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
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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with the film, as has been roundly pointed out by academics worldwide, is that many of the conspiratorial claims and historical references are outright fictional inventions.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. 22 Sep 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4196>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 261 comments

I AM WITH PETER JOSEPH ALL THE
WAY. LISTEN TO JACQUE FRESCO ABOUT THE BIBLE RELIGION IT IS JUST A LIST OF STUPID RIDDLES THAT
BEGGAR BELIEF.

paul baker, WINSFORD
May 19, 2014 2:14am

Not that I agree with Peter Joseph but he does in fact cite sources, but not in the film itself. You can find the sources in the "companion guide" at ZeitgeistMovie.com He does credit Acharya S, who wrote "The Greatest Story Ever Sold," with many of the facts he presents in the movie.

Joshua, Houston
May 19, 2014 12:59pm

I have a masters degree, and I am fully aware that many academics and their textbooks are "flagrantly wrong" and full of "crap", yet students "innocently" buy into them. The argument that one's message is not valuable because he/she is young, lacks degrees, or is not published in peer-reviewed journals does not fly for many people any more. People want the truth, no matter who it comes from. Even if Zeitgeist is completely false (and I'm not claiming that at all), films like this prompt people to ask questions and think critically instead of accepting everything that academics, the mainstream media, and politicians spew forth. One needs only eyes to see that the current system IS "fundamentally broken."
I have read that Joseph Merola claimed he did not, in fact, tell a New York Times reporter that he has "moved away from" the 9/11 claims he made in Zeitgeist. It's a he said/she said thing, but as you have pointed out, it is more telling that he did not remove this content from revisions of the film.
Regardless of your clearly condescending tone, it's still an impressive film made by a man from his "student art studio", and I applaud his exercising his right to free speech.
"If you know about the conspiracy, you're in on the secret information, and you are more powerful than the conspirators...This is perhaps the main reason for the unending popularity of Zeitgeist, Loose Change, Alex Jones, Richard Hoagland, and other conspiracy theory machines."
Think again.

Jen, Vancouver
May 28, 2014 1:29am

And by "Joseph Merola", I meant Peter Joseph Merola.

Jen, Vancouver
May 28, 2014 10:05am

Its weird that nobody ever questions the logic used in the finance and economic section, probably because its true. Also, would you really expect an individual who's principle education is dedicated to an ideology that is being refuted in the movie? I also read that garbage that Popular Science called debunking. I got some weirdo dude telling me thermite could be created with the drywall and copper pipes. Some of the information presented from the report makes absolutely no sense from people that have had even a basic class in physics. The logic that stated it would take 56,600 points of contact detonation to bring down the building in a controlled demolition but a single explosion at the top of the building would be enough to bring down the building is absurd on its logical reasoning. Why wouldn't all demolitions be performed this way if it were that easy? How is it also that a building would not be perturbed by a force nearly a million time in magnitude from the horizontal direction but collapse under the gravitational pull because of fuel burning that its hottest is well under the melting point of steel. I didn't see any debunking. All I saw was a report written by an agency that had no outside supervision. Samples were not properly tested and disseminated through proper channels. This is speaking only on the WTC attack, there is a preponderance of evidence that does not support plains crashing in a Pennsylvania field either. It got hushed, no way to say anything else.

cdubb, columbus
June 2, 2014 3:26am

The mere fact that Peter puts in his movies unfounded "facts about Horus and Krishna to make it seem like they are the were Jesus's story came from is so ridiculous. The other religious histories of there deities when researched will prove that Peter is sprouting absolute lies. Who can trust the rest of the movie made by a such dishonest person. Why support him really. If he has no integrity he is not worth following and the same will go for a politician. People are so blinded and follow anything that goes because they don't want to accept real truth because it doesn't fit what they want they want sugar coated poison.

Kiegen, Durban, South Africa
June 10, 2014 10:48pm

All of the info in Zeitgeist is well sourced and much is from modern research. D.M. Murdock has a free ebook about the sources available on her site. She answers questions on her forum and welcomes any debate. She also has a section where she responded to all the Zeitgeist debunkers.

No one has been able to stump her or prove her wrong. Read the debates for yourself.

truthbeknown.com

jr315, boston
June 14, 2014 7:28pm

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

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