Conspirituality and the Ethic of Freedom of Religion

Human history is a cacophony of stories about people banding together over shared values to better pursue mutual goals, then splitting apart over disagreements and generally muddling along, over time, from natural tribes to city-states, regional monarchies, nation-states and modern superpowers. Through it all is woven a thread that speaks to the individual’s continuous balancing act, trying to hang onto the strength and opportunities offered by “the group” without losing sight of deeply held individual dreams and core values.

The thread navigates over and under societal institutions. Eventually most of humanity learned that it could have a bigger, stronger group if individual minority rights, such as freedom of religious belief, were upheld and it is now widely agreed that people can believe what they believe, read what they read, say what they say and gather together with whomever they choose to gather together with. It is no concern of mine what you believe, read, say or do in church and it is no concern of yours what I believe, read, say or do in church (or if I choose not to go to any church at all).

Although this “live and let live” concept of tolerance was enough for most people, in the United States, our founders took things further. It was felt that both religious “faith and practice” (as Quakers would say) were necessary freedoms. Freedom to believe without freedom to act on those beliefs, without the freedom of religious practice was next to meaningless. One argument, to follow that thread further, held that only God is perfect and humans and all their institutions and governments are imperfect so, when one feels compelled by religious belief, it may be the best and only way to correct the all-to-human imperfections in government. Quaker ideals related to civil disobedience were founded on such ideas. Much of the northern abolition movement was fueled by them too.

And so, ideas of freedom of religious practice emerged and have remained the bleeding edge — the needle pulling the thread of our human story from colonial times down to the present.

In my lifetime, court battles have been fought to assert or preserve the right of both Muslim and Catholic teachers to wear clothing or headgear emblematic of their faith in their classrooms. The IRS has stripped assets away from Quaker war protesters who refuse to pay the portion of their taxes that goes toward killing people because they cannot, according to their faith, allow the fruit of their labor to be used for killing. And, in some places, bakers of cakes argue they have a sacred minority right to violate the minority rights of LGBTQ people by refusing to provide wedding cakes when they believe their God would not approve of the union. Clearly, an absolute right to practice any claimed religious practice without limit flirts with anarchy. There’s not room for eight billion individual Gods on our little planet and the assertion that only one interpretation of God’s will is valid is just another name for tyranny.

And here we are. Never before have human governments been so far from perfect as they are today. Never before have the rich been allowed to squeeze so much blood from the stone that represents the poor in our society. Never before have so many declared and undeclared wars raged on, apparently beyond human control. Never before have our industries been allowed to so damage the Earth that we appear to be on a collision course with extinction.

And, also, never before have our churches been so empty, never have so many flatly rejected the value of any kind of religion in their lives, and never have so few stood up, full of the kind of conviction that maybe only strong faith can provide, to oppose the machineries of exploitation, pollution and military conquest that threaten the lives of everyone born into this generation (and perhaps all would-be future generations).

There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels … upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all! — Mario Savio, Berkeley 1964. [2]

Savio may or may not have been speaking from a place of religious belief. Though he was raised Catholic and, as a boy, planned to be a priest, his speech doesn’t invoke the will of God overtly. In any case, his words convey the compelling urgency to act in times of great injustice and peril whether this urgency stems from religious faith or from a zeal that is based solely in human compassion and a sense of indignation when political forces conspire to damage and traumatize whole generations of humanity at a time.

And here I am. As a youth, my rebellion was to become a computer scientist from a family whose men (and often women) were ministers for uncounted generations. Today, I am ostracized from family, not for being a scientist in a family of “shepherds”, but for what I’ve learned and come to believe since the dawn of this 21st century. I have accumulated a personal curriculum of books and documentaries that represent what I believe have been suppressed truths spanning subjects in both the material and spiritual realms. My beliefs are based on what I would deem evidence, including testimony of people I find credible, experimentation and statistical analyses showing odds astronomically in favor of generally unacknowledged aspects of our reality. And yet, our dominant culture dismisses most of these views as “conspiracy theories” or “woo-woo new age spirituality”.

The big question, the elephant in my room is this: Are my views aligned with the measures of truth associated with the Enlightenment — evidence, reason, experimentation, careful and unbiased review of historical artifacts, weighing of testimony according to the rules of jurisprudence and journalism… or, are my views of a religious nature, based more on faith than evidence?

And, when you get into the really interesting questions in life, is there really such a solid division between these two constructed concepts of epistemology? I believe that my views are based on solid, rational foundations. But, there’s that word again — I “believe”. I can prove these views, at least to myself, beyond what I would consider reasonable doubt, but that doesn’t mean I can prove them to you. Your goalposts for reasonable doubt may get dragged by a pick-up truck of cognitive dissonance down the field to someplace outside the stadium entirely.

I can’t answer the question of whether my views are beliefs or facts. I think they are both. I have the satisfaction of a sense of completeness about my rational approaches to my conclusions that comes from years of training in logic and mathematical proofs necessary for a successful career in computer systems analysis. I also have the passion and zeal to back up these beliefs that gives me strength to oppose any worldly authority that might argue against my views. It is a question for epistemologists to debate. But this much I can say — those who would dismiss my views as false can’t have it both ways — they cannot dismiss my views as “mere” faith-based beliefs when they want to say they don’t have the rigor necessary to qualify as knowledge in post-enlightenment academia and, at the same time, turn around and say my views are not faith-based beliefs when I want to claim the freedoms and rights associated with religious beliefs in our country. Either my views are sufficiently proven to qualify as true knowledge or they are genuinely faith-based beliefs. Either I’m right or I at least deserve to be treated with the benefit of the doubt afforded to all true-believers in our religiously pluralistic society.

Many Buddhists, after all, call their credo a “philosophy”, not a religion, and yet their faith and practice are afforded the full rights and privileges of any religious organization.

“Conspirituality” is a label created by some researchers[3] to describe a web-based community of people whose belief systems involve a fusion of what mainstreamers like to call “conspiracy theories” and “new age spirituality” that is generally outside existing organized religions.

I call it “The fearless pursuit of truth in all aspects of life”. Are some conspiracy theories false/baseless? Of course (but fewer than you probably think). Is some “New Age Spirituality” merely magical thinking? Sure (but, again, probably to a lesser degree than you suppose).

The sociologists who coined the term “Conspirituality”, Charlotte Ward and David Voas, published their work first in the Journal of Contemporary Religion, strongly suggesting that conspirituality is, in fact, of a religious nature. The root of the word religion, “religio” or “religare” — to bind or a bond, as in the bonds of a community with a commitment of mutual support seems fitting. When I meet others who hold views under the general umbrella of “conspirituality” in real life, there is often a feeling of kinship, recognition and goodwill that is reminiscent of (or sometimes even beyond) the feeling of brotherhood/sisterhood I’ve felt in other religious circles.

My intent in this thread is not to prove anything or define the “orthodoxy” of Conspirituality (indeed, I disagree with researchers and commentators who seem to want to throw every straw-man controversial concept into this convenient container), but merely to state Conspirituality is a broad-brush description of a system of beliefs that anyone can choose to explore and espouse as true if it seems worthy to them. It’s at least as valid as any other system of religious beliefs.

And, as such, Conspirituality is deserving of the same protections as other religious beliefs (even if many adherents describe their beliefs as evidence-based, fact-based, etc.). The right to live in accordance with these beliefs must not be infringed.

One who holds “conspiritualist” views should never be subjected to discrimination or abuse because of their views. For example, a conspiritualist should not be subjected to hate speech such as labels like “woo-woo”, “tinfoil hat wearer”, “nut-job”, etc.

Even the labels “conspiracy theorist” and “conspiratorial” are derogatory and should not be used because they’re generally dismissive and serve only to “other” people who think differently from more “vanilla” mainstream narratives.

In short, one person’s cognitive dissonance & fear of the unknown doesn’t give them the right to ridicule, belittle or attack people who believe differently, esp. if they’re unwilling to look at the evidence the beliefs are based on (not that anyone is obliged to explain themselves to gain another’s approval).

Why does this distinction as to whether Conspirituality is a religion matter?

We are approaching a point in history where it appears certain that further attempts will be made to take away religious freedoms, such as the freedom to hold beliefs about medical practices in a religious context and to make decisions about one’s own body based on one’s personal beliefs.

In political life, I am accustomed to losing gracefully (yes, I’m generally a Democrat) and I have a healthy respect for the will of the majority. But this is different. This concerns my body. This concerns world views in collision. This concerns deeply held beliefs about the nature of reality and fundamental human rights. I know that I cannot just let this go.

That being the case, it may become necessary for me to create a legal entity as an organization representing the religious views I feel must be protected. I do this reluctantly as I don’t believe governments of men convey legitimacy to organizations based on a community’s understanding of transcendental truths, but it is necessary as an interface between the system of religious beliefs known as “Conspirituality” and, in this case, the U.S. government, for the purpose of organizing the community of believers called to these ideas and for asserting and defending religious rights of people in the community.

If you feel you might be one of these people, please keep in touch and watch for further developments.

— Martin “Truther” Bishop
3 June 2021, Eugene Oregon USA

  1. William Stafford, former Oregon Poet Laureate. https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/319729-the-way-it-is-there-s-a-thread-you-follow-it
  2. Mario Savio and his “put your bodies upon the gears” speech in Berkeley 1964 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mario_Savio
  3. Attempts by non-adherents to define and understand what is and is not “Conspirituality” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conspirituality

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