Julian Baggini in The Guardian:
If the Illuminati is real, it’s got to be the least secret secret society in the universe. It’s so bad at keeping itself hidden that its existence is proclaimed all over the internet by people whose investigative toolkit consists entirely of Google and a lively imagination.
The most recent would-be whistleblower, however, is far from your usual ex-sports commentator. Paul Hellyer, a former Canadian minister of defence, has blamed the Illuminati for suppressing technology brought to Earth by aliens that could end our reliance on fossil fuels.
Why the possessors of such fantastic kit should prefer to cash in on the extraction of still abundant oil rather than on their incredible, exclusive alternative is mysterious. But since the whole point about secret all-powerful elites is that they are mysterious, maybe that’s to be expected. Perhaps the Illuminati is like that other great mystery, quantum theory: if you think you understand it, you don’t.
Mockery is easy, but it’s also reassuring. It’s good to know that we’re much more sensible and rational than these clearly deluded conspiracy theorists. The problem is that they differ from the rest of us only in degree, not kind.
The reasons why people believe in secret, controlling elites are rooted in basic human nature. We are constantly on the lookout for both patterns and agency. Pattern-seeking is essential for our survival, and the penalties for seeing patterns where none exist are lighter than those for missing patterns that really are there. If our ancestors had failed to notice that crops left to dry tended to die, they too would have expired through starvation. But if they thought they had noticed that sacrificing a goat increased the likelihood of rain, then at worst they wasted the odd bit of meat.
The assumption of agency is also extremely helpful.