Devil Fervour: Conspiracy Theories, Ground Zero and the Religion of the Dispossessed

Article excerpt

ON September 11th 2006, there was a brawl at Ground Zero. Despite the ubiquitous presence of the press, this was ignored even by the New York newspapers. This fighting, which I personally witnessed, was sparked by a middle-aged, educated-sounding man standing on a soapbox and arguing that 9/11 was an inside job. There were many groups surrounding Ground Zero propounding similar interpretations such as '911truth.org', while people carried huge banners reading, 'The Bush Regime Engineered 9/11'. In contrast, there was one man holding pictures of Osama bin Laden with the word 'Murderer' printed beneath. But all were distant from the central spot both physically and in terms of their power. At the centre of Ground Zero--far in the distance behind an enormous fence--bereaved family members read out names of the dead in front of the President.

As with any shrine, pilgrims were Contesting the Sacred (in the words of a 1991 essay collection on pilgrimage of the same name). However, only those in charge of the official religious perspective, or related to the victims themselves, were allowed to be at the central position. As you moved away from the centre, the pilgrims became less and less powerful and more and more unorthodox in their understanding of the shrine. Just as at the Marian shrine at Walsingham in England, for example, extreme Catholics and Protestants battled it out on the periphery for the correct interpretation of the shrine and reality more broadly. And the comparison between Ground Zero and a religious shrine is not merely superficial. There is a compelling case for the view that, in an increasingly secular environment. Conspiracy Theories have taken the place of some forms of Folk Religion. They are the religion of the powerless operating in a very similar way as the more extreme expressions of Medieval Catholicism.

Defining Religion

There is no one accepted understanding of the word 'religion'. For a minority of social scientists, such as the Scottish sociologist Prof. Steve Bruce in his 2002 book God is Dead, religion is defined in relation to a shopping list of factors: belief in God or gods, an afterlife and so forth. It is defined in this way because this definition is apparently accepted by ordinary speakers of English. However, the majority of social scientists accept the kind of definition proposed by the Belgian anthropologist Prof. Clifford Geertz in his 1968 article 'Religion as a Cultural System'. He argues that religion is, in essence, an ideology that leads to rituals and numinous experiences. Bruce's style of definition is regarded as inadequate because it is Protestant-centric (rendering Buddhism essentially a non-religion), it is anti-intellectual and, most importantly, it makes a distinction between 'religion' and 'ideology' which is unsustainable if one recalls that in pre-modern societies what we now call 'religion' was the ideology. There is perhaps something relativist about Geertz. There are, it might be stressed, different kinds of religion and the New Zealand anthropologist, Roger Sandall has argued in The Culture Cult (2001) that different styles of religious thinking can lead to very different results in terms of social and economic organisation. Equally, there is a typological difference between believing in the remnants of a pre-scientific world-view and having Marxism as your world-view, even if this is regarded merely as 'pseudo-science'. But 'religions' broadly appear to have the character that Geertz defines.

Thus, other modern ideologies are generally regarded as replacement religions. Moreover, it makes sense that aspects of the old ideology would still be accepted--apart from in extreme cases such as Albanian Communism--just as aspects of Paganism were accepted or reflected when Christianity was the dominant ideology (apart from in extremist regimes such as Calvin's and even here the re-emphasis on 'blood sacrifice' and a 'chosen people' might be seen as pagan). …