Recently a friend emailed me a link to an article about a scientist who proposed creating an airborne version of the Ebola virus in order to kill 95 percent of the earth’s population. He made this proposal in a speech to a convention of other scientists. The audience, according to the article, gave the speaker a standing ovation.
My friend’s comment in her email was “Why am I not surprised?”
Well, I was surprised, to say the least. I was curious enough to google the speaker’s name. I read his entire speech and emailed my friend the link to that speech, delivered back in 2006, by the way. My email contained the original wording and thus the context for the message in the article she sent me. Encapsulated, the original speech warned that human overpopulation invites ultimate near-extinction by an Ebola-like virus.
The website my friend emailed me is a product of one of the more widespread conspiracy theories: that scientists are secretly in cahoots to ruin our lives in a variety of ways. There are plenty of other such theories, some harmless (certain people in powerful positions are actually alien reptiles), some potentially harmful (the government is hiding evidence that vaccinations cause autism).
I got curious about why people believe these stories. My friend is an intelligent, generous, and kind person. I was baffled, although I knew her to be anti-vaccination. I’d also characterize her as an anxious person, a worrier.
It turns out that she fits a profile of conspiracy theory believers. A number of studies have shown: (1) if you believe in one conspiracy theory, you’ll believe in another one; (2) most conspiracy theory believers feel powerless, disenfranchised, alienated, and lacking in control over their lives; and (3) attempts to point out misinformation, omitted information, or existence of variables or exceptions serve only to deepen the conspiracy theory believer’s conviction.
In light of this profile, the wisest course may be to engage in yet another conspiracy theory. Here’s mine.
Miracles really occur.
Human beings create art, literature, architecture, and music. As proof, we have cave paintings, Rembrandt, Degas, Picasso, Beowulf, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Pablo Neruda, T.S. Eliot, the builders of Angkor Wat, Frank Lloyd Wright, Bach, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Joan Baez.
Human beings have an instinct to be altruistic. This trait often makes headlines in times of disaster, when we see people risk their lives to help strangers. Some devote their lives to helping others in organizations like Doctors Without Borders or as individuals, like Mohandas Gandhi or Mother Teresa.
We understand the intricacies of mammalian physiology, we control diabetes, we defeat infection, we insert stents in arteries, we perform brain surgery on newborn babies. We can now visit another planet, talk to and view a friend across the world, discover what life was like millions of years ago, and fly to another continent as the birds do.
We understand the phenomena that surround us. We know the sweet breath of hayfields, the dizzying sweep of the Milky Way, the clasp of a child’s fingers, the stunning beauty of a galloping horse, the first call of a red-winged blackbird in spring. Because we are human, we organize these observations into patterns and generalizations that are meaningful to us.
Now here’s the conspiracy part. We appear to accomplish and learn all these things. But we don’t do it alone. There’s a secret presence behind it all. It’s what we Quakers call that of God, which inhabits every living creature, and I mean every living creature. Let’s not be anthropocentrist about this.
Could these events and conditions occur as if they were a series of cosmic accidents? No, they’re intentional, apparently brought about by humans and uniquely appreciated by humans.
If you want to dismiss my conspiracy theory, you can logically point out all the exceptions, coincidences, and co-existing events that would lead you to say, “See? These things aren’t true all the time, so your statement isn’t a trustworthy fact.”
As a skeptic, you’d remind me that wars break out, babies grow up to be Hitler and Pol Pot, and epidemics and genocides ravage populations. I can’t deny these facts. I accept them.
In accepting these facts, though, I turn them into further proof of miracles. How? If we continue to try to be fully developed human beings—or as that “secret presence” behind our accomplishments continues to influence us—we might find ways to reduce those calamities. We’ll take those exceptions that threaten our belief in miracles and turn them into challenges. And we’ll know once again that we’re right to believe in miracles.
As for the general anxiety, alienation, and sense of powerlessness experienced by conspiracy theory believers? Take them to your meeting next Sunday, dump them on the floor at the feet of your Quaker community, and feel the combined minds and hearts for peace and growth—that “secret power”—vaporize them. You know that feeling. You’ve experienced it before.
It’s another one of those miracles.