The fall of humanity commenced with an assault on truth (Genesis 3:4–5), and for followers of Christ it may seem like the battle against truth has seldom been more relentless. We witness in the secular culture a frequent denial of reality: whether the humanity of the unborn, the immutability of sex, or the facts of history. Our reaction might range from compassion to despair, but too often we forget these are people under the dominion of dark spiritual forces. So, what’s our excuse? Why do so many fellow Christians commit the same denial of reality we perceive in non-Christians?
Conspiracy Theories Are Not New
A convergence of the COVID pandemic and political polarization of the last 12 months has spawned an unusual proliferation of conspiracy theories, leading to concern among many over their impact. But vulnerability to conspiracies is not new. 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 real conspiracies. In the gospel accounts we have an example of both—a real conspiracy by the priests and guards to spread a false conspiracy theory concerning the disciples. This historical example exhibits elements applicable to the twenty-first 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 the conspiracies are untrue.
Why Conspiracy Theories Resonate with Us
This problem is nuanced and won’t be resolved by simply dismissing conspiracy theorists as gullible and uncritical thinkers. Indeed, many are. But forces in our own mental programming and our environment drive us in that direction.
Humans are curious by nature. God designed us to seek understanding and explanations. That curiosity led to the spectacular technological progress of the last few centuries, but it can also lead to conspiracy theories. Conspiracies are a cheat—a shortcut into a blind alley where curious minds can find quick fixes.
Entertainment has an anchoring effect. 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 (what psychologist Daniel Kahneman refers to as slow thinking), we might admit that conspiracies are rare in real life. But most human thinking occurs rapidly and is heuristically driven and powerfully influenced by nonrational 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. Hollywood changed public attitudes toward homosexuality in such a short period of time by anchoring its view on sexuality early on. People then relied on this reference point for future assessments.
The internet has enabled the unprecedented availability of misinformation and disinformation. Old barriers to publication and distribution have been eliminated and everyone now has a platform. Moreover, engineers at Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram have developed systems that focus and amplify the impact of misinformation. 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.
Conspiracies really do happen. True conspiracies are rare but must be acknowledged. Many authors have explained why conspiracies are rare, why they seldom succeed, and how to spot the fake ones. Nonetheless, the simple fact that some have happened affords a conspiracy believer “moral license” to believe in one or more that are purely fictitious.
Humans Have a Sinful Disposition
Unfortunately, not all internal factors inclining us toward conspiracy theories are innocent and defensible. There is a dark element to some ideas 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. The biblical Adam’s offense was the act of embracing a lie to become something greater than he was. In this desire we are truly his offspring.
Conspiracy theories malign the innocent and rationalize our prejudice. Conspiratorial thinking can lead us to: (1) feel superior to those who are different, (2) justify our prejudices, (3) rationalize our own conduct, and (4) absolve us of personal responsibility for failure.
For example, antivaccination activists, some of whom are Christians, presume almost all of the millions of worldwide physicians who both prescribe and use vaccines are either ignorant or malevolent. Such presumption is at odds with principles of Christian charity.
People Willfully Deceive
For many reasons people are predisposed toward embracing conspiracy theories. We are the demand side of the marketplace. On the supply side lies a vast industry of private and state actors competing for profit, fame, or influence and eager to provide conspiracies.
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 former doctor Andrew Wakefield, who published a paper in the medical journal The Lancet in 1999, claiming to have found a connection between the MMR vaccine and autism. Later investigation established that the research was fraudulent and that Wakefield must have known it to be so, but that he was motivated financially by the promise of riches from the plaintiffs’ bar.
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. Russian activity on social media in the US 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.
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 (Ephesians 6:11–12). Jesus didn’t cast out demons with superior arguments, or by teaching victims how to think critically.
It demands much less effort to assert a claim than refute it. Conspiracy adherents are almost never actual researchers, though they routinely claim to be. “Research,” in this instance, would be defined as consuming large doses of polemics manufactured for and posted to fringe websites. 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. It takes an extraordinary amount of effort to track down the source of each claim and spot the error.
Negative Consequences of Conspiracies
Succumbing to such deceptions exacts a great cost for both individuals and the church at large. Embracing conspiracies uncritically corrupts our character, demolishes our credibility, leads us to sin against others, and places us in alignment with malevolent spiritual forces.
Corrupted character. Conspiratorial thinking thrives on pride, and nourishes it in turn. It takes a considerable amount of arrogance to assert superior insight over legitimate experts in a field. Pride exists within all of us to one degree or another. However, humility defers to the judgment of an overwhelming consensus of experts and does not oppose them.
Lost credibility. When either individuals or large numbers of Christians 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 (John 8:44) 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 demilitarized zone in this conflict.
Seeking and Promoting the Truth
Integrity demands that we always seek the truth. However, we enter dangerous territory when we begin to think we own the truth. The path to avoiding this position is to admit our personal limitations and exhibit humble submission toward those in authority—in this case, meaning those most qualified on a subject. We shouldn’t rely solely on pastors in matters of science, nor 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. Nevertheless, we can proceed by implementing two takeaways: (1) we need to check ourselves before we look at others ( Matthew 7:5), and (2) we need to remember that we are our brother’s keeper. How the church should deal with conspiracy theorists is a sensitive and complex matter, but Christians cannot remain faithful to Christ and passive in this regard. We must understand why people are drawn to conspiracies 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). People are watching and we owe it to them to lead the way in truth telling. Genuine love and yearning for the truth are fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22; Ephesians 5:9).
- For an extended version and follow-up discussion, go to Steve Willing’s blog, swilling.com