Religion and Conspiracy Theories
University of Waterloo, Arts First 130 (Fall 2021).
“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
How does conspiratorial thinking work? Why are people inclined to see the world through the lens of conspiracy theories? What does conspiracism have to do with religion and secular life? This course approaches these important questions by thinking critically about the underlying structures that influence how we make and discover meaning in the world.
Week 1. Introduction
What are conspiracy theories? What is religion? How are they connected?
Robertson, David G. “The hidden hand: Why religious studies need to take conspiracy theories seriously” Religion Compass 11.3-4 (2017).
Marc-André Argentino, “QAnon and the storm of the U.S. Capitol: The offline effect of online conspiracy theories” The Conversation. Jan 7 2021. https://theconversation.com/qanon-and-the-storm-of-the-u-s-capitol-the-offline-effect-of-online-conspiracy-theories-152815
Andrew Seidel, “The January 6 Select Committee Cannot Ignore this Christian Movement” Religion Dispatches. July 28, 2021. https://religiondispatches.org/the-christian-identity-the-january-6-select-committee-cannot-ignore/
Travis View [pseudonym], “How conspiracy theories spread from the Internet’s darkest corners.” The Washington Post. September 18, 2018 [!]. https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2018/09/18/how-conspiracy-theories-spread-internets-darkest-corners/
Week 2. How do conspiracy theories work? How is their narrative structure connected to religion?
Michael Barkun, “Preface” to the Handbook of Conspiracy Theory and Contemporary Religion. Leiden: Brill, 2019.
Michael Barkun, “Failed Prophecies Won’t Stop Trump’s True Believers” Foreign Policy. Nov 8, 2018. https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/11/08/failed-prophecies-wont-stop-trumps-true-believers/
Michael Butter, “Education can help against conspiracy theories.” European Science Media Hub. March 17, 2021. https://sciencemediahub.eu/2021/03/17/michael-butter-education-can-help-against-conspiracy-theories/
Week 3. What is ‘conspirituality’? How are conspiratorial forms of mysticism and spirituality related to political forms of theology?
Charlotte Ward and David Voas, “The Emergence of Conspirituality” Journal of Contemporary Religion 26.1 (2011): 103-121.
Week 4. How is American culture uniquely dependent on conspiratorial thinking?
Anna Merlan, “Prologue” to Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2019.
Week 5. What does conspiracism have to do with paranoia, secrecy, and panic?
Richard Hofstadter, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” Harper’s Magazine. November 1964.
Week 6. Do conspiracy theories lead to violence? (A qualified ‘yes’!)
Amarnath Amarasingam, “The Impact of Conspiracy Theories and How to Counter Them: Reviewing the Literature on Conspiracy Theories and Radicalization to Violence” in Jihadist Terror: New Threats, New Responses. Ed. Anthony Richards. London: IB Tauris, 2019. pp: 27-39.
Federal Bureau of Investigation. “Anti-Government, Identity Based, and Fringe Political Conspiracy Theories Very Likely to Motivate Some Domestic Extremists to Commit Criminal, Sometimes Violence Activity.” FBI Phoenix Field Office. May 30, 2019.
Week 7. How do philosophers and critical theorists think about conspiracy theories?
Robyn Marasco, “Toward a Critique of Conspiratorial Reason” Constellations 23 (2016).
Week 8. How are conspiracy theories connected to the history of extremism, fanaticism, and religion? How do such conspiracy theories use and abuse the past?
Annalisa Merelli, “An Italian novel is at the center of a meta-conspiracy theory about QAnon” Quartz. Aug 8, 2018. https://qz.com/1349858/what-does-qanon-have-to-do-with-leftist-italian-authors-wu-ming/
Week 9. Case Study 1: QAnon Conspiracy Theories
Mia Bloom and Sophia Moskalenko, “FAQ” in Pastels and Pedophiles: Inside the Mind of QAnon. Stanford, CA: Redwood Press, 2021. (pp. 175-196)
Marc-André Argentino, “In the Name of the Father, Son, and Q: Why it is important to see QAnon as a ‘Hyper-real’ religion” Religion Dispatches. May 28, 2020. https://religiondispatches.org/in-the-name-of-the-father-son-and-q-why-its-important-to-see-qanon-as-a-hyper-real-religion/
Marc-André Argentino. “QAnon conspiracy theory followers step out of the shadows and may be headed to Congress,” The Conversation. July 8, 2020. https://theconversation.com/qanon-conspiracy-theory-followers-step-out-of-the-shadows-and-may-be-headed-to-congress-141581
Marc-André Argentino. “The Church of QAnon: Will conspiracy theories form the basis of a new religious movement?” The Conversation. May 18, 2020. https://theconversation.com/the-church-of-qanon-will-conspiracy-theories-form-the-basis-of-a-new-religious-movement-137859
Katelyn Beaty, “QAnon: The alternative religion that’s coming to your church.” Religion News Service. August 17, 2020. https://religionnews.com/2020/08/17/qanon-the-alternative-religion-thats-coming-to-your-church/
Joan Greve, “Republican QAnon conspiracy promoter picked to run for US Senate” The Guardian. May 21, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/may/21/republican-qanon-conspiracy-theory-jo-rae-perkins
Brad Reed, “QAnon is weaponized to target the Trump fanbase.” Salon. Aug 8, 2018. https://www.salon.com/2018/08/08/qanon-is-weaponized-to-target-the-trump-fanbase_partner/
Alyssa Rosenberg, “I understand the temptation to dismiss QAnon. Here’s why we can’t,” The Washington Post. April 17, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/08/07/qanon-isnt-just-conspiracy-theory-its-highly-effective-game/
Joseph Uscinski and Adam Enders, “Is QAnon taking over America?” The Guardian. Aug 18, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/aug/18/qanon-america-conspiracy-theory
Week 10. Case Study 2: Donald Trump’s ‘Antifa’ Conspiracy Theories
Associated Press, “Trump slammed over conspiracy theory about senior hospitalized in Floyd protest,” CBC News. June 9, 2020. https://www.cbc.ca/news/world/trump-tweet-buffalo-gugino-1.5604326
Selections from Stanislav Vysotsky, American Antifa: The Tactics, Culture, and Practice of Militant Antifascism. London: Routledge, 2021.
Week 11. Case Study 3: COVID-19 Conspiracy Theories
Carleton Newsroom. “New Carleton Study Finds COVID-19 Conspiracies and Misinformation Spreading Online.” Wednesday, May 20, 2020. https://newsroom.carleton.ca/2020/new-carleton-study-finds-covid-19-conspiracies-and-misinformation-spreading-online/
Blackbird.AI. “COVID-19 (Coronavirus) Disinformation Report” Vol. 3. June 10, 2020. https://www.blackbird.ai/blog/2020/07/10/covid-19-coronavirus-disinformation-report-volume-3-0/
John Cook, Sander van der Linden, Stephan Lewandowsky, Ullrich Ecker, “Coronavirus, ‘Plandemic’ and the seven traits of conspiratorial thinking” The Conversation. May 15, 2020. https://theconversation.com/coronavirus-plandemic-and-the-seven-traits-of-conspiratorial-thinking-138483.
Joseph E. Uscinski, et Al, “Why do people believe COVID-19 conspiracy theories?” Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review. April 28, 2020. https://misinforeview.hks.harvard.edu/article/why-do-people-believe-covid-19-conspiracy-theories/
Week 12. What does it mean to critique conspiratorial thinking? How should the deep connections between religion and conspiracism contextualize such a critique?
Luc Boltanski, “Preface” in Mysteries and Conspiracies: Detective Stories, Spy Novels and the Making of Modern Societies. London: Polity, 2014.