In sixth grade, I participated in a debate in which I attempted to convince my fellow classmates that we never landed on the moon.
It was the first time I used the Internet to research, and my partner and I found a treasure trove of information. We couldn’t believe it. It was so obvious. The U.S. clearly faked the moon landing in 1969 to trick the Soviet Union that we had superior rocket technology.
On the day of the debate, we exceeded our allotted 30-minute timeslot by more than an hour. After the debate, we held a poll. My partner and I convinced 75% of our classmates that the 1969 moon landing was faked by the government.
I’m sure we made our science teacher proud.
In the words of the Apostle Paul, as I grew older I “did away with childish things.” And that includes my childhood belief that we didn’t land on the moon.
I learned a lot from my sixth-grade debate experience. But I didn’t expect to find the experience of convincing a bunch of sixth graders of a crazy theory so relevant to what we’re experiencing today with full-grown adults.
Especially adults who claim to be followers of Jesus and people of “The Truth.”
During Barack Obama’s presidency, it was fellow Christians claiming online (and sometimes from the pulpit) that Obama was a secret Muslim and the country was headed for mandatory Sharia Law (despite the fact that less than 1% of the U.S. population identifies as Muslim).
After the Sandy Hook school shooting that killed 26 people (most of them children), I was shocked at the number of Christian friends who posted videos claiming the attack was a staged “false flag” operation led by the liberal government.
During the 2016 Presidential Election, my blog’s inbox was flooded with emails from concerned Christians asking me to look into Hillary Clinton’s supposed ties to a pedophile sex ring. And after DNC staffer Seth Rich was murdered, it was my Christian followers sharing links to conspiracy theories – even after Fox News retracted their original story.
And, with COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 Presidential campaign in full swing, the amount of Christians posting and sharing conspiracy theory videos has attained critical mass.
For many of us, it can be demoralizing to watch beloved friends, family members, and mentors fall deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole of convoluted government plots and paranoid speculation.
However, rather than attempt to debunk the plethora of conspiracy theories at play (a nigh-impossible task), it’d probably be more helpful to understand why we’re so enamored with them in the first place.
Why We All Love a Good Conspiracy Theory
Okay, so let’s get this out of the way:
Most major media outlets have a left-leaning bias and are totally out of touch with the plights of most Americans. Our government sometimes does shady things and gets caught. Pharmaceutical companies price gouge medications. Powerful people silence victims of sexual assault and abuse. Foreign governments are attempting to sow discord in the U.S. through social media. Systemic injustices and cultural prejudices hamper some people’s ability to succeed in our society.
These are not the “conspiracy theories” I’m talking about.
I’m also not talking about partisan differences of opinion. Left-leaning people will always watch and read left-leaning news, and right-leaning people will always watch and read right-leaning news. And that’s okay. Our republic is built upon the salient fact that people will (and should) disagree.
And, while most conspiracy theories are driven by partisan agendas, they’re not one and the same. You can have a right- or left-leaning perspective on current events and not be guilty of spreading unfounded conspiracy theories – this is an important distinction to make. (And, it should be noted, while my exposure to conspiracy theories is conditional upon my social environment – conservative and evangelical – liberal democrats have their own pet conspiracy theories).
Plots, scandals, collusions, and cover-ups do occur in business and politics – just rarely on the scale as imagined by conspiracy theorists. For the sake of my argument, by conspiracy theory I mean, the assumption that “a well-organized effort initiated by an elite group of powerful men and women secretly working toward a singular goal or vision that often involves collaboration between government agencies and the media.”
I’m talking about conspiracy theories related to false flag attacks, Deep State, Illuminati, Freemasons, QAnon, Flat Earth, shadow government, or any other belief system that hinges on the assumption that much of our lives are controlled by plots hatched in secret places by a select few individuals.
Based on my research, there are three primary reasons all people are attracted to these types of conspiracy theories. (I’ll address my fellow Christian brothers and sisters in the next section).
#1: Conspiracy Theories Make Us Feel Special.
In a sense, most conspiracy theories aren’t much different than the “mystery cults” the apostle Paul had to contend with at the city of Ephesus. Mystery cults were very common in Ancient Rome, and they attracted followers by promising to reveal the “mysteries of the universe” to those who joined.
This was a very seductive hook. And it’s one of the reasons conspiracy theories are more likely to spread among people with lower levels of education. But that doesn’t mean people who are higher educated are immune to their allure. Conspiracy theories are just as likely to spread among people with radical political ideologies.
In The Death of Expertise, Tom Nichols writes,
“[Conspiracy] theories also appeal to a strong streak of narcissism: there are people who would choose to believe in complicated nonsense rather than accept that their own circumstances are incomprehensible, the result of issues beyond their intellectual capacity to understand, or even their own fault.”
In other words: “The masses have been fooled by the media and/or government, but I’m special and different, and I know the truth!”
While narcissism isn’t a motivator for all conspiracy theorists, it does explain why some people have such a hard time letting go of a conspiracy theory – even when confronted with incontrovertible proof their beliefs are wrong.
And, this is also why challenging someone’s belief in a conspiracy theory is often interpreted by that person as a personal attack. No one wants to admit they’ve been fooled. And once you sacrificed your reputation and social capital for the sake of a conspiracy (like posting something on Facebook), it becomes harder for your ego to disengage from the illusion.
And, perhaps more damaging, conspiracy theories gradually become self-isolating echo chambers. If you ever argued with someone peddling a conspiracy theory, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
(As The Wall Street Journal‘s Blue Feed, Red Feed visual experiment brilliantly illustrates, many of us already inhabit ideological echo chambers on social media. And when the people we follow on Twitter and Facebook all begin peddling the same conspiracy theory, we’ll often adopt the belief to not feel out of the loop – thus contributing to a feedback loop of misinformation and deception).
When people attach their belief in a conspiracy theory to their ego, it can be nearly impossible to convince them that they’re wrong. Every piece of contrarian evidence you present to a friend or family member simply becomes part of the conspiracy and expands the scope of the deception.
That’s what “They” want you to believe. If you just did some research, you’d find The Truth. All your sources are just part of the Cover-Up. You actually believe those “fact-checking” websites? I wish you’d open your eyes and not be such a sheep.
It’s an insidious bit of circular logic that not only creates a criticism-proof belief system, but it also makes a twisted sort of sense.
Conspiracy theories are self-perpetuating rationalization machines. They eat facts, distort reality, and destroy relationships. And, by the time someone realizes they’re in too deep, it’s often too late to salvage a reality-based worldview (or the relationships of the people they isolated in the process).
#2: Conspiracy Theories Help Us Make Sense of a Chaotic and Complicated World.
The term “Black Swan” was popularized by statistician Nassim Talib and refers to “high-profile, hard-to-predict, and rare events that are beyond the realm of normal expectations in history, science, finance, and technology.”
Historical examples of Black Swan events include the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the 1918 Influenza pandemic, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Fukushima nuclear accident, and the fall of the Lehman Brothers in 2008.
Black Swan events are incredibly fertile ground for conspiracy theorists. When the unexpected occurs, there’s always an initial vacuum of precedent and context as we try to make sense of how and why something happened. Black Swans are equalizers; they dumbfound experts and laypersons alike.
And catastrophic events are inherently traumatizing. They interrupt our routine and force us to change the way we view the world.
In an interview with NPR on conspiracy theories, Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said,
“We as human beings do not like unanswered moral questions. We want to know who did it. We want to know how it was done. We’re looking for a pattern. Our intelligence, given to us by God, is a pattern-seeking intelligence.”
Our ability to discern patterns helps us construct internal narratives that give our lives meaning and make sense of the world around us. Conspiracy theories hijack that ability by linking loosely-connected events into a semi-coherent narrative (usually through the assistance of a well-edited YouTube video).
Of course, Black Swan events aren’t really random. Everything that happens in the universe is a result of a cause-and-effect relationship. Nothing really occurs spontaneously. It’s just that sometimes, the real-world explanation of a catastrophic event isn’t very emotionally satisfying. A big effect needs a big cause, right? Shouldn’t dramatic events require dramatic explanations?
Sometimes all it takes to change the world is a single deranged individual with access to a rifle and a decent perch. Or a religious extremist who exploits an overlooked security flaw in airport security. Or a bat that urinates on the wrong animal in an open-air market in China.
In The Death of Expertise, Tom Nichols writes,
“Conspiracy theories are also 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.”
We don’t like random. We don’t like chaos. We don’t like ambiguity. And we don’t like living under the realization that we’re at the mercy of forces outside of our control that we don’t understand or can’t comprehend.
Or, in the words of Christian writer D.L. Mayfield,
“People believe conspiracy theories because it is psychologically easier to believe a singular and unlikely narrative rather than engage in a hard and complicated reality where your own long-term participation is needed.”
Instead of accepting reality, we construct elaborate fantasy worlds to process our cultural and existential anxieties. The President was killed by the mafia and CIA. The terrorist attack was allowed to happen to help justify a war in the Middle East. The school shooting was faked by the government so they can take our guns away. The virus is a ploy by the Deep State to take away our rights.
In a weird way, the idea of a secret cabal of powerful men and women pulling the strings on international events (like assassinations, pandemics, terrorist attacks, world wars, etc.) is somewhat comforting because at least it implies someone is in control of all this madness.
So, when someone posts conspiracy theory video on social media with the message, “Don’t give in to fear! Stay informed!“, they’re most likely writing to themselves. You’re watching someone publicly process their anxieties and insecurities in real-time by latching onto an explanation that places themselves “in the know” of a secret plot they want other people to know they also know about.
This is doubly ironic because their conspiracy theory’s far-reaching implications are often far more frightening than the event the conspiracy theory is attempting to explain.
And this doesn’t even begin to tackle the absolutely lazy nature of most conspiracy theories and videos that go viral on the Internet. In most cases, all you need to do to gain traction on social media is post dubious information, say “The mainstream media won’t report this!” and completely ignore any sort of follow-up to confirm if the information turned out to be true or not.
Note: Nassim Talib considers the COVID-19 pandemic a “White Swan” – an event that would eventually take place with great certainty given the innumerable warnings of a global pandemic by public health experts and epidemiologists for years. In a twist that should surprise no one, conspiracy theorists have actually rolled those warnings and preparation plans into proof that a conspiracy exists. Like I said, maddening.
#3: Conspiracy Theories Make Our Reality Seem More Exciting.
Everyone loves a good conspiracy thriller. The idea of a lone “agent of truth” against a diabolic enemy makes for great entertainment. But real-life conspiracies are rarely that exciting.
For example, Watergate. Probably the most well-known conspiracy in American history (the word “Watergate” is basically synonymous with “political scandal”), the Watergate scandal led to the resignation of a sitting U.S. President.
But, compared to the pyrotechnic-filled exploits of James Bond or Jason Bourne, the Watergate scandal is a downright snoozefest. I mean right now, without Googling, would you be able to tell me what the Watergate Hotel scandal was actually about?
The U.S. Government isn’t exactly known to be a well-oiled and efficient machine. And, yet, so many conspiracy theories hinge on the unbelievable assumption that hundreds – if not thousands – of people are able to work together in harmony to accomplish a singular goal for decades and keep it a secret.
Think about the bureaucratic inefficiencies, petty drama, and divided loyalties at your own workplace. Do you really think the U.S. Government is any better?
The people most likely to believe the government is too incompetent to be trusted are often the people most likely to believe the government also has the ability to secretly orchestrate massive operations under the noses of most Americans.
Government bureaucracy is boring. Conspiracy theories are ridiculously entertaining. If you don’t believe me, do a deep dive into the beliefs of Flat Earthers, 9/11 Truthers, and QAnon followers. They’re intoxicatingly addictive. And, because conspiracy theories tend to cross-pollinate, it doesn’t take long for someone to become completely entrenched in a conspiratorial worldview.
In a Relevant Magazine article titled “Why Do So Many Christians Believe Conspiracy Theories?“, Jessica Stephens writes,
“Experts believe our tendency to fall into the trap of confirmation bias can lead some people to slip into a rabbit hole of conspiracies. The problem is especially prominent in the internet era, where people can find information that confirms whatever value they hold—and ignore any information that does not.”
Every conspiracy theory is a gateway drug to an even more ludicrous and far-reaching conspiracy theory. Once you believe the government is powerful enough to stage a fake mass shooting with “crisis actors,” it doesn’t take much of a leap to convince yourself they can also manufacture a virus scare to crash the U.S. economy (or vice versa).
In an interview for Vox, psychologist Jan-Willem van Prooijen said,
“The best predictor of believing in one conspiracy theory is believing in another. Once they firmly start to believe in one specific conspiracy theory, it opens the door to many others. Because then people start thinking, “Hey, there may be a lot more going on behind the scenes that I don’t know. What else is there?”
However, if you were to construct the “perfect” conspiracy theory, you couldn’t do much better than believing there’s a secret department at the Pentagon that’s sole job is to spread conspiracy theories to make people believe the government is competent enough to pull off a conspiracy.
The Christian Problem
Christians, we have to do better.
Christians are repeatedly pandered to by far-right conspiracy theory websites. Liberal “info-tainment” bounces from one Trump-related outrage to the next with reckless abandon. Real-world social ills are capitalized upon and transformed into vapid social justice “slacktivism” campaigns. Russian trolls targeted us during the 2016 Presidential Election with memes and clickbait articles.
In response to the surge of COVID-19 conspiracy theories, Saddleback Church in California and The Humanitarian Disaster Institute had to band together to create a resource for pastors to quell the spread of misinformation in their congregations.
And after renowned pastor Ed Stetzer wrote an article for Christianity Today calling for Christians to avoid posting conspiracy theories about COVID-19, the Christian publication had to amend the original article with a note commenting on the flood of vitriol the article received.
No one is immune from conspiratorial thinking, but Christians have a bit more to lose from falling for conspiracy theories than the average person. And I think there a few additional reasons Christians may be susceptible to unhealthy paranoid skepticism.
Maybe it’s because, from a young age, many of us were taught the “scientific establishment” was out to destroy our belief in the Bible by accepting evolution. We were given an implausible conspiratorial mindset from the very beginning and maybe we just can’t shake it.
Or maybe so many of us were convinced by the Left Behind books that a satanic one-world government was on the horizon, it just makes sense we need to be as vigilant as possible right now.
Or maybe because we’ve already been conditioned by our own belief system that there exists a hidden spiritual reality that making the leap to a hidden “shadow government” isn’t all that big of a deal.
Of course, not all Christians are conspiracy theorists (and those that are aren’t all to the extent I’ve explored above). But there are enough Christian conspiracy theorists doing enough damage that other Christians shouldn’t feel afraid to call them out. We need to hold ourselves and each other to a higher standard of objective truth.
And it’s important to note that a lot of Christians share conspiracy theories out of good faith. They believe they’re sharing the truth. But most conspiracy theories are rotten at the core. It’s obvious they’re rooted in fear, insecurity, and loneliness. And they’re often designed to give us more reasons to loathe our ideological enemies.
In an article for Christianity Today, Andrew McDonald, Associate Director of the Billy Graham Institute, writes,
“Conspiracy theories play upon our fear by supplying a more powerful emotion: rage. Fear can so quickly morph into anger because it provides an object: they are to blame, they caused this, they deserve retribution.”
Conspiracy theories speak to our desire to be a part of a story bigger than ourselves. And what blows my mind is that Christians should already believe that to be true. Christians shouldn’t need to buy into conspiracy theories to feel special, or to make sense of the world, or to make their lives feel more exciting.
But we’re so enraptured with conspiracy theories, I question if we believe serving the Creator God of the Universe is really enough.
In an article for Christian Today, pastor Ed Stetzer writes,
“If there was ever a group of people that should care about the truth, it should be the people who believe ‘the truth sets you free.’ Integrity should matter for Christians, but too often it does not…Proverbs 28:18 explains, ‘The one who lives with integrity will be helped, but one who distorts right and wrong will suddenly fall.’“
I’m not suggesting Christians should believe everything the government says.
Not by a long shot.
To the contrary, we need to learn to differentiate between government officials and public policy experts. They’re rarely one and the same. Elected officials will often act in opposition to the advice of public policy experts if they believe it’ll hurt their chances of re-election.
I’m also not implying that Christians should believe everything the media says (though, it should be noted, that when people use the term “the media” in a derogatory fashion what they’re really referring to is “media outlets that don’t reinforce my partisan worldview”). I’ve written extensively on media bias and outrage culture.
But it is possible to make smarter media choices.
This is not to say we shouldn’t be skeptical. By all means, we should ask questions. But we also need to be skeptical of whom we seek answers (and our own motives for seeking alternative explanations). There’s a stark difference between “questioning the narrative” and peddling misleading theories as truth just because it’s different than what the “mainstream media” is reporting.
Be watchful and be vigilant and be responsible. Clicking ‘Share’ or ‘Forward’ may not require much effort on your part, but it could have serious ramifications down the line.
The spread of misinformation is an issue we all need to confront – no matter our political persuasion, religious affiliation, or age demographic. If the online sphere is our new battleground then truthful information should be our weapon of choice.
Because conspiracy theories aren’t harmless.
To this day, conspiracy theorists still harass the families of the first-grade children who died in the Sandy Hook school shooting. In December 2017, a man opened fire in a D.C. pizzeria with an assault rifle because he was convinced it was filled with trafficked children as a result of the Pizzagate conspiracy theory. In October 2018, a man mailed pipe bombs to people named in a prominent far-right conspiracy. And downplaying a virus by posting an easily debunked “Plandemic” conspiracy video puts real people at risk. And you’re spitting in the faces of healthcare workers risking their lives and the lives of their families.
But, on a more mundane level, posting and endorsing conspiracy theories makes Christians look like idiots. And it reinforces the public perception that Christians will fall for anything and seriously put the object of our faith into question by outsiders who want nothing to do with our fear-and-hatred based worldview.
In his first letter to the church in Thessalonica, the apostle Paul wrote, “Don’t be gullible. Check out everything, and keep only what’s good. Throw out anything tainted by evil” (The Message).
If you don’t have the time nor patience to fact-check an article or video, you have no business sharing it. Because you’re bearing false witness. Even if you think you’re making a difference, you’re deceiving other people. You’re harming your witness and the witness of your community.
“If you still insist on spreading such misinformation, would you please consider taking Christian off your bio so the rest of us don’t have to share in the embarrassment?“
Addendum I: How to Not Be Fooled by a Conspiracy Theory
- Remember Occam’s Razor: “Entities should not be multiplied without necessity,” which is often paraphrased as “The simplest solution is often the right one.” Don’t try to overcomplicate your perception of reality by falling for irrationally convoluted explanations of unexpected events.
- Read boring news. Sometimes all it takes to convince someone of an inane conspiracy theory is a well-edited YouTube video or a pretty website. And most mainstream news is sensationalized garbage designed to generate ad revenue through clicks. In our home, we don’t watch or read network news (CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, etc). While not perfect, outlets like The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, and The Economist are stellar because their articles are long, well-researched, and not interested in entertainment. Also, AllSides.com is a great place to get a breakdown of how different political ideologies are reporting on current events. (And check out Mark Manson’s fascinating article, “Why You Should Quit the News.”)
- If you’re seeing the same video pop up over and over again on your social media feed, wait a couple of days before interacting with it. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, a YouTube video circulated of two California doctors claiming the virus’s fatality rate was less than .03%. A few days later, it was revealed they’d made grade-school errors in their math and had a financial incentive for downplaying the severity of the virus. However, that didn’t stop the video from being viewed by more than 10 million people before it was pulled off YouTube.
- And, before sharing something, ask yourself: Does this worldview diminish or ignore other people’s real suffering? If the answer is yes, you probably shouldn’t share or post it.
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