“The Jews did it.”
That was the claim made by certain medieval “Christian” bloggers in the face of the Black Plague. Jews were said to have started the pestilence by poisoning the water, and they were subsequently murdered when the fake news went viral.
But what does that have to do with current (Christian) conspiracy theories regarding COVID-19?
As best I can tell, the virus was cooked up in a North Carolina lab by Bigfoot and Barack Obama to keep pastors from preaching live–and/or getting their nails done. (I am immune. I swallowed disinfectant and an infrared lightbulb.)
CHRISTIANS AND CONSPIRACY THEORIES
Ed Stetzer issued a rebuke last week to those evangelicals who seem disproportionately prone to bizarre and politically-charged conspiracy theories.
Gullibility is not a spiritual gift.
Likewise, Dru Johnson wrote regarding Jesus’ own words against the tawdry rumor mill of End Times speculation:
Prior to his death, Jesus sternly warned his disciples against buying into the various conspiracy theories that would come. “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars,” he said. But his counsel is revealing: “See that no one leads you astray…” (Matt. 24:4–6, ESV).
Both articles are instructive.
But my question is different.
Why are we (and especially certain evangelicals) drawn to conspiracy theories? Why do we find them almost irresistible?
A few thoughts:
- Conspiracy allows me to blame “them.”
You can’t sue a bat for damages. You can’t put a Venetian flea on trial. When disaster strikes, we want to blame “them.”
When a hurricane struck Texas and Florida, Jennifer Lawrence blamed the devastation on “Mother Nature’s wrath” against states that had supported Donald Trump. Pat Robertson blamed a Haitian earthquake on the islanders’ “pact with the devil,” and Jerry Falwell attributed 9/11 to “gays and lesbians” (see here).
While these may not be “conspiracies” per se, the common theme is a need to blame people we already loathe (“them”).
2. Conspiracy puts me in the know.
We all like to feel smarter than our out-groups.
And especially when those out-groups (university professors, the media, people who know math) have looked down on others for not having the expert status they possess. In many cases, conspiracy theories feed on our desire to acquire a special, secret knowledge (gnosis) that is lost upon the “shills” who believe what they’re told in the media.
3. Conspiracy defrays “sunk costs.”
The trouble with facts is their potential to invalidate my prior opinions. And if I’ve already “sunk” a lot of time and energy into supporting an opinion, ideology, or leader, contrary evidence feels like a slap in the face.
Conspiracy theories help defray “sunk costs” by providing an alternative narrative—even if it’s stupid.
4. Conspiracy is fueled by a lack of trust.
In his rebuke of Christian conspiracy theorists, Stetzer writes:
we need to speak up […] and lovingly say, “You need to go to trusted sources.”
Stetzer isn’t wrong. But his advice probably won’t work.
If “trusted sources” were seen as trustworthy by conspiracy theorists, then those persons would have never sought the “real story” from disreputable pundits, bloggers, and self-deputized evangelical “thought-leaders.”
Conspiracies run rampant precisely because there are NO universally trusted sources anymore—only silos inside silos inside silos.
5. Conspiracy abhors an expert.
In fundamentalist Christianity, scientific “experts” have long been viewed negatively. They were alleged to be (and sometimes were) dishonest deconstructors of biblical truth, as seen in the likes of Darwin, Dawkins, and Sam Harris.
Unfortunately, this posture furthers the misconception that Christians must be “science-deniers” who can be lumped with other flat-earth, anti-vaxxer, fringe groups. To be frank, it pushes intelligent young people to throw out the “Baby” of orthodoxy with the “Bathwater” of anti-scientific fundamentalism.
6. Conspiracy sells.
Big tech companies are in an awkward position. They are driven by ad revenue. So while they are often accused (and sometimes rightly) of muting free speech, they also profit tremendously from conspiratorial nonsense.
One study showed that conspiratorial “fake news” was far more likely to be shared than anything else—and especially when its existence is seen as being threatened. In short, conspiracy sells.
7. Conspiracy is sometimes true.
Lastly, it is important to remember that truth is sometimes labeled as a “conspiracy theory.”
Imagine the following scenario: You are a Gentile Roman citizen in the first century. Which story seems likely:
- A man was crucified; God raised him from the dead; he now rules creation.
- A man was crucified; his crackpot Jewish followers stole his body and then claimed (ridiculously) that he was resurrected.
The answer, as during the Black Plague, seemed obvious:
“The Jews did it.”
I’ll give Johnson the last word:
Therein lies the good conspiracy that we are to spread: The kingdom has come and is still coming in the ordinary lives of overlooked people in our communities. But that also means there are other conspiracies—lesser ones—that will compete and distract us from where God is trying to focus our efforts.
If we’re busy carrying out the mission of the coming kingdom, we won’t have much time or energy for tawdry conspiracy theories—and pretending we can peel back the curtains of history and discern the exact signs of the king’s coming will seems frivolous at best.
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