Chapter 9 Close Companions? Esotericism and Conspiracy Theories

In: Handbook of Conspiracy Theory and Contemporary Religion
Authors:
Egil Asprem
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Asbjørn Dyrendal
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Western esotericism is intimately linked with conspiracy theories. On the one hand, conspiracy theories often focus on alleged “secret societies” such as the Illuminati, the Rosicrucians, or the Freemasons, sometimes thought to possess superhuman powers. On the other, contemporary esoteric currents often spin their own conspiratorial narratives involving reductionist science, materialistic medicine, and corrupt repressive politicians, acting in concert to keep the true esoteric knowledge of divine origins and human potential from a population starved of spiritual truth. How might we explain these relationships? This article proposes a model that combines historical, sociological, and psychological factors, arguing that the relationship is intrinsic. Historically, “esotericism” is a product of mnemohistorical processes where “hidden lineages” from ancient times to the present play a crucial role, both for adherents identifying with such secret traditions and opponents attributing unwanted developments to secret cabals; socially, esotericism is organized along the lines of the loosely structured and culturally deviant “cultic milieu”; psychologically and cognitively, the cultic milieu produces selection pressures that favour certain personality traits and cognitive styles associated with increased conspiracism as well as paranormal beliefs and attributions, and produce forms of “motivated reasoning” that make conspiracy theories about “the establishment” – and competing esoteric groups – appealing.

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