Conspiracy theories have been around for a long, long time. They are not a new phenomenon and seem to reach fevered pitch during times of social upheaval and uncertainty. Whatever permeation or how they're presented, the common premise of the conspiracy theory is that a shadowy group of elite and powerful people are withholding or twisting the truth.
But what is going on and why are conspiracy theories so seductive for many folks?
Part of the answer lies in our propensity towards meaning-making and the way human brains are wired to keep us safe with the amygdala scanning the world for threats. When healthy, these are very necessary parts of being genuinely human. However, when we live with a chronic sense of existential anxiety and feelings of being out of control our amygdala can be super sensitive and will cling to anything that promises some semblance of the security we crave. Any certainty will do even if it isn’t rooted in reality. We want answers that will help restore our sense of security and the acceptable answers we seek are heavily influenced by our bias and fears about the world and others - conspiracy theories can be really seductive in this place.
In an interview with Relevant Magazine Dr. Daniel Jolley, who studies the psychology of conspiracy theories explains that we have many biases that serve to help us make sense of the complex world. One such bias is confirmation bias.
Bias is a psychological preference for certain kinds of answers. Confirmation bias is the tendency to interpret new information in a way that confirms our present beliefs (1). If we believe the world is rotten and we're afraid, we'll look for information that affirms that narrative and ignore any information to the contrary. We settle for things that affirm our fears and gut feelings regardless of the truth. The idea is that if we feel like we "know" what's going on and what shadows are lurking behind the scenes, it will give us a sense of security.
Disciples of conspiracy theories are from many walks of life
Recent research has shown that approximately 50% of Americans believe one kind of conspiracy theory or another, to a lesser or greater degree. Adherents to various conspiracy theories are not necessarily of a single demographic. Regardless of the level of education, or even political stripe the common issue is existential anxiety and grasping for some kind of lens through which the world makes sense.
If Christians value truth why do they seem to be more susceptible?
While Christians across the spectrum are susceptible to conspiracy theories, it seems those who are more fundamentalist; those who hold to a literal flat reading of the scripture (a literal 6-day creation, etc.) are more likely to believe and propagate these theories - be it a Flat Earth, Plandemic, QAnon or the evils of vaccines.
A significant contributor may include that many Christians suffer from poor eschatology. Eschatology is a fancy world for end times, death, judgement and the fate of humans and the earth. Specifically, I am referring to eschatology that is influenced by Dispensationalism (1830's by John Darby). It is a modern framework that divides scripture/history into 7 dispensations and its eschatology has significantly influenced Evangelicalism. Many adherents believe that in the final dispensation before Jesus' triumphant return and 1000 year reign there will be a great tribulation and the rise of a one-world government. This one-world government will be led by the anti-Christ (think Left Behind book series). Through this lens, every action from those in power (government, elite) is read through the grand drama of this end-time narrative. For folks in this stream, all geopolitical events are read and fitted into this narrative adding divine legitimacy believing God is in control, the bible says so and therefore it must be God's will.
Many streams of Christianity have forged a persecution complex. I suspect as a result of trying and failing to navigate the culture wars and thoughtfully engaging the advances of modern science. In response to this perceived threat, a significant vocal segment of the Church has cultivated an 'us versus them' narrative. This manifests in a variety of ways and usually targets perceived threats to their idea of Biblical Christianity. Make no mistake, there have been plenty of ministries that have exploited this for their financial gain. It also fosters tribalism and Christianized gnostic elitism among the adherents which when combined with fear keeps the money flowing, the sheep from straying and fortifies obedience to church leadership.
What makes for good conspiracy theory is a scapegoat- someone to blame. Some Christians tend to demonize those they disagree with. If someone holds differing faith or politics or has a different worldview they are often cast in the role of the enemy, a deluded pawn of the Satan. 'Only a truly evil person would vote X or be pro-choice, pro-queer as example. When we demonize them, we dehumanize them and can rationalize a whole host of nasty, clearly contrary to Jesus' teaching about loving our enemy.
Good Science is not the Enemy
Forcing the Bible to be something it isn't, results in an unnecessary animosity between good science versus faith. Fearful that one's flat reading/interpretation of the scriptures is being threatened, some Christians set up science straw-man arguments in an attempt to discredit good science by suggesting that science is claiming something that it isn't. Often there is a misunderstanding and mischaracterization of science; its methods, its theories and conclusions. This is seen in areas of evolution, cosmology and includes COVID-19 to name just a few.
In sum, Conspiracy Theories:
- play to our fears, anxieties and personal bias
- treats accusations as facts
- misrepresent facts and data
- stir a sense of mistrust, paranoia and cynicism
- are unprovable
- provide a false sense of certainty
- provides someone(s) to blame (scapegoat)
- tend to be cultish and have a religious appeal
- provide a sense of gnostic pride and insights. A kind of elitism in its own right
A few thoughts about moving forward:
So this is all well and good to have some insight into conspiracy theories and why we are susceptible, but now what? Here are a few quick thoughts:
- Resist the temptation to shame or ridicule. Most conspiracy theory adherents are genuinely afraid and have a high need for a sense of being in control - understanding of what’s happening, why and who's responsible.
- Acknowledge your or another’s fear and anxiety and the human drive to make sense of what’s happening around them. Express your fears, be honest about them. Feel it.
- Become aware of your bias - those things that are affirming your worldview and its fears and enemies. This can be hard work. A thoughtful friend or a competent therapist can help us build greater self-awareness.
- Know your limitations - Dunning Krueger effect is a psychological cognitive bias in which people with low ability to perform a task consistently over-estimate their ability to do so - a false sense that they possess a greater ability and knowledge than they actually do in a given area. Be aware that often we don't know what we don’t know.
- Learn to assess your sources and information for quality and accuracy. Not every opinion is of equal quality. Read widely but avoid those sources that have a reputation for being extreme on either side of an issue.
- Don’t confuse punditry with expertise. A talk show host is not qualified to interpret complex medical research, for example. Be aware of who has a dog in the fight.
- A better theology of suffering- generally, protestants don't have good theology around suffering and as such, some of our pet theologies leave us ill-equipped when things get very real - offering a kind of spiritual by-passing, denial or defensiveness.
- Be kind - to yourself and each other. Understand that often people who are in pain can bite when you don’t affirm their perspective or offer another. This is a good opportunity to practice forgiveness and grace. If you are the one who is doing the biting, this can be a good indication that there is something within you that could benefit from some thoughtful attention and care.