Conspiracy Theories

Chip Berlet cberlet at
Sat Nov 20 18:26:39 PST 1999


See response below...

----- Original Message ----- From: t byfield <tbyfield at> To: <lbo-talk at> Sent: Saturday, November 20, 1999 2:04 PM Subject: Re: Conspiracy Theories

<<< SNIP >>>

> your definition of 'conspiracism' is trans/ahistorically soci-
> ological; it formally describes the phenomenon without making
> reference to its historical circumstances. and you can't just
> tack on some historical limitation to fix that.
> 'conspiracism' was born over time; as such, there are liminal,
> early, near-but-not-quite forms. heresiology contributed much
> to its modern incarnation, as did medieval anti-jewish tenden-
> cies. but, by your measure, most of human history amounted to
> an endless expanse of conspiracism.
> fundamentally, 'conspiracism' relies on the belief that there
> is a secular world set apart from a divinized cosmos. the aim
> of 'ruling the cosmos' in accordance with some divine harmony
> was *the norm* throughout much of human history.
> i think--and, fwiw, i came awful close to writing a phd about
> this--that the royal road to defining conspiracism is to look
> at the values it threatens: basically, meritocracy, democracy,
> and egalitarianism. therefore conspiracism cannot have exited
> prior to the formulation of these ideals.
> i don't want to get into an interminable discussion about max
> weber but basically the ur-conspiracy was the protestant crit-
> ique of catholicism: 'we see your practices and we reject the
> idea that they are sanctioned by god: you don't rule the *cos-
> mos*, you rule *the world*.'
> and from there it's been downhill: wherever the spirit of pro-
> testantism touched there flourished the requisite for conspir-
> acism. there were no allegations of ancient, secretive elites
> in byzantium, or in hinduism, or in buddhism, or in confucian-
> ism. or even in catholicism prior to the reformation.

OK, some real ideas to chew on here.

Three books that have influenced me are:

Elaine Pagels, The Origin of Satan, (New York: Vintage, 1996);

Norman Cohn, Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come: The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993);

James A. Aho, This Thing of Darkness: A Sociology of the Enemy, (Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press, 1994).

Anyway, my ponderous thoughts on this (with footnotes) are enshrined at:

There was clearly scapegoating, demonization, and apocalypticism before Christianity. Was there conspiracism? Tough call. I'd welcome more cites. Cohn clearly argues it has its roots in the apocalyptic paradigm. Christian demonization of Jews has its roots in the first century of Christianity, according to Pagels, but the conspiracy theory about Jewish ritual murder and poisoning wells comes much later. See:

Henry Charles Lea, The Inquisition of the Middle Ages, abridged, (New York: Macmillan, 1961), especially pp. 687-767.

R. Po-chia Hsia, The Myth of Ritual Murder: Jews and Magic in Reformation Germany, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988);

Heiko A. Oberman, The Roots of Anti-Semitism: In the Age of Renaissance and Reformation, translated by James I. Porter, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984, {German edition 1981}).

So if the elaborate conspiracy theory about Jews arises under Catholic rule, what is different about what you call ur-conspiracy? Is it tied to anti-enlightenment or anti-modernist tendencies?

I can see the paradigm of the secret elite conspiracy in the book of Revelation with its claim that in the end times government leaders will betray true belivers to a one world government.

On the other hand, I agree that Protestantism seems to be a rich nutrient soup for conspiracism.


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