The conspiracy of god, the well-intentioned lie, and the strangeness of being human

by John MacBeath Watkins

On a forum I sometimes frequent, a person I had thought fairly normal recently stated as incontrovertible fact that "the federal government operatives did the Oklahoma City bombing to protect their seized power."

Which left me wondering, why do we have some sort of conspiracy theory for every tragedy?

Professor Stephan Lewandowsky, University of Western Australia, thinks he has some answers.
In an interview with Slate, he recently said:

"There are number of factors, but probably one of the most important ones in this instance is that, paradoxically, it gives people a sense of control. People hate randomness, they dread the sort of random occurrences that can destroy their lives, so as a mechanism against that dread, it turns out that it’s much easier to believe in a conspiracy. Then you have someone to blame, it’s not just randomness."
Which immediately started me thinking about religion, in which the randomness of life is blamed on god or the gods.
He elaborated:

"Basically what’s happening in any conspiracy theory is that people have a need or a motivation to believe in this theory, and it’s psychologically different from evidence-based thinking. A conspiracy theory is immune to evidence, and that can pretty well serve as the definition of one. If you reject evidence, or reinterpret the evidence to be confirmation of your theory, or you ignore mountains of evidence to focus on just one thing, you’re probably a conspiracy theorist. We call that a self-sealing nature of reasoning."

My heavens, that sounds like religion through and through. Was religion the original conspiracy theory, a way to gain control of an irrational world by assigning blame?

But of course, there is the theory demonstrated in The Invention of Lying, a Ricky Gervais movie in which he plays the only man in the world who can lie, or even conceive of there being such a thing as a lie.

He uses this super power to become wealthy and powerful, but the biggest lie he tells is to his dying mother. She's afraid of the nothingness of death, so he tells her the comforting lie -- that instead of nothingness, what awaits her is the best place ever, where she will live in a mansion and everyone she loves will be with her and she will be young and healthy and beautiful.

The doctors and nurses overhear, and religion is born out of lies and good intentions. It is a vision of a good, kind, but imperfect man whose words send his world spinning out of control.
This is certainly a more benign version of the origin of religion, and at least as credible. And I suppose the assemblage we call religion could have many origins for its many parts.

As we've discussed in the series of posts on the strangeness of being human, we are not entirely logical creatures, and the dominance of logic as a motivator of human action may, in fact, be fairly recent. In the post on the bicameral mind hypothesis, we talked of Julian Jaynes and his theory that for most of the time between the invention of language and the Greek golden age, we were not "conscious" in the sense of possessing a metaphorical space in our heads that narrates our lives -- we were not self-conscious.

He portrays a society in which the gods speak to us through that part of our brains that only the insane listen to now, a society in which the patterns of civilization were written in our myths, which programmed our minds. His theory is that as society began changing too rapidly for this to continue working, we had to learn to think for ourselves.

But are these mythic patterns left behind so easily? There is a deep yearning in mankind for the mythic past, even for the voice of god to tell us what to do, to free us from the terrible burden of freedom. A friend told me last Saturday about how his devout father had yearned all his life for something like the voice of god, and seemed at last to reconciled himself to never hearing it.

I would not begrudge him that dreaming world of mystic voices and certain belief. I do fear he would find what our ancestors found, that the world is changing too fast for the pattern of life to be set by mythic figures that tell us how to live. We must adapt to survive.

But there is a reason we want the dream back. We've seen the nightmare of reason, the Terror and the killing fields.

In the first post in this series, I quoted Yeats:

Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.

And still we yearn for that faery world, in fantasy literature, in new age books, in religious practice. We can look back, and wonder at the poetry of it, and find the wisdom in it.

But we must not expect the bush to burn for us, or the voice of god to give us eternal truths. William Manchester's book about leaving the middle ages behind had an almost perfect title: A World Lit Only by Fire. We have left that world behind us, and the burning bushes with it. In the clean, efficient, industrial light of our disenchanted nights, we remember the dreaming world, and we need to feel the pull back to it to keep our logic from becoming too cold and cruel, but it was logic that gave us facts at our fingertips and the power to shape our world.

Who knows, maybe there is a god, and he's responsible for everything, for the gunman on the grassy knoll, the painfully bland music in the elevators, the martyrdom of random strangers at the Boston Marathon and the Oklahoma federal building bombing. Or maybe there's just a need, and when we don't have gods to fill them, we have conspiracy theories and well-intentioned lies.

It would be a sad coda if that described the god-shaped hole in us. I think it's something deeper, something that these things are only a shadow of, a world left behind that used to define our humanity.

The strangeness of being human is a series of posts about the way language makes us human, giving us abstract categories we use to think and memes that make up much of what we are.

Night of the unread: Why do we flee from meaning?
The conspiracy of god, the well-intentioned lie, and the strangeness of being human
Spiritual pluralism and the fall of those who would be angels
Judging a book by its author: "Fiction is part confession, part lie."
What to do when the gods fall silent, or, the axis of ethics
Why do we need myths?  
Love, belief, and the truth we know alone

"Bohemians"-- The Journey of a Word

On being a ghost in a soft machine
On the illusion of the self