Why the Devil Has the Best Tunes: Rock Music, Satanism, and Religious Fear

They say I worship the Devil / They must be stupid or blind / I’m just a rock ‘n’ roll rebel.
~ Ozzy Osbourne [1]


In the summer of 1990, heavy rock music went on trial for murder.

Five years before, two young adults named James Vance and Raymond Belknap of the small town of Sparks, Nevada spent a winter evening in December drinking, smoking marijuana, and listening to the album Stained Class by the English heavy metal band Judas Priest. According to the story later told at the trial, something in the music prompted the two young men to make a suicide pact. Armed with a 12-gauge shotgun, Vance and Belknap headed over to a church playground. Belknap, age 18, was the first to follow through with the pact, dying instantly after placing the shotgun under his chin and pulling the trigger. Twenty year-old Vance was not so lucky. He sustained severe facial injuries from his self-inflicted shot but survived, his face permanently deformed for the next three years before finally dying of medication complications in 1988.

The parents of the two young men, with the help of personal-injury attorney Kenneth McKenna, filed a wrongful-death lawsuit in 1990 against the members of Judas Priest, charging the band with being responsible for the deaths. [2] Summoned to a Nevada courthouse in July, the members of Judas Priest found themselves in the midst of a bizarre interrogation in which they were forced to defend themselves against charges of nothing less than supernatural mind control coupled with cult conspiracy. The plaintiffs’ lawyers asserted that the young adults’ suicide attempt had been triggered by the phrase “Do It,” a command they believed to be subliminally embedded in the Judas Priest song “Better by You, Better than Me,” the band’s cover of a number originally performed by Spooky Tooth.

“In a case like this . . . it’s always difficult because you’ve got the image of heavy metal against you, and it’s had a lot of bad things thrown at it in the last few years,” Judas Priest guitarist Glenn Tipton said in an interview for the documentary film Dream Deceivers, which chronicled the trial. “I know one thing I’ve learned from this court case: I’d hate to go into court with something to hide. I’d be scared to death.” [3]

In the end, reason prevailed over superstition. Judge Jerry Carr Whitehead ruled in the metal band’s favor. “The scientific research presented,” Whitehead stated in his decision, “does not establish that subliminal stimuli, even if perceived, may precipitate conduct of this magnitude.” The court further concluded, “There exist other factors which explain the conduct of the deceased independent of the subliminal stimuli.” [4]

Judas Priest came out of the Reno trial unscathed by the metaphorical fires of the modern-day inquisition. But thousands of rock record albums did not escape the literal flames of zealous religious conservatives in the bonfires held at many fundamentalist churches across America. During the decade prior to the Judas Priest trial, many fundamentalist Christians and other conservative religious believers had made a cottage industry of spreading dire warnings about the evils of rock music. The heavy metal genre was an especially favorite scapegoat of these fundamentalist crusaders, but their polemics were not limited to that easy of a target. Within the emerging youth countercultures of the 1960s, interest in Eastern philosophy and religion invaded Western popular culture, influencing musicians and artists experimenting with avant-garde styles and forms of expression. This wave of interest in Eastern mysticism and the expansive concepts of universalism and inclusiveness that lyricists and album cover artists played with outraged the ultra-orthodox and conservative sectors of Protestant Christianity in America and instigated much of the panic that arose within the fundamentalist ranks about rock music.

This fear was exacerbated by the founding in the late 1960s of the Church of Satan by a carnival musician named Anton LaVey. And while the Beatles were promoting Eastern philosophy and mysticism, The Rolling Stones were coming out with album titles like 1967’s Their Satanic Majesties Request and 1973’s Goats Head Soup, and singing songs expressing “Sympathy for the Devil.” It was enough to make the fundamentalists’ proverbial heads explode. The anti-rock crusaders were fond of pointing out that the Stones performed the latter song at the Altamont Speedway Free Concert in December 1969, a notoriously violent event in which four people died and dozens more were injured. Footage of the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” piece at this concert, culled from the 1970 documentary film Gimme Shelter, featured in the presentations of several anti-rock lecturers who attempted to make a connection between Satanism and violence. They saw great significance in Mick Jagger’s offhand comment, spoken to the Altamont Speedway crowd in an attempt to lighten the growing unease and tension, that, “Something very funny happens when we start that number.” [5]

LaVey’s Satanism did not believe in or worship a literal Prince of Darkness, but rather revered Satan as a libertarian symbol of freedom from the herd mentality. They also denounced murder and senseless violence, and LaVey’s Satanic Bible contains an explicit condemnation of literal human sacrifices. [6] But this did not stop the Christian fundamentalists from convincing themselves that LaVey and his followers were taking guidance and direction from a very real Satan who was out to destroy the human race. They saw the world in black and white; instead of recognizing and acknowledging the variety and complexity of the melting-pot of religious and spiritual beliefs that had invaded American culture, everything was to them divided into one of only two camps: Christ and Satan. In their imagination, the Eastern mysticism that became popular in the 1960s counterculture movement was a front for Satan’s grand conspiracy for world domination. This view did not diminish in intensity in the ensuing decades. In 1991, fundamentalist preacher Joe Schimmel told an audience at Tetelestai Church in Torrance, California that “Krishna is basically, I believe, just another term for Satan.” [7]

During the 1970s, the fundamentalists’ written and spoken attacks against rock music had very little impact on the wider culture, being heeded for the most part only by the already-converted. The 1980s, however, suddenly saw a sharp and dramatic increase in anti-rock literature, lectures, and media presentations that affected the wider culture in profound ways. Mark Sullivan, writing for the journal Popular Music, suggests that the new political environment was primarily responsible for this dramatic increase. “The incoming Reagan administration signalled an atmosphere conducive to numerous conservative causes, including Christian fundamentalism . . . various right-wing organisations seized the opportunity, tapping what they, at least, saw as a new market.” [8] The same black-and-white “us versus them” mentality was stronger than ever, as fundamentalists continued to see Satan in every kind of secular music. For example, in his 1989 documentary film Hell’s Bells: The Dangers of Rock ‘n’ Roll, evangelist Eric Holmberg laments the popularity of new and alternative forms of musical expression that emerged on the scene in the 1980s, epitomized by such artists as The Cure, Nick Cave, Diamanda Galás, and Lords of the New Church:

Like other artists within this genre, and unlike the jackbooted flagrancy of heavy metal, the message is married to the most dangerous catalyst for satanic insurrection: a sense of religious and poetic transcendence. In this, the Devil may lose an occasional human sacrifice, but he gains something that, from his perspective, is of much greater value.” [9]

The concern felt by Holmberg and other fundamentalists was borne of a fear of losing their imagined monopoly on transcendent truth. Like the Priests of Syrinx in Rush’s 2112 rock suite, the anti-rock preachers feel threatened by all forms of artistic expression that strayed from what their ideology dictate because they know they cannot exercise the control over human creativity that they crave.

The new anti-rock market reached a frenzied peak in the early-to mid ‘90s as moral denouncements of rock spread beyond the fundamentalist religious sector and affected the beliefs and attitudes of secular legislators and activists, who began to take notice of all the connections being made by the fundamentalists between social taboos and rock music. Fundamentalist preacher Fletcher Brothers, for example, concluded his 1987 book The Rock Report with the following bit of pious arithmetic:

Sex and drugs equals rock and roll. Rebellion, Satan equals rock and roll. Homosexuality, incest equals rock and roll. Sado-masochism, mutilation equals rock and roll. Suicide, alcohol equals rock and roll. Hopelessness, anti-godliness equals rock and roll. Murder, occultism equals rock and roll. The list goes on and on. [10]

It is little wonder then that Brothers declares at the outset of his book, “I make no apology when I say that I believe that rock music . . . is public enemy number one of our young people today.” He goes on to complain, “I can’t think of one good thing to come out of the recent trend in rock music other than the revenue it provides to our free enterprise system.” [11] For Brothers, the capitalistic benefit is not enough to counteract the harmful effects he perceives rock music to be wreaking upon society. He openly and explicitly advocates censorship in The Rock Report, a book he intended to serve as a “quick, ready reference guide” for knowing which music parents and activist organizations should work toward banning.” Religious conservative David Noebel flatly states, “Rock music is evil because it is to music what Dada and surrealism are to art – atheistic, chaotic, nihilistic.” [12] And in 1989, a 400-page anti-rock polemic written by evangelist John Muncy was published with the title, The Role of Rock: Harmless Entertainment or Destructive Influence? Muncy, founder and president of Jesus Cares Ministries, maintains that the latter is true of his subject. He charges rock music of being primarily responsible for an increase in society of rebellion, sexual promiscuity and deviance, alcohol abuse, drug use, “false religions,” violence, suicide and Satanism. [13]

The last item in that list is by far the most common bogeyman of Christians who rail against rock music. In the documentary Hell’s Bells, Eric Holmberg has this to say about the ties between occultism and rock music:

Like an invisible cancer that inevitably leads to death, so the satanic seed in rock and roll has culminated in a blatant obsession with the occult. Cryptic allusions to the Devil in the music of Blues artist Robert Johnson a generation ago have given place to an open worship of Satan and hell that comes complete with the symbols, liturgies, rituals, and messianic personalities that attend any religious order. No longer the stuff of small underground cults, millions of young people have been caught in its evil sway.

Spoken over footage of Ronnie James Dio performing his metaphor-heavy song “Heaven and Hell” in a 1984 concert at The Spectrum arena in Philadelphia, this statement by Holmberg is a consequence of taking artistic expression in popular culture far too literally. It also constitutes a classic case of projection. Conservative anti-rock alarmists who complain about the lyrics and imagery in rock music being replete with bloody violence and supernaturally-oppressive themes never apply these same criticisms to several of the most well-known hymns of the Christian faith. For example, any objective assessment of the lyrics contained in the famous hymn “Are You Washed in the Blood?” will not fail to call to one’s mind a mental image of people bathing themselves in human blood. Using the metaphor of a lamb sacrifice, the hymn makes reference to Christianity’s literal doctrine of a human sacrifice. Similarly, the hymn “There is Power in the Blood” contains a clear reference to a flow of literal blood which possesses occultic power to erase “sin stains.” Coming just short of raising images of gushing blood, the hymn speaks of blood that was shed on a crucifix from a literal human sacrifice. Again, the well-known and much-beloved hymn “Nothing but the Blood” makes reference to a “fount” of human blood that flows from Jesus’ body. Fanny Crosby’s hymn “Saved by the Blood” tells us “We’re saved by the blood that was drawn from the side of Jesus our Lord, when He languished and died.” Here too, Crosby’s hymn describes that blood as a fountain, “where the vilest may go and wash their souls.” All this bloody and occult imagery in Christian hymns, which actually are sung as liturgy in the context of the Christian ritual of communion, would fit right in with the motifs of any black- death- or heavy-metal rock band.

Themes of the occult and of Satanism in rock music, especially heavy metal and associated subgenres, are almost always nothing more than a theatrical act as a money-making gimmick or simply a case of the rock artists being poetic. Only fundamentalist Christians and “cult cops” tend to take the imagery and lyrics in metal music seriously. One reason they do so is because they feel a psychological need to imbue everything, secular or not, with the same religious significance they afford to their own religious rituals. Their interpretations of secular rock music are filtered through a specific religious orientation with the result that the original intent of the artists is distorted and taken out of context. Vance Ferrell’s book Inside Rock Music claims, “The rock group, Black Sabbath, has been known to make altar calls to Lucifer in some of their concerts.” [14] But it is highly doubtful that Ferrell has been “inside” rock music sufficiently enough to actually attend a Black Sabbath concert to confirm his unfounded suspicions. Besides, Ferrell seems to forget that freedom of religious expression is constitutionally protected in the United States, so even if it were true that the band members in Black Sabbath were bona fide Satanists, they have a constitutional right to make altar calls to Lucifer.

But of course, the band members in Black Sabbath are not and never have been Satanists. “Satanism as practiced by most heavy metallers had very little to do with black candles and incantations,” writes heavy metal historian Ian Christe. “In fact, their beliefs were astoundingly in tune with red-blooded American values – only their voices were more self-aware and honest.” [15] When rock and heavy metal artists sing about sex, drugs, rebellion, violence, and hopelessness, they are merely being more forthright in confronting the issues and concerns of postmodern society in the throes of disillusion about the upheaval of an evolving culture. And when these same artists incorporate images and references to Satan, they are merely putting a face to all these cultural and social fears.

Thus, when Ozzy Osbourne performed the song “Suicide Solution” on his Blizzard of Ozz album, he was neither encouraging nor glorifying the act of suicide, as many conservatives believe. The perceptive listener, as well as anyone who takes the small effort to actually read Bob Daisley’s lyrics, will find that the song’s title actually refers to alcohol as a liquid solution that leads to self-destruction when addiction to the bottle sets in.

Wine is fine but whiskey’s quicker
Suicide is slow with liquor.
Take a bottle, drown your sorrows
Then it floods away tomorrows. 

The fact that the song clearly has nothing to do with suicide itself did not stop the parents of John McCollum from filing a lawsuit against Osbourne in 1986, alleging that their 19 year-old son was listening to the song “Suicide Solution” when he shot and killed himself. [17] The parents were legally represented by Kenneth “Do It” McKenna when the case went to court two years later.

Pop and rock music of all kinds has always prided itself in pushing socially-tolerated boundaries by being provocative and often euphemistically, if not overtly, sexual. This has been the case since the inception of “rock and roll” music, and little has changed in this regard. In an earlier generation, sexually repressed conservatives denounced musicians like Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley as an evil influence on the youth. When Elvis performed for his third and final appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show on January 6, 1957, television producers were pressured into avoiding showing any footage of him below the waist. His gyrations were that offensive to the millions of concerned and repressed conservatives in the viewing audience. Back in the 1930s, English clergyman Montague Summers, who professed belief in witches, vampires and werewolves, noted that “some acute observers have shrewdly scented the devil’s own orchestra” in jazz music. [18]

If the moral crusaders of bygone generations looked askance at unconventional forms of musical expression because of cultural and ethnic prejudices, the offense felt by modern moral crusaders went far beyond mere prudishness. They showed their disapproval of the rock culture by painting it as being even more radically “other” – they convinced themselves that rock music originated in a supernatural realm of spiritual darkness. For example, Pastor Schimmel warned his Tetelestai audience about the satanic influence of Elvis: “You would have never heard of Elvis Presley as a rock star if he was not demon possessed. I believe that one hundred percent. People that are being moved by Elvis are not being moved by the man Elvis.”

In one sense, this tinfoil-hat assertion is a testament to the artistic talent of Elvis and all the other singers and musicians who have been accused of being possessed by a supernatural entity. Fundamentalists like Schimmel are apparently so impressed and awestruck by the performances of rock and roll artists that they feel compelled to attribute their talent to a force more powerful than the artists themselves, namely Satan himself.. In his Hell’s Bells documentary, Holmberg states that “both the Scriptures and church traditions suggest that music comes quite naturally to Satan, that very possibly before his fall, he was in charge of music in heaven.” [19] Pastor Jacob Aranza, one of the most vocal anti-rock evangelists of the 1980s, went even further and asserted that rock music was specifically invented by the angel Lucifer at the time of his rebellion against God in heaven, presumably before the earth was created. “Lucifer is the only angelic being mentioned in the Bible to possess a musical ministry,” he writes. “At one point in time, he used his musical abilities for God’s purposes, but now he uses them to exalt evil and draw men away from God. Having been created with musical abilities, it is not hard to believe that Satan indeed influences music today . . . Party music goes back a long way! Ever since Lucifer’s fall, music that incites the flesh to fulfill its lusts, and encourages mankind to sin has always been played.” [20] Aranza even cites the account of the Israelites singing to and worshiping the golden calf in the absence of their desert-wandering leader Moses (as told in the Old Testament’s Book of Exodus) as one of the very first rock concerts in human history! [21]

Pastor Fletcher Brothers agrees with this highly-imaginative interpretation. He notes that in Exodus 32:17, Moses is said to have heard the Israelites shouting as he descended the mountain on which he had sojourned alone with the desert god Yahweh. The verse also speaks of the “noise of war in the camp.” Brothers wonders to what this passage could possibly be referring, since there were no guns or bombs at that time in history. He proceeds to speculate that the verse referred to the beating of drums, such as those used in war. He notes the references to “dancing” in verse 19 and to “singing” in verse 18. He also highlights the passages that speak of the mischief and corruption of the Israelites and concludes,

Could this have been the first recorded “rock concert?” Who knows? But we do know it was music or singing. We do know that the people had “corrupted themselves.” They were naked, and . . . leave the rest to your imagination. We know the “singing” sounded more like “screaming” and “screeching.” Whatever was going on was “bad news”, because as you read on you will find that many people lost their lives. [22]

One wonders if Aranza and Brothers had spent a bit too much time listening to the thrash metal band Exodus while high on the drug of religious fundamentalism (I am sure metal lovers would love to see a music video in which the bloody massacre of the calf-worshiping heretics at the hands of Moses’ soldiers is set to Exodus’s song “Bonded by Blood” – I know I would). The “first recorded rock concert” interpretation of the 32nd chapter of Exodus is a prime example of an all-too-common practice among biblical inerrantists and literalists, that of superimposing ancient biblical narratives onto modern-day issues and interpreting said issues accordingly.


Holmberg, Aranza, Brothers and company are of course wrong about music’s origin. Music is a human invention, the product of creativity and emotions stemming from experiences that ultimately have physiological bases, however transcendent they may subjectively feel. The devoutly fundamentalist believer cannot bring himself to acknowledge this, because to deny the emotional high he feels from worshiping his personal deity in sacred song would be highly problematic to say the least. He finds it unpalatable and distasteful to think that he and his fellow humans are nothing more than “bags of matter creating musical art,” to quote the caricature employed by one evolution-denying fundamentalist on YouTube. [23] So these believers convince themselves that the emotions felt while worshiping in music are transcendent and supernatural. And when they encounter raucous and provocative rock music, their natural inclination is first to recoil in horror and then to denounce such music as the work of Satan himself. To these believers, rock and heavy-metal music cannot simply be the harmless product of human imagination. It must be transcendentally evil and a danger to the eternal souls of the youth whose attention they feel they are competing with secular forces to capture. Thus, the anti-rock crusaders try to find ways to connect social ills such as teen suicide, murder, or substance abuse to the music they fear.

But the imagined connections are almost always dubious or nonexistent, and otherworldly influences are a poor substitute for human responsibility. No supernatural force, good or evil, was subliminally whispering the words, “Do It” in the ears of overzealous parents, teachers and pastors who brought hundreds of rock albums to their churches, threw them together in large piles, and burned them in collective fits of righteous indignation. The directive to toss music records into the flames was a product of the religious torch-wielders’ own irrational fears. Perhaps they were ultimately afraid of perceiving a distorted but nevertheless distinct image of themselves in the lyrical imaginations of rock artists. At one point in his Hell’s Bells documentary, where he brings up the specter of the pagan god Pan and what he sees as its connection to rock music, Eric Holmberg was in one sense unwittingly talking about himself when he said,

Half-human and half-goat, Pan remains one of the most enduring and compelling symbols for the Antichrist. . . . It’s worth noting that possession by Pan, from which we get the word “panic,” often results in an obsession with sex and a need for immediate gratification.

Throughout the three-hour Hell’s Bells presentation, it is Holmberg who exhibits panic about his subject. He is just as obsessed with sex, if not more so, than the rock artists he spends a considerable time denouncing as sexually perverse and promiscuous. And while Holmberg explicitly states that he does not condone record burning, his own need for “immediate gratification” is reflected in the numerous impatient and unreflective leaps of logic and in the sloppy research he presents in his narration.

Recall Ian Christe’s point about heavy metal musicians being more self–aware and honest in their voices than the fundamentalists who denounced them. The bands who made use of satanic imagery in their lyrics and performances understood that they were simply being theatrical. Meanwhile, fundamentalist Christians sang hymns about the literal blood of Jesus being used in a rite of human sacrifice. They also partook of bread and wine that symbolize cannibalistically consuming the flesh and blood of their scapegoat messiah. But they were unwilling to admit that what they were doing was just as theatrical as using satanic imagery and symbolism for dramatic effect.

And this is why the devil has always had the best tunes.


[1] Ozzy Osbourne, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Rebel,” on Bark at the Moon (Epic Records, 1983).

[2] Ian Christe, Sound of the Beast: The Complete Headbanging History of Heavy Metal (New York: HarperEntertainment, 2003), pp. 296-97.

[3] David Van Taylor, Dream Deceivers: The Story behind James Vance vs. Judas Priest (First Run Features/Tapestry Intl., 1992).

[4] Vance v. Judas Priest WL 130920, 2nd Nevada District Court, 1990. Quoted in Anthony R. Pratkanis, “The Cargo-Cult Science of Subliminal Persuasion,” Skeptical Inquirer 16, no. 3 (Spring 1992): 260-72.

[5] David Maysles, Albert Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin, Gimme Shelter (Maysles Films, Inc., 1970).

[6] “Under NO circumstances would a Satanist sacrifice any animal or baby! . . . There are sound and logical reasons why the Satanists could not perform such sacrifices. Man, the animal, is the godhead to the Satanist. The purest form of carnal existence reposes in the bodies of animals and human children who have not grown old enough to deny themselves their natural desires.” Anton Szandor LaVey, The Satanic Bible (New York: Avon Books, 1969), p. 89.

[7] Joe Schimmel, Rock ‘n’ Roll Sorcerers of the New Age Revolution (Fight the Good Fight Ministries, 1993).

[8] Mark Sullivan, “’More Popular than Jesus’: The Beatles and the Religious Far Right,” Popular Music 6, no. 3 (October 1987): 319.

[9] Eric Holmberg, Hell’s Bells: The Dangers of Rock ‘n’ Roll (Reel to Real Ministries, 1989). Gratifyingly enough, and against the intentions of Holmberg’s ministry, this documentary has become something of a cult classic among rock music enthusiasts.

[10] Fletcher A. Brothers, The Rock Report (Lancaster, PA: Starburst Publishers, 1987), p. 141.

[11] Ibid, p. 13.

[12] David A. Noebel, The Legacy of John Lennon: Charming or Harming a Generation? (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1982), p. 42.

[13] John Muncy, The Role of Rock: Harmless Entertainment or Destructive Influence? (Canton, OH: Daring Books, 1989).

[14] Vance Ferrell, Inside Rock Music (Altamont, TN: Evolution Facts, Inc., 2006), p. 85.

[15] Christe, Sound of the Beast, p. 244.

[16] Ozzy Osbourne, “Suicide Solution,” on Blizzard of Ozz (Epic Records, 1980).

[17] McCollum v. CBS, Inc., California Court of Appeals, 2nd District, 3rd Division, 1988.

[18] Montague Summers, A Popular History of Witchcraft (London: Kegan Paul, 1937), p. 153.

[19] Actually, nothing in either the Jewish or Christian Scriptures even hints that a being called Satan was once an angel who rebelled or that he invented music.

[20] Jacob Aranza, More Rock, Country and Backward Masking Unmasked (Shreveport, LA: Huntington House Inc., 1985), pp. 18-19, 20.

[21] Ibid, p. 20

[22] Brothers, The Rock Report, p. 140.

[23] NephilimFree, “Bags of Matter Creating Musical Art” (video), YouTube, October 10, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wMegqJseoKw (accessed October 16, 2016). The creationist fundamentalist in this video encourages his viewers to watch a video of Simon and Garfunkel performing their song “For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her” in a 1969 concert. He calls this performance “astonishing” and states, “I believe even every atheist in this world, if they were to watch this video, and see the creativity and thoughtfulness of these two human beings performing this song, they would feel ashamed, whether they would admit it or not . . . they will feel shame for telling people and wanting us to teach our children that we’re merely soulless bags of matter that arose from pond scum.”

This statement essentially denies that humans are by themselves capable of doing “astonishing” things and thus betrays a very low regard for human potential that is more demeaning to human worth than anything any atheist evolutionist has said. As an atheist myself, I felt quite the opposite of shame when I watched this performance. The realization that through the entirely unguided and eons-long natural process of evolution, we as a species have developed the cognitive tools necessary to undergo cultural evolution in addition to biological change and thus to manipulate abstract concepts into works of art is far more awe-inspiring than the small-minded belief that such ability was merely programmed into us by a supernatural designer. At best, the latter scenario reduces our creative talent to mere robotic mimicry. Arising from pond scum (which does not accurately represent what any evolutionary scientist thinks about our origins) is by far a more dignified origin than that.

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The Birth of a Skeptic (Guest Post by Niels Böge Nothdurft)

This is a guest post written by Niels Böge Nothdurft. Hailing from Denmark, Niels is a former member of the Zeitgeist Movement, the organization spawned by Peter Joseph’s Zeitgeist series of conspiracy-theory films. In this post, Niels relates his experience being a part of this movement and what led him to discard the organization and become an advocate of science-based skepticism and critical thinking.

It’s around two years ago I left The Zeitgeist Movement (TZM), so why not celebrate it with a blogpost about my time in TZM?

I first joined TZM around mid-2013. I was another person back then. I was utterly frustrated with society and I had a serious lack of critical thinking skills, which meant that I believed in almost any kind of woo you can name. If some claim had a YouTube documentary to support it, it had definitely met its burden of proof for me back then.

My frustration with society led me into Facebook groups for other frustrated people and of course the comment sections on news articles. It was on a comment section that I encountered the third Zeitgeist movie. When watching it I had an epiphany. What the movie said made sense to me, so I watched the other movies as well and got into contact with the Danish branch of TZM.

I got into a regional chapter, which mainly consisted of me and two other guys. We met once in a while, had a good time, and talked about a Resource Based Economy (RBE), which is a societal model promoted by TZM. I won’t go into any details in this blogpost about what a RBE is, since it requires a blogpost of its own.

We of course talked about what we can do to spread awareness about RBEs. The awareness was mostly Facebook-based, which means that we posted in comment sections and made posts on our Facebook page about anything from societal issues to science. There was one exception to this in our awareness spreading, which was a speech one of us gave at a political party and grassroots movement meeting in the city of Århus.

In the spring of 2014 I began to get more interested in science and skepticism, mainly because I wrote a lot of Facebook posts about science. New technology, science, and the scientific method for social concern was officially promoted by TZM, but the reality was another, which I found out later. I began to read books like The Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan. It quickly purged my mind of any belief in the supernatural and woo I had held until then. I had been a firm believer in all kinds of woo and supernatural claims most of my life. I now began to see the world in a different way; I questioned things and demanded a more rigorous burden of proof before I accepted a claim as true.

Soon after this I began to question TZM. In the beginning it was the small things, like why the first movie was promoted by some TZM chapters when it clearly was shite. After a while I stopped promoting the second movie, since it had some things in it that were clearly dubious, like a conspiracy theory about economic hitmen, backed by nothing but the testimony of one man. It was during that time I encountered other likeminded, skeptical TZM members, like Matt Berkowitz who came to play a big role later that year.

I continued to be a member of TZM and promote RBEs, in some way, until the fall season that year. I kind of rationalized my involvement with TZM with the thoughts that the goal was noble, so it didn’t matter if what we were promoting and selling wasn’t all true, and that our official TZM information material, like the second movie, had serious flaws.

There was trouble in TZM in 2014. Matt Berkowitz, who was a prominent coordinator in a Canadian chapter (a chapter that for once did something serious in TZM), had posted a video in which he promoted critical thinking and scientific skepticism. All hell broke loose because of that video. TZM had at that time (and probably still has) a lot of members who are into conspiracy theories, pseudoscience and other unsupported claims, so the video got rough reception by a lot of TZM members. To make a long story short, Peter Joseph (PJ), who is the leader of the supposedly leaderless TZM, got involved and erased Matt and his video about critical thinking. I find it a bit funny since some people call PJ “Peter Joseph Stalin” due to the similarities between communism and RBEs, the joke being that Joseph Stalin erased his former friend Trotsky and PJ basically did the same thing.

Shortly after that I left TZM, as did many other skeptics who were once a part of the movement. We were basically fed up with all the pseudoscience in the movement, and now when it was clear that the “leaderless” movement had a leader who was against critical thinking, we had had enough.

So was my time in TZM wasted? Besides the obvious waste of time promoting a RBE, I would say that I had a great time. I met some nice and cool people and it led me down the road of skepticism. My time in TZM also made me interested in society and politics, which eventually led me to learn more about them and gain some understanding, so that I don’t feel as frustrated anymore.

Learning critical thinking skills has definitely been a good thing for me. Critical thinking is a tool you can apply to all aspects of life and it helps you understand the world, so I really appreciate getting that tool. And I appreciate the people who helped me get it, like Carl Sagan, one of my biggest heroes, and of course Matt Berkowitz and Philip Blair (both ex-TZM members), who introduced me to a lot of great YouTubers. And I appreciate these YouTubers, people like Matt Dillahunty, C0nc0rdance, Potholer54, Martymer81, and of course The League of Nerdsa podcast starring James Gurney and his co-host/friend Myles Power, who besides doing that podcast also makes his own YouTube videos.


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Spirit of Paranoia: A Critical Analysis of “Zeitgeist” (Part III)


The third and final part of Peter Joseph’s Zeitgeist is by far the most fascinating – and perhaps the most delusional and paranoid – of the film’s three sections. Part III, titled “Don’t Mind the Men behind the Curtain,” takes a decidedly darker and more sinister turn. In the film’s previous chapter, we were assaulted with a barrage of media clips, sound bites, and images full of people breathlessly exclaiming that 9/11 was an inside job because of this or that anomaly. It contained very little commentary from Joseph and had no apparent connection to anything that was discussed in Part I. At the end of Part II, we finally learn what the whole point of this middle portion of the film is supposed to be. The events of 9/11, says Joseph, were a massive false flag operation perpetrated by the U.S. government in order to further their agenda for total control over the population and inaugurate their New World Order. Is it too late to grab a tinfoil hat?

Two money-related theses are argued in Part III. One is that all debt in the United States is created by a seemingly never-ending money supply that the Federal Reserve produces out of nothing. The second is that the federal income tax was created not only as a means of paying off this debt, but also as a means of enslaving people to perpetual debt. The subject of war is also explored. Joseph argues that World Wars I and II and the Vietnam conflict were provoked by central banking interests for monetary gain. The film then disastrously veers off the deep end when it reaches its conclusion, which posits a coming One World Government à la Logan’s Run that tracks every single person on the planet via an ID chip that locks all people into a control grid.

Much of the content in the third part of Zeitgeist originates from two primary sources. The first is the various anti-government militia movements that cropped up in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s. The other source, ironically enough, is evangelical Christianity. Many adherents to Christian faith believe that a personage they call “Antichrist” will someday emerge on the world scene and create a One World Government, complete with a one world currency, over which he will rule with an iron fist. Beginning around the late 1970s, such ominous and dystopian right-wing predictions managed to grow beyond fringe status and achieve wide circulation, as evangelicals and fundamentalists came out of the woodwork to preach their expectations that a One World government was imminent. This expectation is still alive to this day, and now the fundamentalists are joined in the paranoid chorus by secular conspiracy theorists, people who do not embrace any particular religious ideology. Like the 2,000 year-old belief that Jesus will “soon” return to Earth, anti-government conspiracy theorists are today proclaiming nothing essentially different from what their counterparts in past generations have warned. Even before the political rise of the Religious Right in the 1980s, the neo-conservative movement of the Sixties and Seventies spawned a culture of paranoid anti-government activists. Today this community enjoys a stronger public voice than they had in earlier decades, thanks in large part to the Internet. Zeitgeist is just one such voice clamoring for attention. Let’s see what, if anything, it has to contribute to the cultural discussion.


Central Banks

So who are the “men behind the curtain” referred to in the title of Part III? It turns out they are the rich and powerful banking magnates of Wall Street, the giants in the world of Big Finance. In the following quote from the film, Joseph sets the scene by essentially poisoning the well, portraying central banks as a scheme by the rich and powerful to enslave the populace to perpetual debt:

A central bank is an institution that produces the currency of an entire nation. Based on historical precedent, two specific powers are inherent in central banking practice: the control of interest rates and the control of the money supply, or inflation. A central bank does not simply supply a government’s economy with money, it loans it to them at interest. Then, through the use of increasing and decreasing the supply of money, the central bank regulates the value of the currency being issued. It is critical to understand that the entire structure of this system can only produce one thing in the long run: debt.

The main justification for having a central bank has to do with practical economics and is actually far less sinister than Joseph makes it out to be. The currency of small independent banks during the “free banking” era of the mid-nineteenth century was not based on anything other than the credit they had stored in their vaults in the form of gold or silver. Without a centralized banking system in place to shore up their assets, these small independent banks tended to survive an average of only five years before going bankrupt because of the unpredictable vicissitudes of the market, including seasonal fluctuations in interest rates. [1] By setting a fixed loan and interest rate, centralized banking provides a level of stability that allows markets to trade internationally.

The main catalyst for the creation of a centralized bank in America was the Bank Panic of 1907. [2] This major financial crisis was sparked by the United Copper Company’s failed scheme to artificially inflate stock prices through aggressive purchasing of shares and the subsequent runs by depositors on banks in imminent danger of bankruptcy. Zeitgeist touches briefly on this event:

[. . .] J.P. Morgan, publicly considered a financial luminary at the time, exploited his mass influence by publishing rumors that a prominent bank in New York was “insolvent,” or bankrupt. Morgan knew this would cause mass hysteria, which would affect other banks as well, and it did. The public, in fear of losing their deposits, immediately began mass withdrawals. Consequently the banks were forced to call in their loans, causing the recipients to sell their products, and thus a spiral of bankruptcies, repossessions, and turmoil emerged.

No, J.P. Morgan was not responsible for inciting the Panic of 1907. The Knickerbocker Trust Company, the third largest commercial bank in New York City at the time, was primarily responsible for sparking the panic, as the company provided funds for the United Copper Company’s designs. In a matter of a few days, the price of the metal increased from $37 per share to nearly $60 per share, placing a burden on short sellers that couldn’t be satisfied. The panic kicked into full gear on Monday, October 21 when the National Bank of Commerce announced that it would no longer clear any checks from Knickerbocker, leading to depositors making a run on the bank to withdraw their funds. [3] In short, the mass withdrawals happened because banks began calling in their loans. The threat of imminent insolvency was not a fabrication or a rumor.

Zeitgeist briefly discusses the other big market crashes of the early twentieth century, making similar claims about the stock market panics being “manufactured” by wealthy and powerful bankers. According to Joseph’s narrative, J.P. Morgan, J.D. Rockefeller, and other household names in the banking industry fabricated all the scares, intentionally trying to spread panic and cause banks to fail so they could buy up rival banks at a discount. But there is no evidence to suggest that Morgan ever published fraudulent rumors of about banks going bankrupt. In fact, the opposite is true. Morgan, along with an informal team of trust company executives he organized, attempted to halt the Panic of 1907 and rescue the economy. He purchased large amounts of falling stock from financially-sound companies in order to stabilize the market. [4] “Thanks to Morgan and the other New York bankers,” writes historian John Steele Gordon, “the crash of 1907 did not mark the onset of a period of severe depression, as the crashes of 1873 and 1893 had. But it did make clear that the country simply could no longer do without a central bank. A man of the stature and probity of J.P. Morgan might be able to avert financial calamity in the future, but there was no guarantee that there would be such a man available.” [5]

A similar strategy was employed in an attempt to curtail the economic crisis ignited by the Stock Market Crash of 1929, the most devastating crash in U.S. history. On October 24, 1929, a day that has come to be known as “Black Thursday,” 11 percent of the market value was lost and an unprecedented 13 million shares were traded on the Stock Exchange by panicking sellers desperate to cash out of the speculative bubble they had created before it burst. Because of the heavy volume of trading, brokerage offices were hours late in reporting prices on their ticker tapes and mass chaos ruled the day on Wall Street. A consortium of leading bankers, among them the heads of Morgan Bank and Chase National Bank, decided to stem the selling frenzy by infusing hundreds of millions of dollars into the Stock Exchange. They enlisted Richard Whitney, acting president of the Exchange, to act as their intermediary. Whitney went to the U.S. Steel trading post and purchased 10,000 shares of U.S. Steel at a price well above their market value. [6] As planned, the market stopped plummeting. But unlike the 1907 solution, it was only temporary. The panic stopped for that day, but the bankers’ efforts were not enough to stop the events of Black Tuesday five days later, a day that has lived on in the American psyche as the benchmark between the high and giddy prosperity of the Roaring Twenties and the squalor of the Great Depression that followed for the next decade. [7]

All this information is missing from Joseph’s film, for the simple reason that it does not fit the narrative he is feeding us. It would not be convenient for Joseph to inform his viewers that the big names in the world of early twentieth-century finance tried their best to save crashing markets, sometimes successfully and sometimes not so successfully. The Morgans and Rockefellers of the world stood to lose just as much as the depositing layman if the market crumbled. But Zeitgeist instead paints a picture that flies in the face of plausibility, claiming that “a few months before October of 1929, J.D. Rockefeller, Bernhard Barrack, and other insiders quietly exited the market, and on October 24th, 1929, the New York financiers who furnished the margin loans started calling them in en masse.”

This is completely inaccurate. These banking insiders did not withdraw their money before the crash happened. They took their money out and left the market during the crash, which makes practical sense. They did all they could to rescue the market but it still began to collapse around them. What rational person wouldn’t take out their money at this point?

Virtually all conspiracy theories surrounding the passing of the Federal Reserve Act in 1913 would have people believe that very few individuals knew about the act, and that it was passed under very secretive circumstances by only a handful of people. Zeitgeist is no exception. The narrator states,

After this bill [the Federal Reserve Act] was constructed, it was then handed over to their political front man, Senator Nelson Aldrich, to push through Congress. And in 1913 with heavy political sponsorship by the bankers, Woodrow Wilson became President, having already agreed to sign the Federal Reserve Act in exchange for campaign support. And two days before Christmas when most of Congress was at home with their families, the Federal Reserve Act was voted in, and Wilson in turn made it law.

This is a gross distortion of the facts. The majority of Congress was present, not “at home with their families.” Further, the majority of Congress voted for the act, and it was democratically passed into law on December 22, 1913 with 298 yeas against 60 nays. This was after four months of debate and discussion. [8] A total of 76 Congressmen present did not vote, which means that even if all 76 had voted against the bill, the yeas would still have been in the majority. The Act then passed the Senate vote the following day, 43 yeas to 25 nays, with 27 not voting.

The film claims that in later years Woodrow Wilson regretted signing the Federal Reserve Act into law. In support of this claim, the film quotes passages from two speeches written by Wilson. In the first quoted speech, Wilson said, “A great industrial nation is controlled by its system of credit. Our system of credit is privately concentrated. The growth of the nation, therefore, and all our activities are in the hands of a few men who, even if their action be honest and intended for the public interest, are necessarily concentrated upon the great undertakings in which their own money is involved and who necessarily, by very reason of their own limitations, chill and check and destroy genuine economic freedom.” [9]

In the second quote given in the film, Wilson said, “We have restricted credit, we have restricted opportunity, we have controlled development, and we have come to be one of the worst ruled, one of the most completely controlled and dominated, governments in the civilized world–no longer a government by free opinion, no longer a government by conviction and the vote of the majority, but a government by the opinion and the duress of small groups of dominant men.” [10]

The problem is that Zeitgeist is representing these quotes dishonestly. Both quotes actually come from Wilson’s 1912 campaign speeches. They are hardly statements of regret about passing the Federal Reserve Act into law, because he said these things before the Federal Reserve Act even existed. Joseph must know he is lying through his teeth when he represents Wilson as saying these things “years later.” These two speeches, along with several others, were later collected into a book titled The New Freedom, published in 1913.

Congressmen Louis McFadden and Charles August Lindbergh have been discussed by conspiracy theorists more than any other figures involved in the Federal Reserve Act debates, and they figure prominently in Zeitgeist’s discussion as well. McFadden and Lindbergh both strongly opposed the Act and attempted to establish an impeachment case against those primarily responsible for creating it. Very few of the many people who express admiration for these two men realize that McFadden’s opposition to the Act stemmed from his belief that the Federal Reserve was part and parcel of an international Jewish conspiracy to undermine the economic integrity of the United States. McFadden was an extremely shady individual who believed that the Jews not only controlled the American economy, but that they were also responsible for a number of major economic upheavals and changes, especially in the United States. [11] He was also a strong supporter of Adolf Hitler and promoted a number of Nazi policies that were specifically anti-Semitic in nature. Most notably, he supported Hitler’s attempts to put an end to alleged Jewish control of all aspects of the German infrastructure. [12] When McFadden tried his hand at running for president in 1936, he ran on a platform of anti-Semitism, one of his campaign slogans reading “Christianity instead of Judaism.” [13]

In 1932, McFadden and Lindbergh spearheaded impeachment proceedings against President Hoover in addition to conspiracy charges against the Federal Reserve Board. Congress took it to a vote, and the impeachment resolution was defeated 361 to 8. Only eight people in Congress voted with McFadden and Lindbergh. [14] Even Ron Paul draws in better votes in Congress with his unpopular fringe ideas.

Historically speaking, opposition to the Federal Reserve was rooted in anti-Semitism. Of course, most people who want to see the Federal Reserve eliminated in the present day are not anti-Semites. The problem is that most of them do not realize that anti-Semitic motivations are what drove the initial oppositions to the Federal Reserve Act. And to portray figures like Louis McFadden as heroes for freedom, as Zeitgeist does, is to display an ignorance of history.

Today, much of the public’s opposition to government-run finance industries such as the Federal Reserve has its roots in a fear of the Central Bank concept. The many conspiracy theories that this fear has inspired, including those concerning the Rothschild family, the Bilderberg Group, and the Trilateral Commission, virtually all stem from a fear of banking in general, an anxiety that is experienced even by rational, common-sense individuals who have their head on straight. I myself have little confidence in banks, and while I have no reason to distrust extremely wealthy people in financial industries, I do not particularly trust them either. However, this does not justify making up “facts” and grossly misrepresenting the process by which money is created, as Zeitgeist does. The film argues that money comes from nothing and has no basis. This is incorrect; while there is no physical thing one can point to and identify as the basis for money, the monetary concept itself has a well-grounded foundation, albeit a needlessly complex one. [15] Desiring a system that is both easier to understand and more trustworthy is quite understandable. It is also easy to sympathize with the desire to end the private status of the Federal Reserve, and it is legitimate to ask why anyone should trust a private industry to uphold and protect the best interests of the people. However, to suggest that the Federal Reserve and central banks in general are evil entities that are out to intentionally harm and enslave us is an unwarranted and unfounded conclusion with no basis in reality.

Moreover, people who harbor paranoid notions of iron-fisted government control tend to grossly underestimate the power of the democratic process wielded by the people. There is an obvious psychological reason for this fear. The participation of “we the people” in the election of politicians to government offices has a great deal to do with overall trends in and evolution of public opinion surrounding national politics, and it is surprising how often this fact is either under-emphasized or not acknowledged at all by the general public. For example, the United States was treated to heavy doses of neoliberalism as a result of democratically electing Ronald Reagan to the office of president. We are to some degree still experiencing the effects of this political philosophy today, particularly in the maximization of the disproportional influence of the private business sector in outlining the economic priorities of the state. This development can ultimately be traced to the will of the people, not to a conspiracy on the part of a shadowy and elite class of bankers who control us like puppets. There are no “men behind the curtain.” And when neoliberalism or whatever other political philosophy may be trendy at some given time fails to deliver what the majority of people want, the psychological basis underlying the public’s underestimation of democracy comes into play. Rather than placing the blame on the individual we elected or taking responsibility for electing him or her, we tend to instinctively blame other people outside our sphere of influence. The irrational mindset inherent in this attitude is that we as a people never vote wrong, so a conspiracy must therefore be taking place against our collective will.


The Gold Standard

The current economic system of the world is one of the most highly prioritized concerns of the Zeitgeist Movement (TZM), the advocacy organization spawned by Joseph’s film. TZM members strongly advocate for abandoning the current fiat-based economic model and replacing it with a resource-based economy. According to the TZM mission statement, the group’s defining goal is “the installation of a new socioeconomic model based upon technically responsible resource management, allocation and design through what would be considered the scientific method of reasoning problems and finding optimized solutions. This ‘Natural Law/Resource-Based Economy’ (NLRBE) is about taking a direct technical approach to social management as opposed to a monetary or even political one.” [16] Because this proposed revolution in world economics is such an overriding concern among Zeitgeist’s most loyal fans, it is worth our time to critique what the film has to say about the gold standard in America in the 1930s:

Now, having reduced the society to squalor, the Federal Reserve bankers decided that the Gold Standard should be removed. In order to do this, they needed to acquire the remaining gold in the system. So, under the pretense of helping to end the depression came the 1933 gold seizure. Under threat of imprisonment for 10 years, everyone in America was required to turn in all gold bullion to the Treasury, essentially robbing the public of what little wealth they had left. At the end of 1933, the Gold Standard was abolished. If you look at a dollar bill from before 1933, it says it is redeemable in gold. If you look at a dollar bill today, it says it is legal tender, which means it is backed by absolutely nothing. It is worthless paper.

The only thing that gives our money value is how much of it is in circulation. Therefore the power to regulate the money supply is also the power to regulate its value, which is also the power to bring entire economies and societies to its knees.

Peter Joseph has a poor understanding of what a fiat-based economy is. In a fiat-based economy, the value of money is not determined by the amount of money in circulation. Rather, the value is determined solely by the dynamics of a country’s economy, specifically the relationship between supply and demand. Fiat money is not based upon or backed by any physical commodity but instead is based on an estimate of “all taxes, customs, and other public dues” that the government will receive the following year. [17]

In the United States, the gold standard was adopted in order to relieve the Great Depression. In the first of his “Fireside Chat” radio addresses delivered on the evening of March 12, 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt detailed the series of steps his administration was taking to bring an end to the banking moratorium (euphemistically referred to as the “banking holiday”) and identified the massive withdrawal of money from panicked depositors as a social ill to be remedied:

Let me make it clear to you that the banks will take care of all needs, except, of course, the hysterical demands of hoarders, and it is my belief that hoarding during the past week has become an exceedingly unfashionable pastime in every part of our nation. It needs no prophet to tell you that when the people find that they can get their money — that they can get it when they want it for all legitimate purposes — the phantom of fear will soon be laid. People will again be glad to have their money where it will be safely taken care of and where they can use it conveniently at any time. I can assure you, my friends, that it is safer to keep your money in a reopened bank than it is to keep it under the mattress. [18]

Less than one month after this address, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 6102 into law. Under this executive order, everyone who owned more than $100 worth of gold (equivalent to $1,500 in today’s money) was required to hand over the excess gold to the Federal Reserve on or before May 1, 1933. In exchange, the Reserve would pay $20.67 per troy ounce of gold thus delivered (adjusting for inflation, this was equivalent to about $378 today). [19] Thus, contrary to what Zeitgeist claims, the public were not robbed at all. They were compensated.


Zeitgeist is also incorrect in stating that the gold standard was abolished in 1933. What actually happened was that in January 1934, the government artificially raised the nominal price of gold to $35 per troy ounce under the Gold Reserve Act while simultaneously devaluing the dollar by 41 percent of its previous value to balance out the scales and to spark inflation. This price change stimulated a huge inflow of gold to the United States from foreign investors, resulting in a significant increase in the gold reserves of the U.S. Treasury. [20] While it’s true that U.S. money is now on the free-floating fiat system and therefore no longer backed by gold or any other materials, this change did not happen during the Great Depression. The convertibility of US dollars to gold was ended by President Richard Nixon nearly 40 years later. As of August 15, 1971, “the government would not redeem its foreign dollar obligations with gold. Within the domestic economy, gold had not had any such relationship since 1935, so the Act did not change any current realities between gold and the domestic dollar. However, the new policy had the indirect effect of eliminating any reason for denying ordinary citizens ownership of gold for their own use.” [21]


Income Tax

Zeitgeist is equally cynical about states’ power of participation in the ratification of federal laws, an attitude that emerges in the way the film treats the subject of income tax laws. Peter Joseph doesn’t like paying taxes, so he opts to place the blame on a shadowy conspiracy that transcends due process of law. The film claims that there is actually no law in America that requires anyone to pay income taxes to the government and that enforcing income tax is unconstitutional:

It’s worthwhile to point out that the American public’s ignorance towards the federal income tax is a testament to how dumbed down and oblivious the American population really is. First of all, the federal income tax is completely unconstitutional, as it is a direct, unapportioned tax. All direct taxes have to be apportioned to be legal based on the Constitution.

Joseph is the one who is “dumbed down and oblivious” if he actually believes his own statement about tax apportionment. Before the passing of the Sixteenth Amendment in 1913, taxes on income acquired from personal property had always been indirect and thus exempt from apportionment. The Sixteenth Amendment simply eliminated the direct apportionment requirement, making the source of income an irrelevant factor. [22] The amendment does not actually impose any direct tax at all.

Secondly, the required number of states in order to ratify the amendment to allow the income tax was never met, and this has even been cited in modern court cases.

“If you . . . examined [the 16th Amendment] carefully, you would find that a sufficient number of states never ratified that amendment.” – U.S. District Court Judge James C. Fox, 2003.

Both Joseph and James C. Fox are wrong (yes, even district court judges can make statements in error). By February 3, 1913, the Sixteenth Amendment was ratified by a total of 36 states. Since there were 48 states at this time, this number just exceeded the three-quarters majority required for the amendment’s ratification. [23]

Joseph goes on to make a claim that has the potential to cause serious financial hardship for those who take his arguments seriously. He states that “there is literally no statute, no law in existence, that requires you to pay this tax, period.” The film then shows two former IRS agents talking about their failure to find the income tax laws, leading to their decision to leave their job:

“I really expected that, ‘of course there’s a law that you can point to, in the law book and code that requires to file a tax return. Of course there is.’ I was at that point where I couldn’t find the statute that clearly made a person liable, at least not me and most people I know, and I had no choice in my mind except to resign.” – Joe Turner, former IRS agent.

“Based on the research that I did throughout the year 2000 and that I’m still doing, I have not found that law. I’ve asked Congress, a lot of people, we’ve asked the IRS Commissioner’s helpers. They can’t answer, because if they answer, the American people are gonna know that this whole thing is a fraud.” – Sherry Jackson, former IRS agent.

Joe Turner and Sherry Jackson go on to say that they have not filed their federal income taxes since leaving the IRS. Somebody needs to teach these two how to use Google. The income tax laws actually do exist, and one does not have to look very far before finding them. Sections 6012 and 6151 of Title 26 of the U.S. Code clearly lay out the requirement for every individual to file a general tax return.[24] Section 6072 of the same title specified further, requiring every citizen to file income tax return. [25] How Joe and Sherry were not able to find these laws is beyond me, and I suspect it is an outright fabrication on their part.

Of course, this idea that there is no law in America requiring citizens to pay income tax did not originate with Zeitgeist. The same claim was promoted by Kent Hovind, a fundamentalist young-earth creationist and Christian evangelist. To quote Hovind directly,

“I have not filed an income tax in 28 years. If there’s a law requiring me to file something, I would like to see it. [. . .] This is something I read a lot on, because I want very badly to be right with God. The Bible says, ‘Render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s.’ I agree. It does not say, ‘Render to Fred that which is Caesar’s.’ [. . .] the IRS is tied into Communism, socialism, and evolution ultimately.

The government gives corporations the right to exist, and that’s what has happened in the last hundred years. Many churches have become incorporated. If a church is not incorporated, it’s just a real, true, New Testament church. They answer directly to God. The church does not have permission from God to give away God’s authority. So since our ministry here, Creation Science Evangelism, is under the auspices of Faith Baptist Fellowship, an unincorporated church, I don’t have God’s permission to put God under some other sovereign. It’s a sovereignty issue.” [26]

I bring this example up not only because of the irony in the fact that Hovind’s religious fundamentalism is something that Peter Joseph would certainly scoff at and reject, but more importantly because Hovind ended up serving nine years in federal prison as a direct result of acting on his views about income tax by not only failing to pay taxes, but also structuring his transactions and obstructing federal agents.

No one should take Zeitgeist’s claims about tax laws seriously for the very same reason no one should take Hovind’s views seriously. Denying the existence of the easily-accessible income tax laws is just as stupid as denying the existence of transitional fossils in the geological record.



Having planted an image of the Federal Reserve as the Great Satan in his viewers’ minds, Joseph next turns to the subject of war. Every major conflict in the twentieth century, he asserts, was planned, engineered, and orchestrated by the international bankers in order to increase their wealth:

Now, the control of the economy and the perpetual robbery of wealth is only one side of the Rubik’s Cube the bankers hold in their hands. The next tool for profit and control is war. Since the inception of the Federal Reserve in 1913, a number of large and small wars have commenced. The three most pronounced were World War I, World War II, and Vietnam.

Blaming war on the wealthy and powerful elite makes for a compelling story, and it is par for the course in conspiracy-theory lore. But aside from not having any basis in reality, it also strikes me as redundant. Zeitgeist spent a considerable portion of Part III weaving a tale about elite bankers controlling the world’s economy and enslaving the world’s populace to perpetual debt. If they pulled this off successfully, why do they need war

Starting with the events that led to America’s entry into World War I, Zeitgeist pulls a quote by Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary of England, out of context to argue that he masterminded a plot to intentionally send the British ocean liner RMS Lusitania, carrying American passengers, into hostile territory in order to spur America into the war:

So, on May 7th, 1915, on essentially the suggestion of Sir Edward Grey, a ship called the Lusitania was deliberately sent into German-controlled waters where German military vessels were known to be. And, as expected, German U-boats torpedoed the ship, exploding stored ammunition, killing 1200 people.

To further understand the deliberate nature of this setup, the German Embassy actually put advertisements in the New York Times, telling people that if they boarded the Lusitania, they did so at their own risk, as such a ship sailing from America to England through the war zone would be liable to destruction.

Joseph’s film makes it sound as if the advertisement was intended to warn the Lusitania specifically. Actually, the advertisement that appeared in the New York Times and other leading New York newspapers (pictured below) was a general warning cautioning that any Allied ships that venture into the war zone around the British Isles were liable to be destroyed. The notice contained no particular reference to the Lusitania.


The appearance of this warning in New York newspapers does nothing to prove that the Lusitania disaster was deliberately planned. To the contrary, in fact, the advertisement serves as evidence that there was no conspiracy. If the “powers that be” had wanted to maximize the extent of the disaster they allegedly planned, why would they provide adequate warning to potential travelers?

Two other facts further weaken the premeditation hypothesis. First, this advertisement was printed again the day after the Lusitania was sunk and was slated to appear a third time when the German Embassy advised the newspapers to discontinue its publication. [27] The second is the signed date on the advertisement. According to Johann Heinrich Count von Bernstorff, the German ambassador to the United States at the time of the Lusitania disaster, the notice was originally scheduled to be published on April 24, a mere two days after the signed date. As Count Bernstorff related in his memoir, “By one of those fatal coincidences beloved of history, it happened that owing to technical difficulties the communiqué was not actually published until May 1 – the very date on which the Lusitania left New York Harbor.” Indeed, the unpredictable contingencies of history often militate against conspiracy on the sort of grand scale envisioned by Zeitgeist. Count Bernstorff went on to point out in his memoir that, “To the best of my belief technical factors render it impossible for a submarine commander to make any one particular ship the object of his attack, so that the officer responsible for the sinking of the Lusitania could not have been certain what vessel he had to deal with.” [28]

On May 7, 1915, six days after the warning notice was printed, the Lusitania was torpedoed by the German submarine U-20 and sunk off the coast of Ireland. America had not yet entered the war at this time, which at this stage was mainly fought between France and England on one side and the Austro-Hungarian Empire on the other. Zeitgeist incorrectly claims that the sinking of the Lusitania was the catalyst that immediately propelled America into the war:

In turn and as anticipated, the sinking of the Lusitania caused a wave of anger among the American population and America entered the war a short time after.

This statement is technically inaccurate and very misleading. The United States declared its participation in the war on April 2, 1917, nearly two years to the day after the Lusitania was sunk. [29] A bit of background is in order here. The sinking of the Lusitania by the German U-boat was widely condemned by the international community, including even the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But Woodrow Wilson was still reluctant to involve his country in the war, and the worldwide uproar over the tragedy helped bring about a development that Wilson had been diplomatically pushing for. As historian Thomas A. Bailey writes, “One immediate and highly significant effect of the Lusitania affair was to bring about a blunting of Germany’s U-boat campaign. Two days after the sinking, but unknown to President Wilson, the Chancellor persuaded Wilhelm II to instruct the Admiralty to avoid any more attacks on neutral vessels. On June 6, 1915, almost one month after the tragic event, the Kaiser issued a secret order that required German submarine commanders to spare all large passenger ships.” [30] Wilson also had to wrestle with the fact that it was not in the best interests of Britain for the United States to enter the war. Since the start of the war in 1914, the United States had been supplying war supplies to Britain. “If the U.S. entered the war, those guns and ammunition would be needed to build up America’s standing army, a process that the State Department estimated would take a year or two. A U.S. declaration of war would, initially at least, result only in the diversion of supplies that the British desperately needed.” [31] Incidentally, one of the primary reasons the sinking of the Lusitania has generated more debate, analysis, and controversy than any of the hundreds of other Allied ocean liners destroyed by the German blockade is the fact that the Lusitania was a carrier of contraband munitions:

The ship’s cargo space was – just as the Germans claimed – being used to carry American munitions to Britain. As Lusitania prepared for her last voyage, 1,248 cases of 3-inch artillery shells – four shells to a case – and 4,927 boxes of rifle ammunition – each case containing 1,000 rounds and the total weighing 173 tons, which included ten tons of explosive powder – had been placed in the liner’s cargo. [32]

It was not until the Germans reintroduced unrestricted submarine warfare into the danger zones in January 1917 that the United States finally took an interest in the war. Even then Wilson remained hesitant to declare war. The final nail in the coffin of U.S. neutrality was actually unrelated to German destruction of its merchant ships. In January 1917, British Intelligence intercepted and decoded a telegram from German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmerman that invited Mexico to join in a military alliance with Germany in the event that the U.S. joined the war. The American public was outraged and frightened at the threat this proposed alliance posed, and Congress was finally convinced to declare war on Germany three months later. [33]

Through a series of misused and out-of-context quotes and historical inaccuracies ranging from subtle to blatant, Zeitgeist proceeds to argue that World War II and the Vietnam conflict were engineered by power-hungry banking elites. For example, the film claims that on December 4, 1941, three days before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, “Australian intelligence told Roosevelt about a Japanese task force moving towards Pearl Harbor. Roosevelt ignored it.” The idea being pushed here is that President Roosevelt wanted the Japanese to attack Pearl Harbor because he “was very sympathetic to the interests of the international bankers” and “nothing is more profitable for international bankers than war.”

The problem is that the only evidence for an advance warning of the Japanese attack is anecdotal in nature. The only non-conspiracy source for this story that I could find is a single New York Times obituary from June 29, 1989. The obituary reports the death of one Elliot R. Thorpe, who in December 1941 “was a military attache in Dutch-controlled Java when the Dutch broke a Japanese diplomatic code. One of the intercepted messages referred to planned Japanese attacks on Hawaii, the Philippines and Thailand.” According to this article, when Thorpe was told about this message by an unnamed Dutch officer one week before the December 7 attack, he immediately sent a cable to Washington warning of the coming attack. [34] Assuming all this is true – which is generous, since Thorpe’s story was modified and reworked in later years – it is not surprising or damning to the U.S. administration that Thorpe’s extremely vague and as-yet uncorroborated warning went unheeded.


Microchips and a One World Government

Zeitgeist pulls out all the stops in its conclusion with a brief and highly paranoid discussion of microchips. Here the film claims that the coming One World Government will utilize microchip technology in tracking the every move of every single person on the planet. To quote the film directly,

In 2005, Congress, under the pretense of immigration control and the so called “war on terrorism,” passed the Real ID act, under which it is projected by May 2008 you will be required to carry around a Federal Identification card which includes on it a scannable bar code with your personal information.

However this barcode is only an intermediary step, before the card is equipped with a VeriChip RFID tracking module, which will use radio frequencies to track your every move on the planet. If this sounds foreign to you, please note that the RFID tracking chip is already in all new American passports. And the final step is the implanted chip, which many people have already been manipulated into accepting under different pretenses. 

In the end, everybody will be locked into a monitored control grid, where every single action you perform is documented. And if you get out of line, they can just turn off your chip, for at that point in time, every single aspect of society will revolve around interactions with the chips. This is the picture that is painted for the future if you open your eyes to see it: A centralized one world economy where everyone’s moves and everyone’s transactions are tracked and monitored. All rights removed.

The notions here entertained of tracking modules and implanted microchips that lock all people in a centralized control grid derive from postmodern interpretations of apocalyptic and dystopian scenarios, many of which have been promulgated by adherents of dispensationalist Christianity. However, there is nothing particularly diabolic or draconian about a standard national ID card. Virtually every other industrialized country in the world has already implemented a national ID system in one form or another. The United States itself has adopted some forms of national ID, including Driver’s Licenses, Birth Certificates and Social Security cards. In similar innocuous fashion, the real intent of the REAL ID Act is not essentially any different from any other form of nationally-implemented ID system. The intent is simply to make available a national standard that works everywhere in the country. REAL ID does not give the government any more control over people than does a Driver’s License. In fact, the only difference between the two is that REAL ID establishes a national standard that renders information scanning a smoother and more streamlined process that minimizes the occurrence of mistakes. As matters currently stand, ID standards differ from state to state. Of course, this more convenient single nationwide standard that Congress envisioned has not yet come to fruition, and the May 2008 date of implementation predicted by Zeitgeist has come and gone.

The views of right-wing religious organizations and personalities, such as the John Birch Society and Pat Robertson of the 700 Club, constitute a primary source of the general fear felt by a surprising number of otherwise rational people of a One World Government or New World Order actually coming into existence in the real world within their lifetime. The connection to Christian end-times doctrine is clear: this New World Order, it is believed, will be headed by the Antichrist who will require world citizens to bear some kind of identifying mark – a tattoo placed either on the hand or forehead according to older conspiracy theories, an implanted microchip in the telling of more modern interpretations. Without this mark, a person living under the rule of this global government will not be allowed to buy or sell goods and services, a policy enforced by the Antichrist in order to maintain his one-world currency system.

Given the concordance that exists between Christian end-times belief and the fears promoted in Zeitgeist, it is ironic that most of the people who embrace the Zeitgeist Movement are actively opposed to Christianity or, at the very least, do not identify as Christian. And while it is true that there is no necessary connection between Christian end-times beliefs and notions of a One World Government using microchips to control the masses, the discussion of the subject in Zeitgeist betrays an undeniable resemblance to well-known interpretations, preached as absolute truth by evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, of the thirteenth chapter of Revelation in the New Testament. [35] Following are just two examples of fundamentalist end-times theorizing that are nearly identical in nature to Zeitgeist’s claims on the subject. The first is from Robert Van Kampen, the late banking magnate (!) and fundamentalist Christian minister, and the second from the popular author and Christian doomsday evangelist Hal Lindsey:

We do not know how the mark will be imprinted on the hand or the forehead. Given modern technology, however, there are numerous ways this could be accomplished. A tiny microchip, for example, could be imbedded just under the skin in the palm of the hand. Whenever anyone wanted to buy or sell something, he could be required to wave his hand over a scanning device that would “read” the chip, identify the buyer or seller, and validate or invalidate the sale. [36]


This prophecy [Revelation 13:16-18] says that the Antichrist is going to require every person on Earth to receive this mark, which will contain the number of his name . . . today we can do exactly that. With today’s technology, a miniaturized computer chip about the size of a sesame seed can hold not only your own personal ID number and name, but also a file on your personal history. These can be injected under your skin and powered by the energy generated by your body. Now, these little chips can be linked together and tracked by satellite. Satellites linked with computers can now track a person with a PC chip implanted in his body anywhere in the world . . . this prophecy says that unless you receive the number of the Antichrist’s name, 666, you can’t buy or sell. Well, everyone has to have a personal number. What they apparently do is, when you swear allegiance to the Antichrist as being God, then you are given a prefix number of 666, which then validates your personal number. [37]

Notice that in trying to apply an ancient religious text to modern-day technology, Lindsey is forced to provide a rationalization for the use of the Bible’s number of 666. But wouldn’t the use of such a number as a validating prefix be a dead giveaway? If the Antichrist or the secular equivalent really is going to orchestrate and carry out exactly what is described in the Book of Revelation, how is it that this world dictator expects no one to immediately take notice? The “mark of the beast” idea has been featured prominently in popular culture and in countless sermons for laypeople. How could any aspiring Antichrist or world ruler reasonably expect anyone to accept his or her system? “The government has chosen the number 666 to be the validation code prefixing everyone’s personal ID number? Wait a minute, where have I heard that number before?

Conspiracy theorists often try to support their fear-mongering about government-issued microchips by making dubious comparisons to the methods of control employed by Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime. Zeitgeist jumps on this bandwagon as well, for it draws comparisons between the Bush/Cheney administration and Hitler. In this way Zeitgeist perfectly fulfills the predictive principle of Godwin’s Law of Nazi Analogies, an Internet adage which states,

As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one. [38]

Rather than showing that any such comparison is accurate or sufficiently warranted by evidence, the point of Godwin’s Law is that comparisons involving Hitler or the Nazis appeal to people who have an interest in demonizing the person or idea that has offended them. As Godwin later explained in a 1994 Wired article,

[T]here are obvious topics in which the comparison recurs. In discussions about guns and the Second Amendment, for example, gun-control advocates are periodically reminded that Hitler banned personal weapons. And birth-control debates are frequently marked by pro-lifers’ insistence that abortionists are engaging in mass murder, worse than that of Nazi death camps. And in any newsgroup in which censorship is discussed, someone inevitably raises the specter of Nazi book-burning.

But the Nazi-comparison meme popped up elsewhere as well – in general discussions of law in misc.legal, for example, or in the EFF conference on the Well. Stone libertarians were ready to label any government regulation as incipient Nazism. And, invariably, the comparisons trivialized the horror of the Holocaust and the social pathology of the Nazis. It was a trivialization I found both illogical (Michael Dukakis as a Nazi? Please!) and offensive (the millions of concentration-camp victims did not die to give some net.blowhard a handy trope). [39]

When enough anti-government activists and conspiracy theorists demonize microchip technology and personal ID cards, there comes a point at which such paranoid missives matriculate into the general population, with the result that more and more people start becoming needlessly concerned about being tracked wherever they go at all times. This anxiety would be justified if there were any evidential grounds for suspecting that such a program is in the works. But this is far from clear. More importantly, neither Hitler nor Stalin required implanted microchips in order to find people and kill them. They managed to carry out these actions quite efficiently without such means, and they obviously lacked the level of technology we have today.

This means that even if “the State” wanted to wield control over every aspect of the life of every individual in the population, they would not need to track the every move of each person at all times in order to do so. Indeed, any technological measures undertaken to achieve that level of control would be a huge waste of resources. Consider for a moment what would be required to insert microchips in every single person on the planet, not to mention subsequently tracking every person’s move at all times. The amount of financial investment needed, the level of networking required, the kind of infrastructure that would need to be constructed, the size of the central control establishment that would need to be built and maintained, all yield staggering figures when calculated. It would be perhaps the most impractical scheme ever conceived. It would require thousands if not millions of tech personnel and other specialists and trillions of dollars to put in place. How would the government ensure that all the tech and engineering personnel are paid off sufficiently to remain quiet about the ultimate goal of such a massive endeavor? If the Watergate scandal could not be kept under wraps, a plan to track every single person on the planet is certainly not going to remain secret for too long. Why would the global or even national elite even want to go to such lengths to control us? Would we really buy or sell any more or less than we already do? What more would we have to offer the controllers once we are locked into their grid? Ultimately, it would be an utter waste of massive amounts of money for a plot that the conspirators would never receive a return on in the future.



[1] J. Lawrence Broz, “Origins of the Federal Reserve System: International Incentives and the Domestic Free-rider Problem,” International Organization 53, no. 1 (Winter 1999): 39-70.

[2] Ellis W. Tallman and Jon R. Moen, “Lessons from the Panic of 1907,” Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta Economic Review 75 (May/June 1990): 2-13.

[3] Robert F. Bruner and Sean D. Carr, The Panic of 1907: Lessons Learned from the Market’s Perfect Storm (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2007).

[4] Vincent P. Carosso, The Morgans: Private International Bankers, 1854-1913 (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1987), chapter 15.

[5] John Steele Gordon, An Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power (New York: HarperCollins, 2004), p. 280.

[6] Barrie A. Wigmore, The Crash and Its Aftermath: A History of Securities Markets in the United States, 1929-1933 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985), p. 7; Gordon, An Empire of Wealth, p. 315.

[7] Ric Burns (director), “Cosmopolis (1919-1931),” New York: A Documentary Film, episode 5 (Arlington, VA: PBS, 1999).

[8] U.S. House Report no. 69, Changes in the Banking and Currency System of the United States, 63rd Congress, 1st session (Washington, D.C., September 9, 1913).

[9] Woodrow Wilson, The New Freedom (New York: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1913), Ch. VIII.

[10] Ibid, Ch. IX.

[11] Robert Michael, A Concise History of American Antisemitism (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), p. 180; Gulie Ne’eman Arad, America, Its Jews, and the Rise of Nazism (Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 2000), p. 174.

[12] Michael, A Concise History of American Antisemitism, p. 186.

[13] Ibid, p. 142.

[14] “National Affairs: I Impeach. . . .,” Time 20, no. 6 (December 26, 1932). Online at http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,744826,00.html (accessed May 31, 2015).

[15] For a detailed explanation of the basis for money, see Edward L. Winston’s review of Part I of Zeitgeist: Addendum (the sequel film) at http://www.conspiracyscience.com/articles/zeitgeist-addendum/part-one/ (accessed May 31, 2015).

[16] The Zeitgeist Movement, “Mission Statement,” http://www.thezeitgeistmovement.com/mission-statement (accessed September 25, 2016).

[17] Sixty-Third Congress, Second Session, Chapter 6, December 5, 1913, p. 265; U.S. Code Title 12 § 411.

[18] Amos Kiewe, FDR’s First Fireside Chat: Public Confidence and the Banking Crisis (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 2007), p. 4. Audio of this speech is available online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r6nYKRLOFWg (accessed September 25, 2016).

[19] Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Executive Order 6102 – Requiring Gold Coin, Gold Bullion and Gold Certificates to Be Delivered to the Government,” April 5, 1933. Available online at http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=14611 (accessed September 20, 2016).

[20] Christina D. Romer, “What Ended the Great Depression?” The Journal of Economic History 52, no. 4 (December 1992): 757-784.

[21] Richard H. Timberlake, Constitutional Money: A Review of the Supreme Court’s Monetary Decisions (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), p. 218.

[22] Boris I. Bittker, “Constitutional Limits on the Taxing Power of the Federal Government,” Tax Lawyer 41, no. 1 (Fall 1987): 3-12.

[23] Steve Mount, “Ratification of Constitutional Amendments,” U.S. Constitution Online, http://www.usconstitution.net/constamrat.html (accessed June 8, 2015).

[24] “26 U.S. Code § 6012 – Persons required to make returns of income,” Legal Information Institute, https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/26/6012 (accessed June 14, 2015); “26 U.S. Code § 6151 – Time and place for paying tax shown on returns,” Legal Information Institute, https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/26/6151 (accessed June 14, 2015).

[25] “26 U.S. Code § 6072 – Time for filing income tax returns,” Legal Information Institute, https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/26/6072 (accessed June 14, 2015).

[26] Christian Science Evangelism (producer), College Level Course 103, class 6 [DVD]. Video available online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EZTroN66ixE (accessed September 18, 2016).

[27] The New York Times Current History, Vol. II (June 1915), p. 413.

[28] Count Bernstorff, My Three Years in America (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1920), p. 138.

[29] Woodrow Wilson, War Messages, 65th Cong., 1st Sess. Senate Doc. No. 5, Serial No. 7264, Washington, D.C., 1917; pp. 3-8, passim. Available online at https://wwi.lib.byu.edu/index.php/Wilson’s_War_Message_to_Congress (accessed September 24, 2016).

[30] Thomas A. Bailey and Paul B. Ryan, The Lusitania Disaster: An Episode in Modern Warfare and Diplomacy (New York: The Free Press, 1975), p. 231.

[31] Robert D. Ballard, Exploring the Lusitania: Probing the Mysteries of the Sinking that Changed History (New York: Warner Books, 1995), p. 194.

[32] Robert K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea (New York: Random House, 2003), p. 530.

[33] Thomas Boghardt, The Zimmerman Telegram: Intelligence, Diplomacy, and America’s Entry into World War I (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2012).

[34] “Elliott Thorpe, 91, Army Attache Who Warned of Japanese Attack,” The New York Times, June 29, 1989. Available online at http://www.nytimes.com/1989/06/29/obituaries/elliott-thorpe-91-army-attache-who-warned-of-japanese-attack.html (accessed September 24, 2016).

[35] Revelation 13 (Revised Standard Version), Bible Gateway, https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Revelation+13&version=RSV (accessed June 7, 2015).

[36] Robert Van Kampen, The Sign: Bible Prophecy Concerning the End Times, Expanded Edition (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1993), p. 231.

[37] “End-Time Prophesies (Microchips) – Dr Hal Lindsey” (video), YouTube, March 20, 2008, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X7M1z-Gfnyk (accessed June 14, 2015).

[38] Mike Godwin, “Godwin’s Law of Nazi Analogies (and Corollaries),” Electronic Frontier Foundation, January 12, 1995. Archived from the “Net Culture – Humor” section of EFF.org, http://w2.eff.org/Net_culture/Folklore/Humor/godwins.law (accessed June 15, 2015).

[39] Mike Godwin, “Meme, Counter-meme,” Wired 2, no. 10 (October 1994), http://archive.wired.com/wired/archive/2.10/godwin.if_pr.html (accessed June 15, 2015).

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Spirit of Paranoia: A Critical Analysis of “Zeitgeist” (Part II)

Part II of Peter Joseph’s Zeitgeist, titled “All the World’s a Stage,” describes the events of September 11, 2001 in a manner very similar to Dylan Avery’s 2005 conspiracy documentary Loose Change. In fact, many portions of Part II are pulled directly from Avery’s film. [1] In Joseph’s film, as in Loose Change, we are presented with the basic 9/11 conspiracy theories with which most people by now are familiar: 9/11 was either an inside job directly planned and executed by the US government or an attack of which they had prior knowledge and simply allowed to happen. Specifically, Part II deals with issues relating to General Ahmed and Mohammed Atta, the financing of the attacks, the hijacker passport, the claim that some hijackers were found alive after the attacks, the (allegedly) fake Osama bin Laden video, the Carlyle Group, the Pentagon and others. Every one of the major claims made here has been thoroughly debunked by many researchers, so I will limit this present analysis to the most persistent and popular of the arguments that appear in Zeitgeist.

This middle portion of Zeitgeist differs from the approach used in both Parts I and III, sections in which Peter Joseph provides his own commentary. Part II, on the other hand, contains many sound bites and media clips and very little else. The “discussion” is a mishmash of interview clips, news pieces, and excerpts from other 9/11 conspiracy documentaries. Joseph would have done well to leave this part out of the film altogether, or at least to cover the subject more concisely in Part III. First-time viewers of Zeitgeist are liable to get a strong sense that they have been thrown violently out of one documentary and treated to another when they view as far as Part II. What, we wonder, do the events of 9/11 have to do with the origins of Christianity? This section of the film does a great disservice to critical thinkers everywhere, particularly atheists. Here we are presented with someone who professes to have done careful research on the mythical origins of religion, only to find ourselves immersed in a shameless promotion of tinfoil-hat 9/11 conspiracy-mongering within the same film.

The belief that 9/11 was an inside job or false flag operation is a variation on a well-known and common theme that invariably emerges in the wake of any massive terrorist attack or act of war. One manifestation of this theme is the belief that Pearl Harbor was a US government conspiracy, a theory Joseph promotes later in Part III. [2] Those who promote a conspiratorial interpretation of the events surrounding 9/11 have now been thoroughly debunked, and their continued use of the same old arguments and tactics in debate indicates as much. After the so-called “9/11 Truthers” have cherry-picked the data they want to use in argument, they typically focus on a single issue to the exclusion of other aspects of their broader and more general conspiracy theory they know have been satisfactorily refuted. The point of this tactic is to divert attention away from what is understood by all to be devastating to the conspiracy theorists’ claims and use rhetoric as a substitute for hard evidence. In doing this, the typical Truther hopes to establish what they imagine constitutes a default case for other closely-related conspiracy theories. 9/11 Trutherism rarely exists in isolation; those who believe 9/11 was an inside job almost always believe in a handful of other conspiracy theories.

The theories surrounding World Trade Center Building Seven (WTC 7) stand as particularly illustrative examples of this diversionary tactic. After everything else in the 9/11 Truthers’ arsenal of argumentation was thoroughly debunked, their argument that the collapse of Building Seven was a controlled demolition became their favorite talking point. Because conspiracy theories surrounding the collapse of Building Seven seem to be one of the most persistent aspects of 9/11 harped upon by the Truther community, I will indulge them and focus much of my critical attention on this subject.

But let us first dispense with the arguments made in Zeitgeist Part II that are most easily refuted, and in fact had been shown conclusively to be false long before Joseph made his movie. Some of the most egregious mistakes are logical ones. For example, Part II begins by playing several media clips in which witnesses and first responders to the WTC attacks say they heard a series of explosions while the attack was underway. The implication made here is that since several people heard explosions, there must have been explosives involved. Not only is this inaccurate, it is also an example of extremely bad logic.

The poster boy for the explosion/explosive hypothesis is William Rodriguez, who at the time of the attacks was employed as a janitor at the WTC’s North Tower. Following the attacks, he embarked on speaking tours relating his experiences of being the “Last Man Out,” as he dubbed himself. He became a darling of the 9/11 Truther community and a vocal critic of the US government, which he believes planted the alleged explosives. Zeitgeist features a clip from one of Rodriguez’s lectures:

“Our office was on the B1 level. As I was talking to a supervisor . . . all of a sudden we hear BOOM! An explosion so hard that it pushed us upwards! And it came from the basement between the B2 level and the B3 level. And when I went to verbalize, we hear BOOM! The impact of the plane on the top.”

One problem with Rodriguez’s testimony is that it has changed over time, with later accounts differing from and being inconsistent with his initial story. [3] He has also displayed an unwillingness to entertain more rational explanations for the basement explosion he believes he heard. His account has grown to include other “suspicious noises” and other “small explosions” rationally explained by the fact that other sounds would inevitably have been heard while the attacks were underway, including the falling of lift shafts, structural vibrations, and explosions (not explosives) going off on different floors. No one should expect to hear just a single loud sound and nothing else.

Other mistakes in the film have to do with factual inaccuracies that nobody would make who had first taken the time to conduct the most cursory of research before committing their fallacies to film. A case in point is Zeitgeist’s claim that debris from Flight 93, the plane that was hijacked by terrorists on 9/11 and crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, was found six miles away from the crash site. Presumably, the implication being made here is that the plane was shot out of the sky, not deliberately crashed by hijackers on board. The film uses a video clip from a CNN Breaking News broadcast to promote this idea. In this clip, CNN correspondent Brian Cabell says,

“The FBI and the state police here have confirmed that they have cordoned off a second area about six to eight miles away from the crater here. This is apparently another debris site. Why would debris be located six miles away? Could it have been blown that far away? Seems highly unlikely.”

There actually was no such confirmation, and the statement was determined to be erroneous in very short order. Various pieces of debris from the plane, including passengers’ personal effects, did end up in the lake. However, “Indian Lake is less than 1.5 miles southeast of the impact crater as the crow flies – not 6 miles, as indicated by online driving directions – easily within range of debris blasted skyward by the explosion from the crash.” [4] The wind was blowing in a northwesterly direction that day, toward Indian Lake. This wind, combined with the blast generated by the heat of the crashing plane, would easily have carried debris from the crash the short distance to the lake. The satellite photo below shows the close proximity of the lake to the crash site.

Next we turn to the Truthers’ claims about Building 7 of the World Trade Center. Peter Joseph’s treatment of this subject in Zeitgeist amounts to little more than an argument from ignorance, relying on the alleged mysteriousness and inscrutability of the building’s collapse. Zeitgeist begins its discussion of Building 7 by saying,

Part of the problem is that most people simply don’t know much about Building Seven, due to the extraordinary secrecy surrounding this collapse.

Never mind the fact that the destruction of Building 7 has been thoroughly and carefully analyzed in peer-reviewed studies that are freely available to anyone who has an interest in finding out what took place. Peter Joseph has just presumed to educate us poor, ignorant half-wits on the esoteric secrets that he has uncovered. And where did Joseph find these “extraordinary secrets”? Well, he found them on conspiracy websites, conspiracy “documentaries,” and C-SPAN videos. Long before Zeitgeist was made, these so-called “extraordinary secrets” had been making the rounds on Internet discussion forums frequented by armchair investigators whose “research” consisted mostly of spending hours watching YouTube videos.

  • Claim 1: It was brought down by what we know was a controlled demolition.” . . . “Controlled demolitions, they look just like that. You know, kink in the middle and then that building just comes straight down almost at free fall speed.”

Fire was primarily responsible for the collapse of WTC 7, as it was for the collapse of the Twin Towers. According to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the buildings’ trusses were sagged due to the heat from the fires, which were ignited by the impact of debris from World Trade Center 1. The heat bowed the columns inward, eventually causing the building to collapse. [5] There are a few ways we know for a fact the collapse of the towers and of Building 7 were not controlled demolitions. For one thing, loud explosions are characteristic of controlled demolitions. WTC 7 made no loud noise as it fell. For another, massive buildings do not simply fall over as small buildings might. When the tremendous weight of a building’s upper floors collapses upon the floors below them, the only way to go is straight down. [6] The resulting downward motion may exhibit the illusion of symmetry to the untrained eye. However, the manner in which both WTC 7 and the Twin Towers fell is exactly what we would expect to see in uncontrolled collapses caused by intense heat from jet fuel.

Consider also that the towers were built at or near the extreme end of modern engineering capabilities. The loss of strength in even a single steel column of WTC 7 did not even need to be substantial (although it was) in order for the weight of the upper floors to lose their support. [7] The domino effect resulting from the collapse of just one floor makes for a collapse that may appear to be symmetric to someone who does not understand how controlled demolitions work. They are never symmetrical.

Moreover (as we discuss in more detail below), fire was not the only factor that contributed to the buildings’ collapse, and fuel was not the only thing burning in WTC 7 or in the Twin Towers on September 11. The buildings were equipped with several large diesel storage tanks that served as back-up generators. Along with everything else in the building that was flammable (rugs, curtains, furniture, paper, etc.), these diesel tanks fueled the fires that contributed to the collapse.

It is also worth pointing out that nobody was inside WTC 7 when it fell, and no casualties resulted from that particular collapse. Therefore, why does it matter whether the building was purposefully demolished or not? If it was in fact a controlled demolition that was planned and executed as a terrorist act by the US government, wouldn’t it make more sense to demolish the building while it was occupied by people? What would be the point of blowing up an empty building?

  • Claim 2: NEVER before or after 911 has any steel building collapsed from fire. . . . “Building 7 wasn’t even hit by a jet.” “This building had fires on only two or three floors.

Let us first address the claim that WTC 7 was less damaged than other surviving buildings that were located closer to the Twin Towers. Clearing up this point will demonstrate that WTC 7 is far less of a mystery than Zeitgeist makes it out to be. The only reason this particular claim has been allowed to flourish as long as it has is because most cameras capturing the 9/11 event were trained on the Twin Towers themselves and away from Building 7. However, eyewitness testimony from several independent sources indicates conclusively that the claim is simply false. [8] From these lines of evidence, the idea that Building Seven did not suffer substantial damage as a result of the collapse of the other towers is clearly ludicrous, as can easily be ascertained by footage from hundreds of videos. [9] Below is an NIST photograph of the damage sustained by WTC 7. [10] Take special note of the damage at the edge of the southwest face.

The damage captured in this photograph is consistent with many eyewitness testimonies, both from firemen working on or near the site and from the general public, who were quite certain that the building was going to collapse based simply on their observations. More vivid photographs of the damage sustained by Building 7 are shown below. There is a good reason why 9/11 Truthers never display these photos on their websites and blogs.

As for the claim that a symmetrical collapse of a steel building “has never happened before or since,” this is simply false. A prime example is the L’Ambiance Plazza in Bridgeport, Connecticut, a steel structure which collapsed during construction in 1987. [11] Other examples include the Lian Yak building in Singapore, which in March 1986 collapsed in the same pancake fashion as the World Trade Center buildings. [12] Yet another example is Ronan Point Flats, where a gas explosion on the 18th floor destroyed structural panels on the perimeter, resulting in the collapse of floors, again in pancake fashion. [13] Other collapses such as the Civic Tower (Torre Civica) of Pavia, Italy in 1989, St. Mark’s Campanile in Venice in 1902 and the bell tower of the St. Maria Magdalena Cathedral  in Goch, Germany in 1993 add yet more nails to the coffin of the Truthers’ claim that pancaking only happens in controlled demolitions. [14]

  • Claim 3: For well over 6 weeks after the collapse, hot spots of over 2000 ° F were documented in the debris. That is 500 ° F hotter than jet fuel even burns. “The molten steel was found ‘three, four, and five weeks later, when the rubble was being removed’ . . . molten steel was also found underneath World Trade Center 7.

The claim that molten metal was seen in the basements of the building long after the collapse is closely related to the theory, which we have debunked above, that controlled demolition was responsible for bringing the building down. No photograph evidence supports the claimed presence of molten metal in the World Trade Center basements. One of the 9/11 Truthers’ favorite photographs is of a crane picking up a glowing red-orange object, shown below:

The glowing object in the photograph, which is shown in Zeitgeist, is not molten metal. If it was molten, it would drip and the crane’s claw would not be able to grasp it and lift it up.

But how, ask the 9/11 Truthers, can fire alone account for this molten metal? While it is true that jet fuel, which burns at 1,517 degrees Fahrenheit, is not hot enough to reach steel’s melting point of 2,777 degrees Fahrenheit, this is not the whole picture. Retired New York deputy fire chief Vincent Dunn, author of Collapse of Burning Buildings[15] has become well-known among the 9/11 Truth community for a quote they often take out of context: “I have never seen melted steel in a building fire.” The remainder of this quote is as follows: “But I’ve seen a lot of twisted, warped, bent and sagging steel. What happens is that the steel tries to expand at both ends, but when it can no longer expand, it sags and the surrounding concrete cracks.” [16]

There was therefore no need for the building’s steel to reach the melting point in order for the building to lose its structural integrity. At 1200 degrees Fahrenheit, steel loses over 50 percent of its strength, and at 1800 degrees Fahrenheit, more than 90 percent of steel’s strength is lost. This is more than sufficient to warp and sag steel. As we noted above, jet fuel was not the only thing burning in the building. Rugs, curtains, furniture, paper and other combustible material intensified the inferno that was initially catalyzed by the jet fuel. [17] A study conducted by NIST showed that some pockets of fire in the building reached a temperature as high as 1,832 degrees Fahrenheit, temperatures great enough to reduce the strength of the steel in many places of the building to less than 10 percent its original integrity. The result was a pile of twisted, warped, bent and sagging steel in the basement area. [18]

The claim that traces of thermite were found in the rubble of the WTC buildings has been promoted by Steven Jones, a professor of physics at Brigham Young University. Jones is featured in Zeitgeist talking about thermite and the alleged pools of metal in the basements of all three buildings:

“I started looking at the molten metal. All three buildings – both towers, in the rubble, in the basement areas – and Building 7, there’s these pools of molten metal . . .

So I’m looking through the official reports. What do they say about the molten metal? They say nothing. Now wait a minute. This is important evidence! So where’d that come from?”

There is no discussion of “molten” metal in the official reports because there was no molten metal to speak of, only the “twisted, warped, bent and sagging” steel that Vincent Dunn mentioned in the quote cited above. Besides, the main focus of the 9/11 Commission Report was on the terrorists’ attack targets. WTC 7 was not a target, and so is not afforded as much discussion in the report. Steven Jones and other 9/11 Truthers have made a great deal of fuss over this, going to the extreme of accusing the authors of the 9/11 Commission Report of being part of the government’s cover-up. However, WTC 7 is mentioned several times in the Report, just not in the context the conspiracy theorists want it to be mentioned. [19]

Where did Jones’ “important evidence” come from? Jones believes the only explanation is thermite, a pyrotechnic chemical compound that undergoes a violent reaction when ignited by heat:

“Thermite is so hot that it’ll just cut through steel – through structural steel for example – like a knife through butter. The products are molten iron and aluminum oxide, which goes off primarily as a dust. You know those enormous dust clouds? You can imagine when you assemble these chemicals on a large scale.”

Thermite can get very hot, but the reaction works slowly and it would require ridiculously massive amounts for it to cut through steel. There is no evidential justification for positing thermite in order to account for the “enormous dust clouds.” The collapse of several thousand tons of concrete is more than sufficient to explain that. [20]

This is representative of the way in which Zeitgeist ignores simple and much more plausible explanations for the seeming “anomalies” that it highlights. A case in point is the film’s treatment of the crash of Flight 77 into the Pentagon. The film throws a great deal of information relating to this at the viewer in rapid succession:

No seats, no luggage, no bodies. Nothing but bricks and limestone.

Clip from Dylan Avery’s film Loose Change: “The official explanation is that the intense heat from the jet fuel vaporized the entire plane. Flight 77 had two Rolls-Royce engines made of steel and titanium alloy and weighed six tons each. It is scientifically impossible [that] 12 tons of steel and titanium was vaporized by jet fuel.”

David Ray Griffin: “We were also told that the bodies were able to be identified, either by their fingerprints or by their DNA. So what kind of fire can vaporize aluminum and tempered steel, and yet leave human bodies intact?”

CNN Live: “From my close-up inspection, there’s no evidence of a plane having crashed anywhere near the Pentagon, and as I said, the only pieces left that you can see are small enough that you can pick up in your hand.”

David Ray Griffin: “Shortly after the strike, government agents picked up debris and carried it off. The entire lawn was covered with dirt and gravel, so that any remaining forensic evidence was literally covered up. The videos from security cameras [on the nearby CITGO gas station and Sheraton Hotel], which would show what really hit the Pentagon, were immediately confiscated by agents of the FBI, and the Department of Justice has to this day refused to release them. If these videos would prove that the Pentagon was really hit by a 757, most of us would assume the government would release them.”

We can quickly dispense with the claims that are outright lies. Contrary to Griffin’s assertion, security camera footage of Flight 77 crashing into the Pentagon is freely available for all to see, and the government never attempted to hide or confiscate it. One such piece of video footage clearly shows a plane in the background on the right hand side seconds before impact. [21] David Ray Griffin and Peter Joseph apparently assume that their followers will never bother to investigate their assertions for themselves.

The notions that there was no downed plane at the Pentagon and that the official explanation was vaporization of the plane upon impact are false. Hundreds of photographs are available on the Internet documenting the 757 wreckage. Of course, denying that a plane crashed into the Pentagon requires one to also deny the undeniable, namely the fact that human remains were seen at the site. [22] There were also many eyewitnesses who attest to seeing and/or hearing a commercial passenger jet crash into the Pentagon. [23] The Truthers must also dismiss this testimony out of hand to maintain their fantasy of a nonexistent plane.

Griffin states nothing definitive when he suggests that human bodies cannot remain intact in a crash that “vaporized” the aluminum and tempered steel plane they were in. Besides the fact that the plane did not vaporize, human bodies do not turn to ash until approximately two to three hours of burning at 1100 degrees Fahrenheit.[24] The fires at the Pentagon never reached that temperature, and they did not burn in just one location for two to three consecutive hours. This means material was naturally left over from the inferno. Identification of the bodies, including fingerprinting and DNA analysis, was difficult but it was done.

Of course, the conspiracy theorists have made an art form of rationalizing all these explanations away. Nothing is preventing them from looking at the many photographs of the plane wreckage or reading the many accounts by eyewitnesses who saw the plane crash into the Pentagon. But their foregone conclusion allows them to argue with a straight face that the pieces of the plane were planted on the site by government agents and that all the eyewitnesses were paid-off government shills. At this point, the conspiracy theory mindset becomes so far-fetched that it collapses under its own weight, especially considering the sheer number of people who would have to be in on the conspiracy. [25]

This level of ad-hoc rationalization is strikingly similar to young-earth creationists who argue that the Devil planted dinosaur fossils in the Geologic Column with the appearance of a succession of great ages in order to lead scientists astray (or, alternatively, that God did so in order to test the faith of those wo defend the biblical creation account). A crucial component of the scientific method is the criterion of falsifiability. If no room is made for critical inquiry or for building into one’s investigation of a given event or phenomenon a means of knowing when a hypothesis has failed, dogmatic religion is the inevitable result. The Zeitgeist Movement is clearly an example of a faith-based movement, not a scientifically-based one, and Peter Joseph has become a religious cult leader. It is a matter of record that he habitually censors dissenting opinion.

Inherent in the conspiracy-theory mindset is a glaring self-contradiction. According to the paranoid mindset, the people spearheading and carrying out the conspiracy wield incredible resources and are masterfully clever, while simultaneously displaying incomprehensible stupidity. How is it that those evil geniuses conspiring against us have access to such great and unimaginable power, influence and cleverness, yet commit countless stupid mistakes and blunders that make it obvious to pattern-seeking amateurs that a conspiracy is in play? Furthermore, if the conspiracy theorists were truly on the right track, we would not be hearing from them long enough for their ideas to have gained any traction in public discourse. If he was really on to something, Alex Jones would not have survived to say most of what he has said over the years. In fact, in order to maintain their own credibility, the big names in the 9/11 Truth community such as Dylan Avery and David Ray Griffin should be obliged to fake their own assassinations.

Had Peter Joseph taken this self-contradiction into consideration, he may not have included a media clip that is shown in Zeitgeist in which then-president George W. Bush is speaking at a press conference. In this press conference footage, a reporter asks Bush, “Why are you and the Vice President insisting on appearing together before the 9/11 Commission?” This question was asked because the Commission had requested that Bush and Dick Cheney meet separately, rather than together. In response, Bush sidesteps the question: “Because it’s a good chance for both of us to answer questions that the 9/11 Commission is looking forward to asking us, and I’m looking forward to answering them.” Zeitgeist goes on to point out that Bush and Cheney met with the committee only on their own terms, which included appearing together, not allowing family members or the press to attend, not being under oath, and no allowing of recordings or transcripts. The suggestion made is that Bush and Cheney were being extremely secretive about the process by which the 9/11 Commission Report was written because they were hiding heinous crimes of a massive scale.

The reality is that Bush’s and Cheney’s conditions for meeting with the committee had more to do with administrative incompetence than with any conspiratorial preparations. The reason Bush and Cheney met with the committee together rather than separately is likely because Bush was not intellectually capable of handling the committee’s questions alone. Ironically, the Bush administration’s attempts to cover their ass for the incompetent blunders they made have done more to contribute to theories of a brilliantly-conceived conspiracy than almost anything else. A cover-up to mask administrative stupidity is plausible, while a cover-up to mask a massive inside terrorist job is highly implausible.

The 9/11 Truth movement strains credulity so far that it would actually be more plausible to propose that the 9/11 Truth movement is itself a government conspiracy to convince the educated and intelligent segment of the population that they were not responsible for 9/11. This is the hilarious premise of the South Park episode titled “Mystery of the Urinal Deuce.” This episode’s convoluted storyline involves Cartman trying to convince his peers that the US government planned and orchestrated 9/11, while Kyle and Stan meet up with a conspiracy organization called 911truth.org (which is an actual website). After being seized by a SWAT team and taken to the White House for questioning, Bush shoots the 911truth representative in the head, and proceeds to describe the method by which they pulled off the attacks. As summed up by another character at the end of the episode, “All the 9/11 conspiracy Web sites are run by the government. The 9/11 conspiracy . . . is a government conspiracy!”



[1] Dylan Avery, Loose Change: 2nd Edition Recut (Microcinema International, 2007).

[2] Other prominent conspiracy theorists have also made comparisons between Pearl Harbor and 9/11 in connection with the false-flag operation theory. See, for example, David Ray Griffin, The New Pearl Harbor: Disturbing Questions about the Bush Administration and 9/11 (Northampton, MA: Olive Branch Press, 2004).

[3] Mike Williams, “William Rodriguez,” 911Myths.com, n.d. http://911myths.com/html/william_rodriguez.html (accessed September 11, 2016).

[4] David Dunbar and Brad Reagan, eds., Debunking 9/11 Myths: Why Conspiracy Theories Can’t Stand Up to the Facts (New York: Hearst Books, 2006), p. 90.

[5] NIST and NCSTAR 1A, “Final Report on the Collapse of World Trade Center Building 7,” National Institute of Standards and Technology (November 2008). Available online at https://www.nist.gov/node/599811?pub_id=861610 (accessed September 11, 2016).

[6] Ramon Gilsanz and Willa Ng, “Single Point of Failure: How the Loss of One Column May Have Led to the Collapse of WTC 7,” Structure Magazine, November 2007: 42-45.  Available online at http://www.structuremag.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/SF-WTC7-Gilsanz-Nov071.pdf (accessed September 11, 2016).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Mark Roberts, “Eyewitness Accounts of WTC 7 Fires,” in World Trade Center Building 7 and the Lies of the “9/11 Truth Movement”, https://sites.google.com/site/wtc7lies/eyewitnessaccountsofwtc7fires (accessed September 11, 2016).

[9] Debunking911, “WTC 7 Fires and South Side Hole” (video), YouTube, March 27, 2007, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Afb7eUHr64U (accessed September 11, 2001).

[10] National Institute of Standards and Technology, “NIST Response to the World Trade Center Disaster: Federal Building and Fire Safety Investigation of the World Trade Center Disaster – Part IIC – WTC 7 Collapse,” NIST PowerPoint, April 5, 2005. Available online at http://www.nist.gov/el/disasterstudies/wtc/upload/WTC-Part-IIC-WTC-7-Collapse-Final.pdf (accessed September 11, 2016).

[11] Frank J. Heger, “L’Ambiance Plazza,” The Engineer, October 24, 2006, http://www.engineering.com/Library/ArticlesPage/tabid/85/articleType/ArticleView/articleId/168/LAmbiance-Plazza.aspx (accessed September 11, 2016).

[12] Standing Committee on Structural Safety, “Seventh Report of the Committee: For the Two Years Ending July 1987” (September 1987), http://www.structural-safety.org/media/41885/162_7th_SCOSS_report_1987.pdf (accessed May 24, 2015).

[13] David Scott, Barbara Lane, and Craig Gibbons, “Fire Induced Progressive Collapse,” Proceedings of the Workshop on Prevention of Progressive Collapse, Multihazard Mitigation Council of the National Institute of Building Sciences, Rosemont, IL, July 10-12, 2002.

[14] Zdeněk P. Bažant and Mathieu Verdure, “Mechanics of Progressive Collapse: Learning from World Trade Center and Building Demolitions,” Journal of Engineering Mechanics 133, no. 3 (March 2007): 308-319.

[15] Vincent Dunn, Collapse of Burning Buildings: A Guide to Fireground Safety (New York: Fire Engineering, 1988).

[16] Popular Mechanics Reporting Team, “9/11: Debunking the Myths,” Popular Mechanics 182, no. 3 (March 2005): 75.

[17] Thomas W. Eagar and Christopher Musso, “Why Did the World Trade Center Collapse? Science, Engineering, and Speculation,” Journal of the Minerals, Metals, and Materials Society 53, no. 12 (December 2001): 8-11.

[18] Dunbar and Reagan, eds., Debunking 9/11 Myths, pp. 37-43.

[19] National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, The 9/11 Commission Report, Authorized Edition (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004), pp. 284, 293, 302, 305.

[20] NIST and NCSTAR 1, “Final Report on the Collapse of the World Trade Center Towers,” National Institute of Standards and Technology (September 2005), p. 82. Available online at http://www.sustainable-design.ie/fire/NIST-NCSTAR-1-Collapse-Of-Towers.pdf (accessed September 11, 2016).

[21] Judicial Watch, “Judicial Watch September 11 Pentagon Video — 2 of 2,” YouTube, May 16, 2006, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TAaP4Z3zls8 (accessed September 11, 2016).

[22] Andrea Stone, “Pentagon Searchers Encounter Grisly Scenes,” USA Today, September 13, 2001, http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/washington/sept01/2001-09-14-pentagon-usat.htm (accessed September 11, 2016).

[23] “Washington’s Heroes – On the Ground at the Pentagon on Sept. 11,” Newsweek, September 28, 2001, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/3069699/ (accessed April 4, 2011).

[24] Michelle Kim, “How Cremation Works,” How Stuff Works, March 31, 2009, http://science.howstuffworks.com/cremation1.htm (accessed September 11, 2016).

[25] David Robert Grimes, “On the Viability of Conspiratorial Beliefs,” PLoS One 11, no. 1 (January 26, 2016). http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0147905.

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Spirit of Paranoia: A Critical Analysis of “Zeitgeist” (Part I)


The discussions on the origins of Christianity in Zeitgeist may sound very compelling to those “village atheists” who make a hobby of searching for that elusive single argument that destroys Christianity as a credible belief system in one fell swoop. But any such easy argument is bound to be an oversimplification of historical or philosophical complexities. The main thesis presented in Part I of Peter Joseph’s Zeitgeist is essentially as follows: Christianity stole various beliefs and rituals wholesale from other earlier pagan religions and mythologies, particularly Egyptian mythology, incorporating these borrowed beliefs and rituals into its own theological system.

But this thesis has only a grain of truth to it. The formation of Christianity was certainly influenced by other religions and mythologies that predated it. But to the extent that this is true, it is trivial. Only to the extent to which this assessment is alleged to be a profound and decisive game changer is it somewhat misleading, and herein lies the problem. Instead of pointing out the actual religions by which Christianity was influenced, such as the Babylonian religions and Zoroastrianism (the two primary formative influences for Christianity) Zeitgeist opts to dive into completely unrelated belief systems and form spurious connections between them.

With the rise of Zoroastrianism and the Babylonian religions came the emergence of monotheism and the dualistic concept of “good versus evil” in its first stages of development. Concepts such as a worldwide flood, angels and demons, Manichean dualism and other elements of this sort were heavily influenced by Babylonian tales and ultimately came to be acquired by Judaism. Professional historians for at least the past two hundred years have refined the art and the science of tracing and documenting the various changes, additions, and deletions that eventually formed what we today recognize as orthodox Christianity. Determining the source of Christianity’s major tenets and rituals is a task that requires a great deal of careful and painstaking research, and there is a strong consensus among those who have done this hard work that there is a lack of evidence for Zeitgeist’s claim that any sort of insidious conspiracy was in play during Christianity’s formative years. Much of the information relevant to this research is contained in the pages of the canonical Bible itself. The Old Testament is essentially a buffet from which the various off-shooting sects of Judaism, including Christianity, chose which elements and themes they wanted, incorporated these into the documents that eventually formed the New Testament, and added in information about the man they believed was the Jewish Messiah. There was no organized conspiracy in this picking-and-choosing exercise. The process took centuries to unfold, and was messy and unfocused for most of the time it was happening.

Jesus and Other Gods

Rather than educating its viewers about historical facts along these lines and exploring what is actually flawed about Christianity as a belief system, the Zeitgeist makes claims that are not just speculative, but factually incorrect. The part early in the film in which the Egyptian god Horus is being discussed is a particularly egregious case in point. First, Joseph erroneously identifies Horus as the Sun God of Egypt. Horus was actually the god of the sky in Egypt’s mythology, and Ra was the sun god. [1] The source of this confusion may lie in the fact that later on during Egypt’s dynastic era, Horus and Ra became fused together into a single deity. [2] But Joseph does not bother pointing this out, but instead flatly states that Horus was the sun god with no added qualifications. After committing this basic error, Joseph relates this bio:

Broadly speaking, the story of Horus is as follows: Horus was born on December 25th of the virgin Isis-Meri. His birth was accompanied by a star in the east, which in turn, three kings followed to locate and adorn the new-born savior. At the age of 12, he was a prodigal child teacher, and at the age of 30 he was baptized by a figure known as Anup and thus began his ministry. Horus had 12 disciples he traveled about with, performing miracles such as healing the sick and walking on water. Horus was known by many gestural names such as The Truth, The Light, God’s Anointed Son, The Good Shepherd, The Lamb of God, and many others. After being betrayed by Typhon, Horus was crucified, buried for 3 days, and thus, resurrected.

The point Joseph is trying to make here is obvious: The Jesus character in the New Testament is purported to have done all these things. And indeed, the similarities between Horus and Jesus appear to be very striking.

Unfortunately, almost all of these parallels were completely made up by Peter Joseph.

Horus was not born on December 25. According to mythology, he was born on either the second or the fifth of the “epagomenal days,” depending on which version you read. [3] The ancient Egyptians divided their calendar into 12 months of 30 days each. The epagomenal days, which were added to compensate for the days of the astronomical year missing from the ancient Egyptian calendar, landed on August 24-28, not in December. His mother Isis was not a virgin; Horus was conceived from the sexual union of Isis with the corpse of her husband Osiris. [4] There are no references in the Horus mythology to a “star in the east” followed by three kings, and nothing about Horus being a child teacher or being baptized at age 30. There is also no evidence that Horus was ever referred to by the gestural titles commonly applied to the Jesus character. if we are very generous, the only example from pagan mythology that could possibly be construed as matching the motif of 12 disciples is found in a drawing from the Amduat, an ancient Egyptian funerary text, which depicts the Egyptian god Horus seated before twelve figures in the Seventh Hour of the Night. [5] But there is no mention in any known ancient mythology of Horus having 12 disciples. None of the known stories of Horus have him being betrayed by Typhon, and he was not crucified. [6] In short, Horus and Jesus have very little in common.

Joseph continues in the same vein throughout the remainder of Part I, dragging in lists of motifs and elements that are characteristic of most religions, such as resurrection from the dead, and asserting that mere thematic similarity is evidence of Christianity’s falsehood. It’s as if Joseph is under the faulty impression that rising from the dead is a feat that would not be ubiquitously desired by most religions past and present. Resurrection is a universal concept, one that has deeply fascinated people in virtually all world cultures throughout history. This is especially true of societies in ancient times that had little or no concept of medicine and the life sciences. It therefore comes as no surprise that it was very common and popular to believe, for example, that the sun created all life on earth or that the sun is a powerful deity because it provides daylight and sustains life. There is no good reason to suppose Christianity could not have developed similar conceptions independently. To insist otherwise, as Joseph does in his film, is to be ignorant of both history and mythology. Christianity had its own set of particular formative influences, one of these being Judaism, which in turn borrowed from earlier belief systems. Similarity does not in and of itself denote wholesale plagiarism from the earlier idea.

So Peter Joseph protests far too much in Zeitgeist. As we previously mentioned, the heretical Jewish sect known today as Christianity selected from a rich buffet of theological concepts and ideas within both Judaism and the Persian religions. Why would the proto-Christian believers have any need to turn to Egyptian mythology for inspiration? One need not study the history of Christianity very long before discovering its similarities with several other cultures in the surrounding regions. Most of the stories being told and retold over and over again did come out of Egypt, as Joseph suggests.

The sources Joseph cites in support of his thesis are highly questionable. One such source that he relies on particularly heavily is Kersey Grave’s seminal 1875 work The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors. Anyone who is familiar with this book will recognize the strong allusions to its central themes in Zeitgeist[7] In his book, Graves made a large number of comparisons and alleged many precursory connections to the Christ story among other gods, Horus being only one. Much of what is discussed in Part I of Zeitgeist come from Grave’s work. The fact that this book is not sourced in the film may be owing to the general consensus among historians that the book is decidedly unscholarly and highly unreliable. The most heavily-cited sources listed for Part I of Zeitgeist are the works of mythicist and conspiracy theorist Dorothy M. Murdock (more popularly known by her pen name Acharya S) and the nineteenth-century self-styled Egyptologist Gerald Massey, upon whom Murdock heavily depends in her own writings. Much of what is contained in Part I of Zeitgeist is lifted directly from Acharya’s 1999 book The Christ Conspiracy[8] and nearly all sources for Part I ultimately lead back to Gerald Massey and other like-minded authors. Most of these cited authors are dismissed by most scholars as unreliable in their research methods.

In addition to Horus, Joseph sees parallels to Jesus in the gods Attis, Krishna, Dionysus and Mithra. Joseph believes these pagan gods form the inspirational and ideological basis of the Christ myth. Most of these earlier pagan deities, he says, were born of a virgin on December 25, were followed by 12 inner-circle disciples, and were crucified and resurrected, in some cases three days after their death. To quote directly from the film:

The fact of the matter is there are numerous saviors, from different periods, from all over the world, which subscribe to these general characteristics. The question remains: why these attributes, why the virgin birth on December 25th, why dead for three days and the inevitable resurrection, why 12 disciples or followers?

The answer is that none of these mythological figures Joseph mentions fit all these characteristics. None were dead for three days and then resurrected. None were born on December 25, with the exception of Mithra, who was not born of a virgin but instead was produced fully formed out of a rock. [9] None of the others listed had virgin births. In fact, the Hindu deity Krishna was the eighth son born to the princess Devaki. [10] Like the Horus-Jesus connection, the parallels claimed between Jesus and these gods range from dubious at best to factually incorrect at worst.

The Zodiac and the Bible

But Joseph has a different explanation for these made-up parallels which comes straight out of left field. He concludes that these common attributes exist because Jesus, like these other god-men, was conceived of as a solar deity. Using the same arguments used by Acharya S before him, Joseph suggests that Jesus is more accurately understood to be the Sun of God rather than the son. This, he argues, nicely turns out to be the origin of the cross, or crucifix, on which Jesus died according to medieval religious tradition. This cross was not a literal instrument of execution, says Joseph, but instead is symbolic of the solar formation known as the Southern Cross. In short, Joseph makes out the entire Christian story to be one elaborate astrological analogy:

This is the cross of the Zodiac, one of the oldest conceptual images in human history. It reflects the sun as it figuratively passes through the 12 major constellations over the course of a year. It also reflects the 12 months of the year, the four seasons, and the solstices and equinoxes. The term “Zodiac” relates to the fact that constellations were anthropomorphized, or personified, as figures, or animals.

In other words, the early civilizations did not just follow the sun and stars, they personified them with elaborate myths involving their movements and relationships. The sun, with its life-giving and -saving qualities was personified as a representative of the unseen creator or god. It was known as “God’s Sun,” the light of the world, the savior of human kind. Likewise, the 12 constellations represented places of travel for God’s Sun and were identified by names, usually representing elements of nature that happened during that period of time. For example, Aquarius, the water bearer, who brings the spring rains.

There are two misleading implication made here. One is that the Zodiac has always been connected to or associated with the constellations, and the other is that there have always been 12 constellations. However, the oldest known zodiacs did not have 12 signs. The Babylonian zodiac, for example, originally consisted of 18 signs, [11] and the Mayan zodiac had 20 signs. [12] And while it is true that the later Egyptian and Greek zodiacs are composed of 12 signs, these signs were not recognized by all civilizations as representative of cosmic truth. Moreover, there are actually 13 constellations through which the sun passes, not twelve. For whatever odd reason, modern astrologers have ignored the presence of the constellation Ophiuchus, the Serpent Holder. [13]

Joseph’s attempt to interpret the entire Christian story as one sprawling astrological allegory is even more of a stretch. Tim Callahan, religion editor for Skeptic magazine, sets the record straight in his critical review of Zeitgeist:

As to the god who is born on December 25 — this was not Krishna, but Mithra in his solar aspect as Sol Invictus (Latin for “Unconquered Sun”). The reason Mithra/Sol Invictus was born on December 25 was that in the Roman calendar of that day, that was the Winter Solstice, the 24-hour period having the fewest number of daylight hours. From that date the days get longer and the nights get shorter until the Summer Solstice. Owing to imperfections in the Roman or Julian calendar, the solstice gradually shifted to December 21, until corrections were made resulting in our present Gregorian calendar. Christianity seems to have deliberately co-opted the birthday of Mithra as a way of occupying a rival’s holiday, rather than this being the result of Jesus being a solar savior. [14]

So much for the claimed similarities in birth stories of the saviors. The alleged crucifixion of the pagan god-men is also spurious. Each one of the dying-and-rising gods mentioned by Joseph (with the possible exception of Horus) experienced excruciating deaths in the stories told about them, but none were said to have been crucified. Jesus Christ appears to be the only one who was given that distinction. Much has been made of the Orpheos Bakkikos icon, a hematite seal dating from the early Christian era which depicts Dionysus being crucified. But this seal is not, as Murdock has claimed, a pre-Christian artifact. [15] It is at least post-Christian, if not an outright early-modern forgery. [16] In any case, it is more likely an example of pagan syncretism of Christianity’s themes rather than the other way around. Syncretism was a two-way street; the Christ myth picked up and incorporated pagan material, and pagans borrowed Christian material once the latter became a viable state religion in the fourth century CE. The fallacy committed by Acharya S and Peter Joseph is to assume that all instances of parallelism or syncretism proceed in one direction only, and that the pagan traditions always had the original idea.

Here is how Joseph applies his elaborate astrological theory to the nativity of Jesus’ life:

First of all, the birth sequence is completely astrological. The star in the east is Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, which, on December 24th, aligns with the 3 brightest stars in Orion’s Belt. These 3 bright stars are called today what they were called in ancient times: The Three Kings. The Three Kings and the brightest star, Sirius, all point to the place of the sunrise on December 25th. This is why the Three Kings “follow” the star in the east, in order to locate the sunrise — the birth of the sun.

Joseph’s astrological symbolism goes even deeper. As the days leading up to the winter solstice shorten, the sun eventually reaches its lowest point in the sky. Joseph sees this as representing the death of the sun. Then, right before the winter solstice comes,

Here a curious thing occurs: the Sun stops moving south, at least perceivably, for three days. During this three-day pause, the Sun resides in the vicinity of the Southern Cross, or Crux, constellation. And after this time on December 25th, the Sun moves 1 degree, this time north, foreshadowing longer days, warmth, and spring. And thus it was said: the Sun died on the cross, was dead for three days, only to be resurrected or born again.

There are several inaccuracies here, some astronomical and some historical. First, Sirius does not actually line up with Orion’s belt, and the sun has never resided within the vicinity of the Southern Cross. In fact, the Southern Cross is only visible in the southern hemisphere. [17] It cannot be seen in the skies above Bethlehem, which is located in the northern hemisphere. Second, Winter Solstice actually occurs on December 21 or 22, not December 25. [18] At this time, the sun does not become stationary in the sky. The axial tilt of the Earth on its axis is primarily responsible for the seasons. The distance of the Earth from the sun has very little effect on the change of seasons. [19] Joseph chooses his phrasing carefully here, saying that the sun perceivably stops moving in the sky before moving north again. This is a subtle yet prime example of Joseph stretching the facts to fit his preconceived narrative.

Contrary to both popular belief and the assertions of Zeitgeist, the “Three Kings” motif comes from extrabiblical religious tradition and is actually nowhere found in the biblical story of Jesus’ nativity. Many people are also unaware that there are in fact two distinct nativity stories in the New Testament. The Nativity as represented by modern-day Christmas pageants and storybooks are a combination of the stories found in Luke’s Gospel and Matthew’s Gospel. But when the stories of Matthew and Luke are read separately, we find that they disagree in every detail. In Matthew’s nativity story there is no Roman census, no trek of Jesus’ parents from Galilee to Bethlehem, and no birth in a stable. In Luke, there is no story of wise men from the east coming to pay tribute to Jesus.

Even in Matthew’s narrative, in which the oriental travelers appear, there is no mention of “three kings,” or even that the men were three in number. Matthew 2:1-2 states only that “wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’” [20]

There has been much speculation and debate over the centuries as to the nature of the magi’s “star.” One explanation that has been proposed is that the “star” was a triple alignment of Jupiter and Saturn in the Pisces constellation, a conjunction that occurred in 7 BCE. Another theory, proposed by Johannes Kepler in 1603, interprets Matthew’s star as an alignment of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. But none of the proposed conjunctions of planets has been made to fit the available astronomical data. Other writers have suggested that the star was a comet or a supernova. [21] But these theories have failed on the grounds that no supernova or other significant astronomical phenomena was reported by any of the meticulous observers and recorders of the skies who lived at that time. [22]

The Star of Bethlehem is rooted in allegory rather than in any natural historical event. However, as we shall see, it is not the allegory Zeitgeist insists that it is. In ancient times, the idea of a rising star was often associated with the birth of a king or other noble personage. In Matthew’s Gospel account, the magi are said to have come from the East. They were probably Parthians, since the Parthian Empire was the only territory east of Israel other than the Arabian Desert.

Matthew’s Nativity account is thus a political myth: Wise men from a foreign Empire are coming to Israel to hail the infant Jesus as a king. At this time, tensions existed between the Romans and the Parthians. A Roman civil war had erupted in Macedonia in 42 BCE, fought between the forces of Brutus and Cassius Longinus on one side and the forces of the Second Triumvirate on the other. The war was initiated by Antony and Octavian, high-ranking members of the triumvirate, to avenge the Liberatores’ murder of Julius Caesar. In the aftermath of this conflict, the Parthians took advantage of the political instability in the region. They invaded the Roman Empire and established Antigonus II Mattathias, the last of the Hasmonean kings, on the Judean throne. But in 37 BCE, the Romans, led by Herod the Great, drove the Parthians out of Israel and executed Antigonus. The threat of another Parthian incursion into Judea is inherent in the act of Parthians arriving in Herod’s kingdom to recognize and pay homage to a future king. Callahan notes that this “may have been a source for Matthew’s magi in the first place.” [23] In short, the story of the magi following the star to Bethlehem is a political allegory, not an astrological one.

The only reason church tradition and popular imagination has conceived of these Parthian magi as being three in number is because they presented three gifts to Jesus in Matthew’s account. As Callahan explains, the gifts themselves also have political significance:

The gifts of the wise men – gold, frankincense and myrrh – recall the homage paid to Solomon by the queen of Sheba, since Sheba lay at the southern end of the Incense Route and was a source of both frankincense and myrrh. Naturally gifts worthy of Solomon are given to Jesus as part of the Matthean attempt to identify him with the Davidic line. The fact that there are three specific gifts is probably the reason for the popular fiction that there were three wise men. Actually, Matthew nowhere states their number. [24]

So there are no “Three Kings,” either in the night sky or in ancient writings. These personages were not “kings” in the first place, and there were not three of them. In Zeitgeist, Peter Joseph has ironically accepted all this extrabiblical elaboration of church tradition at face value in order to build his case that the Gospels draw upon astrology to weave an elaborate fabrication in order to sell the Christ character to the Church’s followers.

Indeed, Joseph appears not to have even consulted the Bible he criticizes in his film. Instead, his modus operandi throughout this first section is to bring together a number of scattered and unrelated ideas and then try to connect the dots to form patterns where none exist. Consider, for example, his allegation that the reason Jesus was said to have 12 disciples is because there are 12 signs of the Zodiac:

Now, probably the most obvious of all the astrological symbolism around Jesus regards the 12 disciples. They are simply the 12 constellations of the Zodiac, which Jesus, being the Sun, travels about with.

There is no evidence that the number 12 as applied to the disciples of Jesus had any zodiacal significance. More likely the number was chosen to parallel the 12 tribes of Israel, not the Zodiac signs. And it is doubtful that the tribes of Israel themselves had any zodiacal reference attached to them. The evidence suggests instead that the 12 tribes were based on the 12 months of the year, since the ancient Israelites established a 12-tribe confederacy in which each tribe maintained the priestly sanctuary for one month of the year. [25] The fact that Simeon may not have even been a tribe makes the alleged connection between the tribes and the Zodiac even more tenuous. Simeon was probably a small and insignificant rural region of Judah that was afforded tribal status in order to provide support for the sanctuary.

As for Joseph’s implication that the crucifix on which Jesus died represents the Southern Cross constellation, this is shown to be highly questionable when we consider that the crucifixion stake used by the Romans in the first century was probably T-shaped. But more importantly, the history of the crucifix has very little to do with the Zodiac. Christians adopted it as the symbol of their religion because the man they revere as their savior is traditionally believed to have died on a Roman cross. If Jesus had been beaten to death with a club, one could imagine that the Christians to this day would have adopted the iconography of a club to symbolize their faith. Peter Joseph has simply taken the easy path of making false connections in order to prove something that conforms to and serves his agendas. Continuing on with its attempt to force a Zodiacal interpretation on every aspect of Christian iconography, Zeitgeist has this to say:

Coming back to the cross of the Zodiac, the figurative life of the Sun, this was not just an artistic expression or tool to track the Sun’s movements. It was also a Pagan spiritual symbol . . . This [the familiar cross with vertices within a circle] is not a symbol of Christianity. It is a Pagan adaptation of the cross of the Zodiac. This is why Jesus in early occult art is always shown with his head on the cross, for Jesus is the Sun, the Sun of God, the Light of the World, the Risen Savior, who will “come again,” as it does every morning, the Glory of God who defends against the works of darkness, as he is “born again” every morning, and can be seen “coming in the clouds”, “up in Heaven”, with his “Crown of Thorns,” or, sun rays.

Joseph makes a bold and explicit statement here: “Jesus in early occult art is always shown with his head on the cross.” This is simply not the case. Many early occult depictions of Jesus showed his head on a halo, not a cross. In fact, between the third and sixth centuries CE, halos were commonly featured in the representations of deities and other holy people. Many such religiously-venerated figures, who shared similar character details, can be seen in ancient art that have no connection to the sun whatsoever. [26]

Joseph has not even demonstrated conclusively that the cross of crucifixion, or any other cultural symbol pre-dating Christianity, is represented by the Zodiac in any meaningful or significant way. The evidence from anthropology actually indicates otherwise. The cross is one of the oldest known symbols, dating from as early as the Neolithic era, and was used by every known culture since that era for a variety of reasons. [27] The particular capacity in which the cross was used by any given culture in the past depended largely upon what the local population believed the cross to symbolize or represent. The cross-shaped sign in its earliest known form was represented as a crossing of two lines at right angles, in many cases forming an X that would be used to mark burial sites. The ankh, or ansated cross, is another cross that challenges Joseph’s portrayal of the symbol as one that always conformed to interpretations of the Zodiac throughout history. This ancient Egyptian cross form, featuring a loop that circles on the top, symbolized eternal life and fertility and often appeared as a sign in the hands of the goddess Sekhmet.

Joseph’s superficial Sunday-school understanding of the biblical texts is also apparent in the way he misquotes and misrepresents portions of the King James Bible, the version on which he relies and which itself is already full of mistranslations and copying errors[28] Consider, for instance, what Joseph says about the Passover:

At Luke 22:10, when Jesus is asked by his disciples where the next Passover will be after he is gone, Jesus replied: “Behold, when ye are entered into the city, there shall a man meet you bearing a pitcher of water . . . follow him into the house where he entereth in.” This scripture is by far one of the most revealing of all the astrological references. The man bearing a pitcher of water is Aquarius, the water-bearer, who is always pictured as a man pouring out a pitcher of water. He represents the age after Pisces, and when the Sun (God’s Sun) leaves the Age of Pisces (Jesus), it will go into the House of Aquarius, as Aquarius follows Pisces in the precession of the equinoxes. Also, Jesus is saying that after the Age of Pisces will come the Age of Aquarius.

While the reply from Jesus in Luke 22:10 is quoted correctly here, [29] the question asked by the disciples is not. When we look at the actual context in which the disciples asked their question, we find that Joseph has misused this verse to promote a misleading claim. We find this context in Luke 22:7-9: “Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, ‘Go and prepare the Passover for us, that we may eat it.’ They said to him, ‘Where will you have us prepare it?’” [30]

The disciples in this passage are not asking where the Passover will be held at a future time following Jesus’ departure, but rather where they should be preparing and partaking of the Passover that very evening. Even if Joseph represented the context correctly, the symbolism put forth by the film is inaccurate as well. Joseph describes Aquarius as “always pictured as a man pouring out a pitcher of water.” In the Luke passage, however, the man the disciples meet is not pouring out a pitcher of water, but rather carrying a pitcher of water. If this does happen to be a symbolic reference, it is not the one Joseph’s film claims it to be.

The film’s misrepresentation of the Bible continues in its use of other passages on which it bases its argument. Joseph claims, for example, that Matthew 28 is one of the primary sources for Christian understandings of end-times doctrines:

Now, we have all heard about the end times and the end of the world. Apart from the cartoonish depictions in the Book of Revelation, the main source of this idea comes from Matthew 28:20, where Jesus says “I will be with you even to the end of the world.” However, in King James Version, “world” is a mistranslation, among many mistranslations. The actual word being used is “aeon,” which means “age.” “I will be with you even to the end of the age.” Which is true, as Jesus’ Solar Piscean personification will end when the Sun enters the Age of Aquarius. The entire concept of end times and the end of the world is a misinterpreted astrological allegory. Let’s tell that to the approximately 100 million people in America who believe the end of the world is coming.

Dismissing the Book of Revelation by saying it contains “cartoonish depictions” is ironic, considering that Revelation contains the majority of the end-times predictions in Christianity’s theological system. Either Joseph has not fully read the Bible or he is utilizing very selective tactics in order to draw a parallel between the Zodiac and the Bible, a parallel to which Revelation does not readily conform, hence Joseph’s dismissal of its significance. Matthew 28 is hardly the “main source” for Christian eschatology. Passages in Matthew 24[31] the second chapter of Second Thessalonians[32] the Book of Daniel[33] and of course Revelation [34] are far better and more in-depth sources. But it is clear that the misrepresentation and selective reasoning present in Zeitgeist is required in order to prop up a case that the Bible is an astrological document. The King James Bible contains a total of 31,173 verses. [35] If the Bible is an astrological document, one would expect to find much more than a few verses indicating astrological connections between Jesus, Passover, the Zodiac, the various dispensations, and so forth.

Ironically, Joseph’s film correctly states that the King James Version of the Bible contains mistranslations (citing the use of the word “world” in Matthew 28 which Joseph says should have been translated as “aeon”), yet Joseph relies on the King James Version to support his claims. In this way he is like the conspiracy theorist we mentioned in the introduction, who insists that the mainstream media is deceptive or untrustworthy while at the same time collecting video clips from mainstream news broadcasts to use as “evidence” for his tinfoil-hat theories. As such, Peter Joseph appears more interested in levying a general attack on the reliability of the King James translation so that he can then spin the passages he has cherry-picked however he chooses. While it is true that “world” in this case actually is a mistranslation of what should be aion, the mistranslated Greek word in question is “αιων,” [36] which means “eternity” rather than “age.” The Greek word for “age” is “παλαιώνω” (palaiono). [37] Thus, despite the mistranslation, the general idea remains correctly conveyed: “even to the end of the world” versus “even to the end of eternity.”

Was Christianity a Political Conspiracy?

To be as fair as possible and give credit where it’s due, Part I of Zeitgeist does get a few points right. The film is correct in stating that the New Testament Gospels are mostly fiction, and there is no question that some elements and concepts in Christianity were indeed inspired by earlier influential mythologies. Some pagan material did make its way into the Christ myth, and this was even acknowledged by early Christian church fathers in their writings. This is borne out by the following quote from the early Christian apologist Justin Martyr (100-165 CE):

And when we say also that the Word, who is the first-birth of God, was produced without sexual union, and that He, Jesus Christ, our Teacher, was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended into heaven, we propound nothing different from what you believe regarding those whom you esteem sons of Jupiter. [38]

Justin Martyr proceeds to describe a number of pagan heroes who have parallels to Jesus, including Mercury, Asclepius, Bacchus (or Dionysus), and Hercules. But while it’s true that mythology permeates the Gospels, the problem is that Peter Joseph has applied the wrong mythology to his assessment of Christianity. The religion wasn’t constructed wholecloth from a single source, nor can it be reduced to an amalgamation of hijacked astrological symbolism. Nor is there any historical evidence to suggest that the architects of Christianity were consciously orchestrating a vast and organized conspiracy to politically control the lives of people. This latter argument is presented in the conclusion to Part I, where Joseph says,

The reality is, Jesus was the Solar Deity of the Gnostic Christian sect, and like all other Pagan gods, he was a mythical figure. It was the political establishment that sought to historize the Jesus figure for social control. By 325 A.D. in Rome, Emperor Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea. It was during this meeting that the politically motivated Christian Doctrines were established and thus began a long history of Christian bloodshed and spiritual fraud.

There is no doubt that some aspects of the Christianizing of the Roman Empire were indeed calculated for political gain. But this does not mean that the conversion of Constantine I to Christianity was not genuine. Moreover, Constantine did not make Christianity the official state religion of the Roman Empire. He was primarily responsible for ending the state-sanctioned persecution of Christians when he issued the Edict of Milan in 313 CE, which legalized Christianity but did not make it the official religion. [39] That would happen several decades later with the issuance in 380 of the Edict of Thessalonica by Constantine’s successor, the Emperor Theodosius I. [40]

The purpose of the First Council of Nicaea in 325 was to consolidate a number of different Christian beliefs together into a more cohesive system. The reason consolidation and unification of various Christian beliefs was deemed necessary by the early church fathers was because the situation was much more complex and diverse than Peter Joseph’s gross oversimplification would suggest. Gnosticism was not the only form of Christianity that existed prior to the Council of Nicaea, as Joseph implies. There was a wide variety of differing view about Jesus floating around the Empire, all vying for attention and legitimization. For example, there were the adoptionists who believed Jesus was only human and was “adopted” as the Son of God at his baptism. [41] On the other end of this spectrum were the Marcionites, who believed that Jesus was a spiritual entity and not human at all. [42] In between were the proto-orthodox Christians who believed something similar to what ended up being formalized in the Nicene Creed and which modern Christians believe about Christ, that he was simultaneously human and divine. And of course there was a host of Christian mystery cults, including Gnosticism.

Rather than establish anything new, the Council of Nicaea merely chose certain doctrines pertaining to the question of Jesus’ divinity that had already been taught by various Christian churches and made those old doctrines the official position of Christendom as a whole. It was not, as Joseph seems to believe, a shadowy affair where plots were hatched in secret to politically control the Empire.

Summary and Conclusion

The ideas presented in the first chapter of Zeitgeist concerning the origins of religion, particularly the connections between Christianity and Egyptian mythology, came into their own in the late nineteenth century. This was a time when radical scholars and pseudo-historians played fast and loose with methods that were only just beginning to be used by researchers in the fledgling field of biblical criticism. At the time Zeitgeist appeared on the Internet, the arguments of the old radical scholars were beginning to trickle back into popular culture. For example, popular social critic and political commentator Bill Maher has adopted some of the arguments used by Joseph and Acharya S. For example, many of the connections drawn by Joseph between Jesus and Horus in Zeitgeist were also drawn by Maher in his 2008 documentary film Religulous. The erroneous mythic parallels to Jesus also crop up in Brian Flemming’s otherwise admirable 2005 documentary The God Who Wasn’t There. These factually-dubious themes appear to be the only aspect of these films for which Maher and Flemming did not investigate claims as closely as they should have. This demonstrates the need for even skeptics of the supernatural to be careful of the sources on which we base our arguments and criticism. Overall, Religulous and The God Who Wasn’t There contain hard-hitting social commentary and accurate criticism, with a small amount of fiction mixed in. The opposite is the case for Zeitgeist; some few points are correct, but the overwhelming majority of its claims are either blatantly inaccurate or highly tenuous.

Debunking Christianity as a credible belief system is not difficult, and fabricating damning evidence against its historicity is completely unnecessary to the task. Building a sloppy case to the effect that Christianity was wholly plagiarized from earlier pagan religion and mythology is not only a waste of time that could have been spent doing legitimate research, but it also gives honest and reputable skeptics of Christianity and the Bible a bad name. Films like Zeitgeist have the unfortunate effect of giving Christian apologists an excuse to paint all critics of biblical faith as poor researchers whose prejudice trumps any solidly-grounded critique they present. Nobody’s academic reputation is served well by drawing nonexistent parallels and connecting imaginary dots between religions and then compounding the error by suggesting that such parallels necessarily indicate that the later religion must have stolen from the earlier one.

It is not to be denied that Christianity borrowed and co-opted several theological concepts from various Roman religions. One good example that can be cited is the origin of Christmas, which was not celebrated for the first few centuries after the Christian church was formed. But then some church leaders took interest in the Roman festival of Saturnalia, in which worshippers of Mithra celebrated their god’s birth around the time of the Winter Solstice. Being the good missionaries that they were, Christians appropriated that festival, keeping the aspects of gift-giving and general merrymaking, but changing it to be about the birth of Christ instead of Mithra. However, Peter Joseph and his muse Acharya S have greatly exaggerated the extent to which Christianity stole elements from earlier faiths. And even if Christianity did steal as many concepts as Zeitgeist would have us believe, it is fallacious to conclude that a religion whose tenets feature concepts such as recurring life and death must have been taken from an earlier religion simply because the latter also featured the same concepts.

To build a special case for Christianity being a fraud consciously perpetrated upon the masses, based solely on the existence of similarities in past religions, is illogical. But what makes Zeitgeist one of the most dishonest documentaries ever produced is the manner in which it presents its arguments, over and above the actual content itself. As we have seen, the film makes direct claims to the effect that Christianity stole its central tenets and storylines from the ancient Egyptians. Yes, Christianity was influenced to some small degree by Egyptian religion, but there are far more inconsistencies than there are similarities. And the similarities exist only to the extent that the ideas and concepts incorporated by Christianity were ubiquitous throughout Mesopotamia and surrounding regions.

Moreover, when religious scholars and anthropologists encounter concepts or philosophies in one religion that are more or less exactly the same as or at least similar to those found in two or more pre-dating cultures, tracing the source of influence is often a matter of asking which culture or civilization was closer to the centers in which the newer religion first developed and flourished. In the case of Christianity, it was the Babylonians who were geographically closer and who therefore had a much more direct influence on Christianity’s development. If Christianity borrowed elements from any earlier culture or religious system, it was the Babylonians, from whom the concepts of monotheism, the dualism of good and evil, angels and demons, a worldwide flood, and others were borrowed. It should come as no surprise that similar worldviews would be fostered and developed by a culture that shared the same social and political problems and challenges as its surrounding cultures. If a people are striving to create a conceptual model of their world that makes sense of their day-to-day experience, they may find the ideas of other cultures very satisfying and thus incorporate these ideas into their own belief system. It is not anomalous for a culture to independently develop ideas and concepts that flourish in other cultures, for example to conceive of supernatural reasons for why the sun shines. There is certainly no need to posit the existence of a vast conspiracy to control gullible masses. Joseph, along with his muse Acharya S, has conducted his “research” bearing the unwarranted assumption that nothing truly original can be created within new religions or belief systems. But not all true ideas are necessarily original, and not all original ideas are inherently more valuable or informative than their derivatives.

I should mention at this point that my criticism of Peter Joseph’s anti-religious claims by no means constitutes an apology for the Christian faith. Christianity remains a very flawed religion regardless of whether Joseph’s claims are true or not. My aim here is simply to distinguish truth from falsehood. I have shown that the essential arguments presented in the first part of Zeitgeist are factually wrong. But I have no personal stake in this matter. If the various disparate claims contained in Zeitgeist are proven to be true by some startling and revolutionary archaeological discovery, my immediate response would be to update the present critique.

This contrasts sharply with the strawman skeptic conjured up in the imaginations of conspiracy theory enthusiasts, who seem to be labor under the false impression that skeptics who take the time and effort to debunk conspiracy theories are doing so because they have something to gain personally from the exercise. Some of the most common accusations levied against those of us who are skeptical of conspiracy theories, such as those promoted by Joseph and Acharya, include the charge that we are “closet Christians,” government agents, and/or the beneficiary of some powerful corporation’s payroll. When cornered in debate, accusations of this ilk are often the conspiracy theorists’ only recourse.


[1] George Hart, The Routledge Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses, 2nd ed. (London and New York: Routledge, 2005).

[2] E.A. Wallis Budge, Egyptian Religion (1899; reprint, Barnes & Noble Books, 1995).

[3] Anthony Spalinger, “Some Remarks on the Epagomenal Days in Ancient Egypt,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 54, no. 1 (January 1995): 33-47.

[4] E.A. Wallis Budge, Legends of the Gods: The Egyptian Texts, Edited with Translations (London: Kegan Paul, Trench and Trübner & Co. Ltd., 1912); Geraldine Pinch, Egyptian Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

[5] This image, as rendered by A.G. Shedid, is printed in Erik Hornung, The Ancient Egyptian Books of the Afterlife, trans. David Lorton (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999), p. 48.

[6] Plutarch, “Isis and Osiris,” in Moralia Vol. V (Loeb Classical Library no. 306), trans. Frank Cole Babbitt (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1936). The full text of this work is freely available online at http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Moralia/Isis_and_Osiris*/home.html (accessed September 10, 2016).

[7] Kersey Graves, The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors: Christianity Before Christ (1875; reprint, Kempton, IL: Adventures Unlimited Press, 2001).

[8] Acharya S, The Christ Conspiracy: The Greatest Story Ever Sold (Kempton, IL: Adventures Unlimited Press, 1999). Note that Peter Joseph has taken inspiration from Acharya’s subtitle for the title of the first section of his film, “The Greatest Story Ever Told.”

[9] John R. Hinnells, ed., Mithraic Studies: Proceedings of the First International Congress of Mithraic Studies, 2 Vols. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1975).

[10] W. Crooke, “The Legends of Krishna,” Folklore 11, no. 1 (March 1900): 1-38.

[11] Derek and Julia Parker, The New Compleat Astrologer (New York: Crescent Books, 1990), p. 194.

[12] Barbara Tedlock, Time and the Highland Maya (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1992).

[13] Ian Ridpath and Wil Tirion, Stars and Planets: The Most Complete Guide to the Stars, Planets, Galaxies, and the Solar System (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2007), pp. 194-96.

[14] Tim Callahan, “The Greatest Story Ever Garbled: A Critique of ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’ – Part I of the Internet Film Zeitgeist,” Skeptic 15, no. 1 (March 2009): 61-67. Available online at http://www.skeptic.com/eskeptic/09-02-25/#feature (accessed May 3, 2015).

[15] D.M. Murdock, A Pre-Christian ‘God’ on a Cross? The Orpheos Bakkikos Gem Reexamined (Seattle, WA: Stellar House Publishing, 2013).

[16] Jeffrey Spier, Late Antique and Early Christian Gems (Wiesbaden: Reichert Verlag, 2007), p. 178.

[17] “Crux, Musca, Carina,” The Deep Photographic Guide to the Constellations, http://www.allthesky.com/constellations/crux/ (accessed May 7, 2015).

[18] B.A. Robinson, “Dates and Times of the Winter Solstice,” ReligiousTolerance.org, December 3, 1999, http://www.religioustolerance.org/winter_solstice2.htm (accessed September 10, 2016).

[19] Phil Plait, “What Causes the Seasons?” Bad Astronomy, January 21, 1998, http://www.badastronomy.com/bad/misc/seasons.html (accessed September 10, 2016).

[20] Matthew 2:1-2 (English Standard Version), http://biblehub.com/esv/matthew/2.htm (accessed May 9, 2015).

[21] Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1979), pp. 171-72.

[22] Tim Callahan, Secret Origins of the Bible (Altadena, CA: Millennium Press, 2002), p. 379.

[23] Ibid, p. 382.

[24] Ibid, p. 381.

[25] Ibid, p. 103.

[26] For some good examples, see “Artists by Nationality: Greek Artists,” Artcyclopedia: The Ultimate Guide to Great Art Online, http://www.artcyclopedia.com/nationalities/Greek.html (accessed May 3, 2015).

[27] Rudolf Koch, The Book of Signs, trans. Dybyan Holland (1930; reprint, New York: Dover Publications, 1955), pp. 14-29.

[28] Bart D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005), p. 209; DPR Jones, “A Brief History of the King James Bible” (video), YouTube, March 3, 2010, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rFDwK5ko7sI (accessed May 10, 2015).

[29] Luke 22:10, with parallel translations, http://biblehub.com/luke/22-10.htm (accessed May 9, 2015).

[30] Luke 22:7-9 (English Standard Version), http://biblehub.com/esv/luke/22.htm (accessed May 9, 2015).

[31] Matthew 24 (English Standard Version), http://biblehub.com/esv/matthew/24.htm (accessed May 10, 2015).

[32] 2 Thessalonians 2 (English Standard Version), http://biblehub.com/esv/2_thessalonians/2.htm (accessed May 10, 2015).

[33] Daniel 1 ff. (English Standard Version), http://biblehub.com/esv/daniel/1.htm (accessed May 10, 2015).

[34] Revelation 1 ff. (English Standard Version), http://biblehub.com/esv/revelation/1.htm (accessed May 10, 2015).

[35] Stephen M. Miller and Robert V. Huber, The Bible: A History – The Making and Impact of the Bible (Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2004), p. 239.

[36] Mat. 28:20 (King James Version), Blue Letter Bible, http://www.blueletterbible.org/Bible.cfm?b=Mat&c=28&v=20&i=conc#s=957020 (accessed May 10, 2015).

[37] The reader can confirm this for herself by consulting Kypros-Net’s Greek-English/English-Greek dictionary at http://www.kypros.org/cgi-bin/lexicon (accessed May 10, 2015).

[38] Justin Martyr, First Apology, Chapter 21. Translated by Leslie William Barnard in Ancient Christian Writers vol. 56 (New York: Paulist Press, 1997).

[39] W.H.C. Frend, The Early Church (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1982).

[40] N.Q. King, The Emperor Theodosius and the Establishment of Christianity (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960).

[41] See Bart D. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), chapter 2.

[42] F. Legge, Forerunners and Rivals of Christianity: Studies in Religious History from 330 B.C. to 330 A.D., Vol I (Cambridge: University Press, 1915).

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Spirit of Paranoia: A Critical Analysis of “Zeitgeist” (Introduction)

When you are studying any matter, or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only: ‘What are the facts and what is the truth that the facts bear out?’ Never let yourself be diverted either by what you wish to believe, or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed, but look only – and solely – at what are the facts.
~ Bertrand Russell, 1959 [1]

is an Internet film sensation that rocked the ostensibly “freethinking” online community upon its release on Google Video in the spring of 2007. Taking the German word for “spirit of the age” as its title, the film has since become a cult phenomenon. Scores of people have credited Zeitgeist with “opening their mind” and profoundly altering their way of looking at and thinking about the world. But while Zeitgeist serves as a useful primer on several fringe ideas circulating in the areas of religion and politics, I want to argue in this paper that people should be wary of accepting its claims as gospel. The majority of claims made in the film are highly questionable at best and factually incorrect, even dishonestly so, at worst. The same standards of critical thinking and skepticism the filmmaker purports to promote and utilize in analyzing religious claims and political states of affairs are not applied to many of the historical, political, and socioeconomic claims employed to support his analyses.

Zeitgeist is the film that first introduced me to the world of conspiracy theories when I watched it upon its release. I have been fascinated ever since by conspiracy theories, not as a believer but as a skeptic interested in understanding how the anxieties and concerns of a society are channeled into the myths we create for ourselves. As a result of my interest, I have followed the work of figures such as Alex Jones, whose documentary films and radio broadcasts have made him a household name in the conspiracy-theory community. But it is often disappointing to note the paucity of information and commentary from the opposing side of the discussion, that is, from informed researchers who are skeptical of the claims made by conspiracy theorists. There are a few notable resources that come highly recommended by me. One is the online Skeptic Project (formerly known as Conspiracy Science). [2] Created by Edward L. Winston, the Skeptic Project began as a response to the relative scarcity of commentary being made to counter the proliferation of paranoid conspiracy theories on the Internet. The website is devoted to critiquing and debunking conspiracy theories of all kinds. Winston has also expanded the site’s content; in addition to shedding light on what are typically categorized as conspiracy theories, the Skeptic Project also contains sections debunking common misconceptions, myths, and urban legends.

The skeptic’s first and most important task in discerning truth from falsehood in relation to conspiracy theories is to seek out the source of a conspiracy theory. This process involves finding out what individual or group conceived of the theory, what agenda they may have, and the original evidence (if any) on which they drew. When this is done, the skeptic then stands in an informed position to figure out exactly what is wrong with the conspiracy theory or popular myth and why different groups feel motivated to add different elements to the same story. This methodology does not yield results for every single claim out there, but it does work for the vast majority of them. As an example, consider the “North American Union” conspiracy theory, an idea discussed in Part III of Zeitgeist. Where did the idea of a North American Union originate? This strictly hypothetical and speculative concept originated in a book written by Robert A. Pastor in 2001, entitled Toward a North American Community[3] Prior to the release of this book, there was never any mention by anyone of a North American Union, nor of the Amero currency that Pastor proposes in the book. A few years later, Alex Jones received word of Pastor’s idea and immediately declared the emergence of a North American Union to be literal truth, wholly disregarding the fact that the NAU was never anything more than a speculative suggestion, and one which Pastor himself did not even support.

Conspiracy theorists typically approach every piece of information they stumble across in this unreflective and schizophrenic manner. They will read a blog post or an op-ed piece from a news source that fires up their imagination, and then proceed to declare what they have come across to be fact, a sure indication that something significant and world-changing will definitely transpire. The internal contradiction that plagues the “conspiracy-around-every-corner” mindset can be seen in this tendency. Conspiracy theorists constantly tell us that we cannot trust mainstream news sources, but then attempt to back up their claims with clips from mainstream news media sources. They trust the mainstream news when it appears to validate their fears and distrust the mainstream news when it shows information contradicting their claims. When one looks at the source of conspiratorial claims, he or she may also discover exactly why the conspiracy theorists making the claims harbor their various agendas. It is usually the case that uninformed people who spread unfounded conspiracy theories on social networking sites have good intentions in mind; they want to notify people of what they have been led to believe is really transpiring. But those who initially start spreading conspiracy theories and claims usually have in mind monetary interests, political gain, or simply a desire for fame as they use their imaginations to invent myths.

Before delving with a critical eye into the content of Zeitgeist, background information on the Zeitgeist Movement is in order. The Zeitgeist Movement is a group founded by Peter Joseph, the creator of the film. Joseph envisioned and created the group as a venue through which the ideas advocated in the second and third Zeitgeist films can be actively expressed. [4] TZM is Peter Joseph’s way of not only promoting his movies, but also of endorsing the concepts behind an unrelated venture called the Venus Project, a movement founded by social engineer and futurist Jacque Fresco which seeks to bring to fruition a Technocratic resource-based economic utopia. [5] One of the stated purposes of the Zeitgeist Movement is to construct a plan to aid the Venus Project in establishing their agenda. However, like TZM, the Venus Project has not to date outlined any goals of a specific nature and has not accomplished anything concrete[6]

Zeitgeist is composed of three parts. Part I, entitled “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” discusses the origins of Christianity, asserting that the major tenets of Christian beliefs were taken whole-cloth from pre-existing myths. Part II, entitled “All the World’s a Stage,” discusses the “truth” behind 9/11, arguing that the attacks on September 11, 2001 were an inside U.S. Government. Part III, entitled “Don’t Mind the Men behind the Curtain,” argues that the federal government and the banking systems are conspiring for power and wealth consolidation. The main body of my critique is thus written in three parts, covering each section of the film in its turn.


[1] Bertrand Russell interview on BBC’s Face to Face, 1959. Video available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1bZv3pSaLtY (accessed September 5, 2016).

[2] Skeptic Project: “Your #1 COINTELPRO cognitive infiltration source.” http://skepticproject.com/ (accessed May 2, 2015).

[3] Robert A. Pastor, Toward a North American Community: Lessons from the Old World to the New (Washington, D.C.: Peterson Institute, 2001).

[4] http://TheZeitgeistMovement.com/ (accessed May 2, 2015).

[5] http://www.TheVenusProject.com/ (accessed May 2, 2015).

[6] For more in-depth information concerning the Zeitgeist Movement, see Edward L. Winston’s helpful analysis at http://www.conspiracyscience.com/articles/the-zeitgeist-movement/ (accessed May 2, 2015).

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A Critical Review of “GMO OMG” (Part 2): Fear and Loathing in Haiti

After talking to random people on the streets of his local town about GMOs, Jeremy Seifert travels to Haiti, where he says “something happened that really awakened me to a much bigger story about seeds and food and control.” In June 2010, more than 10,000 Haitians gathered together in the streets to protest a generous donation of seeds that Monsanto offered to the people of Haiti in the wake of the earthquake that devastated the country five months earlier. Instigated by the Peasant Movement of Papaye (MPP), the Haitians sent as strong a message to Monsanto as they knew how: they burned 60,000 sacks of the seeds given to them.

The hostility of the Haitian people to Monsanto is as strong as it is irrational. Seifert interviews Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, leader of the Peasant Movement, who claims that Monsanto’s seeds are poisonous and that they are “destroying the life of the land and destroying the people.” Jean-Baptiste never provides us with evidence for this, or even so much as an explanation of why he believes the seeds are poisonous and destructive. After filming members of the Peasant Movement singing a song about chasing Monsanto out of their country, Seifert talks to peasant farmers who do at least try to articulate why they believe Monsanto is a threat. “We plant produce that you can plant every year,” one farmer says. “With the Monsanto product, you can plant just one time. That’s why we didn’t take it.”

But Seifert’s coverage of the Haitian protest omits a crucial fact: the seeds donated by Monsanto were not genetically modified. They were actually hybrid seeds, which is not the same thing as genetically modified seeds. Seifert’s film even includes a graphic representation of a Huffington Post headline stating that the seeds being burned were hybrid seeds. [1] But either Seifert does not know the difference between hybrid products and genetic modification, or he is counting on his audience not knowing the difference. Either way, the narrative he is constructing about Haitian peasant farmers burning GM seeds is erroneous.


Screenshot from GMO OMG

A hybrid seed is simply the product of selective cross-pollination between two different plant species for the perpetuation of desirable traits. Humans have been manipulating plants in this way for thousands of years. The effectiveness of such selected traits diminishes with each successive generation of the hybrid plant’s offspring. This is the reason why the seeds Monsanto donated to Haiti could only be planted once. It’s simply a fact of genetics.

Some staple crops grown and consumed worldwide are the result of this hybridization process. Hybrid corn, for example, is one of the most important breakthroughs in agriculture and replaced the use of randomly-mated varieties in the early twentieth century. Owing largely to its substantially better yield and hardier resistance to drought than its open-pollinated predecessor, hybrid corn has been a staple crop since its wide and rapid acceptance by American Midwestern farmers in the 1930s. [2] This breakthrough happened four decades before scientists developed the first genetically modified organism in 1972, and hybridization still does not require genetic modification by humans. The modern banana, for example, is a domesticated hybrid between two wild banana species (Musa balbisiana and Musa acuminata) and clearly does not fall under the category of genetically modified organism. In some cases, natural selection can result in hybridized plants, whereas genetic modification of plants consists of a highly specific and artificially controlled transfer of two or more genes from any organism, however distantly related, directly into a plant’s genome. That is the key difference between hybrid seeds and genetically modified seeds.

Another way in which Seifert misleads his viewers is by conflating the entirety of Monsanto’s seed donation with other seeds that were purchased by other Haitian farmers and which turned out to be impotent. He travels to a farm in the small Haitian town of Mirebalais, where farmers planted seeds that failed to grow. According to one Mirebalais farmer interviewed in the film, “We pulled them up and threw them away, because they came up withered, turned red. They weren’t good for us, so we pulled them up and threw them away. They made us pay. So now we lost both money and seed. It didn’t do us any good.”

Instead of examining any number of possible reasons behind this seed failure – for example, the possibility that the environmental and ecological effects of the earthquake might have something to do with it – Seifert has edited into the film a deceptively smooth segue from first talking about the total shipment of 475 tons of seeds that Monsanto donated to talking about a different group of farmers who were disappointed with seeds they purchased from farmer association stores. The initial shipment of Monsanto seeds used in Mirebalais were distributed to these farmer associations by the WINNER project (Watershed Initiative for National Natural Environmental Resources), a five-year, $126 million program funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to aid Haitian farmers in improving agricultural practices for increased yields. [3] GMO OMG implies that Monsanto made the farmers pay for the seeds that the Mirebalais farmers were disappointed with, but this is not true, as the following information on Monsanto’s website makes clear:

The seeds are being provided free-of-charge by Monsanto. WINNER will distribute the seeds through farmer association stores to be sold at a significantly reduced price. The farmer stores will use the revenue to reinvest in other inputs to support farmers in the future. The farmer associations alone will receive revenue from the sales. [4]

Far from making money in a backhanded manner, Monsanto did not benefit financially from giving their seeds away. The false narrative that Seifert is endorsing in his film is one that probably harmed a lot of Haitian people in the long term. This is not to suggest that the people of Haiti are not well within their right to refuse a gift from a large American corporation. And there are some legitimate criticisms to be made concerning the economic and ecological viability of rapidly introducing improved seed into regions where indigenous agricultural practices have remained unchanged for over two hundred years. [5] But the fact remains that Haiti had just suffered a massive natural disaster that claimed the lives of over 100,000 people. The damage the earthquake caused to Haiti’s arable farmlands meant that many more people would suffer from food shortages and malnutrition. The earthquake wiped out entire crops, and Haiti’s government did not have the resources required to rebuild their agricultural infrastructure from scratch and keep the population well fed. Under such devastating circumstances, is it reasonable for needy people to refuse a very generous donation of seeds for any reason? Granted, the peasant farmers protesting Monsanto and burning their seeds had convinced themselves that Monsanto’s seeds were “poisonous” and threatened their food sovereignty and agricultural way of life. But when the alternative is starving, it is bizarre that the Peasant Movement would not be content to stop at mere refusal, but to also turn that refusal into a mass spectacle of proudly burning seeds. Meanwhile, it is sobering to consider how their actions might have negatively affected other starving, injured, and displaced Haitians who did not agree with what the Peasant Movement was doing. Seifert even admits in his film just how dire the situation in Haiti was after the earthquake:

Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. People suffer from crippling poverty, hunger, and malnutrition. The earthquake made an already desperate situation much worse. With hundreds of thousands dead and countless bodies lost beneath the rubble, and over a million people crammed into tent cities, the agro-chemical company Monsanto offered Haiti 475 tons of seeds. So why would poor rural farmers burn seeds?

That’s a very good question. Unfortunately, Seifert uncritically accepts the factually incorrect rationale of the Peasant Movement of Papaye at face value because it serves the anti-GMO narrative he is building.



[1] Beverly Bell, “Haitian Farmers Commit to Burning Monsanto Hybrid Seeds,” The World Post, May 17, 2010, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/beverly-bell/haitian-farmers-commit-to_b_578807.html (accessed April 17, 2016).

[2] James F. Crow, “90 Years Ago: The Beginning of Hybrid Maize,” Genetics 148, no. 3 (March 1998): 923-928. http://www.genetics.org/content/148/3/923 (accessed April 17, 2016); Paul K. Conkin, A Revolution Down on the Farm: The Transformation of American Agriculture since 1929 (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2008), pp. 119-20.

[3] USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development), “Seed System Security Assessment: Haiti,” Technical Report (Port-au-Prince, Haiti: USAID, 2010).

[4] Monsanto, “Monsanto Donates Corn and Vegetable Seeds to Haiti” (n.d.), http://www.monsanto.com/improvingagriculture/pages/haiti-seed-donation.aspx (accessed April 17, 2016).

[5] John Mazzeo and Barrett P. Brenton, “Peasant Resistance to Hybrid Seed in Haiti: The Implications of Agro-industrial Inputs through Humanitarian Aid on Food Security, Food Sovereignty, and Cultural Identity,” in Hanna Garth, ed., Food and Identity in the Caribbean (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), pp. 121-138.

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