“Whatsoever Is True”: Reflecting on the Growth of Conspiracy Theories Among Christians

Article
09.29.2020

Editor’s Note: A Special Thanks to B&H for permission to reprint this adaptation of chapter 7 of Dan Darling’s A Way With Words: Using our Online Conversations for Good (Nashville, TN: B&H, 2020)

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Well, that’s what they want you to think,” a friend insisted, with particular emphasis on the they and want, after the end of a long and fruitless argument about whether or not a group of secretive bankers was plotting in smoke-filled rooms to destroy the world. I tried, in vain, to convince him that Donald Trump’s election, a natural disaster in Indonesia, and the rise of the price of plastics were not, in fact, tied to a central, evil, dark conspiracy.

You, too, probably have encountered a friend or family member convinced of a conspiracy. Perhaps you’ve had someone plead with you to “just watch this” or have had someone tell you, convincingly, “It’s been proven!” and provide the web links to back it up.

Or maybe it’s not a friend prone to believing in Sasquatch, UFOs, or that the world is flat; maybe you are the one who believes these things. If so, this might get awkward because I’m pretty skeptical of conspiracy theories. But hang with me, and let’s at least agree to consider why Christians should be wise about the spread of information—especially information that might be dubious in nature or seems too good (or too nefarious) to be true.

WHY WE WANT TO BELIEVE CONSPIRACY THEORIES 

Conspiracy theories might get new life in the age of the internet, but as long as there has been the possibility of conspiracy, there have been conspiracy theories. What motivates otherwise rational human beings to suspend logic and indulge in ideas that to everyone else seem rather far-fetched?

Author and commentator Tom Nichols explains this in his book The Death of Expertise: “Conspiracy theories are . . . a way for people to give context and meaning to events that frighten them. . . . Without a coherent explanation for why terrible things happen to innocent people, they would have to accept such occurrences as nothing more than the random cruelty either of an uncaring universe or an incomprehensible deity.”1 For many, piecing together threads to form a narrative of blame brings a measure of comfort, a place to locate our rage or find some kind of grand purpose, even if nefarious, for the brokenness of our world.

Simply put, stitching together, for instance, disparate facts about a grassy knoll, a Russian mob, and Lyndon B. Johnson made it easier for America to cope with the sudden death of their beloved President Kennedy rather than accept that a lone fanatic named Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated the president in an attempt to be famous. Theologian and cultural commentator Albert Mohler says that such ideas “fill in all the gaps of what we don’t know. When we can’t connect why this happened and that happened, and why this person is here and that person is doing this, a conspiracy theory helps us to tie it all together. And that’s very emotionally satisfying.”2 Of course, Christians, rather than rely on flimsy facts, should instead turn to the story the Bible tells of both Satan’s conspiracy to corrupt the human race and defeat God and of Jesus’ divine rescue that ushers in a new kingdom conspiracy of peace and love. The gospel is more emotionally satisfying, in the long run, than a rabbit trail of half-truths.

We venture down rabbit trails because, in a fallen world, there is actually the possibility of real conspiracy. To quote Mohler again, our Christian theology tells us “someone, somewhere is always plotting evil.”3 While most conspiracy theories are debunked, there are some that prove to be true. In the Bible we see tales of high-level corruption and cover-ups. Israel’s greatest king, David, conspired to commit the murder of Bathsheba’s husband and was exposed by Nathan the prophet (2 Sam. 12). Jesus himself was the victim of a nefarious plot, the ultimate inside job. His treasurer and close confidant, Judas Iscariot, betrayed Jesus and worked with religious and civil authorities to bring him to trial. History is dotted with examples of high-level mischief and secret plots of evil.

But why, today, in the modern era, have conspiracy theories found new life? I think there are three factors: the weakening of our key institutions, the democratization of information, and a lack of trust in the media. First, we have to reckon with the way that institutions of power across our public life have profoundly failed us. Our political leaders have often been exposed to be dishonest and deceitful, with intricate networks of malice leading all the way to the highest offices. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the decline in faith in American institutions began to wane, but scandals like Watergate, the sexual abuse scandals in Catholic and Protestant churches, financial meltdowns, and police misconduct have gradually eroded trust. Every institution in American society, it seems, has let us down. So, the reality of the possibility of scandal has bred in all of us the fear that everyone with power is corrupt. This is one reason we are easily duped into believing half-truths, untruths, and made-up stories.

This deficit of trust is also coming in an era where the flow of information is highly democratized. When I was a kid, news basically came in three forms: curated every morning in our three Chicago newspapers; at night from anchors with the big three news networks; and news radio stations. And if you wanted to find information about a specific person or place or thing, you’d thumb through your copy of the official Encyclopedia Britannica or you’d drive to the library and look through periodicals on microfilm.

Today, we seek out our own experts. We can read the first few results in Google (which probably ended up so near the top because they paid for the space), or scan articles posted by others on social media, or rely on email newsletters or podcasts. Before, the news was curated for us from the same few trusted sources; today we choose our news, based not only on ease but on ideological assumptions and biases.

This is not altogether bad. There are some real benefits to the deregulation of news. Stories that might have been ignored in a previous era because of certain biases of the mainstream media networks now get coverage. And yet the danger is that because we self-sort and find our information based on our political ideology, we can be extremely susceptible to believing what is untrue.

Senator Ben Sasse laments the corrosive impact of this self-sort on our democracy: “In the process, we’ve obliterated the gatekeepers who helped to ensure that information was important and reliable; we’ve erased the distinction between ‘news’ and ‘opinion’; and we’re losing the habits that could help us make calm, considered decisions. When it comes to consuming news, we’re miles wide and an inch deep.”4

Third, there is an impulse, especially among Christians, to distrust the media or any source of news. Too often mainstream journalists seem to have a bias against Christians in the way they cover religion or in the stories they emphasize. Too often media outlets highlight the craziest conservative, no matter how obscure, as an avatar for the whole movement while being hesitant to cover scandals that make liberals look bad. Still, we should admit that our willingness to entertain the outrageous and untrue is, in part, due to the fact that we want these stories to be true.

We not only are prone to believe the best or the worst about people about whom we want to believe the best or the worst, but we’re prone to believing elaborate and often dangerous ideas that are at odds with the truth. This wanting stories to be true is what makes it so difficult to convince someone that a theory they think is so airtight is actually not at all true. Nichols explains this:

Conspiracy theories, by contrast, are frustrating precisely because they are so intricate. Each rejoinder or contradiction only produces a more complicated theory. Conspiracy theorists manipulate all tangible evidence to fit their explanation, but worse, they will also point to the absence of evidence as even stronger confirmation. After all, what better sign of a really effective conspiracy is there than a complete lack of any trace that the conspiracy exists? Facts, the absence of facts, contradictory facts: everything is proof. Nothing can ever challenge the underlying belief.5

This kind of confirmation bias is why you can’t argue your uncle or neighbor or Facebook sparring partner out of his ideas. It’s why you can’t convince a Holocaust denier or a flat-earther that they are wrong. Because in the cut-and-dried world of conspiracy, you are either with the conspirators as part of a cover-up or you are on the side of the angels who believe it.

Conspiracy theories also appeal to our vanity by giving us an exaggerated sense of being in the know, a kind of pseudo-omniscience that gives us the feeling of being in control. To know secrets is to have a knowledge that others don’t possess. Carl Trueman, theologian and church historian, is right when he says that “conspiracy theories have an aesthetic appeal: they make us feel more important in the grand scheme of things than we are. If someone is going to all this trouble to con us into believing in something, then we have to be worth conning.”6

Grand and improbable ideas not only help us find comfort but make us feel bigger when we feel small.

WHAT SHOULD CHRISTIANS DO WITH CONSPIRACY THEORIES? 

So maybe you’ve read this far and, like me, you roll your eyes at conspiracy theories. Or perhaps you are unconvinced and still think the moon landing was not in space but in a movie studio somewhere outside of Phoenix. “What’s the big deal?” you might say. Does it matter if a few people indulge in far-out ideas? Who cares if our Thanksgiving meals are punctuated by wild tales of wicked deeds? Does it matter?

It does. For several reasons. First, even if speculating about the Kennedy assassination or sending an email that insists your most reviled politician is a tool of the Russian mafia seems harmless, as Christians, we should be committed to the truth. Paul urges the church at Philippi to think on “whatever is true [and] whatever is honorable” (Phil. 4:8).

Sadly, some followers of Jesus who claim to so boldly stand for truth are willing to create, spread, and post misinformation about people with whom they disagree or indulge fanatical tales about our ideological foes. Often we are the most gullible, the most willing to believe things that are not true. Perhaps this is why Paul often warned the early church against “silly myths” or fables (1 Tim. 1:4; 4:7). This is not just “going too far.” Ed Stetzer, professor at Wheaton College and contributor to Christianity Today, says, “When you share such fake news and conspiracy theories, you are simply bearing false witness. That is a sin and it is time to repent.”7

Christians need wisdom to discern between what is true and what is false. While we should hope that “unfruitful works of darkness” are exposed, we should avoid the rabbit trail of conspiracy theories because they both distract us from pursuing what is true and good and beautiful and because untruths damage the witness of the church. And while most crazy ideas from the internet are harmless, there are many conspiracy theories that, when spread, cause real harm. They spread misinformation, stoke fears, and can even lead to violence. A conspiracy about Hillary Clinton and a supposed trafficking ring once led a heavily armed young man to show up at a Washington, DC, pizza place.

Thankfully, he was stopped before he could commit real violence. But #pizzagate was not just harmless internet chatter. Nor is the growing movement of white nationalist ideology that is fueled by dangerous conspiracy theories that see people of color as societal problems. A young man from Plano, Texas, indulged these fantasies so much that he murdered twenty-two people in an El Paso Wal-Mart in cold blood. And the rise in Holocaust denial has often led to violence against Jewish people around the world.

These are extreme cases. But even when there is no violence involved, conspiracy theories damage reputations and hurt real people. Parents of children killed in mass shootings like Sandy Hook have had people stalk their property because they listened to conspiracy peddlers who insist their kids didn’t really die but the entire tragedy was part of an elaborate “false flag” operation. Can you imagine the pain of not only losing a child to violence but also having someone track you down and harass you with wild accusations?

To indulge in these kinds of ideas is not only harmful. It’s corrosive to the soul, damaging for our public witness, and it hurts neighbors we are called to love. In the church, this kind of fear-mongering conspiracy causes unnecessary division.

On several occasions I’ve had people approach me after a speaking engagement, insisting that the organization I previously worked for was part of a left-wing conspiracy funded by George Soros. Even though the funding sources and the budget was public record, and the trustees were voted on by the members of the denomination, work every year was an open parliamentary process, still the false rumors circulate. Thiswas mostly annoying to me at this point, but it was distressing to know that thousands were being led to believe vile things about fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. Stetzer is right when he says, “spreading conspiracies and fake news directly violates Scripture’s prohibition from bearing false witness against our neighbors. It devalues the name of Christ—whom we believe to be the very incarnation of truth—and it inflicts pain upon the people involved.”8

We also need to examine the motivations that lead us to fall prey to such wild theories. If, as Mohler and Nichols asserted above, conspiracy theories give us a measure of comfort in troubling times, perhaps we are looking for peace where it cannot be ultimately found. Just before he urges the Philippian believers to think on what is true, Paul says that “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard [our] hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7). Conspiracy and intrigue gives us a sense of control, of knowing all things and being able to keep our fears in front of us. God calls us to a quiet peace, fueled by both trust in him and the mystery of faith.

Our connecting of unconnected dots is a cheap substitute for believing the ultimate story that explains the world. The Bible tells us evil and tragedy and sin find their root not in a smoke-filled room in Switzerland but with the “ruler of the power of the air, the spirit now working in the disobedient.” Satan is the ultimate master conspirator and sin is the virus that has woven its way into every human heart. But we believers know that the man behind the curtain is on a leash, limited in power, and was defeated when Jesus uttered those agonizing words from a Roman cross: “It is finished” (John 19:30)!

The dots, for us, have been connected. And Jesus, the victor, has triumphed over the enemy. So while we participate with him in renewing and restoring the world, we can rejoice when evil is exposed without indulging dark and false fantasies.

THE MYSTERY OF FAITH AND THE SEEKING OF WISDOM

This means we can live with mystery. Part of the reason we are so easily misled into conspiracy theories and silly myths is because we resist accepting the unknown and uncertain. And the easy reach of facts gives us the illusion of knowing all. Those quiet nights when I can’t sleep, rather than rest and leave my finite thoughts to the Lord, I’m tempted to Google my problems away or find an explanation for what seems explainable. What leads us down these paths of irrational thought is both a denial of our own finite humanity and a forgetting of the humanness of others, especially those we think are caught up in some grand plot.

God doesn’t want us to know everything. God’s thoughts are higher and deeper and vaster than ours (Isa. 55:8–9), and this should give us comfort. He has the dots connected. He holds the worlds in his hands. He is sovereign even over the disparate strands of history and is gathering it all to himself. What great comfort.

In indulging far-out conspiracy theories, we also forget the finitude of those whom we assume are pulling the strings or plotting evil. There are some incredibly powerful world leaders and business executives and Hollywood personalities, but each of these is as human as we are. Sometimes in our fear, we assign them a power only God has. Carl Trueman reminds us, “nobody is that competent and powerful to pull them [conspiracy theories] off. Even giant bureaucracies are made up of lots of small, incompetent units fighting petty turf wars.”9

This isn’t to say we should be naive about the possibility of evil. Cover-ups and malfeasance exist. But we should resist confirmation bias and pursue wisdom. The Bible tells us that the pursuit of wisdom is priceless (Prov. 8:11). Wisdom is the antidote to the kind of raw smorgasbord of data we have at our disposal in a digital age. This means we need to have a healthy skepticism toward the intake of information.

I’m amazed, frankly, at the way we are tempted to reject the authority of those who might have expertise and grant authority instead to our favorite sources online. Because our institutions have failed us, and experts, at times, get things wrong, we often reject the hard-won wisdom of people who have spent their lives accumulating the right kind of knowledge. Nichols says, “I fear we are witnessing the death of the ideal of expertise itself, a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laypeople, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers—in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all.”10

Nichols’s book is incredibly helpful in recognizing our need for wisdom from experts who know more than we do. Because we can Google stuff, we think we are experts and often dismiss as “elite” or “the establishment” those who have spent years pursuing actual useful knowledge in areas outside of our callings. Thinking on what is true requires us to lean on the knowledge of experts, to understand our own intellectual limitations, and to resist the lie that says we can be all-knowing.

It’s actually quite arrogant for me to assume that, for example, a doctor who has studied in medical school for years knows less about my health than some random Google search. Or that my friend who works in pediatric infectious disease at a university research hospital, an elder in his church, and committed Christian brother, knows less about the validity of vaccinations for my children than I do. It’s even more foolish to trust one person on the internet more than the shared knowledge of medical professionals who study these things for a living. The Bible tells us wisdom is often found, not in finding ideas that confirm our fears or appeal to what we already believe or want to be true, but in a multitude, a community of wisdom (Prov. 11:14).

And so, to guard against falling for bad ideas, conspiracy theories, or false information, we should cultivate the humility of asking, seeking, and tempering our certainties with humility. We don’t know everything. We are not experts at everything. A life of faith that loves God with all of our minds requires us to seek the truth, reject what isn’t true, and hold our biases loosely in order to let God transform and renew us (Rom. 12:2).

As much as we affirm that embracing truth leads to human flourishing, we have to admit that spreading falsehoods leads to human brokenness. And we should do our part to stop misinformation. This doesn’t mean we have to be the annoying person on Facebook always correcting minor facts, but we should be hesitant to share or spread anything we don’t know to be true and, in our circles of influence, should cultivate healthy habits of information consumption. This means self-curating what knowledge we take in by reading from diverse media outlets, not merely ones whose ideological biases conform to ours. And we should resist the pull toward conspiracy, half-truths, and tabloid-style clickbait that is harmful for a civil society.

In doing so, we may not convince our conspiracy-loving uncle at Thanksgiving, but our pursuit of truth can set an example that might push back against lies and our public witness might point people to the end of our pursuit of knowledge: Jesus, the wisdom of God.

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FOOTNOTES:

  1. Tom Nichols, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 58.
  2. Albert Mohler, “How Should Christians Respond to Conspiracy Theories?” Ask Anything Live, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EiGJJeTyye0.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ben Sasse, Them: Why We Hate Each Other—and How to Heal (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2018), 79.
  5. Nichols, The Death of Expertise, 55.
  6. As quoted by Justin Taylor, “The Vanity of Conspiracy Theories and the Banality of Real Evil,” The Gospel Coalition (blog), accessed September 6, 2019, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/the-vanity-of-conspiracy-theories-and-the-banality-of-real-evil/.
  7. Ed Stetzer, “Christians, Repent (Yes, Repent) of Spreading Conspiracy Theories and Fake News—It’s Bearing False Witness,” The Exchange, accessed September 6, 2019, https://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2017/may/­christians-repent-conspiracy-theory-fake-news.html.
  8. Ibid.
  9. As quoted in Taylor, “The Vanity of Conspiracy Theories and the Banality of Real Evil.”
  10. Nichols, The Death of Expertise.
By:
Dan Darling

Daniel Darling is the Senior Vice President for Communications at NRB (National Religious Broadcasters).