CMDA's The Point

Christians and Conspiracy Theories

February 18, 2021
02182021POINTBLOG

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.

 

Sinful Disposition

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.

 

Willful Deception

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.

 

Consequences

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.

About Steven Willing, MD

Dr. Steven Willing received his medical degree from the Medical College of Georgia, completed an internship in pediatrics from the University of Virginia before undertaking a residency in diagnostic radiology at the Medical College of Georgia, followed by a fellowship in neuroradiology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Dr. Willing spent 20 years in academic medicine at the University of Louisville, the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI). He also earned an MBA from the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 1997. During his academic career, Dr. Willing published more than 50 papers in the areas of radiology, informatics and management. He is currently a consultant in radiology at Tenwek Hospital in Kenya, a visiting scholar with Reasons to Believe and an Adjunct Professor of Divinity at Regent University. His personal blog on science apologetics, “The Soggy Spaniel,” may be found at www.swilling.com.

14 Comments

  1. Sarah on February 28, 2021 at 9:19 am

    With all due respect, you talk with a condescending undertone that is not very Christ-like, and as someone who does not believe the many conspiracies becoming well known, I feel you’ve not done a great job helping those that may believe them to think critically about why they may be false. This is especially true regarding your comment about how these theorists have not done their homework. They may feel that have and a brazen denial that they’ve researched peer-reviewed articles for many hours, which they may have, will surely shy them away from even finishing this unthoughtful article. Praying for futures letters to be more tactful.

    – A concerned sister in Christ.

    • Steven Willing on March 2, 2021 at 1:30 am

      Sarah, thank you for reading my article. As to whether my “undertone” is condescending, I must leave to others to decide. It is difficult for an author to judge his own writing. I assume it would not be popular with those who are contributing to the problem.

      I am not sure which conspiracy theory you might be inclined to defend. My observations regarding anti-vaxxers is based on over a year of extensive, direct personal engagement with them in groups and social media. I have read their polemics; I have read the [occasional] papers they cite, and have witnessed first-hand a repeated pattern of misrepresentation and lifting quotes out of context. There is a reason why 99% of physicians and scientists, including Christian ones, support the existing treatment guidelines.

  2. Arty on March 3, 2021 at 5:53 pm

    Hi Dr. Willing,

    Am I incorrectly inferring that you think it is a conspiracy theory that many vaccines are developed using the cells cultivated from aborted babies? This is a profoundly Christian issue, and I think it is a disservice to call those who genuinely care about such things conspiracy theorists.

    I will not have anything to do with an institution that fosters human sacrifice in the interest of health, no matter how many generations removed the cell line now is. There is no statute of limitations on such evil, in my view. This has nothing to do with any predisposition to believe conspiracies on my part. It has to do with me seeking to be like Christ to the best of my ability, which is simply by asking “What would Jesus do.”

    You may want to investigate other reasons why the medical industry has lost the confidence of so many people.

  3. Candice on March 3, 2021 at 7:31 pm

    I struggled to follow the narrative you were attempting to string together in this post. Are you suggesting that China is controlling the news narrative in the USA through control of film making? And they are protecting themselves from our own conspiracy theories?

    Your article was too suggestive and while I feel like you are attempting to write about a very important issue, your message was diluted and lost as a result (Matthew 5:13).

    You also seem to keep referring back to anti vaxxers, using this personality type as primary support and basis of argument against the COVID 19 conspiracies ? I dont understand what point you are trying to make here contrasting these two. I considered that you are trying to say that ‘anti vaxxers’ are the same type of people that fall victim to conspiracy theories?

    You then move on to talk about the election results and presumably you do not support the ‘conspiracy’ that the Biden side falsified votes. Using this as an example, you do not string together a convincing argument of your point to leave me feeling satisfied while reading the article.

    I am drawing the conclusion that you do not support conspiracy theories, but from what I can tell, you have grouped together too many theories/situations/truths/untruths and have grouped them all under one umbrella statement, bunched in a single citation in a hope that they will ‘in numbers’ support this conclusion that conspiracy theories are bad.

    For me, I think there are elements of truth in some of the theories current in the news and I do not believe that it is 100% conspiracy at this point in time. Speaking to the specific details of all the examples you cited, do you believe that you can speak as an authority on all these issues? When I read your article, it becomes apparent that you may have possibly fallen prey to your own example of anti-vaxxers; not knowing how much they do not know. For this reason I believe your article lacks credibility and should be edited.

    I really enjoy reading your perspective and your articles, so my hope would be that you write about each issue you have elaborated on in this article in isolation as each particular topic requires a blog post in of itself to do the topics justice. I think you tackled too many big ideas in a single blog post.

    My hope is that you find this feedback constructive.

    • Teranne on April 2, 2021 at 1:59 am

      Thank you for saying this. Yes, conspiracies really do happen. And honestly, speaking of arrogance, I see a lot of pride in Christians in positions of high academic standing and training who fear being labeled as backward in their disciplines, even if “backward” in our increasingly godless western society means being righteous, and instead take great pride in “being a Christian who can stand with the so-called consensus or mainstream”. As if we need to prove to society that we’re not all whackos like Noah. Numbers do not determine truth. Truth is not a democracy. NT Wright has a great commentary in his book “The Day the Revolution Began” about the enslaving spiritual powers, that most generations don’t recognize in the present. He mentions three that he sees very evident in the West: Money, Sex, and Power. Unfortunately when you look at the incestuous relationships between big companies (whether pharma or tech, or others) and the governing agencies meant to protect public interest, you can easily see why there is growing distrust in the medical industry. Just follow the money…and the power… These are not conspiracy allegations. These are facts, and they are facts that unfortunately drive policy, just as much as, if not more than, a belief in the advantages of certain medical treatments. There need not be any nefarious, conspiratorial intent beyond big business and money. I believe as Christians it is our duty to stand against enslaving powers in all forms, and certainly see the overreaching measures now being taken regarding the experimental Covid vaccinations as spiritual warfare. I’m surprised you make no mention of the ethical concerns regarding how these coerced vaccines go against the Nuremberg Code, and instead choose to attack genuinely concerned and thoughtful brothers and sisters in the Lord. In this way you are actually siding with the Goliath, not in your opinion on vaccines, which is completely yours to freely hold, but in your tone and chosen mode and recipient of attack.

      • Jae Lee on June 9, 2021 at 6:54 am

        Wow, it sounds like if an expert says it, it must be true, whether he’s lying about it or not. Dr. Willing mentions the conspiracy lie propagated by the religious experts that the disciples came and stole the Lord’d body. Matthew had to publicly correct it years after, during which it was still being maintained as true. So, we’re to believe in evolution because so many “scientific evidences” is culled to support it? Just because the truth is uncomfortable doesn’t mean we find views that bring our minds down to earth. It’s not the volume of research we do. It’s which volume we receive as true. When Jesus said there will be wars and rumors of wars, I’m suspicious of who’s spreading the rumors and for what reason. Anyone who believes that a cement and steel building came crashing down because of a fire, needs to ask many questions-one prominent being-“If I wanted to bring down a high rise building down vertically so it doesn’t damage buildings around it, all I have to do is set fire to a few floors instead of paying a demolition company $50m plus?” Protecting the liars instead of exposing them is doing the greatest harm to those who rely on the ones called to lead them in truth.

  4. H R Woodward on March 3, 2021 at 9:19 pm

    I agree with Sarah that your whole article is condescending. You do make several viable points but with many issues today, individuals on both sides are anxious to rush to a conclusion before that facts are vetted for accuracy. As you note “conspiracies really do happen”. Evil does exist in this world even if it may be “unchristian” to believe it is present.

    • Dr. MD on March 4, 2021 at 12:56 pm

      I agree. Well stated Dr. Woodward!

  5. Cali on March 5, 2021 at 11:05 pm

    Well many of us have done reaserch as well. Iam an anti vaxxer as you call it. From studying the scriptures and seeing what is happening in Jerusalem I can tell you that not being able to go into a public place for any reason with out proof of the two vaccines no buying food no school nothing. Seem very biblical to me. And the fact the the government of jersusalem is now requiring the names of all that do not take the shot. Charges. The pharmacia. Does not seem to be conspiracy anymore it national news. As well I.N. being replaced by the 70 nations organization. To pass the Noahide always upon the entire world and through the New Sanhedrine which is now in place. The high Preists will have power to be the judge jury and executioners of the world. And trust me when I tell you the Jews that do not know Christ. Hate all gentiles I have spoken to many. Thier mitzvah is to crown a king, destroy the ( gentiles) and build the temple. The true are taught that we will be Thier slaves and in their laws if we worship Yahushua we must die by beheading because they consider him an idol. I encourage all to research these things and see the great deception taking place as we speak.

  6. Sheridan Voysey on March 19, 2021 at 11:13 am

    A well thought-through article, Steven. Thank you for the time and care you’ve taken to write it. As comments here show, the problem is pervasive.

  7. Juan on April 24, 2021 at 11:39 am

    Thank you very much !!!!

  8. Eli on August 7, 2021 at 9:58 pm

    You get close. It can be hard to admit that Christianity is a conspiracy theory. It is the christian epistemology that makes christians so susceptible to conspiracy theories. If you are able to reasonably believe the narrative of “the fall of humanity” after weighing the strength of evidence there isn’t much that is off limits.

  9. Faith on August 28, 2021 at 5:04 am

    Excellent article. Unfortunately, those who would most benefit from this will not heed it. Such are ruled by hubris and ego. Their arrogance is appalling.

  10. Bonnie on September 13, 2021 at 9:30 pm

    I totally agree with Dr. Woodward, very great article and explanation of all those out there spreading lies!

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