Conspiracy Theories, Public Rhetoric, and Power
Podcast with David G. Robertson (17 May 2021).
Interviewed by Andie Alexander
Transcribed by Andie Alexander
Audio and transcript available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcasts/conspiracy-theories-public-rhetoric-and-power/
Conspiracy Theories, Categorisation, Public Rhetoric, Ideology, Governance, Boundary Formation, Knowledge, Authority
Andie Alexander (AA) 00:00
Hi, I’m Andie Alexander. And I am very pleased to be joined here today by David Robertson, who is one of the co-founders of The Religious Studies Project. Thought I must say, I feel like you should be the one doing this, and I should be on the other side. But I am really excited that you’re here. And thank you so much for joining me today.
David Robertson (DR) 00:26
Thanks, Andie. Glad to be back.
Yes, I have really been looking forward to our conversation, because today, we are talking about conspiracy theories and religion. Now, you’ve been doing work on these issues for a while now. But there certainly does seem to be a bit of an uptick in interest around some of these topics. I wonder if you would just tell us a little bit about your own experience in working on these topics and these discussions within the field of religious studies?
Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, as you say, this is something that quite suddenly people are very, very interested in—there’s an enormous amount of material about religion and conspiracy theories. But you know, I’ve been working on this stuff since I think 2009, 2010 anyway, and back then was far less support for this kind of work. People really struggle to see why it was of any interest or import back then. I remember, one of my supervisors on my undergraduate thesis being quite angry that I was granting this stuff legitimacy by covering at all. Luckily, a third supervisor then stepped in and agreed that it was worth looking at. But my first academic presentation, I think—I think I was in, I think it was maybe still a master’s student or a PhD student—was at the BASR (British Association for the Study of Religions) conference in 2011 in Chester, and I was in the last panel of the entire thing, which was like a random grab bag of papers that didn’t fit anywhere else in the conference, as is usually the case with me. And I was talking about UFO conspiracy theories. So, a very, very early version of what would end up being my thesis and first book. And towards the end of the paper, I raised the point that this was material that had a long kind of history, way back to the 40s and the 1960s but wasn’t something that scholars really were taking at all seriously, at which point, the chair of the panel, who’s quite senior scholar interjected, jokingly, “Oh, that’s because these people are crazy.” And you know, we all laughed, and I’m forever grateful that I had the wherewithal in the moment to respond with, “I’m a religious studies scholar, I don’t evaluate truth claims.”
Which (laughs), yeah, I was quite pleased that I came out with that. It was the adrenaline, I think. But nonetheless, it sort of sent me thinking that you wouldn’t have got an interjection like that in any other panel in the conference. I mean, there was papers on spiritualism, and scientology, and shamanic practices, and animism, and indigenous worldviews were stones and rocks and animals are persons, and relationships with invisible beings, or worldviews in which bread miraculously turns into human flesh. None of those elicited a response about whether the beliefs were rational or not. And it really sent me thinking actually about, well about the category religion, and the category conspiracy theories as kind of markers of how we think about belief, how we think about knowledge, and about how these categories operate to classify worldviews in different ways, which is to say that the studying the relationship between religion and conspiracy theories, both as they’re used by people, but also as they’re employed as analytic categories, really isn’t a marginal thing at all. It actually cuts right to some of the central questions and issues of what we do in the study of religion and what the study of religion is for and where the study of religion is heading.
Yeah, I think that that’s a really fantastic example of how certain ideas and beliefs are accepted and legitimated while others are dismissed or regarded as crazy. And from what I gather, that is a pretty common approach to the discourses around these categories. Could you talk a little bit more about how the category of religion and the category of conspiracy theory is commonly understood within the academy?
Yeah. So, okay, Russell McCutcheon has a few times quipped that the “religion and x” market is completely unregulated. And so, when we’re talking about religion and conspiracy theories, there’s really three different things we can mean by that. We can talk about religion as conspiracy theory, so we can talk about structural and functional similarities and differences between the two categories. We can talk about conspiracy theories in religions, so how different religious groups use conspiracy theories or appeal to conspiracy theories in different ways. And there’s a number of interesting functions that actually tell us quite a lot about the appeal of conspiracy theories in wider society. And then finally, we can talk about conspiracy theories about religions, or about religion and in a larger sense, and in fact, some of the bigger questions, you know, a lot of the current interest in religion and conspiracy theories is actually that latter, you know, in terms of “Is QAnon a cult?” “Are Trump followers—is it a religion with a charismatic leader?” And so on and so forth. So maybe, I’ll try and end there. And I’ll jump back to the idea of religion as conspiracy theories. So, some of the bigger comparative points.
So, the idea that there is some similarity between conspiracy thinking and religious thought has been there since the very beginnings of the category. So, the very first mention of it’s in Karl Popper’s—I think it was 1947—The Open Society and Its Enemies, and he talks about the conspiracy theory of history is what he talks about. He immediately talks about religion, and conspiracy theory as being a sort of secularised version of a religious view of history in which there are hidden agents operating behind the scenes. You know, he’s not really talking about conspiracy theory in the modern sense, however. But Richard Hofstadter, his 1964 article, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” again, he’s making connections between the paranoid style, which is essentially what we think of as the conspiratorial mode of politics now. And he uses terms like a Manichaean worldview. He’s connecting it with ideologies. And interestingly, the group he focuses most on as an example of the Paranoid style is the John Birch society, who were certainly right wing, but it was also a very evangelical Christian traditionalist kind of that, you know, that 1950s model of right-wing, Christian-right, Americanness. So, he is associating conspiracy theories with ideological extremism, and particularly a sort of religious drive there. So, this model of conspiracy theories as being a sort of secularised religious thought is there from the very beginning. And nowadays, the comparison is much more often made between conspiracy theories and cults, right? Now, as we both know, and hopefully the listeners know by now, a cult is simply an illegitimate religion. And so, there is this sense in which conspiracy theories are viewed as a secular replacement for religion, you know, a grand explanatory framework that somehow replaces religion but is far less legitimate than religious belief is, and it doesn’t have you know… It’s never referred to as faith for a start. It’s always referred to as beliefs or quasi-religion, cult thinking, groupthink—all of these negative connotations about organised religion. And this is something which both supporters and critics appeal to all the time. But it does things like it places the conspiratorial believer in the center of history—you know, they have a knowledge and understanding of the real meaning of history and the real direction of history in ways that the unenlightened don’t. This is the this is this sort of big sociological model anyway, that views, religion and conspiracy theories as somehow related.
Of course, there are other there are other scholars who approach conspiracy theory and religion quite differently and directly don’t make the comparison quite deliberately. So, for instance, if you look at most psychological studies of conspiracy theories—of which there have been many, many over the last 20 years or so—quite consciously don’t make connections between conspiratorial thinking and religious thinking. Because they are almost all starting from the position of that this is a problem, this is something that we need to solve. Now, if you bring in religious ideas, then this complicates everything, right? Because if your argument is, conspiracy theory is a deficit of thinking, right? So, either you’ve got a low level of schizophrenia, or you’re paranoid, or you’re irrational, or you’re brainwashed, or you just don’t think very clearly, then if you then bring in something that 80% of Americans accede to, then you’re really complicating things, aren’t you? If the problem is irrational thought—that we shouldn’t allow people to spread ideas that don’t stand up to scientific standards of verification, then, for God’s sake, don’t mention the fact that that also applies to these other beliefs, which are what the country trusts in and 80% of them agree with because you’re gonna upset a lot of them. And you’re gonna bring in all sorts of constitutional problems about why certain forms of irrational beliefs are okay, and other ones aren’t. So, this is a core tension in this model, from a sociological point of view or a more critical point of view.
Yeah. Based on what you’re saying, I mean, especially for religious studies, it seems that it would be worthwhile to examine the overlap in these categories, because in dismissing conspiracy theories, in this way, like you’ve discussed, could, actually, kind of have some negative implications for the study of religion, it would seem.
Absolutely, but that would assume that most scholars and religious studies are interested in deconstructing the category. And I don’t think that’s the case.
There is that.
I suspect that…, I strongly suspect the most people in this field are caretakers rather than critics. You’ve also got to think about who’s funding most work. Most work that gets, most research that gets funded in religious studies is hoping to show some positive aspect to religion.
Whereas most research that gets funded on conspiracy theories has been funded by a completely different group of people who see it as a security threat. And so, you know, never the twain shall meet. I’m muddying the waters for both of those groups. And that’s why none of them ever give me any money. (laughs)
(laughs) Well, I can see that. Your phrasing there, and I think the idea of threat, especially, is central to the divide between these two categories. For me it brings to mind Naomi Goldenberg’s idea of religion as vestigial states, where she argues that religion functions like a vestigial state: a former institutional power that is permitted within the contemporary nation-state so long as it doesn’t threaten or challenge the existence or authority or identity of that state. But unlike religion, conspiracy theories aren’t granted that type of limited autonomy.
Yeah, absolutely. They don’t have the same sort of identity representation kind of function. But it’s interesting, I mean, there is no discussion going on in the field of conspiracy studies as to whether one needs to be a conspiracy theorist to understand conspiracy theories. There are no scholars—maybe one that I’m aware of in the field of conspiracy theory studies who self identifies as a conspiracy theorist. It is so telling about the field of religious studies, when you compare the two and what they’re doing. You don’t go to religious studies conferences in which the title of the conference has “problem” in the title, you know, “The Problem of Religion” or “Tackling Religion” or anything like that, you know? And it’s, it’s telling, I think.
Yeah, I’ve certainly never come across a panel featuring a Q representative, for example, as an authority on Q drops, and there to inform the academic community about these updates, right?
No, but you regularly get events on religion, not so much in religious studies, but you know, public events where we have a conference about religion, and our speakers are the leaders of various groups. And you know, you’re not gonna get that on any mainstream media outlets. The function of the discourse on religion, and the discourse on conspiracy theories goes much, much wider than simply our disciplines. And that’s part of the problem. And conspiracy theory is actually, it’s like the category of religion in that sense, and that it has that function, it just doesn’t have the longer history of representing these various vestigial groups and so on. But it serves a very similar function that is sustained by its usefulness in governance, not by its analytical usefulness, which is why as scholars, I feel that it’s massively important and sad that I don’t see much of it, that we need to be actually deconstructing the categories and their functions in society at large, because otherwise, we’re simply reinforcing them and perpetuating them.
Absolutely. I think this is key for beginning to understand the discrepancy in how certain ideas are understood as or accepted as factual, as perhaps descriptive. And others are, what was it in that panel just dismissed as crazy without a second thought?
And I think that you are absolutely right about the necessity of deconstructing these categories, because in this process, we can come to understand how something like belief has been legitimated and authorised as a religion, whereas conspiracy theories have not been given that same level of authority or legitimacy in our societies. And when we start thinking about the social and political implications of these categories, we’re then able to examine the even more implicit modes of knowledge production within our social worlds.
Right, and these arbitrary decisions about knowledge and belief is embedded into the linguistic structures we use—it’s all the way through society. I mean, even to talk about belief, or faith, over say, knowledge is part of a colonial approach to legitimising certain types of understanding the world and delegitimising others. I mean, I was often confused as to why my lecturers would constantly talk about, when they were talking about indigenous religions, and they would talk about people’s “beliefs”. And I always thought “Why are you describing theirs as beliefs and ours is knowledge? Why is that different?” But and then you have faith, of course, which is just a special kind of belief that only you know, a Christians are like to accede to. And then you get things like in law—there was a case recently in Scottish law where a person was, basically, they were fired by their boss for being a political activist for Scottish nationalism. And he took them to court on the basis that it counted because it was a “sincere belief.” This meant that it fell under the law of protecting his freedom of speech as in under religious law. So, because it was a sincere, a sincerely held belief—and this is this is a line in law—this meant it deserved the same protections as religions did. Now, “sincerely held” is, first of all, it’s arbitrary, and secondly, where do you, how do you quantify that? But why is it…? It’s “sincerely held” because it’s a way of saying faith without using distinctly religious language? Right?
But even when we talk about people’s beliefs, you know, we’re ignoring the fact that people, very few people, separate beliefs and knowledge, we might talk about something scientific as being knowledge rather than belief. But I don’t understand… I couldn’t make a light switch work. I’m not using scientific knowledge when I when I do that. I believe it will turn on because I was told that word and then it did.
It usually does. Yeah.
Yeah. It’s all just forms of knowledge. And yeah, I can’t remember where we started with this now… (laughs)
(laughs) Yeah, no, the sincerely held belief. No, this is… because that rhetoric is just a way of naturalising certain understandings of religion and maintaining the element of the unique.
Right? Because religion in this sense, is understood to be distinct and private to the individual, which is key in how it functions.
It’s individual and it’s unique and irreducible, but it’s also socially mandated. There is… or even possibly, supernaturally mandated, depending on how you think about it. There’s a really good example with the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual)—you know, the psychological manual of the American Psychological Association—the current edition of that DSM 10, in the section on… Now, if I’ve got this, I’ve got this wrong, I apologise in advance anyone. I think it’s in the schizophrenia section. So, if someone is suffering from hallucinations, and having visions, basically, if they can get agreement from a representative of a recognised religious tradition—that’s the wording in it—then those are not taken as evidence of mental illness. If you can’t get an official of a legally recognised religious tradition to agree, then they are evidence of mental illness.
Paging Dr. Foucault. So that idea of “is something a religious belief or mental illness” is, you know, it’s right there in how we medically diagnose mental illnesses. And conspiracy theory is a is a perfect example of that. So, these newspaper stories that are saying, you know, “Are Trump followers in a cult?” are doing exactly the same thing. They use cult because they don’t want to say, “Oh, it’s a religion.” There are actually… There are a few reports that talk about, you know, is Q becoming a religion and things like that. But by and large, the discourse is about cult thinking on both sides, that conspiracy theories are a descent into sort of barbarism, illegitimate religious group think.
Right, right. You know, you’re mentioning how people don’t want to necessarily equate Trump followers with religion and instead want to emphasise this as some type of cult mentality reminded me of something that I’ve seen a lot in Alabama. Leading up to the 2020 presidential election, I would occasionally see political yard signs that said, Jesus 2020. And so of course, I had to Google it. And one day, I’ll get around to writing that blog post. But I found out that it’s from this church in Ramer, Alabama, who, quite intentionally, made political signs to, as they say, get Jesus’s name out there with everybody else, to remind everybody that, as they put it, Jesus as our sovereign leader, while also claiming that this was all about Jesus and keeping politics out of it, because at the end of the day, Jesus was something that would unite all of us. Now, all of the many things we could discuss there aside, what I found fascinating, and by fascinating, I mean, wholly unsurprising, but fascinating, was how this was not remotely questioned. And whether it is or isn’t directly linked to Trump, obviously, there’s speculation there. But at the end of the day, that’s something that would not be permitted by any other group. Especially any group designated as a cult. I just thought it was a really fascinating example of much of what you’ve been saying, right? Which discourses and ideologies are permitted at the table, and which ideas, which groups would absolutely be challenged, delegitimised, and shut down for doing the same type of thing.
Right. And it reminds you that in all of these discourses about the role of conspiracy theories in elections, or referendums, that these kind of Christian narratives are not treated in the same way as conspiracy theories are. I mean, a clear example is the fact that if you refused to wear your mask because you think that masks are there to force depopulation in the west or whatever, then that’s a dangerous conspiracy theory, and you should be removed from social media and de-platformed. If you, however, don’t wear a mask, because God is going to protect you, then this is a religious objection, and is protected under the Fourth Amendment as your right as an American, but in practically every secular nation, there are similar laws which protect religious belief, which usually means Christianity, or anything that looks enough, like Christianity, that is acceptable. And, you know, always, always the Christian hegemony, is maintained through all of these moves.
Another example, that struck me is a lot of the attention that QAnon particularly has got, has been of a very sort of debunking nature, you know, that clear sort of “these people are irrational, they don’t understand science kind of approach.” And one comment that you often come across is the, “oh these people claim that their concern is with protecting children, that supposedly these children are getting abducted, and yet they haven’t managed to protect any children at all.” I’ve read this in a number of articles. And I always think the same thing. “Well, nor have you by pointing it out.” It seems like a slightly smug point to say they haven’t saved anyone, when, as a journalist, you have the choice to turn your attention on the Catholic Church and the huge scandal about cover-ups over child abuse that’s been going on there and is getting very little press attention. It’s another example of this same hegemony, in terms of what gets dealt with what gets demonised, what gets presented as dangerous, when a sizable powerful organisation, which is protecting itself is being ignored by journalists, which we know has covered up a number of incidents of abuse, as opposed to demonizing a few people who’s who have genuine concerns, albeit completely misplaced.
If your concern is with doing something to protect children, and in fact, protecting society from dangerous people, your target should be other than demonising a few misled people.
Yeah, no, I mean, I think you’re right. It does come up now and again, but doesn’t get nearly the same media coverage as something like QAnon.
Right. Yeah. I read far more posts about how QAnon people were delusional for thinking that there was child abuse going on, then I did the same about actually exposing what was happening in the Catholic Church and their ongoing attempts to prevent—don’t forget, we’ve only had two states where they’ve been allowed to investigate.
Every other state is being prevented from doing so or is refusing to do so for religious reasons. Again, none of this is getting any attention.
That reminds me a bit about what you were discussing earlier when you were talking about Hofstadter’s arguments about ideological extremism, because it seems that, you know, these views often get far more media attention than, say, something like the issues with the Catholic Church. Largely I suspect that’s to avoid threatening the perceived stability of our socio-political frameworks. But could you talk a little bit more about the role of the media in these discourses?
Yeah, and remember, Hofstadter was writing at a time, just coming out of the McCarthy era when there had been very polarised and entrenched positions. Hofstadter was arguing for a return to centrist politics, which is, so it’s the parallels with the modern agers are clear. And I think Hofstadter was right, that this kind of worldview mobilises minorities who might otherwise not have so much political power. I mean, to some degree, there has always been a drive towards sensational and bizarre things like people like to read that kind of stuff. Most of the critique of the coverage of conspiracy theories and the blame for our polarised politics at the moment is very often laid on social media, and on the internet. But I think it’s highly important to note that the traditional outlets of media have a vested interest in suggesting that the problem is with these new upstarts who are destroying their business. Don’t forget that the Russia report, when it was published, actually said the largest threat to American democracy at the moment was the press. It was the fact that the press has become owned by a very few number of companies, all of which have amplified the rhetoric in their reporting in fewer and fewer political positions. You know, the rule of Rupert Murdoch, for instance, both in the right-wing newspapers in Britain and Fox News here, people like Steve Bannon establishing not only media companies, but also investing in things like Palantir and Cambridge Analytica, things which have deeply destabilised politics and invested a lot black money into campaigns. These are a far bigger reason for the polarisation and the mainstreaming of these kind of ideas than social media is, I think. That’s not to belittle the role of algorithms in amplifying things, for instance, I think, is an important point. But the other side of the argument never get stated and so, yeah. The they will report conspiracy theories when it serves their interests, but in terms of a Hofstadter model of amplifying entrenched ideologies? Absolutely. The mainstream media is as much if not more to blame.
Yeah. And that’s a really great point. Of course, I have to mention, you know, there’s a lot of talk about the media bias. And we’ve now, of course, seen the rise of fake news rhetoric over recent years. On the one hand, sure, there’s no such thing as unbiased journalism. But to that end, there’s no such thing as unbiased journalism, right? Given what you’ve discussed about the role of the media, could you speak a little bit about this rhetoric of fake news?
What’s really interesting about fake news, I mean, there’s nothing new about either disinformation or misinformation—the difference between those two being, you know, whether someone’s just wrong or whether they’re deliberately lying. Nor is there, the kind of traditional news stations—people like the BBC have been fined for deliberately misleading or accidentally misleading a number of times in the past. There’s nothing that’s new about this. What’s interesting is the way that different groups are using it to delegitimise each other. And again, of course, traditional newspapers and news outlets who have slashed the amount of reporting and error correction that they ever did before, have a vested interest in suggesting that things on the internet are full of misinformation and that they are the responsible ones. What I think is much more interesting is the way that the idea of fake news relates to this idea of post-truth—that we somehow live in an age in which all of a sudden there is no one agreed upon truth.
When was it ever the case? I mean, maybe… maybe the 12th century in the middle of Europe, when everybody you know, and even then, you’re still gonna encounter Muslims on the edge… There has never been a time in history. What they mean is that it is the collapse of the authority of a certain group to impose their model of truth and have everybody accept it without challenge.
Right. But as you know, as we’ve been, as I’ve banged on about all the way through this, which things are accepted as truth, it’s the model of the world of one group. Now, the right-wing, the conservative, (small-c conservative) ideology is based upon the premise that there is some larger truth that kind of comes before the individual and societies, you know, be that sort of national interest or a religious motivation, or our less well-defined kind of moral framework or whatever—that the role of the individual is to is to, is to serve that function in society, right. So, the idea of there being an absolute truth is intrinsically important to the more conservative and right-leaning political positions. And they feel deeply, deeply threatened by it. It’s not a coincidence that these large media conglomerates that we’re talking about are almost all owned by right-wing or centre-right individuals. And so, the idea that there is this one truth—their truth, of course—that is being challenged is deeply concerning. As scholars, I think, though, those of us working in a critical paradigm should be quite comfortable with this idea. It gives us an opportunity to analyse the way that different epistemes, worldviews, doxas, whatever term you like to use, are being mobilised, and the way that different forms of knowledge are being mobilised to control power over the discourse, right? Sadly, the political situation and the very real threat that people find themselves in, you know, from poverty, illness, lots of things at the moment, political, you know, instability—people aren’t able to use that at the moment, there are much more pressing concerns, unfortunately. So, from the media sphere, we’re seeing things moving back. But as scholars, I think this gives us a real opportunity to reassess the categories we use, like religion and conspiracy theories and truth.
Oh, I think you are absolutely spot on there. I’m now looking at the time and realising that we are out of time, if not a little over time. I would love to keep picking your brain on this because this has been just really interesting to talk with you about, but I am afraid we’re gonna have to go. So, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me today. It has been an absolute pleasure.
Thanks for having me. It’s been great to talk to you.
Robertson, David G. and Andie Alexander. 2021. “Conspiracy Theories, Public Rhetoric, and Power”, The Religious Studies Project. Podcast Transcript. 17 May 2021. Transcribed by Andie Alexander. Version 1.0, 17 May 2021. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcasts/conspiracy-theories-public-rhetoric-and-power/
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