Under contract with the Routledge Conspiracy Theories series, my postdoctoral book project is called Critique of Conspiracism. Its development was funded by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Postdoctoral Fellowship (2021-2023) in the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto.
In Fall 2021 I began developing ideas for the project by designing and teaching a course called “Religion and Conspiracy Theories” in the Arts First program at the University of Waterloo, and in early December 2021 I was interviewed about the project by my colleague Dr. Rob Jones III at the Christ’s Church Cathedral in downtown Hamilton, Ontario.
I have also had the opportunity to talk about the project in a presentation called “Violence, Religion, and Conspiratorial Thinking” at the American Academy of Religion Meetings in San Antonio in November 2021, and in a talk called “Conspiracism and Critique: A Critical Theory and Political Theology of Conspiratorial Thinking” in the Department for the Study of Religion Colloquium Series at the University of Toronto on March 17, 2022.
“If we look at the most sweeping conspiracy theories, they insist that nothing happens by accident; nothing is as it seems; and that everything is connected. Yet these salient characteristics are strikingly similar to the features of many religious belief systems. To be sure, this is not to say that religions are conspiracy theories, only that there are structural similarities that sometimes lead them to join hands.”
– Michael Barkun, Preface to the Brill Handbook of Conspiracy Theory and Contemporary Religion
What is the relationship between conspiratorial thinking and critique? How do conspiracy theories – albeit in distorted and blindered ways – mirror the forms of suspicion that are found in critical theories and education in critical thinking? How can conspiracism as an all-encompassing epistemology be critiqued without simply opposing one form of criticism with another?
Critique of Conspiracism provides a detailed treatment of these questions without ceding ground to the generalizations and oversimplifications of conspiratorial thinking, and without taking up a patronizing distance from the desire to see the world in conspiratorial terms.
Following an introduction that reviews the literature on the epistemological patterns that define conspiratorial thinking, Critique of Conspiracism takes the study of conspiracy theories in new interdisciplinary directions through the use of three critical paradigms.
Chapter 1 draws from recent work by critical theorists in the tradition of the Frankfurt School (Rahel Jaeggi, Rainer Forst, Robin Celikates, and Titus Stahl) to show how conspiracy theories are a form of everyday social critique that provide justification narratives to address various social problems from alienation to political powerlessness, but which do so in decontextualized ways that themselves require critique.
Chapter 2 shows how the scholarly study of religion (in the works of Michael Barkun, Susan Lepselter, and David Robertson) and the discourse on political theology (especially the works of Erica Lagalisse and Angela Mitropolous) reveal how the structure of conspiratorial thinking inherits religious epistemologies that immunize themselves against critique, while also serving to absolve guilt.
Chapter 3 then turns toward psychology and uses the therapeutic model of Internal Family Systems to show how defensiveness and reactivity are built into conspiracy theories in ways that deflect moral blame while preserving traumatized thinking and simplistic approaches to selfhood.
Chapter 4 draws together these three methodological approaches into a compact critique of conspiratorial reason that delineates how conspiracism reflects distorted uses and abuses of history (by corralling all events and ideas into a single narrative) and often leads toward violence (by constructing enemies through religiously-inflected narratives of demonization).
The conclusion then provides concrete suggestions for responding to conspiracy theorists that avoid the pitfalls of moral abstinence (“who am I to judge?”) and debunking (the exertion of epistemological force), illustrated by an examination of conspiracy theories and public health.