Are Catholics more susceptible to conspiracy theories than other people?
Yes and no. Yes, because ours is a supernatural religion and once you accept the realm of the supernatural it can be a small leap into magical thinking that there is a vast conspiracy network labouring day and night to control us all.
No, because we are meant to use our reason alongside faith and to exercise prudence and discernment in evaluating ideas.
My thoughts are sparked by reading a Catholic commentator last month who suggested that the Covid-19 pandemic has made people ask if tracking implants are the mark of the Beast in the Apocalypse. He writes, “There have been allegations that governments and elites want to implant tracking devices into the populace to track and control them.” Even to raise this question implies a certain susceptibility to conspiracy theories.
Following these thoughts, I made a list of the weird ideas I have come across in the last few years. A Catholic schoolmaster once told me in all seriousness that the freemasons (a very fruitful group for conspiracists) were plotting to overthrow the Church. He also mentioned something sinister in the design of the American dollar bill but I can’t now recall the exact details. Another devout Catholic I know is certain we are literally living in the ‘end times’ which will come about in our lifetime. The trouble is, there is always a grain of truth in what such people think, which makes it hard to refute them. And we can all be drawn to persuasive and overarching fables, simply because ordinary human history is often boring. Conspiracies offer a thrilling alternative reality.
Still, it is not only Catholics who are drawn to signs and wonders. I have just read In Praise of Folly: The Blind Spots of the Mind by Theodore Dalrymple (Gibson Square £9.99), the author’s jaunts around second-hand bookshops in Wales and the odd books and authors he unearthed on his travels. The most famous were two books, discovered in a Brecon bookshop, devoted to the authorship of Shakespeare’s Plays. The first was about an American woman “of unstable mentality called Delia Bacon”, who “proved” that the Plays were actually written by Francis Bacon (no relation). She published her book in 1857 and ended her days in a private asylum in Connecticut.
The second book Dalrymple bought was about “a schoolmaster with a name which his publishers begged him, unsuccessfully, not to use, J Thomas Looney”, who published his own theory in 1920, identifying the author of the Plays as Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. Dalrymple himself is a “Stratfordian”, believing, along with all scholars as well as the rest of us, the traditionally accepted view: that the Man from Stratford was the author.
Are well-educated people more likely to invest their energies in conspiracy theories? Reading a lot can furnish a mind but also knock it off balance. And Dalrymple observes that almost all the “anti-Stratfordians” he has discovered are retired admirals, colonels, judges, research chemists, astrophysicists, organists and so on. A friend of mine from Cambridge days who went on to obtain several other academic qualifications, is a convinced “Oxfordian” on the question of the Plays; indeed, he called his home “de Vere House”. And another old Cambridge friend who became a history lecturer, once told me with a straight face he thought it highly likely that after the war Hitler escaped to a remote South American jungle and lived a long life there.
A lot of leisure is a dangerous thing. When everyone goes back to work, talk of tracking devices and the dangers of “5G”, another worldwide conspiracy theory believed by some of my (Irish) relations, may fade into the background again. Ordinary life will resume its boring and prosaic aspect.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.