The editors of the Handbook of Conspiracy Theory and Contemporary Religion state that the purpose of this volume is “to establish the study of conspiracy theory and religion as a significant interdisciplinary subfield of religious studies” (527). Toward that end, they have assembled a sizeable cast of contributors for a book of substantial length.
In the first chapter, the editors set the pace for their contributors by providing a “meta-theoretical primer for the volume at large” (9). They define religion according to Anne Taves’ building block approach: religions are based on setting things apart, getting at ultimate concern, and imagining hypotheticals. Conspiracy theories “always concern knowledge, power and agency. They make privileged claims to knowledge while destabilizing the knowledge claims of others; they reveal hidden, massive power structures, while promising to empower the self, and they seek to regain individual agency by seeing through the lies of conspiring others.” (41)
The handbook has an introduction, twenty-three chapters by twenty-eight contributors, and an afterword. It is divided into three parts. Part 1, “Explanations,” contains the opening chapter noted above as well as other chapters that assess conspiracy theory and religion through the disciplines of theology, philosophy, political science, and psychology.
Part 2, “Correspondences,” includes “various theoretical approaches . . . used to make and to interrogate connections and areas of common concern (“correspondences”) between religion and conspiracy theories” (10). I take this to mean that they wanted authors in this section to explore areas of overlap between conspiracy theory and religion. This is done in studies of white South Africans who were willing to believe in a nationwide Satanic scare during the late period of apartheid, Evangelicals who linked pop music with Satanism, a comparison of esotericism and conspiracy theories, and strategies used by authority figures like Alex Jones and David Icke among millennialist conspiracists.
In part 3, “Locations,” the editors include chapters that address conspiracy theory and religion in non-Western locations: Sri Lanka, Myanmar, the Middle East, Albania, Russia, Japan, and China. The editors seem particularly proud of this third part. They note in their “Afterword” that in this volume they went beyond the “Christian occident” or “Anglosphere” to expand “drastically on the usual sample for studies of conspiracism” (527). But they also admit that much more work on conspiracy theory and religion beyond the West needs to be done.
In any edited volume, some contributions prove more valuable than others. Many of the better chapters are found in part 3. Tsuji Ryutaro provides a deepened understanding of Aum Shinrikyo by tracing conspiracy elements in the thought of the movement’s founder, Shoko Asahara. Paul Jackson brings us up to date on neo-Nazis and their conspiracist-religious worldviews. Helen Farley presents a masterful interpretation of Falun Gong and its place in recent Chinese history. Michael Hagemeister sheds light on the apocalyptic conspiracists in post-Soviet Russia.
For those of us with little knowledge of religious and conspiracist systems outside the West, two chapters by Sven Bretfeld and Iselin Frydenlund on the anti-Muslim conspiracy theories among radical Buddhist movements in South Asia are especially illuminating. For those invested in theoretical concerns about conspiracy theory, a chapter by two of the editors, Egil Asprem and Asbjørn Dyrendal, provides a fascinating look at resemblances and linkages between esotericism and conspiracy theory.
Conspiracy theories are increasingly popular subjects for undergraduate courses. As I read the chapters in this volume, I thought about how I might use this material in a course on conspiracy theories and religions. The chapters in parts 2 and 3 most readily lend themselves to the classroom. Each chapter covers a different individual or movement, often in countries that many undergraduates (in the United States) would not be familiar with. And in each chapter the author or authors introduce keywords and phrases that give students some language with which to work on analyses of conspiracy theories and their overlap with religions. The idea of a “cultic milieu,” which recurs throughout the book, is an important example.
I highly recommend this book for college or university libraries. The costs for both the e-book and the hardcover for individuals is prohibitive.
W. Michael Ashcraft is Professor of Religion at Truman State University.
W. Michael Ashcraft
Date Of Review:
September 15, 2020
Asbjørn Dyrendal is Professor in the History of Religion at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. He has published widely on conspiracy beliefs and new religious movements, including the recently co-authored The Invention of Satanism (Oxford UP, 2016).
David G. Robertson is Lecturer in Religious Studies at the Open University and co-founder of the Religious Studies Project. His work applies critical theory to the study of alternative and emerging religions, and to "conspiracy theory" narratives. He is the author of UFOs, the New Age and Conspiracy Theories: Millennial Conspiracism (Bloomsbury 2016) and co-editor of After World Religions: Reconstructing Religious Studies (Equinox 2016).
Egil Asprem is Associate Professor in the History of Religion at Stockholm University, Sweden. He has published extensively on Western esotericism, occultism, and magic, including the monographs Arguing with Angels: Eno
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