The first conspiracy theory I ever recognized as such came courtesy of my friend Leon’s Uncle Mike.
We were isolated around a campfire in the dark. The conversation drifted from why no one had shot a deer yet to the distinct possibility that space creatures wandered the stars above us.
Mike assured us that there were such things as Martians, flying saucers and hideous life forms that prowled the night sky looking to turn human skulls into coffee mugs.
Being a serious skeptic even at age 10, I scoffed at the idea, all the while peering around the dark woods just in case some terrifying thing was lurking nearby with a gunnysack.
To prove his point, Mike leaned over and picked up a sun-dried, dirt-encrusted marshmallow left by previous campers.
“This is proof,” he assured us. “I’ll bet you never realized that these are actually extraterrestrial alien droppings. It’s their poop. It’s how they’re taking over the world.”
As evidenced by a violent gag that nearly cost him his uvula, Leon was an immediate believer. He started crying.
Being of a somewhat dimmer nature, I initially wondered whether the marshmallow Uncle Mike held could be made edible again by flicking off some of the dirt.
Instead, Mike tossed the invaluable scientific evidence into the fire and said we better hit the sack. Those deer tomorrow weren’t going to die all by themselves.
I spent that night listening to Leon whimper about all the marshmallows he’d eaten in his short life. What if he had an alien inside him at that very moment? What if he was turning into an alien?
Far as I know, Leon never ate another marshmallow. Such was his firm belief in what Uncle Mike had claimed that he would even slap one out of my hand if I tried to eat it.
Conspiracy theories abound. Humans are a highly imaginative and superstitious lot, so it’s understandable that we attach so much importance to things based on little or no evidence.
It starts out with something benign like Santa and goes all the way to believing the last presidential election was rigged. Hey, people in the know swear that the Mafia killed JFK and that Area 51 contains the spacecraft upon which the Prius is based.
Lately, an interesting study shows that many religious people are inclined to believe in various conspiracy theories like Donald Trump winning the election and Congress being controlled by reptiles.
According to a study, about half of all Protestant pastors in the United States are hearing conspiracy theories bandied about in their congregations. Makes sense. True believers are already wired for such stuff.
The foundations of all major organized faiths are based on some sort of hard-to-prove belief — whether it’s splitting the moon, being raised from the dead, or having a conversation with a burning bush.
Hard evidence for these beliefs/theories is, of course, impossible to obtain, which is why they can be regarded as theories rather than facts. And they should be treated as such rather than something to start an argument, a fight or even a Capitol riot over.
Robert Kirby is The Salt Lake Tribune’s humor columnist. Follow Kirby on Facebook.