Conspiracy theories keep attracting audiences because conspiracies are part of the natural order. In the world of Trump, Snowden, Assange and Rupert Murdoch a recent commentator has noted the obvious: ‘If misinformation reinforces an existing belief, an individual won’t see it as misinformation…(Media) fact-checking operations…are only as effective as the public’s faith in the organisation running them.’ Martin McKenzie Murray, ‘Troll Tales and True’, The Saturday Paper, 24 Nov, 2018, p.3) Politicians can’t be trusted to be honest and historians (reporters, scholars) can’t be trusted to be impartial. The concept of ‘objectivity’ has its own history, and its tussle with ‘revealed truth’ has been central to global affairs – take evolution as an example. With the primacy of the scientific method apparently established, intellectuals have assumed the struggle was over. But faith has been no less slippery than objectivity and, on occasion, well-trained professional historians have failed to recognise arguments based on faith, or they have chosen not to notice. Though natters of faith can be set aside as non-political because any faith, or opinion, is subjective, actions to further or diminish the effects of those beliefs, are always political. The understanding of any scholar is, in fact, plagued by too many prejudices and biases to name. It is simply the case that each author or commentator is either acting for a cause or is travelling with it on his or her lee side.
In practice, it is difficult to conceive how faith and politics could ever not overlap, but certainly in ‘our’ 2,000 years of history they have never been apart. It is not accidental either that the dualities of politics – ‘us’ vs ‘them’ – parallel those of morality – ‘good’ vs ‘evil’ – nor that they have found their way into propaganda. The failure of the Enlightenment to end superstition and irrationality means that competition between faiths has not ceased and that bragging rights are still on offer. Two thousand years of history cannot be reduced to a single narrative, but ‘our’ joint history would be very different had religion not dominated political decision-making processes and the recording of that past as it has.
The continued use of myths and unfounded suppositions highlight a clear need for definitions. In the case of ‘Freemasonry’ if ‘it’ could be identified, and shown to be an organised society, it would, of course, be spelt with a capitalised ‘F’. If ‘it’ could be shown to be something other than an organised society, its essential ‘freemason-ness’, could perhaps be defined, and used to assess the claims made in 1723, and since. That ‘it’ has not been identified and therefore not been shown to have had an existence before 1717-21 has meant partisans have denied any need to define ‘it’. Three centuries have witnessed a global phenomenon which can’t or refuses to be defined, and a multiplicity of conspiracy theories which have tangled fact with fiction so thoroughly as to make the task of non-partisan historians near to impossible. In lieu of a definition, the United Grand Lodge of England today asserts that ‘Freemasonry’ is ‘one of the world’s oldest and largest non-religious, non-political, fraternal and charitable organisations’.[i] Equally erroneous is the cry from the anti-Masonic swarm of Bible literalists that not only is ‘it’ ‘satanic’, but ‘Freemasonry is a false religion’, apparently because ‘it’ teaches ‘that men can approach God…through their own abilities’.[ii] The reality is altogether different to these two extremes.
Bob James, Newcastle, NSW. 2018.
[i] On-line website www.ugle.org.uk.
[ii] J Harris, Freemasonry – The Invisible Cult, Whitaker House, 1983.