Michael Coren is a Toronto Sun columnist, a radio and Christian Television talk show host, and a British-Canadian convert to Catholicism. He condemns secular culture for its alleged double standards, postmodern nihilism and relativism, and persecution of Christians. In his Toronto Sun articles, he frequently makes provocative, sweeping assertions, but on his television talk show he’s quick to hold his guests accountable for their perceived factual mistakes and errors of reasoning, especially if any of these guests cross the line and criticize Christianity.
In a recent column, he declares that he’s fed up with conspiracy theories, such as the one about 911 being caused by CIA agents or Jews, or the one about aliens abducting people. Conspiracy theorists make for an “unappealing alliance of website heroes, anachronistic Marxists and fascist cooks [sic] who keep pushing this infantile nonsense.” Coren goes on: “They are deviants, moral worms, intellectual midgets, practitioners of political self-abuse, with the wit of a circus clown, the subtlety of a sledgehammer and the credibility of a gangster.”
Given his hostility to secularism, it’s only slightly surprising that he ties the “infantile nonsense” of conspiracy theories to nonbelief in God. At the end of his article, he writes, “To paraphrase the great British writer G. K. Chesterton, when people stop believing in God they don’t believe in nothing, they believe in everything …The credulous and the gullible are having their day.”
So Coren is saying that nontheists are most likely to be gullible and to subscribe to nutty conspiracy theories. This follows from his reduction of secularism to nihilism and relativism. The Pope makes similar arguments about the need for religion, and especially the Church, to check secularism’s supposed relativism and “culture of death.” Supposedly, there are only two kinds of truth: absolute truth, which only religion provides, and relative or subjective truth, which leads quickly to nihilism and chaos. Naturalists who believe only in science, reason, and in the evolutionary design of our capacities inevitably come to behave in absurd ways, since in this case secularists pretend that they can govern their own affairs as though they were gods, whereas in fact only the real God is qualified to decide how we should live.
As Dostoevsky says in The Brothers Karamazov, “if you were to destroy in mankind the belief in immortality, not only love but every living force maintaining the life of the world would at once be dried up. Moreover, nothing then would be immoral, everything would be lawful, even cannibalism.” G.K. Chesterton is saying, likewise, that without trust in a perfect source of our beliefs, such as God, there’s nothing to prevent people from believing in anything. Coren gives the wildest conspiracy theories as examples.
But clearly something has gone very wrong with Coren’s argument, since Christianity is itself the ultimate wild conspiracy theory. Just look at the ingredients of Christian theism: There are invisible, spiritual agents, such as God, Satan, and their minions, who control or sustain everything that happens in the universe. There’s a war between absolute good and evil, but the primary actors in this struggle are hidden from outsiders such as mere creatures on Earth. God operates from his vantage in heaven, while Satan plots from his smoke-filled layer in hell, conspiring with his fellow overreaching rebels to rule the world. Some people are blessed by God and guided by guardian angels, while others are possessed by demons. These angels and demons themselves are undetectable, and there’s no piece of evidence which could possibly show that there are no such spiritual forces. Reason, science, and all the tools of rational discourse are too limited, so a special mode of knowledge, called faith, is needed to discern the truth. Denying that the spirit world exists is a sign either of weak faith or of having been tricked by evil spirits into thinking that only nature exists. But there is some evidence in support of this fantastic narrative! Behold, parchments written thousands of years ago tell of the spirit world, some people hear voices in their head, and everything is obviously designed for a purpose.
The Christian belief system is evidently motivated by the most colossal conspiracy theory ever to have been imagined and swallowed whole by great masses of gullible humanity. Coren rants about secular conspiracy theories, and fails to see that his own religion–supposedly the cure for conspiratorial thinking–is itself based on the granddaddy of all conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theorists learn to compartmentalize their beliefs, to swaddle their worldview in self-perpetuating delusions, to think in terms of loose associations, and to mistake coincidences for revelations, from the example of religious faith. Since Christianity shares some of its wild assumptions with theism more broadly construed, including the belief in a personal, supernatural creator of the universe, Coren fails to appreciate that most people ever born, being theists of one sort or another, have thereby been shameless conspiracy theorists. But let’s focus on Christianity and on Coren’s particular blind spot.
When asked why aliens abduct not famous people, but only obscure farmers out in the middle of nowhere, the conspiracy theorist’s reply is that aliens work in mysterious ways. Likewise, when asked why God helps a football player score a touchdown, rather than a starving child find a morsel to eat, the Christian’s answer is that it’s rude even to suppose anyone could fathom God’s plan. The conspiracy theorist thinks in a connect-the-dots fashion, pouncing on an assortment of facts such as the sundry affiliations of powerful persons, and weaving a farfetched story of what could just possibly explain the pattern. Likewise, the early Christian sought to explain Jesus’s execution, by reading the tea leaves of scripture, pointing to passages with some imagined prophetic relevance, and telling an elaborate, comforting story: Jesus was really God, you see, and he wanted to be crucified; this was all part of God’s grand design. It was all foretold by the prophets, so it’s not so strange to think that the creator of the universe had a human child who had to be sacrificed so that God’s wrath could be spent on himself, and God could then overlook everyone’s sins and welcome some rational animals he made into his home after they die. It’s realistic to assume that the creator of the laws of quantum mechanics, of laws which are so alien to human thinking that the mathematical formulations of them can’t even be adequately translated into any natural language, could fit perfectly well into a human laborer from Galilee. It’s not farfetched to think that God, the primary cause of everything in the universe, had special control over the writing of a handful of books or that even after a person’s body dies, the person’s essence lives on in some other dimension. There’s no fantasy involved in affirming that the ultimate source of black holes and of dark matter shares human ideals or that Mother Mary’s egg was fertilized by a ghost. None of this is “infantile nonsense.”
Clearly, a Catholic such as Michael Coren has no standing to rail against the illogic of conspiracy theories. The nontheist is the one who stresses the rules of rational discourse, the need to support a belief with the appropriate evidence, and the pitfalls of wishful thinking, self-reinforcing delusions, and of denying harsh or mundane truths. As for the causes of secular conspiracy theories, besides inspiration from religions, the answer in the U.S. is surely a recent lack of trust in the government, dating back to the fall of the Nixon administration. In Europe, there is indeed a “postmodern” attitude which amounts to distrust in all “grand narratives.” There’s a cynical belief that knowledge is power, and that behind every knowledge-claim there’s a political agenda. In my view, Christians such as Coren are right to be suspicious of this postmodern philosophy, but they err in identifying secularism or nontheistic naturalism with postmodernism.
In any case, advocating that secularists should embrace religion is not at all the way to stop the sloppy thinking that generates farfetched conspiracy theories. G.K. Chesterton has it quite backwards: only with God would all things be possible. Once someone believes in something as empty as an infinite, transcendent, eternal, supernatural person, such as God, he or she is liable to believe anything; once a person accepts one belief which there’s no hope of rationally supporting, the person will tack on other such beliefs to support the first irrational one. We each try to make our worldviews coherent, by judging each of our beliefs in light of our others. The belief that Jesus was a human who was also God and who saved us from going to hell so long as we dedicate our lives to him, should be of monumental importance to the Christian. So the Christian has either to interpret everything through this distorting lens or else to suffer from a sort of split-personality, ignoring this religious belief whenever convenient. But really, once a person believes in miracles, such as in Jesus’ alleged resurrection, the person has cause to believe that absolutely anything can happen at any time. Why couldn’t the CIA or Israel have controlled the attacks on 9/11? Why couldn’t Bush be an alien in disguise? If Jesus was resurrected and had a virgin for a mother, much stranger things have happened. It’s just a matter of taste that decides what other unfounded beliefs a Christian adds to his or her irrational religious assumptions.