Conspiracy theories thrive at the fringes of polite discourse. They have the smell of paranoia if they get out of hand. Some conspiracy theories are true and being on one's guard is a good idea. Caesar dismissed warnings about Cassius and Brutus plotting and paid with his life. Other conspiracy theories are so far-flung that the question of whether they are true is not even meaningful. These theories are not testable. They are deaf to the sound of evidence—at least on the disconfirmatory side. In a German-language paper, I explored what I call The Grand Conspiracy Theory (Krueger, 2010). The GCT suggests that a small group of individuals controls every aspect of the world that matters: the economy, the media, war and peace, what have you. The governments and their representatives that we see are not really in charge; they are front pieces of darker and stronger forces that remain out of view, and they may not even know it. With a bit of googling you can find examples of this sort of thinking. Amazon is not above selling books on the matter. Try Illuminati as a key word.
According to the GCT, there are no accidents in world affairs. Everything that happens is part of a grand design to put and keep the masses in material and spiritual bondage, and to further increase the power of the cabal (This idea is problematic because if their power were already as great as claimed, there would be no room for further increases—but I digress). Believers in the GCT claim that they are on to the cabal—that is a necessary part of the theory itself. They further claim that the conspiracy might fail, and that indeed such a collapse may be imminent, if only enough people awakened to the stark facts. This basic arrangement can go on and on over many generations, with the presumed identity of the conspirators changing with the times (Templars, Jews, Freemasons, aliens, and reptiles being favorites).
Looking at conspiracy theories, and the grand one in particular, I noticed certain similarities with judeo-christian ideation. There is the idea of the all—or at least very—powerful force that is hidden, that has a plan, and that moves the world toward a cataclysmic end. The major differences are that the god of monotheism has no one with whom to conspire and that the human-based GCT has fewer good things to say about the power that be.
Given the similarities in the psychological pattern, I felt that mundane conspiracy theories might be derivatives of religious belief. This is not a new idea. Sir Karl Popper suggested that "The conspiracy theory of society...comes from abandoning God and then asking: What is in his place?" Umberto Eco noted that "When men stop believing in God, it isn't that they then believe in nothing; they believe in everything." In this view, socio-political conspiracy theories are the refuge of those who have ceased to use divine terms to explain the world, but who have not changed their way of thinking.
I now want to propose that there is no compelling reason to think that religious beliefs came first. The sacred has no temporal advantage over the profane. Let me play devil's advocate and propose that in evolutionary time humans worried about profane conspiracies before turning their antennae to the metaphysical. One of the most pressing worries, particularly for males, has always been the forging, maintenance, and possible betrayal of coalitions with other men against other alliances. This is so because men face stiffer intrasexual competition than women do, and this in turn is the result of women's greater choosiness. The advocate's argument suggests that it is a small step from hyper-vigilance for small local conspiracies to greater earthly ones and beyond. Religion might be, in other words, a derivative of competitive pressures in the here and the Pleistocene. The overwhelming prominence of men at the reins of organized religion is consistent with this view. Why women would go along with this, I do not know.
If conspiracy theories are the model for religious belief instead of vice versa, monotheism seems like an oddity. God has no conspirator, and he can therefore only be a spirator. But this difference in number is one of surface rather than substance. On the one hand, so-called monotheistic religions allow a flurry of angels, demons, devils, and saints, who render these religions polytheistic in practice if not in name. On the other hand, earth-bound grand conspiracy theories tend to see the cabal as so homogeneous that it is legit to refer to it as a singular unit. A self-respecting GCT does not contemplate dissent among the conspirators.
I suppose it is impolite to place monotheistic belief near—actually beneath—the hypo-paranoid thinking of the X-files type. The sacred demands respect—but on what grounds?
Krueger, J. I. (2010). Die "Grosse Verschwörungstheorie" aus psychologischer Sicht [The""Great Conspiracy Theory" from a psychological perspective]. Zeitschrift für Anomalistik, 10, 6-16.
For a philosophical treatment of the idea that theism is a conspiracy theory, see
Keeley, B. L. (2007). God as the ultimate conspiracy theory. Episteme, 4, 135-149.