With headlines like “Are Conspiracy Theories really a new religion?” it’s little wonder one might begin to consider the religious elements among conspiracy theorists. I, a self-identifying Messianic Jew and Christian follower have taken a particular interest in the minds of the community around me and their particular response to our former COVID mandates, other government interventions, and the particulars of their political affiliation. A recent study in the Journal of Political Psychology shows us a theory between religiosity and the need for identifying with a mechanism of “unexplainable forces” often associated with religious identification and conspiracy theories. It is examined within the study which thoughts may be simultaneously present within highly religious people and those that support conspiracy theories. Finally, it attempts to explain voting patterns using system justification theory from the helm of Social Psychology. The research article addresses some behaviors at the intersection of highly religious people groups and their conspiracy theorist; and often interchangeable counterparts.
Psychological needs: Where Conspiracy and Religion intersect
When we take a psychological perspective, there have been several studies associated with various key factors that play into the Social Psychology of individuals within Christian religious communities. Recently, other studies have associated promoting conspiracy theories amongst Christian groups and promoting feelings of morality and belongingness. Understanding the slant toward conspiracy theories amongst Christian culture means understanding, internally, that many of these theories are often linked to theological interpretations of biblical scripture. When these beliefs are shared amongst the Christian believer, a sense of community well-being is established, and a sense of belongingness is achieved – a fundamental human need.
Sharing stories is another critical feature amongst religiousness in Christian communities and the formation and spread of conspiracy theories. These stories often shape our well-being within Christian culture by explaining who we are, our place in the world and cosmos, salvation issues regarding matters of the spirit, and human behavior external to the Christian group. There are psychological mechanisms, “sense-making processes” (mechanics in our mind that assist us in making sense of the world around us) in Christian culture and the endorsement of conspiracy theories that explain uncertainty surrounding government interventions and economic forces.
Finally, as a defense mechanism, our motive is a need for control over our external environments. Both the creation and endorsement of conspiracy theories and religiosity have been associated with personality factors regarding the need to control external entities. In other words, independently, those that endorse conspiracy theories and associate strongly with a high level of religiosity feel better about having something all-powerful, invisible, out-of-reach force explaining the forces that frequently remain outside our control. This effectively explains many of the moral standards associated with Biblical reasoning and an all-powerful, omnipresent God – but it provides a mechanical explanation that must be present prior to the contemplation of conspiracy theories.
Thoughts and Explanatory mechanisms
There are similarities in the thought processes often associated with those who experience religiosity and those who endorse conspiracy theories. The study indicates “grand explanatory narratives” appeal to both crowds. Oftentimes, these narratives are rooted in common sense narratives. However, they fail to stand up to the test associated with a full measure of critical thought. Let me be clear; critical thought is not absent; some elements are simply missing in favor of fulfilling another common social mechanism – confirmation bias.
It is natural for the general population to seek out information that confirms already pre-established beliefs. Eliminating confirmation bias is an intentional and often uncomfortable process for those not used to it. We actively need to search out information that disagrees with our viewpoints. This is never a comfortable process. Research has indicated that those with high levels of religiosity and those who endorse conspiracy theories often involve invisible forces without explanation. As a result, these invisible forces are unfalsifiable in their nature. The inability to disprove the nature of these invisible forces often hampers analytical thought in favor of cognitions, or thoughts, that favor explanations slanted toward the believer’s biases.
Political Overlap and Ideological Outcomes:
Interestingly, religions and those that endorse Conspiracy theories are also rooted in similar political worldviews. In particular, conservatism and conspiracy endorsement have a robust correlational relationship. This correlational behavior is found quite consistently across most Christianity-dominated countries. There are no firm explanations in place as of the writing of this article regarding the reasoning behind this. However, one can theorize that system justification, a concept from social psychology, can provide us with a mechanism for understanding these beliefs.
System justification is a theory that attempts to explain why people hold to certain beliefs and values – even if those beliefs and values appear disadvantageous to other groups. The idea is that we have several human needs in our knowledge, existential, and relational environments that manifest as support for ideologies that may establish social, economic, and political norms. For example, highly religious Christian individuals may gravitate toward political and ideological norms that support pre-supposed belief systems already established within their religious ideology.
Ayed, N. (2020). Are conspiracy theories really ‘a new religion’? Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. https://www.cbc.ca/radio/ideas/are-conspiracy-theories-really-a-new-religion-1.5782172
Frenken, M., Bilewicz, M., & Imhoff, R. (2022). On the relation between religiosity and the endorsement of conspiracy theories: The role of political orientation. Political Psychology 44(1), 139-156. https://doi.org/10.1111/pops.12822
Pennycook, G., Cheyne, J. A., Seli, P. Koehler, D. J., & Fugelsang, J. A. (2012). Analytical cognitive style predicts religious and paranormal belief. Cognition, 123(3). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2012.03.003
Saroglou, V. (2011). Believing, Bonding, Behaving, and Belonging: The Big Four Religious Dimensions and Cultural Variation. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology. 42(8). https://doi.org/10.1177/0022022111412267