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Source: University of Otago

Undergraduate tauira from a huge range of majors are attracted to Dr Deane Galbraith’s ‘Religion, Conflict and Conspiracy Theory’ paper, from science majors to philosophy majors. Dr Galbraith describes it as “a true interest paper”.
“Religious Studies wouldn’t necessarily be the first place you’d think to look for a paper which covers zeitgeisty topics like the January 6 insurrection and the possibility of an all-powerful race of lizard people, but that’s where you’ll find them,” says third year BA Philosophy major Heather.
There has been a significant uptick in media coverage surrounding conspiracy theories, and conspiracy theorists, since the COVID-19 pandemic began in early 2020, explains head of the paper, Dr Deane Galbraith.
“Conspiracy theories aren’t necessarily becoming more prevalent, but since 2020 believers are much deeper down the proverbial rabbit hole.
“It’s not all tin-foil hats . . . studies show that the majority of the American public believe at least one conspiracy theory, and figures are similar for New Zealand.
“These popular conspiracy theories range from flat-eartherism, to climate-change scepticism, anti-vax rhetoric, 5G fears and the notion that we are all secretly governed by shape-shifting lizard-people.”
Re:News and The Spinoff report that belief in a flat earth has spread to New Zealand in the last decade culminating in a flat earth conference in Auckland in 2019 attended by many of the most infamous names in the flat earth community. Photo by Kajetan Sumila.
Dr Galbraith explains that not all conspiracy theories are spurious, in fact, as conspiracy theories are broadly defined as a theory that there has been a conspiracy, some do end up being factual.
The examples he gave were the Iran-Contra affair or the Tuskegee Syphilis experiment, both of which were theories of a government conspiracy, which ended up being proven to be true.
Considering the current zeitgeist, the RELS241/341 paper ‘Religion, Conflict and Conspiracy theory’ provides an insight into what drives people to believe in specific conspiracy theories, and how these theories come about.
Heather explains that she is finding that the paper provides her with context for the beliefs of some of her family members.
“I have different beliefs to my family. Some of them believe in conspiracy theories, and on a broader scale, it’s been so interesting to see how many people believe in these things, and why they might believe them.
“That is what has captivated me, the comparisons I have been able to make with real life.”
Dr Galbraith articulates the notion that after 2020 most people, if not everyone, will have a friend, acquaintance or family member who has begun to publicly believe in at least one conspiracy theory.
“It has been really fascinating to see how students from a range of backgrounds have flocked to this course, and how global and local responses to the pandemic have influenced their perspectives on conspiracy theory belief.
“When we wrote the course in 2018, we couldn’t have predicted how the climate and atmosphere would shift in the time it took to finalise and launch the paper in 2021.”
Dr Galbraith explains that COVID-19 restrictions and vaccine mandates added fuel to the fire for many conspiracy theorists. Photo by DJ Paine.
Hannah, a third year BASc double majoring in Ecology and Religious Studies, says she didn’t really have any personal interest or experience with the concept of conspiracy theory before taking the course.
“I am finding it fascinating learning about the history and context behind different conspiracy theories.
It is a common misconception that Religious Studies is just the study of the bible or of one particular religion, she says.
In reality it’s a combination of social history, anthropology and even some elements of psychology- just all focused on the topic of religion.
“This paper is allowing me to pick out elements of conspiracy theories which are prevalent in New Zealand media or international social media and draw links between them. These theories all seem to play on themes which people are already worrying about.”
Uncertainty, social divides, and fear are often driving factors behind conspiracy theory belief, says Dr Galbraith.
“These factors mixed with the social isolation and boredom many people experienced during the pandemic, created for some, a perfect storm.”
“In addition to this conspiracy theories just tend to be interesting and exciting. The stories are told in a highly charged way that garners interest.”
Heather says that can be difficult for her as she can be quite ingenuous, and often finds herself being swept up in an idea.
“In one of the first lectures I was nodding along thinking, that kind of makes sense, or I can see how they got to that conclusion. Suddenly the tone of the lecture shifted, and Dr Galbraith put up a collage of pictures of the victims of the Christchurch massacre. It was the anniversary of the shooting.
“He reminded us that conspiracy theories have significant real-world consequences. It really brought me back down to earth.
“It’s easy to get caught up in things when they don’t impact you directly… that’s something that really stayed with me.”
Dr Galbraith says in the current climate learning about the historical context of popular conspiracy theories allows students to think critically about information being presented to them.
Kōrero by Alice Billington, Internal communications adviser.