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Edited by Asbjørn Dyrendal, David G. Robertson and Egil Asprem

Conspiracy theories are a ubiquitous feature of our times. The Handbook of Conspiracy Theories and Contemporary Religion is the first reference work to offer a comprehensive, transnational overview of this phenomenon along with in-depth discussions of how conspiracy theories relate to religion(s). Bringing together experts from a wide range of disciplines, from psychology and philosophy to political science and the history of religions, the book sets the standard for the interdisciplinary study of religion and conspiracy theories.

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Egil Asprem, David G. Robertson and Asbjørn Dyrendal

While the handbook as a whole establishes the study of conspiracy theory as an interdisciplinary subfield in the study of religion and transcends the usual geographic limits in studies of conspiracy beliefs, this afterword identifies key topics that should be developed further in future research. Mediatization, transnational flows, and glocalized uses of conspiracy theories are topics that continue current research trends, but there is also need for considering the role of specific religious organizations. The dynamic relationship between organized religion and state power, when conspiracism is disseminated from above, is another area that tends to be overlooked in current research. Some geographical and cultural areas are left all but untouched, with conspiracy thinking in non-literate societies a particularly glaring lacuna. A broadening of methodological approaches is also warranted. Gender, sexuality, and the body are central loci for both organized religion and conspiracy theories, but notably absent from existing research. Finally, the role that religion might play not only in the creation, spread and adoption of conspiracy beliefs, but also in in resistance against them deserves further attention.

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Barbara De Poli

Middle Eastern conspiracism originated in the late Nineteenth Century, began to spread more widely in the second half of the Twentieth Century and it has seen an extraordinary proliferation since the beginning of the era of the Internet.

In this chapter, I will investigate one specific aspect of this framework, that of anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist conspiracism, by going through some important narratives in the Arab political context that produced and continue to produce them, in order to analyse its origins, motivations and results.

The phenomenon mirrors the regional political dynamics, where Israel is a leading actor, as well the changing way Muslims perceive the Jewish community as its social and political status has changed in the region.

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Michael Wood and Karen Douglas

The decline of traditional religion in the West has been matched by a rise in the visibility of conspiracy theories. Are conspiracy theories therefore a replacement for religious belief in an increasingly secular society? Conspiracy theories seem to fulfil some of the psychological needs addressed by religion, such as imposing a sense of order and agency upon the world, and the two seem to share some of the same psychological predispositions. Many conspiracy beliefs have parallels in content and structure to religious beliefs: some propose an Edenic existence that was corrupted by a conspiracy, while others anticipate an apocalypse that will be either brought about or welcomed by a conspiracy. In this chapter, we take a psychological perspective on the parallels between religion and conspiracy theory, and discussing how the two types of belief systems complement and contradict one another.

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Sven Bretfeld

Conspiracy theories entered the political discourse in the early years of Sri Lanka's independence. With the disappearance of the British colonial rule the "open enemy" was gone, but still the country did not experience the golden age of freedom, peace and prosperity that was expected during the liberation movement. For some voices this could only be explained by a secret continuance of the colonial rule, whose undercover agents were hidden among the new political elites and plotted to keep the country down. The narrative structure of this conspiracy story endured until the present day, whereas the "hidden enemy" was over time shifted from the British, to the Catholic Church, the Tamils, the West, and, more recently, the Muslims.

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Iselin Frydenlund

In recent years, Muslim minority communities in Buddhist majority states have experienced an increasing number of attacks on their lives and properties. Violence against Muslim minorities has taken place in the wake of intense anti-Muslim campaigns, most vociferously articulated by certain groups of Buddhist monks, who in sermons and public speeches have warned against the dangers of Islam. Such aggressive and militant anti-Muslim campaigns are based upon the idea of a global Islamic conspiracy to eradicate Buddhism. This chapter analyses various aspects of Asian Buddhists’ fear of Islam: how do Buddhist conspiracy theories envision the Islamic take-over, and how are individual Muslims seen as local agents of such larger schemes? And why do Buddhist conspiracy theories about Islam flourish from 2012 onwards, and how are they related to domestic and regional politics?

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Egil Asprem and Asbjørn Dyrendal

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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Asbjørn Dyrendal, Egil Asprem and David G. Robertson

Conspiracy theory and religion are both contested categories. They are ’complex cultural concepts’ the use of which depends on the specific social formations making use of them. These constructions, all involving struggles over power, meaning, and signification, can both help and hinder interdisciplinary dialogue and multidisiplinary approaches. In this chapter we trace some of the building blocks that different academic disciplines bring to and make use of in their study of conspiracy theory to show the potential connections and delineate some of the conflicts. The chapter centres on the building blocks going into studying conspiracy theory as knowledge and as narrative, and goes on to highlight some of the potential ties to the study of religion.

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Edited by Asbjørn Dyrendal, David G. Robertson and Egil Asprem

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David G. Robertson

How is authority built up and maintained in a milieu in which all information is treated with distrust? How is charisma institutionalised in fields which reject institutions? This chapter attempts to answer these questions through examining two prominent conspiracist authorities with different geographical and political positions, David Icke and Alex Jones. Drawing on Max Weber’s (1964) concept of “charisma”, Matthew Wood’s description of multiple and relative “non-formative” authorities, and my own model of “epistemic capital”, I will argue that in this field authority is accumulated through a strategic mobilisation of a range of both mainstream and alternative sources of knowledge, drawing from traditional, scientific, channelled, experiential, and synthetic epistemic strategies.