Religious beliefs have a lot in common with paranoid “conspiracy theory” beliefs. It’s worth taking a look, and asking the question: Is God just one big conspiracy theory?
First, let’s look at some of the superficial similarities between the most common religious beliefs and paranoid “conspiracy theory” types of beliefs.
1) There is something that has extraordinary powers that knows the intimate details of your life, your mind, and your intentions even before you act.
2) This thing with extraordinary powers has a specific agenda, and will punish you if you do not comply with that agenda.
3) There is no direct evidence (only indirect evidence) that this thing with extraordinary powers exists and acts within the world.
When this “something” is the Illuminati or “The Jews” or a top-secret government cabal that nobody has ever heard of, we refer to these beliefs as a “conspiracy theory”. But when the “something” is God, we refer to the exact same set of beliefs simply as “religion”.
And that is just the surface similarity.
But above and beyond that, there is also a similarity in the way these beliefs are treated by people when they are thinking.
Psychologists and anthropologists who study religious belief have long recognized that religious beliefs operate in a manner that is different from “regular beliefs”. Religious beliefs are constructed in a way that is inherently non-falsifiable. There exists no experiment that can falsify the existence of angels, or of an afterlife, or of a God that answers all prayers. Even events that might appear on their face to deny the belief can be interpreted in a way that is not threatening to the core belief itself (e.g. “God works in mysterious ways” or “God answers all prayers, but sometimes the answer is ‘no’.”)
This is different from your normal day-to-day beliefs about the world. You believe that your friend is home, but if you go to your friend’s house and see that it is empty, you do not construct an elaborate explanation that allows you to continue the belief in the face of this new evidence: you simply stop believing that your friend is home.
Conspiracy theories, on the other hand, function exactly like religious beliefs. Any evidence that can be interpreted as consistent with the theory will be seen as supporting evidence, whereas any evidence that is inconsistent will be seen as part of the “great plan” that is obfuscating the truth. Moreover, the belief itself is taken as a given that need not be proved. On the contrary, the believer in a conspiracy theory (much like a believer in God) will ask a person who does not believe to prove that the theory is false.
So this raises an interesting question: Are “conspiracy theories” and “religion” just similar and overlapping mental constructs, that maybe draw on some of the same underlying elements?
Or is it more simple than that?
Is belief in God just an example of the biggest, most popular, most widely-accepted conspiracy theory in all of human history?