Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Illuminati: Angels and Demons and Paranoid Priests

Don't worry, I didn't forget to take my meds today, though conspiracy theories are interesting. The movie based on Dan Brown's Angels and Demons is prompting a surge of interest in the Illuminati. I read the novel, and I join the Church of Rome in being offended by Mr. Brown's works, though likely for different reasons. (It was painful. Painful.) In the novel, at the convocation to choose a new Pope, the Illuminati (represented as an old conspiracy of scientists wishing to overthrow the church) has obtained antimatter, and is going to use it to wipe out the Vatican.

The Illuminati are the go-to organization for conspiracy theories, right up there with the Freemasons, the Templars (more popular in Europe and revived by Umberto Eco) and the John Birch Society's communists, who are apparently conducting the slowest infiltration of a country ever in history since they began it in 1950 and cleverly faked the collapse of the Soviet Union to fool us. In addition to the Illuminati, the Masons are the other conspiracy group that we hear the most ranting about. As I've often said about Area 51, if it's really a conspiracy, they're not doing a very good job of keeping it quiet considering I run across it on Google without even trying. (Same with Area 51 and the aliens. Hike up Mt. Charleston and you can look down onto the runway. My pictures aren't that great, but it's really not that secret.)

You can read all about the Illuminati and Masons online, and how they control the Fed, Microsoft, and the menu at Taco Bell. The persistence of conspiracy theories in general is testament to the human need to believe that someone is steering, even if they're malevolent, rather than accepting the in-some-ways much scarier reality that nobody understands what's going on. But I'm more interested in what it is about the Masons and Illuminati specifically that inspires such morbid fascination. The Masons, at least, still exist: my grandfather was one. I never quite understood what the Masons were up to, though when I asked my Sicilian stepfather if really weren't they the Anglo pretend mafia (along with the Elks Lodge) he said that was pretty close. I still have my grandfather's ring, though when I walk by the Federal Reserve Building in San Francisco it never opened any secret passages for me. Then again, my grandpa was an accountant in a lumberyard in Western Pennsylvania, and he was a good man, but I don't think he was controlling the Fed.

Even if the Illuminati haven't had a meeting for a while, they did exist at one time, and what they have in common with Freemasonry is that both developed as organizations of individuals who believed that reason, and not religion, was the way to a better world - in both science and government (classic liberalism). Growing out of an era of religious authority as they did, you can imagine that some degree of obfuscation would have been prudent, to avoid ending up like Copernicus or Galileo. Thought of this way, they don't seem so dark and conspiratorial, do they? Then again, you're a twenty-first century rationalist, not a nineteenth century member of the clergy or nobility, desperate to stop the spread of ideas about the power of human reason.

The Masons are not limited to the Anglophone world, and though there were several big names in early American history associated with Freemasonry (among them Washington, and don't pay too much attention to National Treasure), I've found that the association between the Masons and classical liberalism's insistence on separating church and state is clearer in the writings of the Spanish-speaking world. In Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, a priest complaining about the absurdity of a civil war says: "This is silly; the defenders of the faith of Christ destroy the church and the Masons order it rebuilt." The newly independent nations of Latin America often quickly set about secularizing the Church's lands - among them, California's mission system in the 1830s (Saint James Mission, Saint Joseph, Saint Francis - ever heard of those?) The later infamous Santa Anna was one of the chief executors of mission secularization but as soon as he'd had enough of democracy, found that the best move was to jump right back into bed with the Church: " is very true that I threw up my cap for liberty with great ardor, and perfect sincerity, but very soon found the folly of it. A hundred years to come my people will not be fit for liberty. They do not know what it is, unenlightened as they are, and under the influence of a Catholic clergy, a despotism is the proper government for them..."

So, you can understand how the large churches and ruling castes of Enlightenment Europe would be so paranoid about the proceedings of these well-educated bourgeoisie, who were re-marking the world but in hindsight were merely acting in accordance with what we now see as basic principles of reason: that the world can be understood, and we can live in it, through reason, rather than the authority of subjectively revealed religious truth.

When the Mason Benjamin Franklin said things like "Lighthouses are more helpful than churches", I can imagine the consternation of the religious establishment. Today, the Masons have become the conservative gentleman's club that my grandfather belonged to, precisely because there is no longer any need to creep around the edges of the religious establishment. If you or I or any reason-minded person were brought back to 1800, we would be good candidates to be Masons or Illuminati based on our modern outlooks. As it turns out, the priests were right to be paranoid, though it did them no good in the long run - because the shadow-dwellers are now the churches.


Joshua said...

The most noteworthy thing about Brown's book is that he doesn't even get the right century for the founding of the Illuminati correct. The Bavarian Illuminati (who are what people are talking about when they say the Illuminati) were founded in 1789.

Incidentally, if you thought that Angels and Demons was bad you really need to not read Brown's more recent book. If I hadn't been reading it on my Kindle I would have thrown it against the wall repeatedly. It makes Brown's earlier works look well-written and coherent in comparison.

Michael Caton said...

Dear Lord (pun intended). But before we get too literarily elitist, he's selling how many copies? People must be getting something out of it. From that perspective, as an experiment I once read a Nora Roberts book, and in that case, I actually could see why people would enjoy it, even if it's not my cup of tea. But Dan Brown I just can't get past. Kind of like, eventually I could probably learn to tolerate lutefisk. I could never learn to eat that maggoty Mediterranean cheese.