Researchers have noted the similarities between religion and features of conspiracy theories, but the nature of this overlap has been uncertain. Some have suggested that the two beliefs fulfil similar psychological needs, such as a sense of belonging, a sense of control and a sense of being ‘in the know’. Others suggest that the beliefs share cognitive styles, with both beliefs suggesting there is more to the world than is visible and that invisible forces are at play and that they both offer “anomalies as explanatory starting points.” Both tend to have similar political orientations. However, it has been unclear what these parallels mean empirically for their relationship. They could either serve as surrogates or as complements for each other1.
There are two theory-driven possibilities for this relationship. If conspiracy theories and religions serve as surrogates for each other by fulfilling similar psychological needs, the two beliefs should be negatively correlated. However, if conspiracy beliefs and religious beliefs stem from the same values and cognition, this would indicate a positive correlation that might be diminished—for example—by controlling for shared political ideologies. One study approached this question with a meta-analysis (N=10,242), of large Christian-dominated datasets from Germany, Poland and the United States (N=12,612), and a preregistered U.S. study (N=500). The results indicate that the correlations between religiosity and conspiracy theory endorsement were positive, and political orientation shared large parts of this covariance. They concluded that similarities in the explanatory style and ideologies seem to be central for the relation between intrinsic religiosity and endorsing conspiracy theories, and that psychological needs only play a minor role2.
There are huge number of conspiracy theories (CTs) and they vary widely in popularity, the intensity with which they are believed, and their effects on individual and collective behaviour. An integrated account of CTs needs to explain how they come to appeal to potential believers, how they spread from one person to the next, and how they motivate collective action.
One study summarises these aspects under the labels ‘stick’, ‘spread’, and ‘action’. They propose the quasi-religious hypothesis for CTs. Firstly, they use the cognitive science of religion* to describe the content of CTs that explain how they come to stick: CTs are quasi-religious representations in that their contents, forms and functions parallel those found in beliefs of institutionalised religions. However, they lack many of the institutional features of organised religions. Secondly, they use social representations theory** to explain how CTs spread as devices for making sense of sudden events that threaten existing worldviews: CTs allow laypersons to interpret such events by relating them to ‘common sense’, thereby defusing some of the anxiety that those events generate. Thirdly, they use frame theory*** to explain how some, but not all CTs mobilise collective counter-conspiracy action by identifying a target and by proposing credible and concrete rationales for action3.
Relating CTs to common sense brings to mind something my father, ever the wise counsel, told me decades ago: ‘common sense is not that common’. Of the people I know, many are religious people and many are not. Among those are a few conspiracy theorists, and although it is a relatively small sample size, all but one of them is religious.
*Cognitive Science of Religion: Cognitive science of religion brings theories from the cognitive sciences to bear on why religious thought and action is so common in humans and why religious phenomena take on the features that they do. Topics receiving consideration include how ordinary cognitive structures inform and constrain the transmission of religious ideas, why people believe in gods, why religious rituals and prayers tend to have the forms that they do, why afterlife beliefs are so common, and how human memory systems influence socio-political features in religious systems4.
**Social Representations Theory: The concept of social representations was developed as a social psychological approach articulating individual thinking and feeling with collective interaction and communication. Social Representations are conceived as symbolic forms that come about through interpersonal and media communication. They are the ways individuals think, interact with others, and shape social objects in their interaction with the local world5.
***Frame Theory: A frame is a central organizing idea for making sense of relevant events and suggesting what is at issue. The rhetorical power of a frame comes from its function to heighten the salience of some aspects of reality over others. Facts take on meaning through a frame that organises them and gives them coherence, making some facts more noticeable than others. Frames provide interpretive cues. They are composed of key concepts, metaphors, images, and symbols to structure transmission of meaning. In social science, the idea of a “frame” originated in the 1950s to describe how preconceptions influence the way people interpret and assess a given situation. More recently, it described how people think and make judgments from within a constellation of consistent narratives that help them process information6.