Thinking Through Big Government Conspiracy Theories
You’ve heard of these conspiracies. You know, the ones involving clandestine plots of the United States government. It appears that a lot of Americans believe high-level members of the government have been involved in assassinations, cover-ups, secret societies, etc. What are some of the major conspiracy theories and what are we to make of them?
Here are four that have gained popular acceptance among many Americans over the last half-century.
1. JFK Assassination Conspiracy Theory: Considered the granddaddy of all conspiracy theories, a Gallup poll taken in 2001 reported that 81 percent of Americans now believe there was a conspiracy behind the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. Some of the most common speculative scenarios postulate that top officials of the U.S. government were engaged in a coup d’état to murder President Kennedy (see, for example, Oliver Stone’s 1991 movie JFK).
2. UFO Conspiracy Theory: Internet sources disclose that 48 percent of American citizens now believe that literal metallic spacecrafts visit Earth from distant places in the universe. Additionally, 71 percent believe that the U.S. government hasn’t revealed all it knows about the strange UFO phenomenon.
3. 9/11 Conspiracy Theory: A recent report reveals that more than a third of Americans believe the U.S. government was involved in the events of 9/11. Conspiracy theorists claim that high-level members of the Bush administration either participated in or did nothing to stop the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Thus this scenario postulates that 9/11 was an inside job.
4. Secret Society Conspiracy Theory: Many people in the U.S. think a select group of people who are part of clandestine societies rule the world. Allegedly these shadowy people, who are rich and well-connected politically, belong to fraternal organizations that control events around the world for their own benefit. In the 1930s, the Nazis spread the conspiracy theory that the Jews were the puppet masters behind communism and had manipulated the money markets of Europe to cause societal unrest. Popular author Dan Brown’s latest novel, The Lost Symbol, weaves a story about a secret fraternal organization in early America and how its rituals and symbols have influenced history.
Questioning Conspiracy Theories
Why do these explanations gain such a foothold?
Sometimes conspiracy theories prove to be true. History shows that people have plotted to carry out illegal, subversive, or secret plans. For example, it was proven in a court of law that a small group of people conspired to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln.
Also, members of the American government are not immune from engaging in conspiracy. Former president Richard Nixon later admitted that he knew more about the Watergate break-in than he initially stated. So conspiracy theories, even those involving the United States government, should not be rejected a priori (prior to reasonable analysis).
Yet most conspiracy theories––particularly the big ones mentioned above––haven’t received the critical analysis they deserve by the American populace. Here are five logical questions to consider when thinking about such alleged plots:
1. Coherence: Does the theory hold together foundationally?
Well-conceived theories are logically sound and internally consistent. Viable explanatory theories avoid being self-stultifying or self-defeating in nature (contradictory by both affirming and denying essential elements of the same theory). When the coherence question is properly applied, grand conspiracy theories often begin to unravel.
2. Data: Does the theory comport with the facts?
Good theories are closely connected to the facts. They not only correspond to known facts but also make sense by tying them together in a coherent fashion. Conspiracy theories can, at times, be short on facts or fail to conform to them.
3. Knowledge: Does the theory avoid unwarranted presumptions?
There is a huge difference between presuming to know something and in fact knowing something. Genuine knowledge includes proper justification for one’s beliefs. Solid theories are based upon that which can be proved or verified. Too often conspiracy theories are heavily laden with unjustified presumption.
4. Competition: How well does the theory withstand counterevidence and viable challenges?
Feasible theories are flexible enough to accommodate possible counterevidence. The most potent explanatory theories carefully consider the best critiques from alternative perspectives and can answer the challenges. Critical thinking, however, demands that a person fairly consider viable alternatives. Unfortunately, too many of the people who believe the four big government conspiracies have not done so.
5. Verification: Is the theory open to falsification? If so, how?
Viable explanatory theories make claims that can be tested and proven true or false (verified or falsified). Nonfalsifiable claims that cannot be investigated, evaluated, and critiqued carry little rational weight. Unfortunately, some who hold to conspiracy theories have never given careful thought as to how their belief might be legitimately falsified.
Christian Belief & Conspiracy Theories
Christians seem especially susceptible to belief in big government conspiracy theories. This vulnerability arises first because Christians believe there is a hidden and malevolent (demonic) force behind world events. Thus, they are sometimes excessively suspicious of stealth forces at work in the world. This intuition, of course, may serve as sound theological discernment, but it must be rigorously tested in particular cases (1 Thessalonians 5:21). Thinking there is a demon under every bush can be as faulty as ignoring the demonic realm completely. A good way of testing one’s suspicions about such matters is to appeal to Scripture and to sound reason (such as the five questions discussed above).
Second, many believers hold eschatological (end time) views that involve a strong belief in a one-world government. While this view may be a legitimate understanding of what Scripture reveals concerning future things, it is one interpretation among several and therefore should be examined carefully. Further, it is far too easy to speculate when it comes to the difficult task of interpreting passages in the Bible that appear to describe future events.
Alternative Explanations to the Big Conspiracy Theories
Since conspiracy theories garner so much attention in the popular media, here are some sources that challenge the prevalent big government conspiracy perspectives.
For a formidable book that challenges the idea that there was a conspiracy behind the assassination of President Kennedy, see Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedyby former trial attorney Vincent Bugliosi.
For a book that challenges the “extraterrestrial hypothesis” concerning UFOs (UFOs defined as literal metallic crafts visiting Earth from other parts of the cosmos), see Lights in the Sky & Little Green Menby Hugh Ross, Kenneth Samples, and Mark Clark.
For a thoughtful response to the growing 9/11 conspiracy perspective, see the Popular Mechanics website.
For a book that provides measured and accurate information about fraternal organizations and their goals and purposes, see Melton’s Encyclopedia Of American Religions by J. Gordon Melton.
Conspiracy theories, like all theories, must be tested. When believers demonstrate this intellectual virtue, their witness to the unbelieving world is greatly strengthened as skeptics come to view Christians as careful, critical thinkers.
For more about the importance of logic and critical thinking, see my book A World of Difference: Putting Christian Truth-Claims to the Worldview Test.