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Skepticism & Conspiracy Theories… Friends or Foes?

By Marc Mollenthiel

In the modern era, scepticism of the religious impulse appears to be the voice of reason, often viewed as synonymous with rationality. This is selectively applied to matters of religion and/or conspiracy theories alike.

There exists a modern narrative which asserts that conspiracy theories and religious views are branches of the same phenomenon, below the realm of logic. This equation of reason with scepticism I will explore.

Though sceptics will disagree, rationality is not simply adopting views in favour of the negative position; beliefs play a role. For example, not believing in the soul/ hereafter/reincarnation often leads to the positive belief that the human person is annihilated after death.

If we apply this same logical reasoning, why isn’t scepticism towards the annihilation at death equally prominent in atheistic circles? The sceptic will argue lack of substantial evidence, yet there is no positive evidence for the annihilation at death either, yet this is believed simply because it is epistemically negative, i.e., the absence of belief in anything.

In spite of what pure scepticism holds, humans are believing creatures by nature, and our belief will find rest somewhere. The sceptic may cling to the position of no belief, yet they will carry a ‘practical’ belief that death is the end, even if a philosophical distinction between belief and being uncertain is invoked.

Our belief system matters, the heuristic approach of approximating negative beliefs can be harmful, for example the current divisive surge of conspiracy theories. This is more closely related to scepticism than to pure human gullibility.

Nature abhors a vacuum and the void created by scepticism is eventually filled. Conspiracy theorists are simply radical sceptics. As a foundation, radical sceptics arbitrarily choose something to base their belief, which in turn is personally judged less harshly than the things they are sceptical about.

For some radical sceptics, science is their grounding principle while others arbitrarily choose something else. This difference explains why some do not believe NASAs images of our round earth; it is simply radical scepticism grounded elsewhere. Scepticism grounded on science is no safe haven either, as our body of knowledge stands beyond the domain of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).

Paradigm Shift

Once upon a time, tradition and religious authorities carried the ethos (intellectual authority/ credibility) of society. During the scientific revolution, the very notion of ethos and human intuition was challenged in favour of curiosity, self-exploration with grounded belief in what is empirical. This movement had its merits.

However, with it also came a paradigm shift that pure scepticism was a mental virtue. This over correction is where I think we should draw the line, as it miscalculated the nature of humanity, and thus gave us the phenomenon of conspiracy theories that we see today.

During the Renaissance period, academics were multidisciplined and a certain mastery of the natural sciences was a prerequisite for theology; that which goes beyond.

However, over time as the various fields became more complex, greater specialisation was required and the sceptical way of thinking began to break down. Academics became so specialised that a reliance on ethos returned. Yet the spirit of scepticism persists.

It is still invoked arbitrarily when dealing with religious matters often by atheists who are cut off from theological literature. This is the pattern of conspiracy theorists. Today, the ordinary person is unable to verify first- hand the existence of unseen things like the soul, subatomic particles, microbes, or God.

The evidence is available, but the pillars of knowledge extend so high that the common man must rely on the particular specialised intellectual bodies. The rejection of this is precisely what creates a conspiracy theory.

The clearest example of conspiracy theories arising from detached scepticism is that Jesus is fictitious, and religion is a lie; “opium of the masses” created by elites. This view negates the wealth of verified academic literature about the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth.

This is not just a consensus amongst Christian scholars but atheist, Jewish and many others. The ex-Christian and atheist scholar, Bart Erhman, says the historicity of Jesus “is not an issue for scholars of antiquity. There is no scholar in any college or university in the western world who teaches classics, ancient history, New Testament, early Christianity, or any related field who doubts that Jesus existed. The reason for thinking that Jesus existed is that he is abundantly attested in early sources, that’s why”.

Conspiracy theorists are typically seen as harmless private beliefs, but I think if 2020 taught us anything, it is that what we believe matters, and our ability to respond to a situation with collective action depends on it.

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