Critique of Conspiracism (Postdoctoral Project)

Beginning in Fall 2021 I will be working on a project called “Critique of Conspiracism” as a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto.

The first steps in my research will be to design and teach a course called “Religion and Conspiracy Theories” in the Arts First program at the University of Waterloo, and to present my initial framework at the American Academy of Religion Meetings in San Antonio in November 2021.

Project Outline

“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

Conspiratorial thinking has recently become an even more urgent matter of popular, public, and scholarly concern than it already was. During the early reckoning with the COVID-19 pandemic in May 2020, several influential online videos disseminated the false notion that the pandemic was planned: a “plandemic.” The notion that the virus was intentionally released as a part of a plot fits all of the Eurocentric and racist narratives that pre-existed COVID-19, but it also transforms prejudices and structural violences in new ways. Conspiratorial thinking continues to influence the American political environment from former President Donald Trump’s merging of right-wing populism with grand narratives of enmity and victimization, to Marjorie Taylor Greene’s absurd combination of antisemitism, UFO claims, and white supremacism.

Events over the past two years, including the ‘storming of the capital’ in early 2021, persuasively demonstrate that conspiratorial thinking has a negative influence on public health and political life in the Global North. Most recently, Reuters reported that the FBI has renewed their concern that followers of the vaguely defined group called QAnon may be moving toward “real world violence.” These events point to the fact that conspiratorial thinking is a serious social problem requiring careful scholarly study. Rather than being a fringe phenomenon that is unworthy of academic consideration, and rather than being a problem that can be solved solely by means of argumentation, conspiracism is a social problem that deserves to be taken seriously in and by the humanities and social sciences. My work follows recent literature that takes conspiracism seriously as a research area in its own right, and further examines its deep connection with religion.

Over the course of the next two years, I plan to write a book called Critique of Conspiracism. I will begin the book by reviewing how scholars have argued that conspiratorial thinking has significant religious characteristics, before examining how conspiratorial thinking constitutes a metanarrative ordering of origins, essences, and ends that periodize time and history by dividing past, present, and future. I will then follow this metaphysical vision of a conspiratorially ordered world through to some of its political consequences by examining connections between conspiracism and political violence.

I want to follow the idea that while there are many key differences between conspiracy theorists and religious adherents, conspiracism and religiosity are similarly premised on the idea that the world is ordered and meaningful, and the notion that past events explain present realities (as in the popular phrase ‘everything happens for a reason’). Following from these connections, this project asks critical questions about violence and history. Is conspiratorial thinking a violent way of viewing the world? How do conspiracy theories use and abuse past events? And are these two questions connected?

This project extends the issues that I examine in my dissertation and forthcoming book. Drawing on my dissertation, “Ontologies of Violence” which examines the works of Jacques Derrida, Mennonite pacifist epistemologists, and Grace M. Jantzen’s late work, I ask whether and how conspiracism can be considered a violent way of thinking. By resourcing the central paradigm of my book Postsecular History: Political Theology and the Politics of Time I ask how conspiratorial thinking makes use of the past in both theological and political ways.