I SET OUT TO WRITE THIS BOOK WITH THE HOPE, IF NOT THE expectation, of discovering centuries-old conspiracies among the world's power elite. I hoped to meet shadowy men in subterranean caverns manipulating the world's currencies, concealing proof of extraterrestrial visitors, or confirming the location of Christ's bones. I sought evidence of brilliant minds dealing with eternal questions of the cosmos, or engaged in accumulating wealth and power over a grand scale of time and geography. For the most part, all I encountered was ill-defined paranoia expressed in juvenile babble, supported by sporadic tales in the mainstream media, stories designed to titillate readers and build circulation rather than deliver real news or knowledge.

Evil and invisible powers lie at the heart of every conspiracy theory, the tales too often delivered with half truths, outright fiction, and an absurd blend of historical and imaginary events. These wild assertions carry weight because, especially in advanced and industrialized cultures, they tap widespread anxiety over our potential loss of control and identity as individuals. They address the fears many of us harbor, and accounts of their existence, no matter how outlandish, are comforting to some degree.

I concluded that buying into these theories without exercising logic and reasoning is dangerous, because it diverts attention from concrete risks. Too many of us spend too much time wrestling with imaginative secret society–based explanations and not enough time probing the validity of false presumptions leading to catastrophic events… or have we forgotten those weapons of mass destruction? Instead of making gullible readers aware of actual risks and providing a means of dealing with them, as conspiracy authors claim to do, their tales aggravate a sense of helplessness while diminishing the ability to deal with serious social and political situations.

Amid the myths, a few glimmers of reality appear from time to time. The linear connection between the Assassins and Al Qaeda, for example, is obvious, although whether an understanding of the Assassins’ methods and structure will assist in the battle against extremist Muslim terrorism remains to be seen. The influence of the nsc extends well past the borders of the U.S., and their inclination to act unilaterally in the pursuit of U.S. interests remains a reason for monitoring their power. Beyond these exceptions, our fascination with secret societies appears rooted more in the entertainment value they afford than in the global menace they suggest.

It took the esteemed scientist Carl Sagan, in his book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (New York: Ballantine Books, 1997), to point his finger at the core of the secret society phenomenon. Sagan's primary topic was the enduring fascination with flying saucers in his country and the extraterrestrial demons piloting them, prompting him to note that 95 percent of Americans are scientifically illiterate and seek bizarre explanations for natural events. Instead of parsing superstition-based tales of alchemists and occult masters behind many ancient societies, Sagan suggests, we should pay attention to things even more awe-inspiring and comprehensive that lie all around us waiting to be explored, deciphered and appreciated. “We want so much to be roused from our humdrum lives,” Sagan writes, “to rekindle that sense of wonder we remember from childhood.” Secret societies provide a link with that phase of childhood wonder, but while immersing ourselves in their allure we risk accepting legends of their existence as true and avoid the application of logic and reason. Too often, we settle for superstition instead of scientific analysis.

Sagan especially decries a “celebration of ignorance” among those who favor rigid dogma over reasonable deduction. “Sooner or later,” he warns, “this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces. When governments and societies lose the capacity for critical thinking, the results can be catastrophic, however sympathetic we may be to those who bought the baloney.”

It seemed to me, as I reviewed and assessed all the sources, viewpoints, evidence and opinions regarding secret societies, that it has been a seller's market in the baloney business for some time now.

December 15, 2005

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