‘You hard-shelled materialists were all balanced on the very edge of belief — of belief in almost anything,’ says G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown in the 1924 tale The Miracle of Moon Crescent.
Chesterton seems to have possesses an extraordinary prescience of times a century later, some people who would regard themselves as ‘hard-shelled’ seem to have come to believe almost anything
There seems a compulsion to believe conspiracy theories, that there are principles and, sometimes, people at work who are controlling things and if you could gain access to their knowledge or be admitted to their circle, then you too could be powerful/rich/influential/attractive (delete as applicable).
It is not easy to persuade people that there is no such knowledge.
The central character in Umbert Eco’s novel Foucault’s Pendulum faces death because he knows there to be no secret. The problem is that those pursuing him cannot believe this to be true; perhaps it is that they cannot allow this to be true, their whole world has no meaning without the secret. They believe that he must know, but that he will not tell.
In Christian history, from the First Century onwards, there were groups who believed they possessed special knowledge – the Gnostics (from ‘gnosis’ the Greek for knowledge) were judged to be heretics by the early church, but that has never stopped groups down through the centuries from believing that special knowledge was there to be found. From the writings of Joanna Southcott to the secrets of Fatima, there are supposed secrets of world-changing importance.
Not only are there secrets, but there are perceived to be possessors of secrets.
Once, I was asked if a group were some sort of ‘illuminati’, I was so stunned by the comment that I cannot now remember to which group the question referred (I wish I could, perhaps they know something that I don’t!).
The Freemasons’ rebranded themselves not as a secret society, but as a society with secrets suggesting they have some esoteric knowledge. As a fraternal secret society they had some attraction to even the sceptic; as merely a society with secrets, they are in danger of appealing to only those susceptible to belief in the esoteric.
Perhaps a belief in possessors of special knowledge, a belief in secret elites, a belief in conspiracies, has become a meta-narrative with which to explain all in life that is bewildering or frustrating. Without a God to whom to turn, an explanation is sought elsewhere.