Like religion, conspiracy theories are more complex than just a set of strongly held beliefs

Conspiracy theories are often connected to religion; the past year has seen the rise of COVID-19 vaccine conspiracy theories among evangelical groups on social media, for example. To understand the connection between religion and conspiracy theories, we need to change the way we think about religion, writes Dr David G Robertson. The beliefs which can drive both religions and conspiracy theories, he argues, are complex, social, and fluid, informing behaviors in often unpredictable and inconsistent ways.

On 15 June 2021, LSE Religion and Global Society, together with the US Centre and Department of International Relations, hosted an LSE Public Lecture, Religious Freedom under the Biden Administration. In conjunction with that event, RGS and the US Centre’s USAPP Blog have launched a joint series focusing on religion in American society, bringing in experts to explore the relationship different faith groups have with American society. Read other posts in this series.

Photo: Wesley Tingey, Unsplash
The connections between religion and conspiracy theories in the US have been increasingly obvious since the election of President Trump in 2016, and even more so since the emergence of COVID-19 in early 2020. From the New Age improv of the “Q Shaman”, Jake Angeli, to op eds on “the cult of Trump”, to the Washington Post article from February last year describing a “rapid spread” of vaccine conspiracy theories among evangelical groups on social media, the two are increasingly frequently connected in popular discourse.

In fact, conspiracy theories have been connected to religion from the very beginning; the very first use of the term in print, from The Open Society and its Enemies, Vol 2, by the famous philosopher of science Karl Popper, called conspiracy theories “the secularization of religious superstition”, where God was replaced with “the Learned Elders of Zion, or the monopolists, or the capitalists”. Richard Hofstadter’s famous article, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, took aim at the conservative Christian pressure group The John Birch Society. During the 1990s, the Patriot Movement espoused a libertarian theocracy, culminating in the Oklahoma City bombing and the Ruby Ridge standoff.

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