Sunday, December 19, 2010

Conspiracies, Gods and The Need for Order

An astute Englishman commented to me (a Yank) in the early 90s that he believed the sudden proliferation of conspiracy theories among Americans (aliens in Roswell, the Illuminati, black helicopters from the U.N.) was related to the fall of the U.S.S.R. We'd spent generations seeing communist plots everywhere, he said, and now that the communists were gone, our paranoia turned toward our own government.

I don't know if I buy that particular bit of armchair sociology but the idea is an interesting one - and it can be generalized. In a way, to many people, it's clearly more comforting to think that there's a big conspiracy running the world than the truth, which is that the world is a mess that manages to muddle along and no one really understands much of it. A recent paper from Aaron Kay at Duke showed actual data that the more faith in government decreases, the more faith in God increases (digest article here.)

I found this interesting, mostly because we humans don't often think very hard about what we taken as "given" in our world. What do you consider the unchangeable wallpaper of the world? Climate? Probably. Government? Ih, more or less, but if you live in a democracy, not really. Your local sports team? You would think it's a violation of a basic law of physics the way people react when they threaten to move! Because we don't think very much about which of these really are "givens", we sometimes conflate them. Someone I knew once said he hated a certain gameshow on MTV because they gave away his money. When I asked him how, he said, "Well the government owns MTV so that has to be tax dollars!" (Give him a break, he was young, and he helped me make this point.)

It's important to note that sense of order seems to be comforting, even when it's negative - in Religion Explained, Pascal Boyer explodes the idea that people believe in religion because it's comforting. Many of the religions he studied in sub-Saharan Africa are positively terrifying, with constant curses and witches and dark and lonely afterlives awaiting all of us. He notes with interest that, if we think religions are just reflections of the cultures that invent and maintain them, we would expect the poor countries of central Africa to have religions like this, and the wealthy and comfortable countries of the world (new and unique in history) should start inventing flighty-hippy religions that are similarly unique - things like (for example) modern Wicca and New Ageism. The point is that it's the structure itself, the idea of someone being in charge (even if they're bad guys) is more appealing to our particular wiring than a universe with a total absence of agency. So when we lose faith in government, we increase it in gods.

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