How false religious conspiracy theories came to abound

 
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The documentary The Resurrection Tomb is based on James Tabor and Simcha Jacobovici’s book The Jesus Discovery[1] and resumes a controversial topic, also published in 2007, when a similar film was released.

It all started in 1980, when a tomb complex was discovered, in Talpiot, on the outskirts of Jerusalem’s old city. Jacobovici ignores the experts’ arguments[2] and stubbornly presents everything regarding the Talpiot tomb as a great discovery—positing that this new tomb is the place of Jesus’ burial, instead of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre which many others believe is the burial site of Jesus’ body. Bringing shocking matters to the public’s attention seems to be a fixation for Jacobovici. In 2011, in another documentary (Nails of the Cross), he claimed that two old spikes could be the ones used for Jesus’ crucifixion.

In most religious documentaries, the idea that the Christian faith as we now know it is an unnatural and incomplete presentation of (historical) reality is imposed, and what is traditionally presented as truth in the Bible must be accompanied by information from various (extra-biblical) sources to verify it. It all seems to be in agreement with the critical spirit of contemporary rationalism. But it just so happens that, upon more careful scrutiny, one can observe that movies are filled with a great deal of distorted or even erroneous information. Suppositions are presented as facts, and opinions as certainties.

For instance, we can identify a number of clichés that have been imposed without any basis: the idea that the Christian religion is the result of a conspiracy, and Jesus was at best a charismatic preacher, and under no circumstances a divine envoy, let alone the Son of God. It is even assumed that He would have married and had offspring, and Jesus’ crucifixion on the cross was not real. Even if Jesus’ death was real, it is said that His resurrection is not an authentic fact, but a lie—even if no definitive proof ruling out the resurrection has been found.

• In 2010, around Easter, National Geographic broadcast a series of documentaries about Jesus Christ and another movie about Revelation, all part of the series “The Bible’s Mysteries”.
• In 2009, Discovery Channel broadcast a documentary that set out to answer the question: “Who was Jesus?” The documentary presented Jesus with “a human face”.
• The Discovery Channel broadcast, in 2008, “Jesus: The missing history” that presented Jesus and the world He lived in, starting from extra-biblical information, some of it extremely dubious from a historical point of view.
• In 2007, the BBC broadcast a documentary called “Did Jesus die?” that explored the “alternative” theories that could offer an explanation for what happened on Good Friday and the rest of the holy week.
• In 2006, National Geographic broadcast the documentary, “Gospel of Judas”.

Christianity as a conspiracy

These theories were once obscure opinions that were not given much importance. For instance, a passionate scholar of classical Greek culture published in 1999, under the pseudonym ‘Acharya’, the book The Christ Conspiracy. The American author claimed that Jesus and, by extension, Christianity, was the result of a conspiracy of the members of various secret societies that aimed at unifying the Roman Empire.

Back then, the book was labelled as a collection of nonsense gathered from (other) uninformed authors. The historical evidence could not credit such theories. Despite all this, the argumentation style would be taken over in 2007 by Peter Joseph in the documentary Zeitgeist, which was received with great enthusiasm, in general, by a young audience. The movie was the catalyst for a real movement. Zeitgeist didn’t bring anything new. It was made up of the same arguments, the same mixture of authentic and illusory.

Even the Skeptic journal—a publication that aims at popularizing scientific education—criticized the movie, labelling it “a mixture that is only partly true, and the rest is simply false”. It seems, however, that, in time, something has changed: the public’s receptiveness to such scenarios has increased. The theory of Christian conspiracy has been replaced in the collective conscience by a novel. That novel is The Da Vinci Code, published by Dan Brown in 2003. The book combines the style of a thriller with a plot drawing on conspiracy theory, making it quite appealing to the unsuspecting reader.

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In The Da Vinci Code, historical facts are intertwined with fantasy, and reality frequently and imperceptibly slides towards fiction. But who cares? Next to suspense and adventure, the book consistently imposes the idea that the Church is based on a fake, and that Christianity is, in the end, a big con. Laurie Goodstein, a correspondent for The New York Times noticed that we live in an era in which many Christian believers have assimilated a whole lot of new and unorthodox ideas, as well as half-truths and conspiracy thinking, into their faith, while still seeing it as Christianity. This is how suppositions and bizarre theories that have been rightly forgotten are revived. The public has developed an increased appetite for the sensational. This also explains the high degree of receptiveness to conspiracy theories that offer the (false) feeling of discovering forgotten truths.

On the other hand, such theories are popular because they offer the possibility to turn an imaginary scenario, that seems more attractive than reality, into truth. In this context, for marketing and advertising reasons, the conspiratorial culture tends to be adopted by the media not because it is an alternative source of information, but only because it is thirsted for by the public. This would be the most convenient explanation for the proliferation of questionable documentaries. In conclusion, the “Da Vinci phenomenon” is indeed a symptom of our time, but at the same time a simple revival of ancient habits of believing misconceptions fortunately already condemned by the court of history.

Nothing new under the sun

The idea of Jesus’ marriage to Mary Magdalene also appears in Brown’s novel. This idea was much older, but the seed had not yet found fertile ground in which to grow. In 1982, Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln published The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and placed the spotlight on a controversial theory. According to this theory, the Holy Grail was not a chalice, but Mary Magdalene’s womb, and the blood was Jesus’ descendants that set up camp somewhere in the area of modern-day France.

Members of the Merovingian dynasty are supposed to be descendants from this supposed family of Jesus. In their turn, however, the American authors took over a theory presented by Louis Martin almost a century ago (1886) in the book Les Evangiles sans Dieu (The Gospels without God). Researchers categorically rejected the theory. One of the critics is Marin Kemp, an art history teacher at Oxford University. Interviewed for a documentary (The History of a Mystery), broadcast by BBC2 in September 1996, Kemp dismissed the theory as mere speculation.

It seems conspiratorial thinking is becoming more and more prevalent in contemporary society, their proliferation at the religious level being only part of a broader picture. After examining current trends, Michael Barkuna[3], professor emeritus of political sciences, reached the conclusion that we are dealing with a veritable “conspiracy culture.” Several academic papers have analysed the conspiracy phenomenon that seems to be gaining more and more ground in our contemporary society—thanks in no small part due the ability for conspiracy beliefs to thrive on social media. The tendency was often referred to as “cultural paranoia.”[4] Conspiracy theories are found in almost all fields, and they essentially propose an alternate understanding of events and phenomena. Primarily, the conspiracy is defined as an intrigue aimed at manipulation and control, a form of betrayal of the common interest by the few and the powerful.

Three reasons why we are attracted to conspiracy theories

Despite the fact that such theories cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, they continue to emerge and, at the same time, have supporters. They gain popularity[5] because (in general) they offer simple, easy-to-understand answers to complex situations. For this reason, conspiracy theories remain a sophisticated form of ignorance. The best cure against them is proper information. Next to immediate intellectual satisfaction, available at everyone’s fingertips, conspiracy theories also rely on strong emotional motivations. One of the main reasons why individuals come to support conspiracy theories—be they about Jesus’s tomb and burial place, the shadowy New World Order attempting to enact a climate change agenda, or the causes of the current Covid pandemic—is because they like them. Conspiratorial beliefs help turn fantasy into reality. In general, a conspiracy explanation is used when expectations differ from what reality can offer.

Hidden scenarios are a way of coping with a shocking reality. For instance, the insistence from members of the far-right that the January 6 storming of the United States Capitol Building by Donald Trump supporters was actually a deep state operation by Antifa attempting to make them look bad. Conspiracy theories like this are seductive as they reinforce one’s worldview and provide a target responsible for any pain or confusion. Another important factor, besides the rational and emotional ones, is the social one. It has been observed that closed groups[6] tend to be generated and based on such scenarios because the general state is one of mistrust, as a consequence of the acute feeling of continuous threat from external forces.[7] Social studies[8] have shown that, when a group is excluded from an event or program, one automatically seeks answers to justify this situation. Most of the time, due to lack of information, the inferred reasons end up generating an artificial argumentative system, inadequate for reality.

Breaking the circle

A basic characteristic of people who support conspiracy theories is the attempt to understand the world and its seedy underbelly. This curiosity is often blocked by the general tendency to deny reality.[9] The concern for unravelling mysteries is in itself noble and can be a step towards knowledge and proper research. There is, without a doubt, some playing fast and loose in both the political, economic, and even religious sphere, and history can confirm that human nature is prone to betrayal and that actual conspiracies can exist—but even real conspiracies are rarely as straightforward as we expect.

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Obvious facts must not be denied and exceptions must not be regarded as the rule. Whether they do it knowingly or not, the promoters of conspiracy theories ultimately propose an (alternative) image of the world. Those who support or adopt an orientation towards conspiracy have the tendency to see everything in a coherent and structured manner.[10] This coherence, however, is artificial, and is imposed by human logic and not reality itself, which, at times, can be chaotic and aberrant. There is no room for accidents[11] in the world of conspiracy theorists and everything is connected. A hidden code, which only insiders can understand, must apparently lie behind all mysteries.

At first glance, such a worldview seems to be compatible with the Christian faith, but on closer inspection we will see that it is completely opposite to it. Simply put, conspiracy theories are a form of contemporary superstition (driven by fear), which follow simplistic approach models through which the existential labyrinth is turned into a corridor. Liberation from the tyranny of conspiracy theories is achieved through adequate and balanced information. Jesus himself said that the truth would set us free (John 8:32).

Marius Necula is a contributor to ST Network, our European counterpart. A version of this article first appeared on their website and is reposted with permission. Some editorial changes have been made to suit cultural context.

Footnotes

[1]„James D. Tabor and Simcha Jacobovici, «The Jesus Discovery: The New Archaeological Find that Reveals the Birth of Christianity», Simon & Schuster, 2012.”

[2]„Amos Kloner, the archaeologist who examined the site 30 years ago retains his position, considering that we are dealing with «a common grave for the middle class in Jerusalem.»”

[3]„Michael Barkun, A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America, University of California.”

[4]„The term seems to have originated in the essay The Paranoid Style in American Politics published by historian Richard Hofstader in 1965. Paranoia is the generic name for a group of chronic mental illness that manifests itself in a lack of logic in thinking, through fixed ideas, through susceptibility and the persecution mania, along with an exaggerated pride. ”.

[5]„Cass R. Sunstein, Adrian Vermeule, „Conspiracy theory: Causes and cures“, Journal of Political Philosophy, January 2008.”

[6]„For example, societies in a dictatorial system or isolated communities such as sects or extremist parties. ”.

[7]„Conspiracy theories proliferated during the Cold War on both sides.”

[8]„Richard Pratte, „Conspiracy, schools, and schooling“, Educational Theory, 2007.”

[9]„Tony Taylor, Denial: History betrayed, Carlton, Melbourne University Press, 2009.”

[10]„Duncan M. Roads, „Editorial“, Nexus, January-February 2002, p. 9.”

[11]„Robert S. Robins, Jerrold M. Post, Political paranoia: The psychopolitics of hatred. New Haven, Yale University Press, 1997. ”.