Why we love conspiracy theories

Why we love conspiracy theories

“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:

    1. 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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Quiet heroes

Quiet heroes

A tragedy in our age of spectacle is that we often make morons famous while courageous people labor in quiet fidelity.

“Quiet” is the key word there.

And Good Friday reminds us it’s not new.

The Roman historian and politician Tacitus (c. 56–120 AD) famously remarked that

“Under Tiberius, all was quiet” (Hist. 5:9).

There were apparently no Messianic news stories during those years that demanded the intervention of the Roman legions in Palestine. Hence, as far as Tacitus was concerned, little happened.

But of course, something happened under Tiberius: Jesus lived, died, and rose again.

And a later historian (and atheist) Tom Holland claims that no event would have more impact on subsequent centuries than the “quiet” one that failed to appear on Tacitus’ Newsfeed.

Even in those days, the algorithms had other priorities.

Holland:

To believe that God had become man and suffered death of a slave was to believe that there might be strength in weakness, and victory in defeat.

HEROES

I’m reminded of that truth today (Good Friday) as I hear of my former students, both nurses, who are now headed into crowded, virus-laden hospitals—in New York and New Jersey.

One of them (Amanda) has blogged her experience beautifully (here).

And another (Jo-Nieca) has volunteered to leave her young family in Oklahoma and serve in an overrun New Jersey hospital.

Pray for them when you think about it. And pray for other quiet heroes placing themselves in traumatic situations for the good of others.

“Good” is the key word there, on a day (Good Friday) that redefines that concept too.

 


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Deep thoughts on Tiger King

Deep thoughts on Tiger King

Hey all you cool cats and kittens.

Gird your loins.

Like many people, my wife and I got sucked in to the Netflix documentary, Tiger King, as a much-needed distraction from our COVID-induced lockdown.

It was, well… a lot.

Admittedly, finding life-lessons in the show might seem as likely as extracting high nutritional value from a bag of Cheetos. But since Cheetos may be all I have left soon, here goes.

“I SAW TIGER”

For the uninitiated, the king himself (“Joe Exotic”) hails from down the road from me in Wynnewood, Oklahoma. He’s an openly gay, gun-toting, mullet-wearing, lip-synching, PETA-hating polygamist (technically: polyandrist) who owned several hundred live tigers in a private collection.

Joe ran for Governor in 2018 and received 18% of the Libertarian primary vote. But that was before his conviction in a murder for hire investigation, which sent him to a federal prison that is currently infected with COVID-19.

Caught up?

Some have argued that Tiger King’s absurd storyline (in which reality and Reality TV converge) is the perfect match for our current cultural moment. And by some people, I mean my friend Josh who sells electric motorbikes and month-by-month phone plans. (Hi Josh.)

K. B. Hoyle describes it this way over at Christ and Pop Culture:

[It is] not a documentary so much as a circus presented to a captive America during a time of crisis while we wait for the government to dole out to us our bread.

There are only villains and victims in this story—no winners and no heroes.

Hoyle’s claim is that when “bread” is short, we settle easily for “circus.” (Read the whole thing here.)

But what lessons can we glean from Joe in a time when schools, church buildings, and counseling offices are largely closed to the public?

I’ve boiled it down to three F-words: (1) freedom, (2) fame, (3) frauds.

1. FREEDOM

One question the series raises involves how far our individual “freedoms” should go. And that’s especially relevant in a time of social distancing.

Where else on earth can one buy, breed, and monetize hundreds of man-eating tigers in their own backyard? Answer: I don’t know. But I bet places like Oklahoma are just a teensy bit unique on planet earth.

We Americans like freedom, and rightly so.

We don’t like people saying we can’t do what we want: Even if what we want are two hundred live tigers, three husbands, and a private military arsenal in the woods behind a Casey’s gas station.

It’s in the Constitution. Or not. I’ll Google it.

But what if—and just go with me here…—total individual freedom is not the highest good? Perhaps in some cases, thumbing our nose at regulations—say, a social distancing order—could actually result in a massive loss of freedom for others (say, health care workers)?

(I say this after having driven by the local Lowe’s and noting how packed it still is. Do they sell food and ventilators now?)

Sometimes, a “freedom first” mentality has advantages—like an entrepreneurial spirit or a resistance to dictatorship. But absolutizing the “I can do what I want” mindset is as foolish as sticking your arm (or that of your ER nurse) inside a tiger cage.

2. FAME

A second point raised by the show is how far people are willing to go to be famous.

By the end, Joe’s friends all admit that his passion stopped being tigers and started being celebrity. It’s why he ran for Governor, started an internet show, created terrible lip-synched videos (see here), and filmed literally every moment on his giant tiger-topia—including some that helped land him in jail.

Herein lies a parable for “leaders” in the age of internet celebrity.

Chasing fame incentivizes ever more outrageous behaviors, statements, and hairstyles.

Before you know it you’re in federal prison. Or federal office. It goes both ways.

3. FRAUDS

Perhaps the most interesting feature of the documentary (nope, I take that back) is the way it slowly causes you to question which “tiger person” is most fraudulent.

Which big cat lover is actually most deranged and dangerous?

Joe, of course, wears his absurdity like gaudy earrings—nine per lobe. But his bête noire of big cat breeding is a tiger queen named Carole Baskin.

Carole is beloved in the animal rights community for her attempts to “rescue” cats from exploitative keepers. Yet as the series rolls on, you start to wonder if Carole and Joe are that different. (Not to mention the defacto cult leader “Doc” Bhagavan Antle, who runs another private zoo/harem.)

Like Joe, Carole Baskin also lives under a cloud of murder rumors (her millionaire husband disappeared mysteriously); she too makes money off of caged cats; and she too has legions of followers who serve as near slave labor for her big cat kingdom.

To cite Hoyle again, “There are several predators [here]”–and none of them are tigers.

Who really cares about the animals?

Who is the bigger fraud?

Now for my super-sentimental conclusion.

CONCLUSION

At the end of every Jerry Springer episode, Jerry shared a “Final Thought.” It was an absurd attempt to spin the show’s empty calories into something poignant and practical so viewers would feel better about having consumed them—like wrapping dog poop in a page from Chicken Soup for the Soul and handing it to the audience with a smile.

This blog post is like that.

Smile.

But after 27 seasons, Jerry’s final Final Thought was this: “We’re not better than these people. We just dress better.”

Is that true of me and you and Joe Exotic?

I don’t think so.

But then again, we loved the show; and we’ve been wearing sweatpants for weeks.

 


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Quarantined on Easter Weekend

Quarantined on Easter Weekend

Thanks to The Wesleyan Church for publishing a new piece I wrote for Easter weekend.

It’s about the strangest (and perhaps most relevant) example of “physical distancing” in the whole New Testament.

You can read it here.

In addition to “going” and “showing, part of the Christian vocation is to engage in holy quarantine. We wait alive in Death’s shattered house. “Walled in” but not defeated.

 


 

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Christendom, the coughing ghost

Christendom, the coughing ghost

“Christendom,” says Mark Sayers, “is like Hamlet’s ghost; it may be dead, but it still acts in the play.”

That line could form a summary of the book I’m reading during this time of global tumult: Dominion, by the British historian Tom Holland.

Dominion

The subtitle is “How the Christian Revolution Remade the World.” And the work represents a shift from Holland’s early scholarship. Having written histories of Julius Caesar (Rubicon) and the Persian empire (Persian Fire), Holland once claimed a fairly negative view of Christianity.

He remains an atheist.

But he eventually arrived at an unsettling conclusion: The values he held most deeply were the product of a faith he could not hold. To quote Sayers again, the secular project is itself an attempt to have the Kingdom (values, or at least some of them) without the King.

Dominion is Holland’s long attempt to trace how that happened.

The dust jacket tells the thesis:

Christianity is the principal reason why, today, we think it nobler to suffer than to inflict suffering; why we assume every human life to be of equal value.

From Babylon to the Beatles, Moses to #MeToo, Dominion tells the story of how Christianity transformed the world.

GHOSTS ON VENTILATORS

Meanwhile, down in Texas…

Lt. Governor Dan Patrick stuck his cowboy boots in his mouth last week when he seemed to suggest that America should value the economy over the potential death-toll on the elderly by COVID-19.

“Let’s get back to work,” Patrick proclaimed, “let’s get back to living. Let’s be smart about it, and those of us who are 70 plus, we’ll take care of ourselves. But don’t sacrifice the country.”

After a media firestorm, Patrick sought to “clarify” his comments by adding the “at some point” qualifier–a move that is about as bold and specific as suggesting that “at some point” we should restock our national supply of toilet paper.

It’s easy to make political hay of such soundbites. I’ll let others do that.

My goal is merely to relate Patrick’s original faux pas, and the related ones of many others, to Holland’s Dominion.

ECONOMIC PAGANISM

Holland’s claim is that we now call callous and barbaric viewpoints are actually the more common ones in world history: a lack of concern for the weak, the sick, the poor, the old, and those with disabilities.

The very need for the Lt. Governor to “clarify” his comment signals something strange in world history.

Holland writes this of the ancient Greeks and Romans:

It was not just the extremes of callousness that unsettled me, but the complete lack of any sense that the poor or the weak might have the slightest intrinsic value.

Why did I find this disturbing?

Because, in my morals and ethics, I was not a Spartan or a Roman at all. That my belief in God had faded over the course of my teenage years did not mean that I had ceased to be Christian [in terms of ethics].

Of course, Holland is focusing on only one set of Christian values—an error that is common amongst both liberals and conservatives. Yet the atheist historian and the Lt. Governor bring us to a final, unsettling question:

What if the ghost of Christendom is getting “sick”—not just in the secular cities of New York, London, and Los Angeles, but in the Bible belt as well?

“Christendom” is not the same as “Christianity.” The former has more to do with cultural power and privilege. The latter is about worship, service, and mission.

Still, the former is not unimportant–and especially for the way our culture treats the least of these (the elderly, the poor, the unborn).

This is what it sounds like when Hamlet’s aging ghost begins to cough.

 


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You’re being programmed

You’re being programmed

“You don’t realize it,” states a former Facebook executive, “but you are being programmed.” And the programming is making us more scattered, shallow, angry, and anxious.

That’s from Nicholas Carr’s bestselling book: The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains. I’ve been reading it. The updated edition offers a cache of new data on how exactly our smartphones are transforming us.

Spoiler: it’s mostly bad.

And it raises a question Jesus never answered: Can a person serve two (competing) algorithms? Must he or she love one and hate the other? (Matt 6:24)

INVISIBLE “FORCE FIELDS”

Since I’m a teacher, I found the following studies fascinating.

A 2017 experiment from the University of Arkansas showed that college students who brought their phones to class scored a full letter grade lower on exams. Surprisingly, it didn’t matter whether they looked at the device or not. The mere presence of a smartphone correlated to lower scores.

Another 2017 study, entitled “Brain Drain,” showed similar results.

As the phone’s proximity increased, brainpower decreased. It was as if the smartphones had force fields that sapped their owners’ intelligence.

I’ve sensed this in my own life.

Several years ago, I completed a research PhD in theology, which entailed hours of dense reading. I’m good at it—unlike my abysmal aptitude for math, science, and mechanical tasks.

But even I have noticed how the smartphone has changed my ability to focus. If my iPhone is within reach, it is just too tempting to set down the book every few minutes to scan Facebook or Instagram. It’s like placing a drink in front of an alcoholic.

Studies bear this out. When the elderly are taken out of the statistics, daily reading time (outside of one’s smartphone) has plummeted to an average of six minutes. In Carr’s words,

Curling up with a book is losing its place in the general culture. It’s becoming a quaint pursuit, like ballroom dancing or darts.

The claim reminded me of a troubling observation of the English Professor Alan Jacobs. A colleague asked him, “What are the most influential Christian books of the past decade?” Jacobs responded this way:

the answer to that question is: There aren’t any. In our moment, Christians are not influenced by books at all.

REWIRING OUR BRAINS

The problem is deeper than habit.

Neurologists suggest that our brains are being rewired by technology. The troubling effects are evidenced by the high percentage of Silicon Valley designers who keep their own children FAR away from the very products they create.

Carr’s research shows how complex algorithms have zeroed in on what grabs our attention (a neural system called the “salience network”) in order to bombard us with “supernormal stimuli” that hijack attention.

Sadly, we are far more likely to be “hijacked” by things that aren’t true or good or noble. A 2018 MIT study of Twitter showed that fake or grossly misleading stories were 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than factual ones.

ESTABLISHING GUARDRAILS

Of course, technology has upsides.

My research time—say, when looking up a quotation—has been reduced dramatically. My “memories” feed sends daily reasons to be grateful as I look back at pictures of my children. And platforms like blogging have allowed me to connect with larger groups than I could have otherwise.

“[O]nly a curmudgeon would refuse to see the riches,” Carr writes.

But. But. But.

We need some guardrails. Here are three of mine:

1. Set “App limits”

Under “Settings” and “Screen Time” I’ve been progressively lowering the amount of time my phone will allow me to use Facebook and Instagram (I’m not on Twitter). I’m down to a combined total of thirty minutes per day—but the catch is I have to actually hit “Okay” when it tells me my time is up in the evening.

2. Quarantine the iPhone (periodically)

For awhile, I kept my iPhone nearby in the evenings so I could see the time. (I am on a very strict schedule, like Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rainman.) But I’ve found that this is just too tempting.

Now I’ve started leaving the phone in another room and simply wearing my traditional watch.

3. Give extra credit

Since carrots beat sticks (no pun intended), I’ve started offered extra credit to any students willing to part with their smartphones during class.

(I was going to make a fancy box to put them in, but, you know… coronavirus.)

Rather than rant about how “narcissistic millennials” are addicted to their devices, it seems best to present the research and give them a chance to score some easy points. (Besides, some of the worst phone addicts I’ve known are older Americans, who use their devices to rant narcissistically about “narcissistic millennials.”)

CONCLUSION

If you’re interested in the research, or in making meaningful changes, check out the updated edition of The Shallows (here).

Here’s to rediscovering the deep end.

 

 


 

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Houston, we have a podcast!

Houston, we have a podcast!

Houston, we have a podcast!

Since almost no humans have podcasts, I decided to start one.

It’s called Outpost Theology, and it’s sponsored by Oklahoma Wesleyan University.

The show is located at the “frontier” of theology, culture, and the church. The plan is take some of my favorite books and authors and allow them to speak to a broader audience. I might even do some solo episodes on particular topics.

ot_logo

The first episode is a big one, especially since my guest’s new book (Rediscovering Scripture’s Vision for Women) was just chosen as Readers’ Choice Book of the Year from IVP Academic (woo hoo!).

Readers' choice

Dr. Lucy Peppiatt joined me in person at the Los Angeles Theology Conference, where we talked about the Bible, women in leadership, and which dead theologian she would prefer to “haunt” her.

outpost cover lucy-02

Lucy is one of the most winsome and interesting voices in theology today. She loves Scripture, the church, and providing innovative theological training in her context of the UK. She was a delight!

Check out the episode wherever you get podcasts, including Google Podcasts, Spotify, and Apple Podcasts.

If you’re feeling generous, please give the show a good review on whatever platform you use. That will help a ton.
**Special thanks to my student, John Merritt, for his tireless work on the technical side of things. The audio quality is immeasurably greater because of John’s hard work, and I hope to improve it in the coming weeks as I figure out what I’m doing. 🙂