Zeitgeist A Blend Of Skepticism, Metaphysical Spirituality, and Conspiracy

As Sarah noted, Good Morning America reported last week that Jared Loughner had been influenced by the documentary Zeitgeist, a film that depicts Christianity, 9/11, and federal banking as conspiracies meant for social control. Since that report, the internet has been abuzz with attempts to locate Zeitgeist—and Loughner—on either the right or the left. Much of the analysis of Zeitgeist and Loughner has focused on its ideas about an international banking conspiracy that uses currency to foster debt slavery with the goal of instituting a one world government. But such analysis only accounts for part of what is going on in the film.

As Jesse Walker points out, in the case of Zeitgeist the labels “left” and “right” are pretty useless descriptors. Rather than placing the film, and by proxy Loughner, on the political spectrum, the religious elements of Zeitgeist provide another set of insights into the themes and theories that may have appealed to him. Although Walker calls it, for lack of a better label, “New Age paranoia,” the film defies easy categorization, but mixes anti-Christian polemic with metaphysical spirituality in its narrative of conspiracy, manipulation, and social control. And while it draws on different American strands of skeptical thought, from the founders through the present, and attempts to present a utopian vision of shared humanity that would overcome the dark conspiratorial world it depicts, ultimately that dark world is the film’s predominant theme.

Part I of the film, “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” is an anti-Christian, even anti-religious, theory of the origins of religion and its function in society. Zeitgeist argues that Christianity originated in ancient sun-worshipping religions, that the Roman Empire accepted Christianity for political reasons, and then that the empire instituted the church in Western culture as means of social control. Jesus never existed, according to this theory, and his religion is a myth that functions to empower elites and control the masses.

Zeitgeist is not new in its arguments about Christianity. While various apologists have sought to counter the arguments, I am more interested in locating them. Zeitgeist’s theory that religion originates in sun-worship echoes many early scholars of comparative religion, such as Max Müeller, who believed the sun or some other astral body or natural object engendered notions of the gods. Indeed, in America, arguments about Christianity’s origins in sun-worship go all the way back to the founders. Thomas Paine, whose quote appears in the film, argued in “An Essay on the Origin of Free-Masonry” that Christianity and Masonry both “derived from the worship of the sun. The difference between their origin is, that the Christian religion is a parody on the worship of the sun, in which they put a man whom they call Christ, in the place of the sun, and pay him the same adoration which was originally paid to the sun.” Paine also argued that churches were means of political power in his “Age of Reason.” A long line of American skeptics from Paine to Mark Twain to Sam Harris have seen conspiracies for power where others have seen Christian piety. Zeitgeist draws on this skeptical tradition but blends it with a conspiratorial paranoia.

The film offers a detailed step-by-step comparison between Jesus and various sun-worshiping cults of the ancient world. Comparing Jesus to the Egyptian god Horus, the film outlines how Jesus was a mythic figure derived from pagan sun worship. He was part of a long line of mythic figures including Attis, Krishna, Dionysus, and Mithra. They were all born of virgins, the film alleges, and also experienced death and resurrection. Their myths are not stories about what actually happened but, rather, they reflect the movement of astrological bodies—Jesus represents the sun, Sirius is the star in the east, and the stars in Orion’s belt are the three kings of the nativity. Jesus, in short, was just the latest in a long line of astral myths that use the movement of the stars as a source of mythic inspiration. Similarly, Moses is just another in a long line of law givers that includes Manu of India, Minos of Greece, and Mises of Egpyt. (See, they even all start with M, the film points out, suggesting a mysterious connection.) Similarly, the Ten Commandments are a derivative version of passages from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. For Zeitgeist, there’s nothing new under the sun-worshipers. The Bible is an “Astrotheological Literary Hybrid.”

At the conclusion of Part I of Zeitgeist, Christianity is rendered as a political myth born in the minds of ancients staring at the sky, raised up by the Romans to control their empire, and put to work as a functional myth by modern ruling elites in need of a force to control the masses. Using a voice-over from George Carlin, the film argues that religion is just “bullshit” meant to control people and turn them against one another. Religion in general, and Christianity in particular, the film argues, separates humans from the natural world and from each other. It is a conspiracy by the powerful to manipulate and control. (Still, the movement associated with the film’s creator, Peter Joseph, the Zeitgeist Movement, itself aims to create a “completely new social system.”)

Zeitgeist also draws on a tradition of American metaphysical religion. For example, the astrological reading of the Bible in Part I of the film owes a debt to Jordan Maxwell, who also has a voice-over in the film. Maxwell is a self-described “preeminent researcher and independent scholar in the field of occult/religious philosophy,” and has books, seminars, and videos on topics ranging from astro-theology to UFOs and the end times. Maxwell’s work blends strands of conspiracy theory with metaphysical esotericism.

Beyond Maxwell’s esoteric conspiracy theories, a thread of metaphysical spirituality runs throughout the film. Zeitgeist opens with a voice over from Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, founder of Shambhala, an Americanized form of Tibetan Buddhism. Trungpa Rinpoche practiced “crazy wisdom” which shocked devotees out of their daily complacency. In the film, he describes the need for individuals to learn to live in the now—to encounter the power of experience in the moment. According to Shambhala, such experience opens one up to the natural wisdom and goodness shared by all. The conclusion of the film strikes a similar note through a voice over by Ram Dass, the spiritual teacher who coined the phrase “be here now,” who argues that humans share an essence that transcends difference—”we are all one.” Similarly the final moments feature a quote from Sri Chinmoy Ghose: “When the Power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.” Trungpa Rinpoche, Ram Das, and Ghose provide a dose of spiritual humanism that bookends a film filled with conspiracy narratives of corruption and manipulation.

Christianity, religion, war, economies; these are all meant to divide and conquer humanity, the film argues, and the solution to the suffering they cause lies in a metaphysical vision of universal humanity. Such a vision dates back to American metaphysicals like Ralph Waldo Emerson and 19th century utopian communities. It’s a vision that Walt Whitman called “the divine ideas of spirituality.”

The religion in Zeitgeist draws on multiple sources in an American tradition of metaphysical religion that is skeptical of organized (often Christian) religious institutions and hopeful in its spiritual vision. But it is also a film that draws on the subculture of American conspiracy theories. The film’s bright glimpses of a shared humanity are overcome by the dark narratives of conspiracy, manipulation, and control. The film’s spirituality and its conspiracy rely on the same esoteric worldview, however. In such a view the world is full of special, secret knowledge—about the meaning of the Bible, cabals of bankers, and the relationship between the Bush and Bin Laden families—that is only available to a select few.

But in the end, the knowledge about conspiracies seem more powerful. It’s more tempting, or maybe more pleasurable, to know the truth about wars fought to satiate elite bankers, religions invented to manipulate the masses, and tragedies staged for political power than to know the truth about a shared human essence. The conspiracy always feels more immanent than the spirituality.