Friday, April 19, 2013

The Need to Believe

Sitting in a coffee shop, overhearing a conversation about the Boston Marathon bombing. As of now there are two announced suspects, one dead, the other being pursued. Information is spotty but what we have been told indicates the people involved were alienated, operating alone in a sad and violent and muddled "political" act.

And of course, the talk I'm overhearing involves the "probability" that the bombing is the result of a government conspiracy and the "suspects" are framed patsies.

Much is made of apparent sinister "inconsistencies" -- why was the MIT security guard shot, what did he see, what did he know, was someone trying to silence him? (Seriously, this person I'm listening to is actually saying this.) And so on. It's hard to describe this even as speculation since speculation is usually dependent on extrapolation from facts, and this conspiracy proponent isn't even suggesting he possesses any facts. He just has "questions" which in themselves imply answers.

Obviously, he's nuts, but he's trying to sound so thoughtful and reasonable, and really, what he's suggesting follows logically from the usual paranoid ramblings of all anti-authority conspiracy theorists. Now he's talking about gunshots, and how those shots aren't properly connected to other testimony about the bombing, and so on, making all of it up out of whole cloth, just spinning and weaving without regard for how any of this connects to what we laughingly refer to as our shared reality.

It occurs to me, listening to him, that what he's expressing through his paranoid conspiracy theorizing is the secular version of orthodox religious belief.

In both conspiracy theory and theology, the proponent is trying to make sense of something frightening and inexplicable -- the possibility that life and death and evil are random and meaningless. Faced with the bleak reality that the universe really doesn't care whether we as individuals live or die, or whether good or evil is triumphant, the religious man theorizes that life operates according to the incomprehensible plan of a loving god. Because we are in the hands of a loving god, the theory goes, bad things happen for what must ultimately be a good reason. Therefore the terror we feel when faced with random cruelty and evil is ameliorated by the reassuring fantasy that God Has A Plan. In this way, the godly man (or woman) is comforted.

Similarly, the paranoid conspiracy theorist, faced with the evidence that we are at the mercy of random events and that our authorities are powerless, ultimately, to protect us, creates a theory to reduce the anxiety this sense of vulnerability creates. Because he or she wants to believe the authorities are powerful enough to protect him or her from random evil, when the authorities fail to do so, the conspiracy theorist concludes that failure was part of an incomprehensible plan. Just as the godly man assumes that God is in charge, despite all evidence to the contrary, the conspiracy theorist assumes the Authorities are also in charge -- again, despite all evidence (or no evidence) to the contrary.

In both cases, the believer believes because he needs to believe. The alternative -- that we are at the mercy of forces beyond our control -- is too horrible to accept.

Fantasy is so much more comforting.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Gerry. Huge fan of yours. My indoctrination to comics was ASM 121 and 122. I was 7 at the time, and have not looked back since.
Anyway, in regard to your blog, I have to disagree a bit. I am not a theologian, but I'd have to say that few people really believe that bad things happen for reasons that are somehow tied into the greater good. Rather, they are the price we pay for the gift of free will that we've been given by our creator. Not that everyone needs to subscribe to that, but its my take. I like that much better than the use of the word "fantasy". Less disrespectful, and (in my opinion) more accurate.