John Robison, the Illuminati, and the beginnings of a global superconspiracy theory Dave Hahn The Skeptic

Anyone with even a passing familiarity with the internet is familiar with the name “Illuminati.” Skeptics know that once they hear that word from a conspiracy theorist that the theory (and theorist) has fallen over the edge. Conspiracy theories which reference the Illuminati are the kind of theories which are surpassed in extremism only by Omniconspiracies like those from David Icke (who doesn’t stop at the Illuminati), Flat Earth, and Timecube. The name elicits references of people performing origami tricks with money to find hidden messages, secret communications in the background of Stanley Kubrick movies, and a frame-by-frame analysis of Katy Perry videos to find hidden triangles in her cleavage (there was even a lawsuit).

In a 1983 book “Architects of Fear”, Johnson argues that “the Illuminati conspiracy theory, in all its guises, reflects the centuries-old ideological war between the upholders of orthodoxy and those they condemn as heretics”. I think Johnson’s point is well made and is evidenced across the full spectrum of the Illuminati conspiracy theories. At the heart of every iteration of the theory is the fear of a changing world; a world that the conspiracy theorist identifies with that is not merely slipping away, but is being pulled from their grip. What the Illuminati theory provides is the name for those that are doing the pulling.

You may be thinking that this is obvious, but this theory has to have an origin point. If you are a long-time skeptic you are probably aware of the historical Illuminati—and therefore you can probably just skip this paragraph. If you are new to skepticism, welcome to the movement; or if you just need a refresher, continue on. The Illuminati was originally enfranchised in 1776 by a theology professor in Bavaria named Adam Weishaupt. Weishaupt wanted a group which would educate the public with the ideas of the European Enlightenment. Outlandish and dangerous ideas like rights that inhere in every person at birth, Deism, popular elections for governments, and separating the law of the state from the law of religion.

The ideas were growing in popularity in many parts of the world, but in the German speaking states they were still novel ideas. In Bavaria a religious monarchy shut down, by edict of law, all secret societies in the state (the term “secret society” just means that the group does not make public its membership). With that act of law, the Illuminati were effectively done, and Weishuapt left Bavaria. After a few failed attempts at resurrecting the group, he eventually abandoned the idea. The Illuminati only lasted ten years.

The question that anyone who hears about the group should ask, but no one ever thinks to do so is, “Why this group? Why the Illuminati instead of any number of other groups?” Outside of a historian writing an obscure dissertation on German private social groups, the rest of us do not really have any reason to know this name. The other groups conspiracy theorists blame for running (or ruining) the world actually exist. For example, Gary Allen and the John Birch Society blamed the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), US Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater blamed the Tri-Lateral commission, in the 19th century Americans blamed the Freemasons, and there is the seemingly permanent international Jewish conspiracy as well.  Each of those four groups have one thing in common—they actually exist. There are real Jewish people and real Masons. The Bilderberg conference is still held every year.  Why is an obscure nerd club for 18th century skeptics the focal point of the grand global conspiracy?

Mark Horne writing for this website traced the origin of this conspiracy theory and the popularity of the theory back to English pseudo-historian Nest Webster, who placed the full responsibility for the French Revolution on the group. Her work synthesised two previous works, and even received accolades from Winston Churchill. The two earlier works were from a Jesuit Priest named Augustin Barruel while the other was a Scottish Natural Philosopher (scientist in modern terms) named John Robison.

I will focus on the Robison work with its incredibly long title, “Proofs of a Conspiracy Against All the Religions and Governments of Europe, Carried on the Secret Meetings of Freemasons, Illuminati, and Reading Societies.” This book is important because in the conspiracy world, this book is the source for any global conspiracy theory. It is either a primary source cited directly, or the conspiracy theory cites a work that cites this work. If a conspiracy theory refers to the Illuminati and does not cite this book; it’s not a very well researched conspiracy theory. There are bad conspiracy theories and then there are bad conspiracy theories.

The Robison book is important for not only being one of the original works, but it also shows that being intelligent is no guarantee against conspiratorial thinking. Robison was an important figure in the Scottish Enlightenment, a maths professor who anticipated Columb’s law concerning the repulsion of like-charged particles. He assisted in an early design of Watt’s steam engine, and he invented the siren. Despite all of those contributions to human civilisation, his Wikipedia page devotes almost as much space to his conspiracy theories.

Robison’s work is interesting, in that he spends so much time repeating innuendo and rumour seemingly laying down the rigor of scientific inquiry in order to push a conspiracy theory that amounts to nothing more than, “the world is changing and I don’t like it.” A fun fact about the conspiracy theory and Robison’s work in it demonising Weishaupt is that Robison and Weishaupt could have met. Robison could certainly have sent the professor a letter asking him about the accusations. Though they were in different disciplines, the two men were both academics. If Robison was really fearful that a theology professor in Germany was seeking to subvert the world’s governments and religions, he should have just asked (I know I would have).

In reading Robison’s book, he’s up front about his dislike of the changes in the European continent and especially in European Masonry. The Freemasons used to be one thing, but now, the younger members are changing it into something else. This is the kind of accusation we would expect from a lifelong Mason of the highest degree, but Robison was not that. In his own words he attended the lodges as “merely a pretext for passing an hour or two in a fort of decent conviviality, not altogether void of some rational occupation.”

He joined the masons, because it was something to do rather than something he was really into. His membership never progressed beyond a few of the early levels because he found the pageantry and the ceremonies of the group to be silly. His Masonic history, according to his book, was more of one of social convenience. Every important figure in his circle was a Mason so he might as well join and attend taco night or whatever they had back then. He enjoyed the hospitality of the lodges on the Continent, but that is where he saw everything going sour and was able to discern the great Conspiracy which lied within.

Throughout this book (check the link on my bio for my page by page read through of it—still in progress) the spectre of an actual conspiracy never raises its head. Instead, the first quarter of the book are indications of Robison’s neophobia. He attacks the writings of the French philosophers like Voltaire and Diderot a few times—bringing up some frivolous chapters in their lives as evidence of their hypocrisy. For Voltaire, it was that he once demanded an upfront payment for one his books while for Diderot it was the payments he took from the Tsar Catherine the Great to build a library.

He chides the French Masons for allowing the pomp and ceremony to infect their lodges. While at the same time attacking the German lodges because they (the German race) are driven towards, “everything that is wonderful, or solemn, or terrible;…the Germans have been generally in the foremost ranks, the gross absurdities of magic, exorcism, witchcraft, fortune-telling, transmutation of metals, and universal medicine.”

Ignoring the old-timey racism (as Robison would have considered the German people a race) Robison had a point as this would be the exact time period in which Samuel Hahnemann was developing Homeopathy which would be published a few years later. However, Robison’s complaint is not the veracity of these claims but that Masonry is not supposed to be like this. These were the interests of the new blood and the old members were pining for the “good old days” when a Masonic lodge was more like the Diogenes Club.

The French made Masonry ornate, the Germans adopted some of the practices of the Rosicrucian fad that was sweeping through Europe at the time. It became so bad in the lodges that at one point a member began selling a secret that the Knights Templar had hidden the truths of alchemy and magic rituals. This part of the writing is where we must conceded Robison’s point. The focus on ceremony and mystery made some members susceptible to con artists and grifters who preyed upon their credulity. None of these claims proves the vast conspiracy theory that this book would inspire for centuries.

It is a character in the book named Baron Hunde that took the ornate French practices and the German occult interests to a particular lodge in Germany where it inspired Weishaupt. Weishaupt had the idea to take the membership of Masonry and change it to a social movement. This movement would spread the ideas of the Enlightenment to everyone that they could. The closest Robison gets to an actual Illuminati conspiracy is that Weishaupt wanted his members to secretly work and become members in book publishing houses in order to get cheaper printing prices. According to Robison the Illuminati would even, gasp, teach women. It’s interesting that Robison details the rules that the Illuminati would have here—women would only teach women, to prevent a male instructor from abusing his position regarding female students. There would still be a man in charge of the women’s school, but neglecting women’s education Weishaupt felt would be a failure of his group.

Robison was greatly offended by this part of the plan. He felt the Illuminati would seduce the women of Europe with their education and cause them to, “fall from the high state to which they have arisen in Christian Europe, and again sink into that insignificancy or slavery in which the sex is found in all ages and countries out of the hearing of Christianity.“

Putting aside the question of whether Christianity was the driving force in women’s rights, the stark horror that Robison sees in the education of women leads him to condemn the Illuminati as this being the final straw. He spends the rest of the Illuminati chapter discussing this shocking development, lest the great worry come true that women will be travelling about, “laying aside all modesty, and presenting themselves to the public view, with bared limbs, a la sauvage, as the alluring objects of desire.”

The new equality is the problem. After all, hadn’t Christian Europe given enough to its women? The 18th century Christian European woman who couldn’t own her own property, choose their spouse, or have any kind of say over their lives…

What we see in the Robison work is not a proof of a conspiracy to overturn the pillars of European society; we see an old man yelling at the winds of change because that wind is something he doesn’t like. He will go on to chide an organisation calling itself “The German Union” for their bold plan to set up a system of interconnected libraries and spread literacy throughout the German-speaking states.

These dastardly plans are the foundations of the Illuminati conspiracy theory that for 250 years have plagued the world. There exists no nefarious plan in this book. When the Illuminati are disbanded, Robison stretches to claim that they are probably the ones responsible for the German Union; but, again, there’s no proof. The book is heavy on implication and light on facts; which is fitting for one of the earliest conspiracy “expose’s.” 

In every accusation we see the hand of orthodoxy worried that morality will be cleaved from the true religion, that universal education will make people question the status quo, and that widespread literacy will have individuals reading Voltaire and not whatever it is that Robison approves of. While today we see in the writings of Icke, the YouTube rantings of Project Camelot, and the ramblings of Jones a worry that the young are leaving the old ways and creating the world that they want to live in.

The Illuminati conspiracy theory justifies the shift in worldview from the old to the new. It creates a reason which shields the believer from having to admit the possibility that some perspective of theirs was wrong. By placing the change as the result of a formless enemy the change can be dismissed as the result of a conspiracy; thus they no longer have to adapt to that change.

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The Illuminati has become the go-to villain in grand narrative conspiracy theories, despite their humble origin as a shortly-lived German Enlightenment group
The post John Robison, the Illuminati, and the beginnings of a global superconspiracy theory appeared first on The Skeptic.