Bite Sized Science: Dan Brown versus the Bible

By Keir Liddle
Recent research (which may be pay-walled) suggests that belief in modern conspiracy theories is related to religious belief and fear of dying.

The study, conducted by doctoral student Anna Newheiser, has also found that people, anxious about death, are more prone to believing in the conspiracy theories of Dan Brown’s ‘The Da Vinci Code’ than the Bible.  For those who haven’t read or seen the Da Vinci code it claimed that the Roman Catholic Church kept secret Jesus’ marriage to Mary Magdalene, from which sprang a “holy lineage” protected by a secret organization, the Priory of Sion.

According to a British survey by 2005, 22% of British adults had read the novel,  of which 64% of readers believed that there was some truth to the idea that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had children, in contrast to 30% of non-readers; and 32% of readers thought that the Priory of Sion was a real organization, as compared to 6% of non-readers.

Newheiser and colleagues conducted two studies on 144 students and explored what they got out of believing in conspiracy theories. The students filled out questionnaires measuring their religiosity, biblical knowledge, enjoyment of ‘The Da Vinci Code’ novel or movie, and their fear of death. The study was conducted at the height of the DVC’s popularity, 4–16 weeks after the UK release of the film in 2006.

The students most likely to believe the conspiracies in Brown’s novel were those who enjoyed the book the most, and felt the most anxiety about dying.

People who were religious, knowledgeable about the Bible and desiring of social approval, however, tended not to buy into the Da Vinci conspiracy. The extent to which people believed in the conspiracy was associated with the endorsement of congruent (New Age spiritual) and competing (Christian religious) beliefs but in opposite directions.

Exposure to counter evidence  resulted in belief reduction, specifically among more religious participants (i.e. among those endorsing a competing belief system). Implying that if one already holds a belief system that runs counter to the conspiracy it is easier for them to disbelief than those who hold beliefs that are congruent.

So why do people believe in conspiracy theories? The authors of this study suggest that belief in modern conspiracy theories may help people attain or maintain a sense of meaning, control, and security.

In an uncertain and random world conspiracy theories impose order where chaos and indifference reign.

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