Christians and Conspiracy Theories
February 18, 2021
by Steven Willing, MD
“You can’t handle the truth!”
That classic line from A Few Good Men from Colonel Jessup in the witness stand became a waving flag for many. It is enticing to think we own the truth, and that those who can’t “handle” it are naïve, weak or cowardly. Delivered to perfection by Jack Nicholson, Jessup hammered a wedge between truth and fantasy, and of course we all know which side we’re on, don’t we?
What most overlook is that Colonel Jessup was fooling himself. Yes, the character was a courageous leader with a distinguished career, but he was also a vindictive bully who fought to suppress the truth about his own culpability in the death of Private Santiago.
The fall of humanity commenced with an assault on truth, and it sometimes feels the battle against truth has never been more relentless. Among followers of Christ, this should be obvious. We witness in the secular culture a frequent denial of reality: whether it’s the humanity of the unborn, the immutability of sex or the facts of history. Our reaction might range from despair to compassion to mockery, but too often we forget these are lost souls under the dominion of dark spiritual forces. So, what’s our excuse?
Why do so many of our brothers and sisters in the Lord commit the same denial of reality they mock in unbelievers?
Christians and Conspiracy Theories
A disturbing number of professing Christians are entranced by macabre QAnon conspiracies, anti-vaccination hysteria, unverifiable claims of stolen elections (from both sides of the partisan divide) or bizarre fantasies regarding the nefarious machinations of Bill Gates.
Much digital “ink” has been spilt over the last 12 months on Christians and conspiracies, though it is difficult to tell whether this has had much impact. Those most inclined toward conspiracy theories are the least likely to read or to benefit from the articles. Most articles have focused on refuting the specific conspiracies or warning of the moral implications. Still others will tell you how to avoid them. Such articles may help protect fence-sitters from plunging into the abyss. The problem is that too many proponents don’t care. Explaining to a conspiracy hound how to tell truth from fiction is like teaching my dog how to eat healthy: he doesn’t see the point, he’s sure it doesn’t apply to him and the conversation’s going nowhere.
To better understand the issue, we must look beyond what they believe to why they believe. Popular myths comprise a broad category, of which conspiracy theories are merely a subset. The principles we will examine apply across the spectrum.
The Gospels report that after the resurrection of Christ, the priests conspired with the Roman guards to report that the disciples stole the body (Matthew 28:11-15). So, conspiracy theories have been around as long as conspiracies, and in this case, we have a twofer—a real conspiracy by the priests and guards to spread a false conspiracy theory concerning the disciples. But this historical example exhibits elements true for the 21st century as well as the first. Conspiracy theories don’t pop out of nowhere. Often, they are instigated by bad actors with ulterior motives who know they are untrue.
Why They Resonate With Us
This problem is far more nuanced than simply dismissing conspiracy theorists as gullible and uncritical thinkers. Indeed, many are, but forces in our own mental programming and our environment strongly drive us in that direction.
Humans are curious by nature. God designed us to seek understanding and explanations. With diligent effort, a broad fund of knowledge and the wisdom of experience, this often works. The blessing of a curious nature led to the spectacular technological progress of the last few centuries. We don’t just want to know how nature works. We want to understand how people work, why things happen and why people do the things they do. Serious sociology and psychology—there’s a lot of unserious work in both fields—are responsible and efficient means to satisfy this impulse. So are forensics and fields of legal investigation. Conspiracy theories, on the other hand, are a cheat, a short cut into a blind alley. One hundred hours of watching YouTube videos are no substitute for years of education, but they are quite efficient in fostering unjustified confidence. They might be wildly off base, but for meeting the explanatory impulse they are equally effective and sometimes more emotionally fulfilling than the boring truth (for reasons considered below).
A second force is almost certainly the biasing effect of entertainment. Over our lifetimes, we consume thousands of hours of film and television drama, and, more often than not, some dark conspiracy is underfoot. If we pause to reflect (thinking with Kahnemen’s System 2), we might admit that these are rare in real life, but we do most of our thinking in System 1, which is heuristically driven and powerfully influenced by non-rational factors such as recency and ease of recall. So, if day after day, week after week, year after year we are fed conspiracy stories, they are bound to seem more plausible. How do you think Hollywood changed public attitudes toward homosexuality in such a short period of time?
The third factor is the unprecedented availability of misinformation and disinformation enabled by the internet. Old barriers to publication and distribution have been eliminated and everyone now has a platform. Engineers at Twitter, Facebook and Instagram developed systems that focus and amplify the impact of misinformation, though that was not their intent. We naturally want our opinions confirmed, and complicated algorithms are specifically designed to keep you engaged by telling you more and more of what you want to hear, while you are guaranteed to be surrounded and supported by like-minded company.
A fourth issue that must be acknowledged is that conspiracies really do happen. True conspiracies are rare. Many authors have explained why they are rare, seldom succeed and how to spot the fake ones. Nonetheless, the simple fact that some have happened affords the true believer “moral license” to believe in one or more that are purely fictitious.
Unfortunately, not all internal factors inclining us toward conspiracy theories are so innocent and defensible. There is a dark element to many that appeals directly to the vilest of human impulses.
Conspiracy theories feed our ego. The sense of superiority that comes from being “in the know” can be intoxicating. Like Neo in The Matrix, proponents imagine themselves escaping the blinders of society by taking “the red pill” and becoming the hero of their own pathetic little fiction. The act of embracing a lie to become something greater was the offense of Adam, and in this we are truly his offspring.
Some anti-vaccination activists focus on past use of one or two fetal cell lines in vaccine development. (The morality of this has been fully addressed by a number of authorities, including CMDA). There’s no clear boundary between having a sensitive conscience and overt moral grandstanding, and the feeling I get having observed and interacted with many of these activists is that they know they are morally superior to other Christians and they want everyone else to know it as well.
Conspiracy theories malign our enemies and justify our prejudice. Among all conspiracy theories, the bloodiest, most contemptible and most enduring must be those surrounding the children of Abraham. From being blamed for the bubonic plague in the 14th century, to accusations of conspiring with the enemy in late 19th century France, to the wildest fantasies of an uber-rich and uber-powerful global cabal, the Jews have suffered the most from conspiracy thinking, and they experienced the deadly power of lies with six million deaths under the Third Reich.
Anti-semitism appeals to some of the worst human impulses—to feel superior to those who are different, to justify our prejudices, to rationalize our own conduct and to absolve us of personal responsibility for failure. Adolf Hitler rose to power by blaming the Jews for every real and perceived shortcoming of early 20th century Germany, including their loss in World War I. A newly elected congresswomen from Georgia blamed the 2018 California wildfires on Jewish space lasers, rhetoric described as “inflammatory” by the Wall Street Journal in an apparently unintentional act of punnery.
Anti-vaccination activists presume almost all of the millions of worldwide physicians who both prescribe and use them are either stupid or malevolent. Righteous people do not believe such things.
For many, many reasons we are predisposed toward embracing conspiracy theories. We are the demand side of the marketplace. On the supply side is a vast industry of private and state actors competing for profit, fame or influence, and they are eager to provide.
There are bad actors out there with an intent to deceive and the means to do so. The antivaccination movement traces its roots to the work of the former Dr. Andrew Wakefield, who published a paper in Lancet in 1999 claiming to have found a connection between the MMR vaccine and autism. Later investigation established that the research was fraudulent, that Wakefield had to have known and that he was motivated financially by the promise of riches from the plaintiff’s bar. Provocateur and shyster Alex Jones rose to notoriety after September 11 peddling the crackpot notion that the terrorist attack was an inside job executed by the highest levels of government. He is now being sued—one hopes successfully—by the parents of schoolchildren murdered at Sandy Hook, after Jones carried on for months arguing the tragedy was a hoax and the bereaved parents were merely actors. Whether Jones believes such nonsense I neither know nor care, but peddling it to a gullible and willing audience has made him both rich and famous.
Emerging evidence over the last several years has pointed to the involvement of hostile foreign states in manipulating American public opinion. The communist regime of China now exercises near-veto power over American film production, where profits speak louder than principles. (U.S. social media channels are blocked in China, and the local versions are tightly controlled. They’re not stupid.) Russian activity on social media in the U.S. and other Western democracies is well documented. Far from the simplistic narrative that they attempted to promote the election of Donald Trump, Russian-promoted social media plays to all extremes of the political spectrum. Their presumed intent has been to promote civil strife, discord, resentment and polarization. They must be thrilled with their apparent success.
Christians who believe Scripture must take seriously another source of deception: the spiritual realm. The spiritual entities at war against God are consistently characterized as both attractive and deceiving. If we believe Scripture, then the battle for truth is much more than an argument with our opponent. It’s spiritual warfare that must be fought with spiritual weapons. Jesus didn’t cast out demons with superior arguments or by instructing their victims in critical thinking.
“Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:11-12, NKJV).
It requires much less effort to assert a claim than refute it. Conspiracy fans and anti-vaxxers never really engage in serious research, though they routinely claim to have done so. “Research,” in this instance, amounts to watching hours of video and consuming large doses of polemics manufactured for and posted to fringe websites. Those never make one an expert, but they can make someone feel like one. A little knowledge can seem like a lot when you have no idea how much you don’t know. It takes no real effort to blindly accept a list of 20 or 30 assertions and repost them on Facebook, as I’ve seen so much of in the last year. It takes an extraordinary amount of effort to track down the source of each claim and spot the error. Organizations such as CMDA frequently post careful rebuttals on vaccination myths and health misinformation, but it’s a whack-a-mole game with newer and more ridiculous claims surfacing with depressing regularity.
Succumbing to such deceptions exacts a great cost for both individuals and the church at large. They corrupt our character, demolish our credibility, lead us to sin against others and place us in alignment with malevolent spiritual forces.
Corrupted character. Conspiratorial thinking thrives on pride, and it nourishes it in turn. It takes a considerable amount of arrogance to assert superior insight over legitimate experts in a field. I have, in turn, been accused of arrogance in dismissing their arguments. Pride exists within all of us to one degree or another, so I stand guilty as charged. However, in this instance, humility is submitting to the judgment of an overwhelming consensus of experts, not standing in opposition to them. Genuine love and yearning for the truth, on the other hand, is a fruit of the Spirit (Ephesians 5:9).
Lost credibility. When either individuals or large sections of the body of Christ become known for embracing and promoting disinformation, we compromise our credibility on the more important issues. The secular community will reason that if we’re crazy on one score, the rest must be part of the package. We have a duty to them, and a responsibility to God, to preserve our reputation (1 Peter 2:12).
Slander. Hurling false accusations against other groups or accusations is slander, and an explicit violation of the ninth commandment. Christians should never be known for such conduct, nor for tolerating it in their midst.
We become pawns to the Father of Lies. Scripture is abundantly clear that there is more to reality than what we perceive with our senses, and that a spiritual war has been raging since creation. There is no DMZ in this conflict.
“You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it” (John 8:44, NKJV).
If we are not on the side of truth, then we are on the side of the enemy. This belief, though, can become deadly when we begin to think we own the truth. The only path along this narrow ledge is to admit our personal limitations and exhibit humble submission toward those in authority—in this case, meaning those most qualified in the subject. We shouldn’t rely on pastors in matters of science, we shouldn’t rely on scientists in matters of theology and we should seek health advice from our doctor, not the internet.
For those passionate about the truth, the ongoing struggle against misinformation, disinformation and conspiracy thinking can be daunting. The first concluding principle should be to check yourself (Matthew 7:5). The second is that, yes, we are our brother’s keeper. How the church should deal with conspiracy theorists is a sensitive and complex matter, but it cannot remain faithful to Christ and passive in this regard. We must understand why people are drawn to them, so that the root causes might be addressed. Ultimately this is a spiritual battle, but thankfully we are not unarmed against such a challenge (Ephesians 6:10-18).
We think of truth mostly in terms of what we believe. But how we “handle the truth” may be just as much defined by what we choose not to believe, in spite of pressure sometimes coming from nearly every direction. Can we handle the truth? God expects nothing less.