at conspiracy theories. And for those who might not know, how would you define a conspiracy theory?
A conspiracy theory is usually some articulation of fear and trying to find an answer to what’s causing the fear or causing sustained sense of disaster. It’s an explanation when some of the things that you would normally turn to aren’t providing the answers you’re looking for.
Brilliant, that was very succinct. I’m sure that’s not something that’s very easy to define so quickly. But you were speaking about the fear when something like that is happening, and your current meaning systems maybe aren’t answering that. And there’s a lot of evidence of that currently. But in thinking about how broad your work is, I wanted to maybe go back, and sort of chronologically, I suppose, and think about your work with the Anti-Masonic Party in the mid-1800s. Could you tell us a little bit about what that party was and how they used conspiracies?
The Freemasons are linked to the Illuminati. In 1776, the Illuminati rose, and there was a lot of secrecy about that group, and it was linked to being attached to the French Revolution. And one of the ideas was that the Freemasons were linked to this. John Robinson had written a book in, I believe, 1778 or ‘79, and it arrived in North America. And a lot of people were looking at what was happening in the Freemasons. And it is somewhat a Christian group, but it also has an air of secrecy. And it’s a secret membership, and the idea was that many of the people who are members of the Freemason were also important people and prestigious people in communities, in politics, in sales, and in corporations. And so, it was determined that one of the things that the Freemasons and the Illuminati wants to do is destroy religion. And it was an articulation of that.
And if we think about in the 1800s, I mean, there was a lot of social things that were happening in society that people were nervous about. And there were fears, there was Anti-Catholicism that was happening, people were afraid of new things and different things, and felt that it was an encroachment upon their faith base or an encroachment on their politics. And at that point in time America is rising up and changing and to respond to that; they had to find out what the fear — what was causing some of the distress in society, what was causing some of their questions. And when you see a group of people who are consistently in powerful positions, you think that they might be trying to control something and create a New World Order, which is very consistent in many conspiracy theories. And people, for conspiracy theory to take hold, there has to be distrust of the institutions in society. And there has to be distrust in the media and those ideas that you think that someone’s not being completely transparent, or that perhaps the government body isn’t serving your best interests—they’re serving their own self-interest.
The Anti-Masonic Party started off as a religious group in churches talking about how do we stop the Freemasons? But there was a realisation that doing it from the church with the separation of church and state wasn’t going to actually have an impact. So, the way to make an impact was to join the political party itself. And eventually, the Anti-Mason Party became the Know Nothings in America. And this is a continuous trope where many people sort of dismiss conspiracy theorists. I personally have been in a room, and someone has been telling me their conspiracy theory, and it makes sense up to a certain point and then all of a sudden, there’s a fork in the road, you’re like, “What? Let’s go back, how did we get to that spot?” And when you think about, even in scholarship in some cases, when we look at political parties or social movements that are happening, that are covered with a conspiracy theory, people think, “well, you know, they’re just wearing tin hats, you know that we can’t take them seriously. They’re on the fringes of society.” But I think that this continuous dismissal, we can see with the Anti-Masonic Party that they didn’t have much impact, but the Know Nothings did in American political system. We can see it even now, if we look at—everyone sort of looks at the QAnon Shaman, and they joke about that. But what was the impact of those conspiracy theories and the social movement that it created. When we think about these ideas of secretness and distrust in institutions, we have to look past the salacious nature and look at what they’re fearing. So, what was the thing that started this? There was confusion in society, confusion in politics, confusion in what was happening. And so how do we answer that? There’s a power that wants to control these things outside of us.
There’s a couple of things I wanted to pick up on there. First is just this idea, exactly as you said, of not just dismissing these beliefs, as “Oh these people are,” like you said, “wearing tinfoil hats.” It’s rather thinking about actually, it is a sort of product of the times, right? We are living in times where there is exactly that criteria that you were talking about that distrust of institutions, fear, of course, with the situation. There’s so much more fear now—fear of mortality, fear of illness—than there has been for a really long time. It’s not surprising that these conspiracies are arising up, and especially like that you spoke about the logic to it. Because we were talking a little bit before the recording, I have friends that are into QAnon and things like that. And these are logical, intelligent people, so there is that logic to it. But I wonder if you can kind of explain a little bit, where do you think that fork in the road comes from? What do you think makes someone go from “Yes, this is logical” to “Hold on…,”? There’s a jump.
I think that especially now, so putting it in the context of what’s happening with COVID. First, we have people who—I mean, we just talked about being in isolation. So, your social group is on the internet—this is how we interact is via video with our friends. And there isn’t—if you’re online, and you’re in a forum, or you’re in a group, or you’re on telegram, that group is there 24 hours a day. Like, at three o’clock in the morning, you can pop on and have a conversation. And what we find with conspiracy theorists is that the way they approach things is almost scholarly. They will go here are my reference points, here are all the points to get me to where I’m going. And they do have a good understanding of history. And what happens is that they put these points together that comes to a conclusion. With COVID right now, what we see is that people are aware that there’s a virus happening, that we’re in a pandemic, but we’re locked in our houses, a lot of people are facing financial insecurity, especially in America—I mean, in Canada, we have benefits that our government is given almost like universal income. But that’s not something that’s happening necessarily in other countries. And people are feeling like, “I’ve lost my job, I don’t know, when this is going to end, I’m having financial insecurity, my friends are nowhere near me, I’m isolated in my home,” and they start engaging online.
And there’s already a sense of distrust in the government systems. I mean, every government people can point out where they distrust them, or where they feel that they’re not actually speaking for them, or what they believe in. And there’s so much in the media right now, where it’s like, “we distrust mainstream media,” “you’re a sheep if you read the Washington Post.” And they start seeking other things. You might be in a conversation with someone, and the universal language of religion plays an important role. You might see someone say something about a conspiracy theory, and then end it with a Psalm, or talk about how God is involved in this. And there’s also a lot of notions of apocalyptic thought in there as well, because it does seem if you interpret this, that this is signs of the end times as well. And when people are like if you’re religious and you turn to God to prayer to find this answer, those prayers aren’t being answered. You turn to, “Well, it can’t be God that is doing this. It has to be some type of human made problem that’s controlling this.” What you’ll see in forums is someone may be talking about anti-lockdown discussions, and then that will be linked to and just pushed a little bit to a conspiracy theory. And then they’ll say, “Well, that might make sense.” And then that envelope opens a little bit more. And then the next conspiracy theory that’s linked comes in. And when you’re using religious language or interpretations of politics, you can see that people start believing different things.
And there are groups, extremist groups, like I recently just wrote a thing about this, that in the White Lives Matters group, there were protests planned across North America and Toronto, where I am, was the only Canadian protest. And they openly in their group and telegram said, “We’re not going to post any racist material. We’re just going to talk about who has been wounded, or who has been shot, who is white, and stand up for their rights and stand up for their memory.” And they were saying that they wanted to link to the anti-COVID protests that are happening here in the anti-lockdown protests. And they refer to people who are anti-lockdown or believe that COVID is hoax, they refer to them as the “normies.” And they were making actual outreach to these groups with the normies. But the thing that they were using—and I see this in other groups, as well, that are extremist—is that they don’t put their racial or their conspiratorial ideas, framed; they frame it within a political discourse. It’ll be a meme like, anti-lockdown, like they’re trying to destroy the middle class. And these ideas are pushed to something that you can understand, even if you’re not a conspiracy theorist, and that you can relate to. And once you sort of start relating to that, the envelope starts widening more, and then all of the sudden, these very racist tropes are coming in, and they start blaming different ethnicities. And that fear that you’re feeling is articulated through another group and othering those people and creating your sort of own enclave. It’s quite easy when they’re using images and memes and tropes that are political in nature and not necessarily conspiratorial or racist in nature.
Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. What was interesting there is about using tropes or using imagery that you will identify with. And that’s such a hook as well. Of course, if you’re identifying with these things, that othering stops. They move from, as we said in the beginning is, from the tin hats to “wait, this is me.” and I think that can be so powerful. You were speaking a little bit about the history and this difference between sort of conspiracy theories with a doomsday element and the religious elements as well. And there does seem to be a bleeding over of that, where when I think of conspiracy theories, I just often think about the religious—the end times, Doomsday, apocalyptic, etc. But there also seems to be, not just now, but historically, looking into your work a lot more about political and sort of this war against good and evil versus necessarily the end times. I wonder if you can speak to a little bit of that.
Well, one of the notions that they continuously and historically have espoused is that this notion of being like a social hero. If you’re going to be a social hero, you’re a member of the resistance in some way, shape, or form, and that you’re fighting for, in many cases, God, country, and family. There’s notions of traditional gender roles and traditional ideas of what society should be. And you know that if you do this, if you stand up and fight against whatever power is trying to destroy these ideas, that you’re going to be ostracised, that you’re not going to be accepted by the larger public. And this is one of the things that you sort of have to accept, if you’re going to fight against it. It’s also a way to justify your belief system. I can say that “You don’t know the truth,” “Your eyes are closed, you’re not awake,” or “You’re ‘red pilled’ or ‘black pilled.’” These ideas, that you just don’t understand what I know as the truth. And if you did, you would fight with me against this thing. This idea that we’re going to be in our own sort of group, and we know who the others are. And now they might not necessarily be our enemy, they’re just asleep. They just don’t know the truth, and they’re just following all these things. I mean, we see this with these ideas of “sheeple” and the way that these things are articulated.
And in the 60s, in the 50s, it was the communists that were trying to make these things happen. The communists were involved in the Civil Rights movement. And they were using people of colour and African Americans to fight back against society and create socialism and communism in the various countries where civil rights movements were happening. Here we see there are links to communism, obviously, because they blame China for these ideas that are happening. But at the same time, Antifa has risen up as being the new communism in the 2000s. And what’s happening with Black Lives Matters (BLM), or what happened on January 6, , these ideas are linked to Antifa is forcing or motivating these people to speak out for BLM, because you’re trying to bring communism or socialism or ultimate liberalism. It’s this idea of disaster. In the 50s, and 60s, we would see protests in the street, and people would be afraid. Even if those protests weren’t happening anywhere near you, you would see buildings on fire, you see people with the hoses or being shot or fights, that seems like chaos, and it seems somewhat scary. And you have to understand why this is happening. And, if you’re separate from that movement, you think, “But society is so good, like, it’s not that bad.” And see, we see the same things happening now.
One of the things that I show in my classrooms is that, in the 50s, there was this ad that was placed and sent around amongst all of the conspiracy groups and the anti-communist groups, where you could hire protesters who would go to an event for the Civil Rights movement, create chaos, and pretend that there are some type of major movement that was happening; and they were articulated as being communist. A few months ago, there was an ad, almost verbatim, except for “communists,” it was “Antifa.” And that you could hire these Antifa protests to come to your town and cause chaos. And so, we see like, even in small towns, you—I don’t know if you saw these memes on Facebook or on social media—but people were in their small town standing around with their guns, ready to fight down BLM, because BLM was coming to their little, tiny part of the world. And when BLM didn’t show up, they’re like, “We scared them. We’re the most powerful people, we stopped this movement.” But there was never a movement. But that sort of spectre of it happening in your neighbourhood makes you react in a way that you understand the world as not being full of injustice for other groups.
But it’s not something that happens to you. I mean, it’s our privilege, right? I mean, we don’t understand those things. But it becomes a spectre, and you don’t want to think that society is injustice like that. And so that injustice comes back to you. So, for conspiracy theories, if we ignore the salacious nature, we have to look at what the injustice is underneath: What is this conspiracy theory answering? Is there, in your mind—for some conspiracy theorists—that the injustice is that I feel encroached upon, I feel that our ideal society may not be ideal for everybody, but the way I see it, it is justice, and so these things happening are an attack on me and an attack on my lifestyle, or they’re attacking my religion—there’s a sense of persecution that’s attached to that.
And that is consistent throughout history—if we look at the Illuminati, to the insiders of the John Birch Society, or we look at Antifa right now, and who are the New World Order, like the Deep State—is a destruction of religion. There’s ideas of taboo nature, so paedophilia is attached to it, or human trafficking, all of the very truly negative evil images, that doesn’t make this the kingdom of God in some way, shape, or form on Earth. Jesus is not going to return because we’re so evil. So, we have to fight against that evil; and how we articulate that is usually through taboo topics, through injustice, and people being manipulated. And as the resistance, you have to fight against that even though you will be ostracised or attacked. And that’s why, you have these groups of people who come together, and they are one, they know the truth, and they have to rise up and fight.
It’s like this ultimate confirmation bias, where it sounds like it exists on this spectrum of either, “Okay, I need to protect myself, and I need to have ultimate truth or knowledge,” to that other end of the spectrum of actually acting out against this perceived enemy. Your work speaks so much about just fear and morality, and then how those two things kind of bleed into this, and it’s so understandable, from a psychological perspective, why these conspiracy theories are gripping people. And again, you’re going out there looking for confirmation, whether it’s “Ah you see they didn’t turn up because they were scared.” That’s you going, “Ah, you see, these things are real.” It’s so dangerous. And I just think psychologically, some of your other work was speaking—in talking about QAnon and things like that—you were speaking of this sort of enemy, quote, unquote, of New World Order, the Cabal, things like that. But I wanted to kind of go back in time to your chapter called “Fighting ‘the System’: The Christian Identity Movement and the Turner Diaries,” where you were looking at white supremacy in the 80s, and how they sort of saw their enemy, who they saw that as being and specifically things like The Turner Diaries and The Order. Could you tell us a bit about that?
My Ph.D. work was on the John Birch Society, and the role of religion within that group, and apocalyptic thought. And one of the members of the John Birch Society, his name was Revilo Oliver, which is Oliver spelled backwards. He was on the speaker’s board, he was on the National Council for the John Birch Society, and he articulated as being religious because you couldn’t be an atheist and be a member of the John Birch Society. And he would speak out, and as he sort of kept doing all of these speaker’s bureau events, he started articulating more of an anti-Black and anti-Muslim speech when he was talking. A lot of the membership were very angry and wanted him to be ejected.
The John Birch Society had also written an anonymous book called The John Franklin Letters, which was a dystopian novel about the future if communists took over. And this was a group of underground people who were battling against communism and trying to save America. And it was diaries that were letters written back to the family while this person was out fighting. No one really knows who wrote that novel, but there’s rumours that it was either Revilo Oliver or it was Robert Welsh, the founder of the John Birch Society. And that novel—Revilo gave that novel to William Pierce, who wrote The Turner Diaries—and it’s very similar in nature with the idea of what is the battle? But the battle that he positioned, obviously, was a race battle. And there’s very similar tropes and ideas in it, in that communism snuck in, and took over, and people sold themselves out to communism, they were sympathisers—and there were these ideas. With The Turner Diaries, it was people selling out, and that people of colour were taking over the world and were in control, and that white people are subservient, or slaves to this.
And so, that novel inspired people. There was a group in there called The Order that were the resistance that started the race war, that started the battle against what was happening in society. And so, people—there are three or four groups that took on that name, as well as The Order—and wanted to start the race riots and start the race war—they actually did some of the ideas that were in The Turner Diaries. Timothy McVeigh being one of the most obvious examples to this. But it motivated people, and almost, in a way, gave them a blueprint on how to start the race war.
And these dystopian novels and these ideas of extremism when people are feeling afraid, or they feel that they are superior because of the colour of their skin, there are these mechanisms that create this social hero idea. So, for The Order, they were the heroes that were going to save America, they were going to stop this, and start states that were specifically for people of colour and certain states that were specifically for white people. And it’s the motivation to make this happen, and they feel that regardless of what happens to them, they’re the heroes that are fighting this war and are saving God and country and family. They’re saving themselves and saving how they see the world and, and what they understand the world to be. And they scapegoat other ethnicities, to blame for their own, whatever they feel their injustice is.
They could feel that they can’t be successful because other groups get preferential treatment, and that that is a sign that they’re going to eventually be enslaved or the New World Order is going to happen. The way that we understand our own position in the world, and who we blame for that position, is important in the movement of these things, especially when you distrust your government and feel that the government is serving another group and isn’t your voice. It’s how it’s articulated, and then these novels can really push a person to think about it this way.
Thinking then—we have quite an international audience—I wonder if you might just clarify the John Birch Society?
No, not at all.
The John Birch Society was a group that was founded in 1958 in America, and it was started by Robert Welsh. And they were an anti-communist group. And they tried to—they were actually very important in the nomination of [Barry] Goldwater in the 1964 election. They secured his nomination through their votes at the primary in California. And they were known as being conspiracy theorists. Robert Welch wrote and said that [Dwight D.] Eisenhower was a card carrying communist, and they were very vocal in their belief that there was a group called “The Insiders” which are very similar to the Illuminati, who controlled the American political system—so they selected who the nominees were for both Republican (GOP) and Democratic Party—and that their end goal was to bring communism to America and create a New World Order.
One of the things that I think most people can relate to—because we all talk about this, wherever we are in the world—America and the war on Christmas. That actually was started by the John Birch Society. In 1958, they had sent out a memo and a flyer to their membership and said that the United Nations (UN) was trying to start a New World Order and take “Christ” out of “Christmas”. So, at the stores—at department stores—instead of having Christmas decorations or Christmas balls on the tree, they were going to have New World Order and UN insignia Christmas balls on the trees. And they asked all their members to write the department stores and say, “Do not put the UN balls up.” The sign was, if there was an “X” in “Christmas”, they were taking Christ out of Christmas.
The stores weren’t doing this—it wasn’t anything the stores were going to do. And predominantly, a lot of the women who were involved in the John Birch Society, wrote to department stores like Macy’s and said, “I have a credit card with you; I will not shop if you do this with UN Christmas balls.” Of course, it didn’t happen, and they declared, “We won!” And there were huge letter writing programs where it was like, “Don’t let them X Christ out of Christmas.” And so that was 1958, and here we are in 2021. Last year Donald Trump announced, “We’re allowed to say Merry Christmas again,” but there was never really a battle for this. And that’s how that conspiracy theory continued to this date.
So, they had an impact. A lot of—hopefully, when my book is published, we’ll see that the John Birch Society actually, members like Tim Lahaye were involved in the John Birch Society. He spoke about religion for them, was on their videos. He, in one of his books, wrote that he shared Christ with Robert Welsh before he died. And in one of his books, he talks about how he’s been a studier of the Illuminati. And Tim Lahaye obviously was involved in the Moral Majority. And some of the families that were funders of the John Birch Society were also backers of the Moral Majority. And Tim Lahaye also started the Council for National Policy (CNP), which still exists. It’s a secret organisation, but the Southern Poverty Law Center has gotten their membership lists, and it has Breitbart in it, it has the NRA (National Rifle Association).
And now Republican Presidential nominees, or people are hoping to become the nominee, actually go and speak to the Council for National Policy, and they will put their support behind them. So, if we think about that group putting support behind a nominee… If the NRA is sending out to their membership that Nicholas is a great nominee for president because he supports Second Amendment… At the same time, the religious groups that belong to it—like the Family Council belongs to the CNP—they write out religious-wise that Nicholas is going to support anti-abortion or they’re going to support pro-family and traditional role models. And then if Breitbart is a part of it, they can link conspiracy theories and do their reporting. If you are someone who’s looking at media, you have the NRA saying one thing through a lens of Second Amendment, you have a religious group that you belong to saying the same thing but through a religious lens, and then you have the alternative media saying it through another lens. You have this cohesive message that’s being sent through all your belief systems to support someone. From the John Birch Society, the impact has come to the point with the CNP. And if you look at scholarship for the John Birch Society, they’re often dismissed as—I’ve actually seen scholarship that says, “They’re kooks” or “tin-hat wearing,” or “we shouldn’t pay attention to them,” but the impact that they’ve had, even to this point, is very significant.
That is so powerful thinking a little bit about, as you said, all those channels. If all those channels are coming through, people who are just seeking some sort of answers can so easily slip down into something. And thinking, again, about going back to The Order that you spoke about. I wanted to think a little bit about—you spoke about their supremacy ideas, this idea that they’re fighting the good fight. You spoke in your work a little bit about this two seed theory, and I wanted to maybe explore the role of religion and how it may be used to support or to facilitate these sort of supremacist ideas?
Well, in a lot of supremacist groups—I mean, there’s different various religions that are attached, there’s Odinism…—but it usually comes back to the idea of Noah’s sons, and how it was separated. And how Ham was the dark one that is the evil tribe, and so they link those ideas. There is British Israelism that has taken hold in America as well. That this lost tribe, they are the ones that have to go forth. And they push these narratives that they are the chosen ones, that God has said that this group or this ethnicity is the most powerful. And with white supremacists, a lot of them do not believe that it is Judaism that is the chosen people; that it is them, that is the chosen person. So, what we can see with a lot of these groups is that they believe that they’re on the side of the eternal, that they are fulfilling what God wants for us, and by battling for these things, they’re either creating an ability for the rapture to happen, an ability for Jesus to return because they’ve made the kingdom of God on Earth, and it’s prepared. There’s a lot of interpretation of what’s happening in the news as symbols of either the return of Christ or in the book of Revelation of what’s happening. And they use these things to motivate themselves and to articulate their ideas to other people.
The use of religious language is exceptionally important. I mean, we may not all understand the meaning of the word the same way. But we have an understanding of that word, and it can be motivating to us. And that is one of the powerful things that groups like this use is this notion of, “I’m doing the right thing, I’m doing God’s work in some ways,” and attaching ideas of freedom or ideas of creating the kingdom of God is important in these movements. And that, some of the groups believe that, unless we separate by race, then Jesus can’t come back or the rapture will happen, or unless we articulate it in a different way, or understand society and make it where there are no LGBTQ groups, it has to be traditionalism, as they articulated.
But the thing is, that if you and I were in one of these groups, you may understand what needs to happen for the kingdom of God differently than how I understand it, but we’re both motivated. One of the things that you can see is that it’s not necessarily about dogma or denomination, it’s about values. You can see that the motivation, the social movement is: How do we understand morality? And how do we understand values? And it has nothing to do with our dogma, but we all understand morality and values. And so that’s what they use. And we can see that with culture war issues. When it’s articulated in society, every group or religious denomination has those core tenants, and people use that as motivation in many of these groups.
And how common is that idea at the moment? This fight for—I realise definitely the fight for morality, good and evil as “good” being—if you take it from the QAnon perspective—people who aren’t wearing masks, etc.; “bad” being the New World Order, Cabal. But how prevalent is the religious aspect within that, currently?
It’s significant. With COVID, they’re actually creating—I’ll have to send you the meme when this is over—but some group is, in North America right now, creating little cards that have a cross on it that says, “I’m vaccinated by God’s love.” And it’s their idea of what the passport is—that God is saving you and giving you your breath. That’s an important aspect. All the groups that I look at, I see this as persecution of their religious faith and the destruction of Christianity in North America. So it’s just one of the big ones that’s happening now.
Because at the end of QAnon, when Donald Trump left, there’s still a core group of people that believe that Joe Biden is not the President. They believe that Donald Trump signed something to eliminate the corporation of America and return to the Republic, and so, Joe Biden is not the real President because America, as a corporation, does not exist. And Donald Trump will be inaugurated as the 19th President—before it became a corporation and was a republic. But they also refer to Donald Trump as God’s voice in the White House, God’s representation. He’s bringing back morality. he’s bringing back these ideas. And we’re at this moment right now, where it’s a battle between good and evil just politically.
But outside of that, they also believe in something that all of the groups are talking about now—something called the Blue Beam. And the Blue Beam was something that actually originated here in Canada, in Montreal, in the 90s. A reporter said that he had gotten information from politicians and from international journalists about a New World Order and what their plan was. And what their plan was was to slowly destroy religion, and there was going to be an epidemic—which makes this even more realistic, because of where we are in the world right now—and with that epidemic, and pandemic, people would be locked in their homes, they would be not working, and that the government would control us. But the government were slaves to the Antichrist, and the Antichrist needs to take his throne as the world leader of the New World Order.
So, the Blue Beam is a hologram that is going to be put into the sky around the world, and all of the prophets and all of the gods will appear, talk about their faith, and say, “You guys interpreted this wrong, this is not what we meant. But now this person fully understands what we articulated in our religion and follow him.” And that would be following the Antichrist. And what they’re saying is that because people can’t go to churches because of isolation, that that’s part of the destruction of Christianity, or the destruction of everyone’s religion. And that, when you see holograms on TV, or you see holograms at a concert, it’s an example. What you’ll see is that in the groups, people will be like, “That’s the beam, that didn’t really happen. It’s a beam, and they’re starting the hologram. The motion is in order. It’s happening.” So, this idea of religion is so inherent in so many of the conspiracy theories. I mean, this one, the Blue Beam is interesting to me, because of pluralism that every religion is shown.
Yeah, I would love to look at your internet history one day. (laughs)
(Laughs) Yeah, it’s a little crazy.
What happens when these—just sort of ending a little bit thinking about the confirmation bias that we’re talking about. And Donald Trump was the saviour—or meant to be the saviour—you were speaking a little bit about; he was going to end the corporation, and now that’s not happened. Some of your work speaks about the televangelists who were really supporting Trump and saying, “He’s God’s warrior.” So, what happens in the face of that? Do people just move to something like the Blue Beam when that doesn’t happen? Or how does it work?
Right now, it’s a little chaotic, and then conspiracy… Well, there are a lot of people who still believe that Donald Trump is going to come back into power. What’s happening with recounts in Arizona—and today, they said that they’re going to start one in New Hampshire, as well—that there is hope that it’s going to come out as truth that there were fake ballots, that all of these things happened. In Arizona, they think that there’s bamboo in the paper that shows that it came from China, and that’s what they’re looking for. There’s this consistent narrative that they want to prove this to be true. And because it keeps being articulated, as “we don’t believe that Joe Biden is truly President.” Like the GOP—even taking out Liz Cheney from her position—is still supporting this notion. They’re sort of waiting for some heroic moment, and they’re like, “Still believe, still hold on.”
At the same time, other people are like, “Okay, well, that didn’t work,” the Deep State has won. It’s like if someone says, “The world is going to end on this day,” and it doesn’t happen, there comes up another idea of why that didn’t happen, right? And you still believe. There’s always an excuse why it didn’t happen. And this is the same thing that’s happening with QAnon. There’s faith and then there’s something that has stopped it—like the democrats, or the communists, or Antifa stopped this, or the Deep State stopped it from happening.
QAnon is unique in the fact that usually with the conspiracy, someone interprets that and shows here are all of my resources and references to prove this conspiracy theory. With QAnon, it’s up to each person to understand the crumbs that are being left. So that’s articulated through your own lens and understanding of the world. And so, people come together and see it in different ways. But there are certain tropes—not having a voice and distrust and the Deep State and human trafficking, all these ideas of drinking children’s blood—these things seem to be consistent, which are attached in a lot of ways to how they determine or define Satanism.
And some people are still holding on; other people are moving to Blue Beam, or another conspiracy called [inaudible] there moving towards that. But there’s also people who are like, “I don’t believe in QAnon anymore.” And they’re in something that are similar to support groups on Reddit and on Facebook, where they go in and say, “I don’t believe anymore, and I just needed support and I can’t believe this happened.” The thing is that there isn’t anybody in there who has a psychology [degree], or mental health [background]. So many of these people are there—there’s already a sense of distrust, they don’t believe what’s happening, they’re scared—and so, it’s ripe for new conspiracy theories to be introduced and new ideas of extremism when it comes to white nationalism and stuff like that, where now these people are focused in one group together and are almost prey to these things, where all these new ideas can come together. One just leads into the other, but there still is a foundation of the QAnon ideas there.
That’s a scary thought. And do you think that… Well, it seems to me and—just from my perspective—it seems like conspiracy theories are so much more prevalent right now than I remember them ever being. I suppose, besides the Y2K, it’s just a sign of the times right now. Do you think that this will taper off, hopefully, when things start to get back to normal, or…?
I don’t know. I think that we’re at a really interesting point in time. I mean, conspiracy has always existed. And in the 50s, and 60s, it was through newsletters, and cassette tapes, and these ideas—in films, in some cases were spread about. But here, because of the internet, it’s so much easier to spread these ideas. But for decades and decades, there’s been a movement for distrust in mainstream media; there’s been a movement for distrust in the government. And that has often been dismissed by media and dismissed by scholarship in having conversations even about it. Now, it’s in the media consistently. What we saw when Parler went down, a lot of people were like, “Oh, what’s Parler?,” and went there. It went down, and where they went to was Telegram. And so now the groups and telegrams are much larger than it used to be. And there’s websites where you can go and see videos where everyone’s kicked off YouTube. You can go to these different things. There’s just no sort of stopping these ideas.
And there isn’t—when you think about the media that’s sending out disinformation or spreading conspiracy theories, there’s really no regulation to that, right? So that is going to continue. Possibly when people get back to work and the pandemic is over and people start engaging with social groups again, it might lessen a little bit, but those ideas of distrust are not going to simply go away. Those ideas of distressing the media or government are not going to go away. And it is something that the government and media and all of us have to articulate. We have to be out there in our public intellectualism talking about these things and not dismissing people but engaging and trying to understand. And the government has to look at how do we fight disinformation? How do we regulate the idea of free speech? Or how do we regulate these ideas and try to curb some of this disinformation that’s being spread out? I think this is a moment in time for us, as a global society, to try and understand not only the damage that this can do, but how we can slow it down, but also how we can discuss some of these in justices, and deal with the situations.
I couldn’t agree more. I don’t think further othering is the solution.
Carmen, thank you so much. This has been really, really entertaining. I’ve got some more things to Google, some more wormholes to go down. But I just wanted to end and ask you what are you working on at the moment? What should our listeners be looking out for?
Oh, I’m working on a lot of different things. Right now, I’m looking at extremism and how it’s developing through social media and disinformation. I’m working on something for the Blue Beam, of course, because I’m absolutely fascinated with the Blue Beam. I’m trying to work on my French right now so I can get the original translation. And I’m also looking at ideas of how COVID has pushed disinformation, and pushed extremism, and how that has led to some type of violence. I think that we’re really looking at the health matters of it—which we should—but I think that we need to expand the ideas of mental health and look at what are the moral damage that has been done like for health care workers, who are on their Facebook, and their uncle is talking about how this is all a hoax, and the rooms are empty. What are the moral impact of this on people who are working in health care?
Carmen, that sounds fascinating, and I’ll certainly look out for it.
Thank you so much.
Celestini, Carmen and Maxinne Connolly-Panagopoulus. 2021. “History Repeated: Religious Conspiracy Theory Then and Now”, The Religious Studies Project. Podcast Transcript. 20 September 2021. Transcribed by Andie Alexander. Version 1.0, 20 September 2021. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcasts/ history-repeated-religious-conspiracy-theories-then-and-now/
Transcript corrections can be submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org. To support the productions of transcripts, please visit http://patreon.com/projectRS/.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or its sponsors.