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Conspiracy Theories in Contemporary Religious Discourse

A172
Panel Chair: Egil Asprem, David Robertson | Monday, August 24, 9-11 a.m. | Venue

Academic interest in conspiracy theories has grown in recent years, as it has become apparent that they are a central locus for contemporary debates over power, democracy and rationality. Some scholars have noted the intersection between conspiracy theories and contemporary religious narratives (Goodrick-Clarke 2002; Barkun 2003), but there has been no sustained critical analysis of the field, nor theoretical models through which to interpret the multiple and complex interrelations. This panel is intended to help define the boundaries of this developing field and outline avenues for future research. How is conspiracy discourse promoted and/or combated within religious communities? Which resources are drawn upon in such struggles over meaning and influence? What are the common epistemological features of religion and conspiracism, e.g. belief in occluded agencies? Might we usefully analyse conspiracy theories as a modality of religious thought and practice, e.g. as soteriology, theodicy or esoteric hermeneutics?

Asbjorn Dyrendal (Egil Asprem)

Elected Marginality, Popcultural Mediation, and New Media: Dynamics Producing Conspiracism in 'the Cultic Milieu'

In the original formulation of the idea of a ’cultic milieu’ (Campbell 1972), deviance and mysticism played the central roles in defining the subculture and its dynamics. With the popular mainstreaming of mystical religion and the knowledge-claims of the attendant practices, deviance would seem to play a lesser role. However, Campbell already stressed how processes of secularization meant that the sciences, not the Church, was now the ‘other’ who defined deviance with regard to ideas about the world. Even though the alternative history, physics, economics, and treatments of the cultic milieu have become mainstream in society and popular culture, they are still ‘epistemically dispossessed’ (Robertson 2014) by authorities. This paper discusses some of the possible dynamics whereby conspiracy theories arise as a form of counter-knowledge in the cultic milieu, from seemingly well-documented explanations such as marginalization and anomie, the internal logic of this conspiracy discourse (Barkun 2003) and necessary disappointment of utopian visions, to how traditions of esoteric discourse relate to new entrepreneur roles.

David Robertson

The Counter-Elite: Strategies of authority in millennial conspiracism

Despite frequent exhortations to individualism and free-thinking, it is clear that certain figures are authorities within the field of millennial conspiracism. Alex Jones, David Icke et al command considerable audiences and sales figures, and seem to function as ‘gatekeepers’, validating, popularising and synthesising narratives within the discursive field. When the hermeneutic of distrust is taken to such extremes, the question of how authority is maintained demands serious attention. Drawing on Max Weber’s notion of “charisma” (1947 [1922]), Matthew Wood’s description of “multiple and relative” “non-formative authorities” (2007) and the author’s description of “epistemic capital” (2014), this paper will examine power structures in the non-institutionalised conspiracist milieu. It argues that such individuals accumulate authority through a strategic mobilisation of mainstream and alternative sources which draw from traditional, scientific, channelled, intuitive and synthetic epistemic strategies, thereby constructing themselves as a “counter-elite”. Such non-formative authority may represent a structural similarity which helps explain the relationship between conspiracism and certain forms of contemporary religion.

Beth Singler

Big, Bad Pharma: New Age Biomedical Conspiracy Narratives and their Expression in the Concept of the Indigo Child

5.7 million American children aged 3 to 17 have been diagnosed with ADHD. Approximately two thirds of those diagnosed have been prescribed amphetamine based drugs such as Ritalin as a treatment. Diagnoses and prescriptions are also increasing exponentially in the UK. Diagnostic checklists include: fidgeting, answering questions before they are finished and being unable to stick at long and tedious tasks. In this paper I will explore New Age conspiracy narratives which accuse the pharmacological industry, or Big Pharma, of collusion with schools to turn naturally active children into compliant drones. In particular, I will describe the category of the Indigo Children: allegedly a special, intuitive, spiritual generation appearing since the 1980s. This category celebrates the inability of some children to fit into mainstream systems while actively attacking the commercial machinations of ‘Big Pharma’ involving children: over-medication, but also harmful vaccinations and genetically modified foods.

Kevin Whitesides

Respondent

Kevin Whitesides will respond to the issues raised in this panel.

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