Zeitgeist: The Movie, Myths, and Motivations

The Internet movie Zeitgeist uses flagrant dishonesty to make an ideological point that could have easily been made ethically.

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Conspiracies, Religion

Skeptoid #196
March 9, 2010
Podcast transcript | Listen | Subscribe
 

Today we're going to point the skeptical eye at one of the most popular Internet phenomena from the last couple of years: Zeitgeist, a freely downloadable documentary movie. It purports to critically examine Christianity, the cause of 9/11, and the world economy. Instead, it paints them all with a single wide stroke of the conspiracy paintbrush. "Zeitgeist" is a German word meaning the spirit of the times, thus Zeitgeist the movie purports to pull aside the curtain and reveal the true nature of the world in which we live. The problem with the film, as has been roundly pointed out by academics worldwide, is that many of the conspiratorial claims and historical references are outright fictional inventions. Zeitgeist does have a message that's not necessarily invalid, but it's lost underneath the unequivocal dishonesty.

For a long time, people have been asking me to do a Skeptoid episode about Zeitgeist. I've resisted, mainly because it's so poorly researched that I didn't feel it deserved any response from legitimate science journalism. But people have kept asking. And, obviously, a lot of viewers have been swayed by it. I've even had people who innocently bought into it write me and quote Zeitgeist as an authority, suggesting I do some episode promoting one of its claims. Zeitgeist, and the 9/11 conspiracy movie Loose Change, are largely what motivated me to produce Here Be Dragons, my free 40-minute video giving a general introduction to applied critical thinking, which I felt was a more appropriate response than publicly acknowledging either film. But I spent some time learning more about Zeitgeist, its sequels and related events, and its creator, and concluded that the mainstream criticism of the film doesn't tell the whole story, and its worldwide impact does make it deserving of a more critical examination.

Understanding Zeitgeist means understanding its creator, Peter Joseph Merola, a young musician, artist, and freelance film editor living in New York City, at last account. I've found no reference to any educational or professional experience pertaining to any of the subjects covered in the movie. He moved to New York in order to attend art school. That appears to be the extent of his qualifications to teach history and political science, but of course it doesn't make him wrong. It may, however, explain why many of his factual claims contradict what anyone can learn from any textbook on religious history or political science.

Merola made a second film, Zeitgeist: Addendum which offers much better insight into the man and his motivations for creating Zeitgeist. He's basically a postmodern utopian, who spends most of his effort speaking out against money-based economics. He advocates the rejection of government, profit, banking, and civil infrastructure: basically, the "establishment". Once you understand where he's coming from, it makes it a lot easier to understand why he made Zeitgeist and tried so hard to point out the corruption and evils of the establishment. The problem is that he simply made up a bunch of crap to drive his point, and that's where he crossed the line between philosophical advocacy and unethical propaganda.

Much of what makes Zeitgeist popular is that the sustainable utopia he describes is very compelling. It's probably not very realistic, but it's alluring at an organic level. Mistrust of the establishment has been a popular theme ever since a caveman first raised a club, so the two combine to make the message of Zeitgeist appealing, at some level, to nearly everyone. For example, in his sequel, Merola profiles futurist Jacque Fresco who envisions what he calls a "resource-based economy", a world without money where the Earth's natural resources are freely available to all and responsibly managed through public virtue and high technology. This is a fine idea, and while its practicality and workability can certainly be debated, it's perfectly valid as a philosophy. And so, it was from this utopian perspective that the young idealist Peter Joseph Merola set out to first convince us that our current system is fundamentally broken.

He began in the first of Zeitgeist's three chapters with an assault on Christianity. The film draws many parallels between the Nativity story and pagan sun worship and astrology, suggesting that their origins are all the same. This is followed by an impressive set of similarities between the life of Jesus and the life of Horus, the Egyptian god — similarities far too extensive to be simple coincidences. And then, taking key points from the life of Jesus (the virgin birth, December 25th, a resurrection after three days, and so on), we find that the same elements are found in the stories of many other gods from diverse cultures, namely the Phrygian Attis, the Indian Krishna, the Greek Dionysus, and the Persian Mithra. Merola's presentation is compelling, and constitutes a convincing argument that Christianity is just one of many branches of mythology stemming from the same ancient stories going all the way back to prehistoric sun worship.

Where this compelling presentation breaks down is, well, almost everywhere. The majority of Merola's assertions are flagrantly wrong, as if he had begun with a conclusion, and worked backwards making up facts that would get him there. He gave no sources, but it turns out that most of these same claims about other gods having the same details as the Jesus stories come from a 1999 book called The Christ Conspiracy: The Greatest Story Ever Sold. Christian scholars in particular have been highly critical of Merola's unresearched and wrong assertions, which is understandable given that they are probably the best authorities on religious histories.

Part II of the movie depicts the 9/11 attacks as having been perpetrated by the American government, essentially repeating the same basic charges found throughout the 9/11 "truth" community. These charges fall into two basic categories: innuendo and misinformation. Innuendo like the Bushes knew the bin Ladens, the alleged hijackers have since been found to be alive and well, the inexperienced pilot couldn't have hit the building; and misinformation like straw man arguments mischaracterizing what we all watched that day. These, and many other tactics claimed by the "truthers" to be evidence that the attack was an inside job, have been thoroughly addressed elsewhere and I'm not going to go into them here. In short, searching for alternative possible motivations, and finding and making extraneous connections between various people and events, does not prove or serve as evidence of anything. Raising the specter of doubts or alternate possibilities is very effective in distracting people away from the facts, as we saw so dramatically in O. J. Simpson's murder acquittal, and as we see throughout the 9/11 "truth" movement.

According to a New York Times interview with Peter Joseph Merola in which he was asked about the 9/11 conspiracy claims made in Zeitgeist, he says he has since "moved away from" these beliefs. While it's great that he was willing to come out publicly and say that he's abandoned one line of irrational thinking, to me it says more that he leaves it in the movie anyway (Zeitgeist has gone through a number of revisions, and he's had ample opportunity to edit out sections he no longer believes). This is only speculation on my part, of course, but I'd guess he leaves it in because it so dramatically illustrates the evils of the establishment, which is a pillar of his philosophy. If true, it would show that the content of Merola's films are driven more by ideology than by fact.

Tip Skeptoid $2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

That this is Merola's ideology is most impactfully illustrated in part III of Zeitgeist. This asserts the existence of what Merola believes is a worldwide conspiracy of international bankers, who are directly responsible for causing all wars in the past century as a way to earn profits. From his student art studio, Merola purports to have uncovered plans, known only to a select few of these hypothesized bankers, to combine the currencies of Canada, the United States, and Mexico into a single denomination called the Amero, as a next step toward an eventual one world government. In fact, the Amero was proposed in a couple of books: in 1999 by Canadian economist Herb Grubel in The Case for the Amero, and in 2001 by political science professor Robert Pastor in Toward a North American Community. The number of economists not proposing an Amero is much larger. This chapter of Zeitgeist goes into great detail, most annoyingly in the way it quote-mines everyone from Thomas Jefferson to Carl Sagan (from letters both real and counterfeit) to suggest that leaders in government and science have always known about this. People knowledgeable in this subject have gone through Zeitgeist point-by-point and refuted each and every one of its dishonest claims, none more effectively than Edward Winston on his Conspiracy Science web site, which I highly recommend if you want to discuss any of the nitty gritty details in any section of Zeitgeist.

I can empathize with Peter Joseph Merola on one level. When I first started the Skeptoid podcast, I didn't really yet know what it was going to be about or where it was going to lead. I didn't keep references either. Having done it a few years, I now have my focus dialed in much better. I can see the same evolution from the conspiracy theories in the original Zeitgeist film to the utopian and philosophical topics Merola now talks about. He described Zeitgeist's inception as a personal project and a "public awareness expression", a context in which it was unnecessary to keep references or even to be historically accurate. I suspect that if he'd known where he was going to be today, he wouldn't have made Zeitgeist, and would have instead gone straight to the sequel which almost completely omits the conspiracy theories and untrue history.

If he had, the Zeitgeist franchise would probably not be nearly so successful. Nothing commands attention and feeds our native desire for power like a good conspiracy theory. If you know about the conspiracy, you're in on the secret information, and you are more powerful than the conspirators. For better or for worse, we all have a deep craving to have the upper hand. This is perhaps the main reason for the unending popularity of Zeitgeist, Loose Change, Alex Jones, Richard Hoagland, and other conspiracy theory machines. It also explains the passion shown by those who defend them: All that matters is "being the one who knows more than you," and the facts are a distant second.

Brian Dunning

© 2010 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Callahan, T. "The Greatest Story Ever Garbled." Skeptic. The Skeptics Society, 25 Feb. 2009. Web. 2 Mar. 2010. <http://www.skeptic.com/eskeptic/09-02-25>

Dunbar, D., Reagan, B. Debunking 9/11 Myths: Why Conspiracy Theories Can't Stand Up to the Facts. New York: Hearst Books, 2006.

Feuer, A. "They’ve Seen the Future and Dislike the Present." New York Times. 16 Mar. 2009, N/A: A24.

Lippard, J. "Zeitgeist: The Movie." The Lippard Blog. Jim Lippard, 11 Jun. 2008. Web. 2 Mar. 2010. <http://lippard.blogspot.com/2008/06/zeitgeist-movie.html>

Meigs, J. "Debunking the 9/11 Myths: Special Report." Popular Mechanics, March 2005 Issue. 1 Mar. 2005, Year 103, Number 3.

Pastor, Robert A. Toward a North American Community: Lessons from the Old World for the New. Washington: Institute for International Economics, 2001. 111-115.

Siegel, Jon. "Income Tax: Voluntary or Mandatory?" Jon Siegel's Income Tax Protestors Page. Jon Siegel, 31 Jan. 2007. Web. 3 Mar. 2010. <http://docs.law.gwu.edu/facweb/jsiegel/Personal/taxes/IncomeTax.htm>

Winston, E. "Zeitgeist, the Movie Debunked." Conspiracy Science. Edward L Winston, 1 Jan. 2008. Web. 2 Mar. 2010. <http://conspiracyscience.com/articles/zeitgeist/>

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Zeitgeist: The Movie, Myths, and Motivations." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 9 Mar 2010. Web. 28 Jul 2015. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4196>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 268 comments

Positivism cience point of view. Today we already have Generative Science, supported by organizations like ZERI, that's changing the way we look at our universe and our body. Brian, you shouldn't see the a fragmented science like the truth, as we live in a complex sistem. You talk about oriental culture, wich you put as small minded culture, but, they have less incidence of cancer and other "modern deseases", how come? Mostly because of the alimentation and the psychological health. You put acient wisdom as a red flag, but actually that is only when products are trying to sell using this wisdom, because we have a lot to learn from history.
I'm sorry but I did'nt learn nothing from you video, only about how not to think critically, but how to be small minded.

Sorry about the english mistakes, i'm brasilian and to tired to go through all my text.

Disagree, Porto Alegre - Brasil
June 19, 2014 5:56pm

I really appreciate this article. I arrived at the same conclusions about a different topic when I was researching the pit bull debate (no this isn't spam - hear me out.) Both sides use propaganda and ideology rather than facts to drive home their point. I guess it shouldn't be surprising how effective this tool is since it has been going on for so long, but yet I'm still dismayed by how quickly these movements are picked up by people who want to believe something and work backwards to reach their conclusions. The sad thing is, as mentioned in this article, a well-meaning and valid philosophy that could help mankind can quickly be dismissed when its author has little regard for the truth. Pushing an agenda on the weak-minded masses is all too easy. If I had to guess at why this is done it's that the authors of propaganda believe the ends justify the means. For example, there are real dangers to a pit bull type dog so why not lie about this type of dog and create a mythical killing beast that is always inherently evil (as are all the people that own them) because (if this lie is believed) society will be free of pit bulls and a safer place. The problem is when you lie your lies can be exposed and therefore all of your points (even the valid ones) can be dismissed. So whereas you can dismiss this movie and the 911 conspiracy claims made in it quite easily our policy decision to go to war with Iraq has been clearly exposed so what happened on 911 deserves an honest accounting.

Danimal, Eureka, Ca
July 15, 2014 6:37am

As a former Christian of a couple decades I can't help but notice none of these anti-Zeitgeist part 1 (ZG1) articles and blogs ever attempt to contact the sources of the documentary to interview them to get their perspective or to allow them the opportunity to respond any criticisms at all. I have gone through every critical article, blog and video I can possibly find over the years since Zeitgeist part 1 came out and they all fail miserably to be objective and non-biased. I never see theists or even atheists take into consideration how or why Zeitgeist part 1 was created in the first place so, the premise from the critics tend to be misinformed from the start and it goes down hill from there. There is not one anti-Zeitgeist part 1 article in existence that actually debunks ZG1 in an objective scholarly way and I am not the only one to notice. It's embarrassing.

Here's a prime example of even scholar critics being debunked to the point of utter embarrassment:

Zeitgeist: time to discard the Christian story?
https://publicchristianity.org/library/zeitgeist-time-to-discard-the-christian-story#.VBcSk2P4Lew

Rebuttal to Dr. Chris Forbes concerning 'Zeitgeist, Part 1'
http://truthbeknown.com/chrisforbeszeitgeist.html

Other criticisms are addressed here
http://www.freethoughtnation.com/forums/viewforum.php?f=19

Primary sources and scholar commentary on them support ZG1:

Sourcebook
http://stellarhousepublishing.com/zeitgeistsourcebook.pdf

Primary Sources & Scholars cited in the ZG1 Sourcebook
http://www.truthbeknown.com/zeitgeistsources.html

Buck, LA, CA
September 15, 2014 10:14am

Hey,

Those who don't think there's a conspiracy is horribly mistaken. They admit to it. Lucis Trust operates the meditation room in United Nations, and is also working on Sustainable Human Development. They also run an esoteric school, called arcane school, which trains disciples into their religion. They praise Lucifer as a light bringer. They used to called Lucifer Publishing Company. They wrote a respected book in the esoteric community call "Externalization of the Hierarchy" where they admit to trying to bring in a world government, religions which is the blending of all religions, and they even wrote in the book that they were going to instill in the world the initiation process, indoctrinate with symbols, and use "telepathy" aka, think thoughts inline with their beliefs around world leaders and others...

You can read this and find this information yourself. This is on their own sites, including their link to United Nations.

They are trying to culitfy the world, and this is what we see in the mainstream to a certain degree with all the symbols..

If you denounce all truth to skeptisim you might miss the greatest truth of all. Two sides are trying to win your soul, and only one deserves it.

Jeremy, Some Place
November 26, 2014 10:45am

This entire article has been written completely subjectively. Instead of attempting to discredit Zeitgeist by trying to analyse Joesph's reason for making it and claiming that his facts are wrong how about providing us with sources and findings of your own that backup your own claims?
All I read paragraph after paragraph is "This is incorrect and now I'm going to try and analyse why Joseph made these statements because I'm obviously better at psychology than research and debate."
If you think the message in Zeitgeist is only that of wild conspiracies then you are obviously blind and afraid to see the world for what it really is. Look around you. Do you think we live in a perfect world? Are we even getting closer to a more perfect world? Corrupt politicians, greedy corporations, starving children, climate change, and celebrity worship just to name a few. But some people refuse to acknowledge information that may shed light on these issues and open up a new frame of better thinking. Its always easier to remain ignorant than to question what you currently know.

Blake, Brisbane
December 21, 2014 8:10am

Beware the smoke and mirrors and vested interests be it Dunning, Merola, Church or State.

Be responsible for your own education, read far and wide and make your own mind up.

Community spirit has been desciminated by the powers that be, divide and conquour through lies and deception has been a tactic since the beginning of time.

Know yourself and your values and live them.

World peace and co-operation may be a pipe dream but striving for it by building commuity spirit, sharing resources and being respectful and actively supportive of the basic rights of others to live peacefully and prosper will go a long way to making the world a better place to not want to leave.

Daithi MacAodhagain, Perth
April 13, 2015 8:20pm

Hello..

I saw all 3ZG movies yesterday and i must say i was half impressed and half amused about the theories and the "facts" that are in.. im not the type that do a lot of research now to see its true or not but i must say it brings me to THINKING... and i thnk thats the point of the movies..

The Jesus/Sun Theory works fine with me and maybe ill have to take a look at the horus facts or some other facts to get more into that, this made me curious. 0911 Theory is not my interest.

The part about economy and the banking, moneysystem is great.. Simple, easy to understand and somehow.. Logical.. IMHO the true/false question of the facts its not that important.. Its just the mechanics behind it that are interesting and worth to watch and think of..

We all live it this one world and if someone get a lot of people (especially young people that mostly have not much interest in economy and such thngs) to thnk about saving the planet and preserve this nice place for our childrens than what could be wrong about this :) ..

Yes i know u just take an eye on it to reveal the seriously of the films but i thnk even if its not true or not based on proofed facts in all points its an great inspiration to thnk about if we could do anythng better than we do now..

Greetings from Germany
Save the Planet

(sry for the written mistakes in the text, im just a bloody german..)

Anton, Germany
May 12, 2015 1:51am

Anton.. the astronomy is ZG is appalling and given there is 20 minutes of it and apparently not checked (go outside and look for yourself); it was a disgrace.

By the way.. for the rest of us in the real world (the southern hemisphere) winter is an absolute delight for the southern amateur astronomer.

Here is some real astrology (yes.. I said it).. Scorpius is directly overhead at 00:00 hours.

People born between june 10 and july 6 down here had mothers who wore extra clothes or used heaters to be comfortable.

Doesn't say much for Acharya's (unchecked) southern cross or Sirius in ZG tho..

There isnt a whole new element to proof reading a script. One just checks for mistakes and writes a new story.

Mulga Gill, Sydney
June 16, 2015 12:31am

This article doesn't prove anything. It only made me more curious and more interested on the truth.
This is the first article and probably the last one that I will read on this website. If you don't bother to go trough the topics and actually give some sources to debunk someone's theory it is not worthy the read.
The "documentary"'s authors at least did give us something to work with -
> http://www.stellarhousepublishing.com/zeitgeistsourcebook.pdf

Anderson, Perth
June 29, 2015 8:33pm

Sorry... 20 minutes spent on the most atrocious astonomy/astrology to prove a non point shows.. the writers and the proof readers just pulled it out of their tails.

Who ever proof read the script spent as much time outside as the writers.

None.

Not a night, not a morning.. not anytime.

Failed ..

If there is a provable meme or word play such as Sun on the cross in mythology (and not just the germanisation)... It certainly isnt astrological or astronomical.. its woofle.

The rest was conspiracist comedy.. who cares..

Mulga Gill, Sydney
June 30, 2015 12:19am

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