Da Vinci Code Truth Home The Holy Grail? Conspiracy Theories: Conspiracy theories paradoxically confirm both our powerlessness and our importance.

Conspiracy Theories: Conspiracy theories paradoxically confirm both our powerlessness and our importance.


by Dr. Carl Trueman , Professor of Historical Theology and Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary

Most people like a good mystery, whether it’s a book or a movie. Indeed, if you pass your local cinema or browse the shelves at your local bookstore, you will see just how popular, how marketable mystery stories are. Yet in amongst the various whodunnits and crime novels dealing with run-of-the-mill murders and crimes, you will also find a good number of books in the fiction and non-fiction sections which deal with crimes and mysteries on a bigger scale, ones which describe vast and elaborate conspiracies. Television too provides plenty of evidence for that the public enjoy a good conspiracy. In the nineties, The X-Files were all the rage; now it is a series like 24. The details vary but the basic formula remains the same: reality is not quite what it appears to be; and there are knowing forces out there who really run things behind the scenes.

Many real-life conspiracy theories surround the deaths of famous people. For example, there are a large number of books written about the assassination of President John F Kennedy. Officially, he was shot by a lone gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald; but Oswald was himself shot and killed before he faced trial, and this has led many to claim that he was not acting alone but was merely the fall guy for any number of secret organizations, from the Mafia to the KGB to Cuban dissidents. The same kind of literature also surrounds the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Officially, she was killed in a car crash as she was driven at high speed through an underground tunnel by a chauffeur who had drunk too much; but many claim that she was assassinated by agents of British intelligence acting for the Royal family. Similar conspiracy theories surround the death of many other famous people, from James Dean to Marilyn Monroe to Pope John Paul I. Just watch Godfather III to see a movie version of the death of that pope, with Mafia, Freemasons, and even members of the Catholic clergy being implicated. It seems that we just find it hard to believe that special people – whether leaders or celebrities – can die in mundane or banal ways.

In each of these examples, the official version makes perfect sense of the evidence surrounding each of the deaths; and yet the public seem to have an insatiable appetite for alternative theories as to why these tragedies happened. These theories are always more far-fetched than the official version, and so the question that comes to mind is `Why do people believe such crazy theories when the official version seems to be quite credible?’

There is probably no single answer to this, but here are some thoughts. First, let’s be honest: many of us enjoy a good mystery. There is a certain excitement and thrill to reading or watching a good detective story or suspense thriller; and conspiracy theories are often part and parcel of these things. There is, therefore, the thrill-and-entertainment factor which makes them attractive.

Following on from this, a second is that life, for many of us, is rather routine and humdrum. We have steady jobs, nice houses, plenty of food and good things; and, while this is good, it also makes our day to day lives somewhat boring. At some point, most of us have asked the questions: Isn’t there more to life than this? Is this all there is? And, again, mysteries and conspiracy theories help to fill that gap, offering us at a harmless level entertaining diversions or, perhaps on occasion more seriously views of life and reality that appeal precisely because they seem to make the world a more interesting place.

Third, and perhaps most significant of all, two things have happened in Western society in the last fifty or so years which have made our culture particularly susceptible to the appeal of conspiracy theories. On the one hand, we all increasingly feel powerless in the face of all that is happening around us. Politicians are elected by us; but it seems to make little difference who is in power. Multinational companies, the oil industry, the international banking system, to name but three of the most influential sectors in the modern world: all of these things have served to transform the world in which we live; and we are more and more acutely aware of how little influence even our governments, let alone we as individuals, have over the events which happen on a world-scale and yet which profoundly affect our own little lives. We are left feeling powerless in the face of such forces.

On the other hand, those in power have been exposed again and again as using their power for their own ends. Politicians exposed for fraud; company executives plundering pension funds; unions infiltrated by corruption and special interests. Time and time again, the old saying that power corrupts has been shown to be true; and this has made many of us utterly cynical about those in positions of authority. From Watergate to Enron, public trust in leading citizens has been betrayed again and again; and it makes us suspicious of the motives and behaviour of anyone who has a position of power or influence.

Put these two things together – our feelings of powerlessness, and our suspicion of those with power – and you have a culture which is very receptive to the ideas put forward in many conspiracy theories. Such theories allow us to make some sort of sense of absurdities. We think Diana was too beautiful and special to die an ordinary death in an accident caused by alcohol and stupidity; given this, elaborate theories of an assassination by MI5 on the order of the Duke of Edinburgh seems not so much far-fetched as an opportunity to make even her death special. As we all struggle with rising oil prices, it is somehow easier to believe it is all part of some conscious conspiracy by a secret group of wicked individuals than to acknowledge that it is the result of impersonal, irresistible economic forces which we can neither control nor resist. And, if we are being really honest, there is a perverse way in which we feel more important when we think that somebody is taking the time and effort to deceive us in such elaborate ways. Conspiracy theories paradoxically confirm both our powerlessness and our importance.

This leads, of course, to the final question, one which relates especially to the sort of conspiracy theory put forward in The Da Vinci Code: why has the Church been a particular target for such theories over the years? There are, I think, a number of reasons. First, the Church’s beliefs and her actions have frequently been at odds with each other; only a liar or an idiot would claim that the Church has not been responsible for some terrible crimes. In this, the Church is typical of those who have been shown to use power for corrupt ends. Second, while the Church has, at times, wielded awesome power, she has also frequently appeared to be very secretive about her activities. In particular, both the Catholic Church's arcane religious orders and its record until recent days of suppressing dissent and censoring reading material . This aura of power and secrecy, wrapped up in the outward trappings of medievalism and suppressing individual thought and conscience, make her a soft target for conspiracy theorists.

Strange to tell, the church’s own holy book, the Bible, begins with what is quite possibly the original conspiracy theorist: the serpent. In the Garden of Eden, the serpent tells Eve that God told her not to eat of the fruit of the tree in order to stop her becoming like God (look the story up in Genesis 3). In other words, God, the all-powerful one, was accused of using his power to oppress an individual. This was the original conspiracy theory; and it has been the task of the church since not to elaborate this theory but to expose it for the lie that it is.

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