Philosopher AC Grayling’s review of Christian apologist John Polkinghorne’s new book, Questions of Truth, is a tough one and can be read here.
In it, Grayling had an observation that was quite novel and worth reflecting on:
[T]he painful experience of wading through this book gave me an epiphany: that religious faith is extremely similar to the kind of conspiracy theory that sufferers from paranoid delusions can hold: the faithful see a purposive hand in everything, plotting and controlling and guiding – and interpret all their experience accordingly.
Seeing the invisible hand of God or Satan behind all phenomena is, indeed, when you think about it, akin to conspiratorial thinking. I think that AC Grayling has had an astounding epiphany here. It also suggests why so many religious fundamentalist are End Times conspiracy enthusiasts. The inclination to attribute hidden purposes to things—and to ignore the role of contingency (chance, accident) in history—or reject outright even the notion that contingency exists—is to set the whole universe into a conspiracy to be deciphered by the creative readers of history. Why, for instance, did God allow the Romans to destroy Jerusalem in 70 CE? Because (says the gospel of Matthew) the Jews crucified Jesus, and so God punished them. And why did the Holocaust occur? Because (says the anti-Semite) rich Jews were Satanically plotting to take over the world, and rejected Jesus, and so God used Hitler to set His judgment upon them. And why did New Orleans get hit by Hurricane Katrina? Because (says the fundamentalist) New Orleans was a sinful city, and so God punished it. And what role does Israel play in God’s plan? Israel’s revival as a nation is (says Hal Lindsey) God’s way of setting up the world for Armageddon, and the return of Jesus.
In other words, there is no contingency in history. And there is always a purpose to be deciphered behind suffering and calamity (natural, economic, and military). Satan has his invisible hands, and (fallen) angels, and people who belong to him and do bad things; and God has his invisible hands, and angels, and people who belong to him and do good things. Some people belong to the devil, and some belong to God. This is the soil for conspiratorial thinking. Theodicy and End Times prophecy speculation, and Nostradamus, and Illuminati conspiracies, all are of a piece: they are attempts to explain the world under the assumption that nothing happens by accident or out of non-momentous causes. There are hidden BIG DADDIES at work, with Satan and God being the biggest daddies of all (one the bad daddy, and one the good daddy). Nothing happens apart from the workings of Large Daddy forces with malign (or good) purposes.
In short, conspiratorial thinking and speculations about theodicy are intimately linked projects, and derive from the same mindset: large hidden purposes are at work shaping this world.
But it doesn’t stop there. The seriously religious person (especially the fundamentalist) turns the mechanism of puposiveness upon his or her own life, making every move of his or her existence into the hand of God (or the devil) at work. In other words, a conspiracy of invisible forces is at work in every individual’s life, even down to the minutest details. Thus: “My car got a flat late this afternoon because Satan didn’t want me to get to church tonight!”—or—“I went for a job interview, and the person who interviewed me was somebody who belonged to my church! That was definitely the hand of God!” Such statements attribute purposes where one might just as well attribute contingency (accident or chance).
Naturalism (the idea that there is just one world, not two) and contingency (the idea that at least some things can happen in the world by accident or chance, or by non-telos driven natural causes) is how humans have slowly come up for air from religion inspired notions of theodicy, historical conspiracy, and spiritualized narcissism.