Teleogical views predict not just creationism, but conspiracy theories

I’ll be brief here because the paper itself, just published in Current Biology (reference below, access free, pdf here) is short: just over a page of text.

After finding evidence in a small survey (N = 157) that teleology  (“the tendency to ascribe function and final cause to nonintentional natural facts and events”) was significantly (albeit moderately) correlated with belief in conspiracy theories, the authors used a much larger French sample (N = 1252) to see if teleological views were correlated with both creationism and conspiracy-theory views. They used two types of teleology, and one or both were correlated with both belief in creationism and conspiracies (my emphases in all below).

Following Kaiser-Guttman criteria (eigenvalues > 1), we retained a two-factor solution. We called the first factor ‘animism’, as it clusters measures involving attribution of consciousness and agency to nonliving entities. The second factor, ‘finalism’, tapped instead into the attribution of purpose and final causes to the universe and human life. We then conducted a series of multiple regressions with creationism and conspiracism as dependent variables, and animism and finalism, as well as science rejection, analytical thinking and randomness perception, as predictors. Finalism was the main predictor for creationism, β = 0.55, t = 17.19, p < 0.05, followed at a smaller degree by animism, β = 0.23, t = 6.93, p < 0.05, whereas rejection of science and animism were the main predictors for conspiracism (respectively β = 0.30, t = 8.80, p < 0.05; β = 0.32, t = 9.65, p < 0.05), jointly with finalism to a slightly lesser extent, β = 0.23, t = 7.26, p < 0.05. 

Now I’m not completely sure about the nature of animism—attributing agency and consciousness to “nonliving entities”—but I presume that means god or a godlike force since it has conscousness. “Finalism” seems to be some non-goddy teleology, driven by a purposive but non-conscious nature of the cosmos.

Regardless, Wagner-Egger et al. show that teleological (“purposive”) view of life is behind both creationism and conspiracy theories.

Curiously, “finalism”, which is the non-goddy force, is the form of teleology most connected to creationism, whereas I would have thought that “animism” would be. On the other hand, and contra expectation, animism, which involves nonliving entities, was the main predictor for conspiracism. (Maybe I don’t understand, but I thought conspiracism was motivated by belief in human-concocted conspiracies.) Note, though, that the probability levels are low, with all p values less than 0.05 but not less than 0.01, which would be more impressive.

The authors conclude that they’ve drawn a connection between teleology and creationism on the one hand and conspiracism on the other. As they say:

Collectively, these results identify teleological thinking as a new predictor of conspiracism, independent of agency perception, anthropomorphism, science rejection, analytical thinking and randomness perception. As a finalist and purpose-driven view of the natural world, teleological thinking has long been associated with creationism and identified as an obstacle to the acceptance of evolutionary theory. We suggest that this powerful cognitive bias extends to social and historical events, and nowadays to conspiracy narratives. As such, creationism could be seen as a conspiracist belief system (indeed, involving the ultimate conspiracy theory: the purposeful creation of all things and conspiracism as a type of creationist belief targeting socio-historic events (e.g. specific events have been purposefully created by an all-powerful agency).

Well, the view that creationism is a conspiracy theory because God made everything seems a bit far-fetched to me: a conspiracy of one? On the other hand, I could see the view that scientists conspire to fabricate the “facts” supporting evolution as a kind of conspiracy theory, though the authors don’t mention that. And the view that conspiracism is a form of “creationism” also seems to be weak, though again I may be misunderstanding what the authors are saying. If conspiracism is what the authors say it is—”the proneness to explain socio-historical events in terms of secret and malevolent conspiracies”—then it’s hard for me to see it as a form of creationism, since humans are involved, not an “all powerful agency.”

Make of it what you will. I’m just the messenger here.


h/t: Matthew Cobb


Wagner-Egger, P., S. Delouvée, N. Gauvrit, and S. Dieguez. 2018. Creationism and conspiracism share a common teleological bias.  Current Biology 28:R847-870.


  1. Nicolaas Stempels
    Posted August 20, 2018 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    Happy to buck the trend there, I’m not into finalism or animism or teleology, but I definitely believe, nay am absolutely convinced, in one conspiracy: that the present POTUS is a ‘Russian candidate’, groomed and supported by the Russian regime 🙂
    Seriously though, it seems quite interesting, but one must be careful, nay wary, of studies that confirm one’s suspicions.

    • Posted August 21, 2018 at 4:46 am | Permalink

      I dont think it counts as a “conspiracy” when they do it in public, does it?

  2. Posted August 20, 2018 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    This reminds me of a conversation I just had with a former (music) teacher of mine, who is a creationist. I mentioned the Apollo moon landings, and he interrupted me to tell me that they had all been faked. It seemed ironic that he sees conspiracies in everything—EXCEPT the resurrection of Jesus. The evidence for THAT, he seems to think, is unassailable.

    • Jenny Haniver
      Posted August 20, 2018 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

      Ha Ha! I’d say that the Resurrection is a conspiracy theory.

    • BJ
      Posted August 20, 2018 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

      The REAL conspiracy — of which, naturally, only the truly enlightened are aware — is that the US government did carry out the Apollo missions, but then pretended to fake them so as to convince the Soviets that (1) the US would do anything necessary to win the propaganda war, and (2) had both a more advanced space program and more advanced video, production, and propaganda capabilities.

      In sum: the moon landing hoax WAS A HOAX.

      • Posted August 20, 2018 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

        Nice! A meta-conspiracy! But what if the hoax about the hoax also turns out to be a hoax? (How many levels deep can this go?)

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted August 20, 2018 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

          The Russian nesting dolls theory of hoaxistry.

          • BJ
            Posted August 20, 2018 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

            Russian nesting dolls are a hoax. Open your eyes.

            • infiniteimprobabilit
              Posted August 20, 2018 at 10:29 pm | Permalink

              I’ve got a Matrushka doll on my bookshelf. It’s a remarkably convincing simulation 😉


        • BJ
          Posted August 20, 2018 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

          You have no idea how deep the rabbit hole goes, bruh.

        • Hrafn
          Posted August 21, 2018 at 1:10 am | Permalink

          It’s hoaxes “all the way down.”

          • Posted August 21, 2018 at 4:47 am | Permalink

            But what’s *under* the turtle?

            • Posted August 21, 2018 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

              Another turtle. Who said that the turtles formed a stack, anyway? Couldn’t they form a very large ring?

              • GBJames
                Posted August 21, 2018 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

                Sort of a Möbius strip of turtles?

  3. Jenny Haniver
    Posted August 20, 2018 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    This discussion on conspiracy theories that was on KQED’s Forum last week, might serve as a companion piece to the paper. Warning, it’s 52 minutes long. I listened to it when it was broadcast, and I think I recall one caller or emailer remarking that religion was a conspiracy theory. I say that’s right on the mark, since humans invented religion.

  4. GBJames
    Posted August 20, 2018 at 1:42 pm | Permalink


  5. lkr
    Posted August 20, 2018 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    The results make more sense if we assume the qualities they test for are:

    animism = widespread spirits/consciousness in non-living entities; eg: de-centralized

    finalism = a single source of consciousness or intent, active at all levels throughout space and time. EG: cntralized goddyness, though anything from deist to maybe a council of skygods..

    The former would imply all sorts of magical transactions with nature.

    The latter would supply revelation demanding genocide, etc..

    Or, I could read the paper. Later, perhaps.

  6. Posted August 20, 2018 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    I’m wary of any psychological study that concludes that those who might hold a different political or religious belief than myself does so because of individual pathology.

    It’s way too convenient.

    Religious or political affiliations are largely determined by socialisation.

    If your parents are Catholic you are likely to be Catholic and that’s because of the way you are brought up, not because you have inherited a faulty gene.

    Likewise if your parents are liberal or authoritarian you are likely to be liberal or authoritarian too.

    If we look at religion or politics we disagree with as pathologies (or ‘delusions’) we are treating sociological or social-psychological issues as medical problems.

    • Posted August 20, 2018 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

      Can any belief that is unsupported by or in contradiction to fact be excluded from the category of pathology?

      • Posted August 20, 2018 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

        Of course. You believe myriad falsified things, we all do. You probably think the US became independent on July 4 but that really happened on July 2.

    • Posted August 21, 2018 at 4:48 am | Permalink

      I dont think the authors view it as a pthology per se, unless most humans suffer from it? Its more a constant feature of some personality traits–the attributing of final causes to current events. In that sense you could view those who have trianed themselves not to do this as the unusual ones

    • Posted August 21, 2018 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

      In the DSM, nothing is a pathology unless it creates a suitable level of impairment. Consequently, because so many people are religious, (metaphysical) idealists, etc. these beliefs are usually fairly functional, so not pathological. This has the consequence that such beliefs will *become* pathological the more people there are who lack them.

  7. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted August 20, 2018 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    Well, I always thought the definition of teleology meant finalism.

    In Aristotle, teleology is one of the four causes and as such Aristotle thinks final destinations actually influence behavior of objects, as a sort of gravity.

    Now Aristotle literally has 4 causes, one of which is teleology, and it is mainly that one that Newtonian physics knocks out of the picture, at least with regard to non-sentient objects, thus undermining most of Aristotelian physics.

    Now if you are a religious type who is really really focused on teleology as the main (or even sole) cause as to why things happen, that I guess would be sort of correlated with creationism, perhaps less so if you thought in terms of multiple causes interacting as Aristotle does.

    Both teleology and animism (or pan-psychism) are the two key pillars of Teilhard de Chardin’s efforts to reconcile evolution and Christianity. They are much less prominent in Ken Miller’s efforts to reconcile the two. (This certainly has a lot to do with why Richard Dawkins speaks much more highly of Ken Miller!)

    Now conspiracy theories hold that unpleasant thinks happen for a purpose, but teleology is about purposes in the future!! This is not really a feature of conspiracy-thinking. So it makes complete sense that animism would be bigger prediction of belief in conspiracy theories.

    • Samedi
      Posted August 20, 2018 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

      Neither the definition of teleology given in the article nor yours are what I learned in philosophy class. What Aristotle called the “final cause” (telos) was the purpose (or end) for which something was done. For example, acquiring groceries is the final cause of going to the supermarket. Nothing inherently magical in the classical definition of teleology.

      Hyperactive agency detection is a much better explanation for superstition than the weak correlation proposed in this article.

      Evolution, by the way, has often been called “teleological” by its detractors precisely because it attempts to explain the function of an evolved trait (a non-intentional natural fact). If you ask why birds evolved feathers, part of what you are asking is what is the purpose or end (telos) of feathers.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted August 20, 2018 at 11:09 pm | Permalink

        In fact, as Dawkins (I think) has noted, it’s often a convenient shorthand to talk in apparently teleological terms (e.g. Arctic animals grew longer hair in response to the cold) rather than tediously explain every time about natural variation and selective differential survival rates; so long as it’s clearly understood that it is only a form of convenient shorthand and not to be taken literally.


      • Posted August 21, 2018 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

        But the answer for the feather question for Aristotle is *literally* for the sake of the organism. In evolution by natural selection, there is no *sake*, it just happens. Selection pressure pushes an existing system in one direction rather than another.

        Furthermore, and the Christians tend to ignore this bit, Aristotle *doesn’t know* what the goal of the biosphere as a whole is. He runs the argument from design again, to avoid a fallacy of composition perhaps, and says basically he doesn’t know. He says then that it *might* be that the biosphere is (to put it in modern terms) trying to maximize *beauty*.

        And we here should all remember the “endless forms most beautiful”, so …

    • Posted August 21, 2018 at 4:51 am | Permalink

      I think you are right–they ar eusuaing “teleology” in a sense that Aristotle did not mean. They gloss it as “everythign happens for a reason”, but evolutionists can believe that (the reasons being “natural selection” or “genetic drift” or “bottleneck effect” etc etc) But those reasons come prior to the events. Thats the big difference. No plan. ANd, more importantly no plan in mind(as there isnt one in charge)

  8. Ken Kukec
    Posted August 20, 2018 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    Wouldn’t this qualify as an instantiation of “crank magnetism”?

  9. Posted August 20, 2018 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  10. Greg H
    Posted August 20, 2018 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    Correction to post: God creating the universe is not a “conspiracy of one”, but a conspiracy of three: Father, Son, Holy Spirit. Oh, wait — God is one. Silly me, I forgot.

  11. Diana MacPherson
    Posted August 20, 2018 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    I suppose you could see creationism as a conspiracy if you see yourself as the one with the real answer (have you heard the good news?). A former JW friend said she used to feel superior to others when she was a kid because she knew all the answers about the universe and everyone else was deceived. I observed this friend also give over to conspiratorial thinking (on 9/11 the towers were a controlled demolition, Stanislaw Burzynski has the cure to cancer, etc.

    • ChrisS
      Posted August 20, 2018 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

      Conspiracy theorists have a propensity to “rationalize” events that may have an underlying irrational basis.

      They err, I think, in attributing hidden agendas or agency to sensational or senseless acts, such as mass shootings or deaths of celebrities; but don’t always allow for the role that the irrational- indeed, chance and randomness- can play in the greater scheme of things.

      It wouldn’t surprise me to find a link between devout theists and conspiratorial thinking.

  12. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted August 20, 2018 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    Not too confident about this, but definitely worth to explore so I hope someone will do that.

    Curiously, “finalism”, which is the non-goddy force, is the form of teleology most connected to creationism, whereas I would have thought that “animism” would be. On the other hand, and contra expectation, animism, which involves nonliving entities, was the main predictor for conspiracism.

    Maybe the magic thinkers, having compartmentalized the factors, tend to pick the one that superficially seems “least unwarranted”? I.e. they pretend to be less nutty if they can.

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted August 20, 2018 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

      “to explore” = exploring. /blames lack of coffee

  13. Posted August 20, 2018 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

    The authors define “teleology” as the tendency to ascribe function and a final cause
to nonintentional natural facts and events.” Now, if you start out assuming that teleology doesn’t exist in nature—as the authors do by their use of the modifier “nonintentional” to describe natural facts and events—then you’ve already taken a big step toward linking teleology with conspiracy theories—i.e., neither of them have any basis in fact. Looks to me like the authors have their conclusion pretty much built into their question. But perhaps I too am missing something here?

    • Posted August 20, 2018 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

      They assume no such thing. Humans are natural, and if anything is capable of intention, it’s humans. They mean ascribing agency (intention) to non-conscious things.

  14. William Stewart
    Posted August 20, 2018 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

    According to social psychologists, some (many?) people believe that the world is just-that good things happen to good people, that bad things happen to bad people, that bad things do not happen to good people, and that good things do not happen to bad people.
    So bad people will get their just desserts and good people will be rewarded for their goodness. Something like teleology. Could lead to blaming the victim. What did she expect dressed like that?

  15. eric
    Posted August 20, 2018 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

    Now I’m not completely sure about the nature of animism—attributing agency and consciousness to “nonliving entities”—but I presume that means god or a godlike force since it has conscousness.

    It doesn’t mean lots of power or knowledge, so not god-like in that sense. Animism typically involves thinking trees, rivers (houses, your DVD player, your car etc.) have spirits associated with them or can do things on their own. Do you think your computer hates you? That’s animism.

    I doubt the people who think houses can be haunted would describe the haunt as a “god.” It doesn’t really fit the description. Likewise someone who thinks polluting a river made it angry and that’s why there was a flood. But obviously there are similarities since both involve a belief in unseen immaterial spirits.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted August 20, 2018 at 10:52 pm | Permalink

      I was going to comment similarly. Animism in ‘primitive’ peoples consists of ascribing spirits to inanimate objects (trees, rocks, scenery). Sometimes with mystical but not necessarily godlike powers.

      Not all that far removed from pantheism, I think.

      I think the modern equivalent of animism is anthropomorphism (of which I am extremely guilty with regard to my cars. I do apologise to my car any time I hit a pothole).

      I find any of those things considerably less repugnant than the Xtian/Islamic angry sky dictator god.


      • eric
        Posted August 21, 2018 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

        Given that animism is pretty much a ‘local’ religion (while it can be practiced anywhere by anyone, an animist spirit only has local reach and relevance), it doesn’t lend itself much to evangelism or telling other people what to do. Ann animist isn’t likely to think or believe that his local pond spirit in Missouri demands all abortions in California be stopped. Thus, many of the more objectionable aspects of ‘big monotheism’ tend to be naturally avoided. I’m sure the same problems could be found in animism, it’s just harder to see how they would gain a following.

  16. Posted August 20, 2018 at 11:34 pm | Permalink

    A note on the stats:

    “Note, though, that the probability levels are low, with all p values less than 0.05 but not less than 0.01, which would be more impressive.”

    The p-values are actually much lower than 0.01, but the authors seem to have chosen to just report that they are “less than 0.05” rather than giving exact numbers. The p-value comes from the t-statistic, and all those reported t-stats are very large. This necessarily translates to a very small p-value (certainly smaller than 0.001 in fact, for those reported values and sample size).

    Also though, we should expect the p-values to be tiny here since the sample size is so large. Unfortunately, that doesn’t really tell us if these effects are meaningful, only that we have enough power to accurately estimate the effects.

    • pierluigi Ballabeni
      Posted August 21, 2018 at 2:05 am | Permalink

      Good point. P-values are only loosely related to psychological, biological, clinical, or whatever, importance. There is literature suggesting (showing?) that scientific findings based on significance testing have much less than 50% probability of being true, especially in observational research.

      • Posted August 21, 2018 at 11:41 am | Permalink

        Those claims are largely overblown, in my opinion. The influential paper by Ioannidis (2005) is the one that first made such grand claims. While it is true that under certain research conditions, less than 50% of “significant” findings are actually true, most scientific fields don’t satisfy those conditions. However, some areas of the psychological sciences come disturbingly close.

    • W.Benson
      Posted August 21, 2018 at 8:38 am | Permalink

      The authors do not report the degrees of freedom for their tests even in the supplemental material, but they seem to be quite large. Perhaps a trained statistician could comment. t = 17.19? Wow!!!

      • Posted August 21, 2018 at 11:46 am | Permalink

        Yes, the degrees of freedom are so large that you can basically interpret the t-statistic as a z-statistic instead. It’s impossible to infer exactly what their degrees of freedom were for their various tests since it depends, partially, on how they performed their regressions (which they also don’t really report). But the dofs are certainly on the order of the sample size, which is big enough to use a normal approximation.

  17. Posted August 21, 2018 at 4:29 am | Permalink

    Dear Matthew and commentators, thank you to point the harder thing to understand about our study. But have a look on the supplemental material along with the paper, we discuss the distinction between animism and finalism further, and compare it to results in children’s naive conception of biology (E.M. Evans asking to distinguish intentionality and teleology, Coley and colleagues distinguishing anthropocentric thinking and teleological thinking). P-values are reported at alpha = .05 and not .01, because p-value are not an reliable indicator of the strenght of an effect (indeed, p-values are very low in our second study, the p-value of the correlation between creationism and conspiracism r = .51 is… p = 6,476E-85, what means 83 zeros after the comma !! But the correlations with teleological thinking are indeed smaller).

    • W.Benson
      Posted August 21, 2018 at 8:42 am | Permalink

      That is what I figured, but I am not up on many of the tests used and sometimes the degrees of freedom are not given. In any case, very interesting stuff. I too recommend consulting the supplementary material for clarifications.

  18. Posted August 26, 2018 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    There is a tendency to simplify the world inherent in efforts to understand it. Both religion and conspiracy folk eschew the world’s complexity and settle on a simple, understandable myth, workable to them.

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