Religion Today

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Conspiracy Theories and the Enlightenment

Today, we usually view paranoid people as mentally unstable, particularly those who think “everyone” is out to get them. The more they talk about conspiracies and secret plots to kill them, overthrow the government, and so on, the more we think they should be committed to a mental institution as suffering from the disease of paranoid schizophrenia.

So it might surprise us to discover that many of our founding fathers in the decades surrounding the American Revolution believed a number of conspiracy theories. Indeed, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Edmund Burke, and others considered their ability to identify plots and conspiracies a sign of their enlightened intellect and keen insight into the affairs of the world. They did not view such paranoid fantasies as irrational psychoses, but as rational explanations formed by their superior thinking abilities. Although America’s leaders saw conspiracy theories as the height of rationality, in retrospect, we can now see them as only one step removed from a religious view of the cosmos that saw both nature and human society under God’s control.

During the early Reformation, from the sixteenth to the seventeenth centuries, Protestants believed the course of human society was under God’s control. God had a Plan, a great design of salvation, and He implemented it through individuals, events, and other means. While people could see God’s hand in local events, often working though individual leaders, the vast realm of human history beyond that was unknowable, part of the mysterious workings of the Divine.

When the Enlightenment arose in Europe and America in the eighteenth century, it removed God from His place as the controller of human actions and taught that human beings were in charge of their own society, not God. This meant that their was no unknowable controlling hand of the Divine; instead, all could be understood by rational thought since everything stemmed from human actions.

The early Enlightenment may have dethroned God, but it did not get rid of the idea that events were controlled. If God did not control events, then humans did. That vast realm of unexplained human activity once thought to have been caused by God’s implementation of His Plan was now seen as under the control of particular individuals or groups. From this belief, conspiracy theories and imagined plots were only a short step, particularly when events stymied one’s own plans and intentions.

The British actions in attempting to control their difficult American colonies in the 1760s and 1770s, for example, were seen by Thomas Jefferson as “a deliberate systematical plan for reducing us to slavery.” As Jefferson and his compatriots sought political participation and representation in Britain, they saw British actions as a plot to deprive the colonists of any sort of self-rule.

Conspiracy theories often blamed foreign governments. The Americans blamed the British, the British blamed the French, the French blamed the British or the Germans, and so on. But often the blame went to religious groups; Masons, Templars, Jews, and Catholics were often imagined as the supposed nefarious and secret opposition. Religious groups were useful, imaginary plotters for their supposed religious beliefs could account both for their secrecy (since there was no visible evidence of their conspiracy) and their allegiance to the leaders whose orders their members supposedly carried out.

By the twentieth century, it became clear that no humans, whether individuals or groups, secret or not, could control the course of human events. Human society is simply too complex. Today, universities have numerous disciplines that study the variety of human activity: from anthropology to sociology and political science, from departments that study literature and language to those that address the traditional arts of painting, sculpture and music as well as the modern arts found in film, TV and the internet. Despite decades of serious analysis, these approaches are only beginning to chart the complexities of human action and interaction.

The personalized investigation of “who did it?” may play on the nightly news shows, but the more important question of “how did it happen?” requires sustained study from a variety of perspectives and methods. The conspiracy theory as an encompassing mode of explanation has fallen from its intellectual pinnacle and has largely been relegated to the asylum.

This essay draws from Gordon Wood’s 1982 essay, “Conspiracy and the Paranoid Style: Causality and Deceit in the Eighteenth Century” in The William and Mary Quarterly.

White Christmas

OK, admit it. You like the Christmas song, “White Christmas.” Or at least you did until you heard it too many times as muzak. Well, maybe I am overdoing it. But even if only half of you enjoy the song, it illustrates its popularity and success. In fact, this song may be the best-liked song in the USA, and not just for Christmas. It has been recorded more times, and those recordings have sold more copies, than any other song.

The popularity of “White Christmas” is more than just a interesting tidbit to be remembered for the Christmas edition of the Jeopardy quiz show. It reveals how a large part of America has thought about Christmas for over half a century.

Irving Berlin wrote “White Christmas” in 1942 for the film “Holiday Inn,” starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire; it won Berlin an Oscar. In 1954 a second film along the same theme was released with Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye. To help promote the film, they named it after its featured song, “White Christmas.”

The 1950s were a pivotal time in twentieth-century America. Young people returned from WWII, got married, and started families. Families required places to live, which led to a boom in new houses and new neighborhoods. And these families were religious and required places to worship near them. In response, more churches (and synagogues) were built in America during the 1950s than in any other 10-year period of our history. People attended the new churches in droves and for those who could not, the new technology of television devoted Sunday morning to religious programming.

In this context, it may come as a surprise that “White Christmas” was such a popular song. It had no religious content. It did not mention the gospels’ Christmas story, nor even refer to worship, a church, or anything that could be construed specifically Christian. Instead, the words recall the glistening of snow, the sound of sleigh bells, and writing Christmas cards. The last two lines even sound like a greeting card, “May your days be merry and bright, and may all your Christmases be white.”

Nor does the film “White Christmas” fill in the religious elements lacking in the song. The film emphasizes the importance of seeking and holding on to relationships after WWII, in particular, finding marriage partners. The two male leads, the two song-and-dance men, are ex-soldiers and still single. By the movie’s end, they have found women who love them and who the film implies they will marry. The film telegraphs the message that Christmas is a time for families, and the holiday’s special character helps create them.

The film neither emphasizes nor even mentions the religious aspect of Christmas. The closest the film comes are references to bells, once referring to sleigh bells and the other time to “merry bells,” rather than to church bells. The show’s other songs avoid mentioning the word “Christmas,” singing about “Snow” and “Happy Holiday.”

So how should we interpret the popularity of the secular song “White Christmas” with the high level of American religiosity in the 1950s? The answer is simple: American society was comfortable acknowledging and even celebrating all aspects of the Christmas holiday. To talk about family, snow and Christmas cards at one moment did not mean that a person did not talk about Jesus, Mary and the shepherds at another. To say “Happy Holiday” in one breath did not mean that a person did not say “Merry Christmas” in another.

The explicitly religious character of the holiday did not block out elements that lacked such links. America’s heightened religiosity of the 1950s was inclusive and multifaceted; it allowed for a wide variety of religious and non-religious expression and did not find it threatening.

[Note: This was the Christmas column for 2007. Unfortunately, it has been posted a month late. Ooppss ;-)]

Who were the Galileans?

The Land of Israel, often called Palestine, has frequently had a changing population. In recent decades, many Jews have migrated into Israel returning from their ancestors’ forced exile centuries ago. The Israeli-Palestinian talks which began this week after the Annapolis Conference will address the Palestinian desire for return of refugees and their descendants from their more recent exile.

The same was true of Palestine in the first century AD. Palestine is a narrow strip of land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan Valley, divided into four regions south to north. Idumea was populated by immigrants from Arabia to the southeast, Judea contained descendants of Jews who had returned from Babylonian exile in the fifth and sixth centuries BCE, while Samaria was populated by the descendants of people whom the Assyrian Empire forcibly moved in the seventh century BCE (2 Kings 15-16).

And Galilee, the fourth and northernmost area of Palestine? Well, that has been a matter of debate. To be sure, the population there was Jewish, for Jesus is well-known for his mission among the Galilean Jews. But where did those Jews come from?

Many people may wonder why this is a question. Have not Jews been in Galilee since the Twelve Tribes settled there in the thirteenth century BC? Actually, no.

Certainly Galilee was settled by the tribes of Zebulon, Naphtali, Issachar and Asher. Later it belonged to David’s kingdom and then to the northern nation of Israel. But the Assyrian Emperor Tiglath-Pileser III conquered Israel in 733 BCE and the surviving rump state was obliterated by his successor Shalmaneser V in 722. All the population was relocated to other areas of the empire.

At this moment, Galilee drops out of history for the next 600 years. To be sure, 2 Kings 17 tells of the resettlement of Samaria, but Galilee is not mentioned.

Archaeological research now reveals this was not just an oversight of the Biblical writers. Surface surveys indicate no human occupation of the Galilee during the sixth and seventh centuries BCE. A few scattered, small settlements began to appear in following centuries, mostly military outposts and a few small farming communities which sent their harvests to the coastal cities. The same conclusions can be drawn from the excavations of major sites as well. So Galilee remains essentially empty for more than half a millennium following the Assyrian invasions.

The archaeological evidence reveals a sudden change about the start of the first century BC. Over a period of a couple decades, dozens of new villages appear. This indicates that a new, rather large, population comes into Galilee. The trend continues for the next half century or so, with many new settlements appearing and then growing larger.

Who were these new inhabitants? These new archaeological findings indicate that they were transplanted Judeans. The ancient historian Josephus relates how Alexander Jannaeus, the King of Israel from 102 to 76 BC, extended the northern boundary of his Judean-centered country into Galilee during his reign using military means.

Unfortunately, Josephus says nothing about Jannaeus’ management of the country once it came under his control. For a long time, scholars have held that he simply converted the people he found there, the Itureans, to Judaism. Since there was no large population in Galilee at the time, we now know this incorrect.

The archaeology instead reveals that the new inhabitants were Judeans. First, the currency of the region is now that of the Judean Janneaus and his successors; it is not that of the coastal cities or of Damascus further north in Syria. Second, excavated village areas reveal the same interest in religious purity common among Judeans, with ritual baths cut out of the bedrock and houses that contained stone bowls, cups and plates that were impervious to impurity. Third, the Galileans followed a Judean diet in that they did not eat pork; no pig bones are found in the garbage dumps.

So the archaeological research of recent decades now shows that the Galilean population of Jesus’ time were descendants of Judean immigrants of a century or so earlier.

[Note: For some reason, December was a forgetful month for posting to this blog. This column was originally written for early December 2007.]