As a scholar of both religion and conspiracy theories, it was perhaps inevitable that Nicholas Smith’s (2022) recent article would catch my attention. Happily, I agreed with his conclusions in the main, but I was moved to respond nonetheless, as his paper crystalised a number of thoughts about how social epistemologists deal with religion. Smith, like many scholars, apparently accepts that QAnon is irrational, and dangerous as a result. Yet equally “irrational” accounts which are accepted by a large proportion of people, such as the creation myth of Christianity, are not spoken of in such terms. The bigger question that arises from Smith’s comparison not so much how we conceptualise conspiracy theories such as QAnon, but rather, how we are conceptualising religion. Thus, I argue that while Social Epistemology could take much from Religious Studies, Religious Studies also has much to learn from Social Epistemology … [please read below the rest of the article].
Robertson, David G. 2022. “We Need to Talk About Religion: A Response to Smith’s ‘A Quasi-Fideist Approach to QAnon’.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 11 (5): 50-57. https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-6Pa.
🔹 The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.
❧ Smith, Nicholas. 2022. “A Quasi-Fideist Approach to QAnon.” Social Epistemology 36 (3): 360-377.
Can We Compare Religions and Conspiracy Theories?
The core argument of the paper—that viewing QAnon as a religion could give us a better understanding of the movement—is not perhaps as novel or as controversial as Smith suggests. A number of Religious Studies scholars have examined QAnon and related conspiracy theories through the lens of religion, including S. Jonathon O’Donnell (2021), Carmen Celestini (2021) and myself (2022). On a wider perspective, the question of the relationship between religion and conspiracy theories has been a developing subfield since the publication of Barkun’s A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America in 2003, which explored the confluence of the American right and UFO conspiracy theories in the 1990s.
An article by Ward and Voas in 2011 (“The Emergence of Conspirituality”) and my own monograph, Conspiracy Theories, UFOs and the New Age: Millennial Conspiracism (2016), established religion and conspiracy theories as a subfield within Religious Studies. Since then, chapters on the relationship with religion in edited volumes on conspiracy theories more broadly have appeared in edited volumes, including Conspiracy Theories and the People Who Believe Them (Uscinski 2019) and the Routledge Handbook of Conspiracy Theories (Butter and Knight 2021). There is also a large volume specifically devoted to the topic—the Brill Handbook of Conspiracy Theories and Contemporary Religion (Dyrendal, Robertson and Asprem 2018)—of which I was a co-editor.
This is not to mention a large number of journalistic takes on QAnon as religion, many of which choose to make the comparison rather with “cult”. Given that cult means nothing other than “illegitimate religion”, we can perhaps see this as a version of the “One True Scotsman” fallacy—no true religion would peddle fantastical political conspiracy theories, so QAnon cannot be a true religion. The fact that the first clause is patently incorrect notwithstanding, this reluctance to connect religion with anything negative is understandable in a journalistic context, but is hardly a scholarly virtue. Nevertheless, this seems to be the motivation behind the excessive qualification of Smith’s paper.
The article runs to eleven pages, of which two are potential objections and Smith’s defences thereof. So, 18% of this article is qualification as to whether it is even permissible to make such an argument. That said, Smith’s use of Pritchard (discussed below) and clear rebuttals suggests that Smith understands this perfectly well, so I wondered whether this section was added in response to peer-reviewers. Either way, I would have preferred the article to have used those two pages exploring the ramifications of the comparison in greater detail instead.
It’s frustrating, as conspiracy theories have been a topic of sustained interest in the field of Social Epistemology. A themed issue of Episteme in 2007 on conspiracy theories was a groundbreaking publication because it challenged the (still) widespread assumption that conspiracy theories are necessarily and inevitably irrational. This was argued with more sustained focus in M.R.X. Dentith’s work, including Taking Conspiracy Theories Seriously (2018), which began as a conversation among the SERRC. Social epistemologists were alone at the time in not dismissing and pathologizing conspiracy theories, and so the need to qualify the comparison with religion to such a degree here is surprising, and unnecessary. What it suggests, I suspect, is that the issue is not that the paper takes conspiracy theories seriously, but that it is seen to not take religion seriously enough. This reveals that religion is still often treated as a “special case”, and granted exemption from the same critiques as we would routinely level at conspiracy theories. This, I suggest, is because Social Epistemology does not yet have a mature account of religion.
How Do Social Epistemologists Understand Religion?
The abovementioned 2007 Episteme issue included an important paper by Brian Keeley, “God as the Ultimate Conspiracy Theory”, which argues that there are significant structural similarities between religion and conspiracy theories, notably that both are based around the idea of a powerful agency controlling events while actively covering its own tracks. There is much to commend in Keeley’s argument, but it is undeniable that the argument is about “God”—that is, the god of Christianity—rather than “religion” in a broader sense. This is a pattern that recurs throughout the field, as we shall see.
In fact, the model of “religion” in Social Epistemology is drawn not from contemporary Religious Studies, but from Philosophy of Religion. While Philosophy of Religion is an important part of the disciplinary history of the academic study of religion, and was one of a number of disciplines that fed into the emergence of social-scientific, non-confessional Religious Studies proper in the 1950s, but today, Philosophy of Religion is largely synonymous with Philosophical Theology—that is to say, it is based in confessional and Christian-normative approaches to religion (e.g. Kirill 2019). Yet articles on “religion” in the SERRC and Episteme (including, pertinently, Bezalel’s “Conspiracy Theories and Religion: Reframing Conspiracy Theories as Bliks” (2021)) rely almost without exception on the concepts and language of the Philosophy of Religion exclusively.
The Routledge Handbook of Social Epistemology contains only one chapter (out of forty-six!) which directly addresses religion, or indeed, even mentions religion. Benton’s “Religious Diversity and Disagreement” explicitly draws from philosophy only. It defines religion loosely, as “distinguish[ing] themselves by making various claims about the supernatural, humanity, and how to live” (2020, 188). This is so vague that it doesn’t pick out anything specific, and relies on another vague and undefined term, “the supernatural”. What counts as “the natural” in this case? Presumably, that which is regarded as justified belief through scientific evidence. This is something of a sticky wicket—on the one hand, this would include many things we haven’t typically or traditionally included in the category of religion—what cognitive anthropologist Jonathan Jong calls the “Football Problem” (2015, 17).
On the other hand, the idea that the world can be divided into the “natural” (i.e. that which is accessible to science) and the “supernatural” (i.e. everything else) is an artefact of the post-Enlightenment hegemon which doesn’t map well onto the worldviews of most humans, and arguably is more aspiration than reality. Nevertheless, Benton hits the nail on the head when he writes, “even if there were consensus on what kind of evidence in the religious domain is most probative, there is no dispute-neutral way of assessing which epistemic credentials one must have in order to properly assess that evidence” (2020, 189). Fuller’s Social Epistemology has a similarly naïve approach, seemingly accepting that religion is typified by “permanent consensus” (2002, 207-8). Any familiarity with social scientific research would make it immediately clear that no religion has been either historically stable or internally uncontested.
Smith clearly understands these issues better than the examples listed above. Nevertheless, Christian-normativity is present in his paper. Smith notes—correctly—that there are multiple definitions of religion, “each with its own difficulties”, and that appealing to one or other “would likely not produce a compelling case” (361). Problematically, though, he then immediately offers his own definition which he considers merely “paradigmatic” and “uncontroversial” (361). It is, in fact, simply Protestant Christianity, and his definition simply doesn’t fit most of the so-called “World Religions” (Cotter and Robertson 2016). Yet the simple fact that that it appears so natural, so “uncontroversial”, to see it as uncontroversial is rather telling.
In fairness, Smith does challenge a number of more explicit Christian-normative assumptions, and does a good job. It’s just that these qualifications should not be needed, or could have been dealt with through a couple of references or a footnote. Pages of qualification and careful framing give the impression that Smith, and potentially social epistemology in general, view religion as, if not a sui generis class of knowledge, then at least somehow exempt from the kinds of critique other knowledge claims are subject to. Yet Smith’s argument relies on the work of epistemologist Duncan Pritchard, which seems to challenge the assumption that there are solid epistemological grounds for treating religious claims differently. Specifically, “Quasi-Fideism” does not epistemically “ghettoize” religious belief, but rather treats it as analogous to believing more generally. Indeed, although quasi-fideism follows contemporary accounts of the epistemology of religious belief in offering an epistemic parity-style argument, it diverges from these contemporary approaches in that it doesn’t claim that religious belief is akin to a specific kind of belief […] Instead, the epistemic parity is with belief in general (Pritchard 2018, 63).
The Critical Social-Scientific Study of Religion
Religious Studies has undergone a disciplinary revolution over the past two decades, part of the broader critical turn (of which social epistemology was arguably itself a part). The view of religion as a cross-cultural natural kind, which typified Religious Studies from its emergence as a distinct discipline around 1950 until the mid-1990’s, has given way to a view of religion as a social kind. As with other categories previously accepted as natural kinds—such as gender, race, and private property—religion was an imposition of a local categories of Enlightenment Europe onto those they conquered and dominated as though universal category (e.g. Chidester 2014; Masuzawa 2007).
Most scholars in Religious Studies now regard religion as a category without any common, uncontested centre, even though it remains an important category by which people and societies organise and describe themselves. With this critical shift, the quest for a universal definition of religion has practically disappeared. Religion might refer to a set of doctrines or proscribed beliefs, or to a set of practices, or to cultural or ethnic identification, but in practice, all these are found mixed up in complex, dynamic and unstable ways. Religious traditions and institutions change dramatically across time, and they are never internally consistent.
Moreover, there are often strategic reasons to present something as “religion” (or not)—from gaining tax exemption, or to gain protection under the law for homophobic views, or to avoid vaccination. This is highly pertinent—the (presumably) “sincere belief” that vaccination violates one set of supernatural mandates is protected in international law as a human right, but the (presumably) equally-sincere belief that vaccination is wrong for another equally supernatural reason is inherently dangerous and demands conversion (which Smith never questions). Religion is not only a matter of belief and/or knowledge—it is a political category also. This is a large part of the reason why many are reluctant to compare religion and conspiracy theories.
There is an added complication here, of which space dictates only a brief account. The issue is not merely that we as scholars are employing a too-Christian, Western model of religion, but rather, the category “religion” itself is an artefact of that colonial encounter and encodes Protestantism within itself as paragon and prototype. In this sense, Smith is correct to refer to his common-sense definition as paradigmatic. I agree with Timothy Fitzgerald’s analysis that without fideism, that is, without some idea of “faith” or transcendent knowledge, the category is analytically meaningless (1997); but that is complicated by the fact that the language of “the religious” and “the secular” have become part-and-parcel with the idea of liberal democracy, and enthusiastically adopted by those upon whom it was imposed. Yet to apply it analytically as a sui generis category of belief is to universalize Christendom. This has huge ramifications for Religious Studies as a discipline—how do you decolonise a subject that relies upon universalising a colonial category? (My answer would be for Religious Studies to become a discipline which actively seeks to deconstruct and demystify its subject, as Gender Studies or Race Studies do, but space prevents me elaborating further here).
This has ramifications too for Smith’s argument too, because “QAnon looks a lot like Christianity” is much less surprising given that it is largely (though not exclusively) a phenomenon among conservatives in a country where some 80% of people identify as Christian. Indeed, it would be surprising if we didn’t find Christian ideas and language in such a milieu. Without the Protestant attempt to separate “the religious” and “the secular” into distinct and separate spheres, and moreover grant “the religious” exemption from the types of critique that “secular” or “political” ideas receive, most of the oppositions to the comparison simply disappear. A stipulative definition of religion is really beside the point—the issue is how and why do some claims, rather than others, become authorised as “religion”?
That recent research into religion is not better known is the fault of Religious Studies, not Smith. Yet not to problematise the epistemic underpinnings of religion to the same degree as conspiracy theories is a failing of Social Epistemology. To continue to make appeals to “faith” would require a robust epistemological qualification of exactly what differentiates it from other kinds of belief or knowledge, something I do not think has been successfully achieved without explicit or explicit metaphysical claims (but see Ichikawa 2020). This would raise the question of why some metaphysical claims are considered worthy of respect, but others irrational and dangerous. An alternative would be to approach knowledge claims in religious discourse the same as in any other context, as I maintain, noting that we can see appeals to entirely mundane forms of evidence, including experience, tradition, institutional authority, as well as channelled information from supernatural agencies. Rather than typifying religion by the presence of supposedly universal (but in fact specifically Protestant “faith”), identifiable only through self-reported accounts of revelatory experience, Social Epistemology should rise to the task for which it is ideally suited—seeing religion as the processes by which metaphysical claims are authorised by (and authorise) collectives.
To summarise, then; social epistemologists have generally regarded religion as a matter of belief exclusively, an artifact of the field’s historical ties to philosophy, and the historical ties of the philosophy of religion to Protestant theology, though this is in itself part of the wider historical emergence of the concept “religion”. We should expect, however, that there should be a robust critique of the epistemic underpinnings of such a fideistic religion, especially the idea of “faith” or “religious belief”—metaphysical, unfalsifiable and sometimes counter-factual knowledge claims that are protected under law in most liberal democracies, and which are a significant driver of policies in nations across the globe.
What the Comparison Might Tell Us About Religion
This social and post-colonial understanding of religion does not lessen its significance for Social Epistemology—quite the opposite. I would go so far as to suggest that, as the study of “the myriad ways humans socially acquire, create, construct, transmit, store, represent, revise, and review knowledge, information, belief, and judgement” (Fricker et al 2020, xvi), religion should be a central question for Social Epistemology, as it is one of, if not the, avenue by which metaphysical beliefs are domesticated into post-Enlightenment societies. I would argue that this is its primary function today, and this function can be clearly seen in a number of legal cases where conspiratorial or ideological ideas clash with the tenets of secular societies, be that Trump’s followers, the Antivax movement or even Scottish Nationalism. It is hard to imagine a clearer case of where epistemology intersects with contemporary society.
This brings me to my final point. It is particularly interesting that Smith suggests that QAnon could be “a set of dearly held false beliefs” (360), as this cleaves extremely closely to the Charity Commission’s definition, by which organisations can achieve legal recognition in the UK. Yet Smith adds, without explanation, “false”. I ask again—on what criterion is QAnon a priori false, transubstantiation not? And what do we do where most “believers” don’t, in fact, hold these “dearly held beliefs”?
The comparison between religion and conspiracy theories such as QAnon is particularly important because it represents a challenge to epistemic power structures—what can we know, how do we know it, and who has the power to decide. As such, the importance of such a comparison is not in understanding and combating some irrational, primitive Other, but in understanding the multiple, and often contradictory, discourses in the episteme of the contemporary world. Religion is a key feature of this episteme, legitimizing and domesticating certain kinds of “counterfactual” or “irrational” beliefs—often contrasted discursively with conspiracy theories, the unacceptable irrational.
Understanding this impacts how we think about religions, too. For one, contrary to popular understandings (and many academic accounts), “belief” is messy—multiple, strategic, performative, not either/or, dynamic and unstable. Identity, too, is messy—our lives are not neatly compartmentalized into “political” and “religious” identities, and we may have multiple competing and even conflicting allegiances. There is no reason at all why something cannot be considered religious, political and a conspiracy theory all at the same time.
Categories like “religion” and “conspiracy theory” are not neutral—the decision that one non-scientific idea is protected by law and another is criminalized has real-world effects, from vaccines, to reproductive and LGBTQ rights, to whether institutional abuses can be held to account. Religious Studies offers a unique set of tools to navigate these complexities and to help us understand how conspiracy theories work.
At the same time, conspiracy theories force Religious Studies to address some of its own problems, including its reliance on colonial ideas such as “belief”, as well as its continuing reliance on metaphysical knowledge claims. For too long, Religious Studies has been a gatekeeper and defender of the category “religion”, but if it is to have a future, it needs to become conscious of its own epistemic colonialism—that it universalizes and mystifies an Enlightenment Protestant metaphysical claim—and move towards a focus on where “supernatural” knowledge claims come into play in modern secular societies.
I appreciate that I have made a lot of points in this response, not always unpacked as well as they could be. I do so in the hope that this is the start of a longer conversation. But I hope that I have nevertheless got across my key point, which is this—Social Epistemology needs a more sophisticated understanding of religion, informed by Religious Studies, and Religious Studies needs a more sophisticated understanding of knowledge claims, informed by Social Epistemology. I suggest that this is an opportunity to develop a more accurate and nuanced approach to worldviews together, religious and conspiratorial, individual and societal.
David G. Robertson is Lecturer in Religious Studies at the Open University, co-founder of the Religious Studies Project, and co-editor of the journal Implicit Religion. His work focuses on claims of special knowledge in religions, conspiracy theories and beyond. He is the author of Gnosticism and the History of Religions (2021) and UFOs, the New Age and Conspiracy Theories: Millennial Conspiracism (2016), and co-editor of After World Religions: Reconstructing Religious Studies (2016) and the Handbook of Conspiracy Theories and Contemporary Religion (2018). Twitter: @d_g_robertson.
Barkun, Michael. 2003. A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America. Berkley, Los Angeles & London: University of California Press.
Benton, Michael A. 2020. “Religious Diversity and Disagreement.” In The Routledge Handbook of Social Epistemology, edited by Miranda Fricker, Peter J. Graham, David Henderson and Nikolaj J.L.L. Pedersen, 185-195. New York and London: Routledge.
Bezalel, Glenn Y. 2021. “Conspiracy Theories and Religion: Reframing Conspiracy Theories as Bliks.” Episteme 18 (4): 674–92.
Butter, Michael, and Peter Knight, eds. 2021. Routledge Handbook of Conspiracy Theories. New York and London: Routledge.
Celestini, Carmen and Maxinne Connolly-Panagopoulus. 2021. “History Repeated: Religious Conspiracy Theory Then and Now.” The Religious Studies Project. Podcast Transcript. 20 September 2021. Transcribed by Andie Alexander. Version 1.0, 20 September 2021. https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcasts/ history-repeated-religious-conspiracy-theories-then-and-now/.
Chidester, David. 2014. Empire of Religion: Imperialism and Comparative Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Cotter, Christopher R. and David G. Robertson. 2016. “Introduction: The World Religions Paradigm in Contemporary Religious Studies.” In After World Religions: Reconstructing Religious Studies, 1-20. London: Routledge.
Dentith, Matthew R. X. 2018. Taking Conspiracy Theories Seriously. London: Rowman & Littlefield International.
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Fitzgerald, Timothy. 1997. “A Critique of the Concept of Religion as a Cross-Cultural Category.” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 9 (2): 91-110.
Fricker, Miranda, Peter J. Graham, David Henderson and Nikolaj J.L.L. Pedersen. 2020. “Introduction.” In The Routledge Handbook of Social Epistemology, edited by Miranda Fricker, Peter J. Graham, David Henderson and Nikolaj J.L.L. Pedersen, xvi-xxii. New York and London: Routledge.
Fuller, Steve. 2002. Social Epistemology, Second Edition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Ichikawa, Jonathan Jenkins. 2020. “Faith and Epistemology.” Episteme 17 (1): 121–40.
Jong, Jonathan. 2015. “On (Not) Defining (Non)Religion.” Science, Religion and Culture, 2(3), 15-24.
Karpov, Kirill. 2019. “Philosophy of Religion and Philosophical Theology: Some Ideas on Drawing the Demarcation.” European Journal for Philosophy of Religion 11 (4): 185-96.
Keeley, Brian L. 2007. “God as the Ultimate Conspiracy Theory.” Episteme 4: 135–149.
Masuzawa, Tomoko. 2007. The Invention of World Religions or, How European Universalism was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
O’Donnell, S. Jonathon. 2021. Passing Orders Demonology and Sovereignty in American Spiritual Warfare. New York: Fordham University Press.
Pew Research Center. 2015. “U.S. Catholics Open to Non-Traditional Families” September 2. https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2015/09/02/u-s-catholics-open-to-non-traditional-families/
Pritchard, Duncan. 2018. “Quasi-Fideism and Religious Conviction”. European Journal for Philosophy of Religion 10 (3): 51-66.
Robertson, David. G. 2022. “Conspiracy Theories about Secret Religions: Imagining the Other.” In The Routledge Handbook of Religion and Secrecy edited by Hugh Urban and Paul Johnson, Chapter 27 (11 pages). London: Routledge.
Robertson, David. G. 2016. Conspiracy Theories, UFOs and the New Age: Millennial Conspiracism. London: Bloomsbury.
Smith, Nicholas. 2022. “A Quasi-Fideist Approach to QAnon.” Social Epistemology 36 (3): 360-377.
Uscinski, Joseph E. 2019. Conspiracy Theories and the People Who Believe Them. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ward, Charlotte and David Voas. 2011. “The Emergence of Conspirituality.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 26 (1): 103–121.
 Various synonyms are used in different geographical and historical contexts, including History of Religion, Study of Religion/s, Comparative Religion, religionswissenschaft, etc. I have standardised to Religious Studies here for the sake of readability, not to airbrush differences. The essential commonality to which I am pointing is to approach the study of religion non-confessionally and social-scientifically, as opposed to the confessional, normative and sometimes metaphysical approaches of Theology (and sometimes also non-Christian theological approaches like Islamic Studies, Pagan Studies, etc).
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