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”).
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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“It’s like finding the Holy Grail clutched in the bony fingers of Jimmy Hoffa… .”
That’s The New Yorker’s description of a site called “Tanis”—a dig in North Dakota where a young paleontologist uncovered a treasure trove of fossils from the day Earth nearly died (see here).
According to scientists, the mass burial was created when an asteroid impact triggered a cataclysm that wiped out nearly 99.99999 percent of living organisms on the planet.
“The energy released was more than that of billion Hiroshima bombs.”
The asteroid hit near the Yucatan peninsula. But even on the opposite side of the globe, the entire Indian subcontinent burst into flames. The Earth itself became toxic, and not only dinosaurs but almost all plant life died. The body count was beyond comprehension.
The story is relevant because my current series has been considering the question of animal death and suffering from a theological perspective:
Part 1: Framing the problem via Darwin and Dawkins
Part 3: Two extremes to be avoided: Bambi-izing and Rene Descartes.
In this post, I’ll highlight what some Christians have thought to be a possible solution by viewing creaturely predation, suffering, and death through the lens of “sacrifice.”
ANIMAL DEATH AS “SACRIFICE”?
The New Testament has always claimed that life comes forth from a death of incalculable proportions. We call this the doctrine of atonement.
Likewise, at least three theologians have suggested that the metaphor of “sacrifice” may help us think about the “greater good” that flows forth from animal death in primal history.
1. Daniel Harrell
In a brief afterword to a recent book on Christianity and science (Adam and the Genome), the Congregationalist minister Daniel Harrell asks the following: “what if the apparent wastefulness” of animal predation and death was “understood as sacrifice?”
The final word is italicized for emphasis, but Harrell never explains his meaning beyond the claim that “The universe and humanity come about at immense cost, a cost that ascribes to them immense value (cf. John 3:16).”
In this line of reasoning, the vast amount of animal death may serve the good of making us grateful for the world that we inhabit.
2. Holmes Rolston III
A second thinker urging the use of sacrificial language is Holmes Rolston III.
Rolston’s claim is that animal death in Earth’s long history was actually necessary (like a kind of life-improving sacrifice) to produce certain goods that exist today. In his words, “The cougar’s fang has carved the limbs of the fleet-footed deer, and vice versa.” The claim is that creaturely life would not have developed in so many extraordinary ways without the survival of the fittest, and the deaths of countless less-fit creatures.
Rolston is sensitive, however, to the agony and suffering that his view entails for individual creatures, and he attempts to deal with that problem by finding God within the process, suffering through his creatures. In his view, the natural order is itself “cruciform” in that it reminds us of Christ’s passion even as God suffers with it.
In this argument, sacrifice comes into play because—just like on Golgotha—Nature “sacrifices” the individual for the sake of the whole, and in this way, the victims “share the labor of the divinity.”
Long before the cross, “the way of nature was already a via dolorosa.”
3. Sarah Coakley
A third and final theologian who has pressed the theme of sacrifice to speak of creaturely death is the British theologian Sarah Coakley. Her 2012 Gifford Lectures (accessible here) were entitled “Sacrifice Regained.”
Coakley builds her argument on recent scientific “game theory” that emphasizes not merely the selfishness and violent grasping that supposedly fueled creaturely development (i.e., the strong eat the weak), but the place of creaturely altruism (cooperation) that allows lifeforms to pass on their DNA by being willing to endure a “loss”—including death itself—in order to give life to others.
If this is true, then Coakley wonders if the same body (or rather: “bodies”) of evidence that Darwin saw as signs against God’s holy character might actually be read in the opposite way: as shadows of the cross.
Her claim is that there is a “subtle trinitarian shape” revealed through the cooperation and self-sacrifice of creatures: “a loss that is gain.” Yet she is also clear that creaturely cooperation and self-sacrifice fall short of the more radical self-sacrifice displayed by “supernormal” Christian witnesses. These greater witnesses (like saints and martyrs) model their self-giving love on Jesus Christ, who went well beyond the kind of “in group” love displayed by most animals and humans.
While some animals might “sacrifice” themselves in order to see their young survive, or to give life to members of their herd—this is still quite different from the inscrutable act of dying for one’s enemies, and being willing to leave no descendants (e.g., Acts 8:33, Isa 53:8). “If you [only] love those who love you,” Jesus might be heard to remark, what good is that!? Even orcas, hens, and grizzly bears do that! (Luke 6:32)
For Coakley, it is not only the proximity, but also the distance between animal cooperation and Christian “sacrifice” that must be emphasized. In this gap—between (the second) Adam and the animals—Coakley finds what she sees as an evolutionary argument for “a specifically Christian … theism.”
After all, a portion of the Christian tradition has long held that we are drawn to God partly by the example of others when we see a depth of love and devotion that—quite simply—makes no earthly sense.
In the inscrutable “loss” that is a gain—both in the animal kingdom and most fully in Jesus Christ—Coakley sees a signpost pointing to God’s heart.
Are any of these perspectives helpful?
In the face of cataclysmic events like the Tanis asteroid impact, does the lens of “sacrifice” help Christians think about animal death and suffering in a way that safeguards the Creator’s goodness?
In the next post, I’ll offer an evaluation.
Until then, Jimmy Hoffa and the Holy Grail will have to wait.
A few years ago I met Jim as he audited my university New Testament class.
For the unfamiliar, auditing means attending my lectures simply for the fun of it, rather than for college credit. (Needless to say, some of my traditional students find this very odd.)
Nevertheless, Jim and I became friends. And I then learned that he is a PhD scientist, specializing in Climate Change, and having taught for years in the Geosciences at Texas A&M.
Jim is a scholar.
Yet he is also an evangelical Christian, living in the Bible-belt — which brings us to the opening line about his almost “mythical” status. As he admits, evangelical climate scientists (with actual PhDs in the field) are somewhat rare.
EVANGELICALS AND CLIMATE SCIENCE
Manmade global warming, while accepted as an empirical fact in many places, is often controversial in the Bible-belt (though not for theological reasons).
And like everything else, it is highly politicized.
Even so, the command to be good stewards of our earth is a mandate for all Christians. And the need to listen to actual experts on such subjects (rather than unqualified bloggers like myself!) seems wise.
So whether you “believe” in manmade climate change or not, I hope you’ll enjoy the interview I did with Jim.
In it, he attempts to explain:
How warming happens;
Why he can be quite certain it is both real and human-caused; and
How his treatment of the topic differs from some others as it comes from a Christian concern for the “least of these,” and an acknowledgement of the imago Dei.
You can access the conversation, in two formats.
First, there is an audio conversation shown below, and secondly (further down) there is an email response from Jim in which he responds to some questions on Christians and climate change.
EMAIL Q&A WITH JIM NORWINE
Q: How do we know that man made global warming is real?
Oh boy. How to answer that in a few sentences….?
First, we know nothing with absolute certainty other than our selves, and even that could be a projection by some external whatever. (The latter is the ancient philosophy of solipsism, “I am the only reality,” which is impossible to refute…but which most of us choose to ignore in order to get on with “our”—we hope–lives.)
Seems obvious when you think about it but in fact even very educated folks often seem to think we are eating into the corpus of ignorance and soon will have digested the whole enchilada. Nothing could be further from the truth. Knowledge is by its nature finite. Ignorance is infinite.
Think of the former as standing on a new and still-rising volcanic mountain on an island in the middle of the sea. Every day you are higher and higher, see (know) more and more. So easy to think, what a smart boy am I! And true up to a point. But: every day the horizon recedes further and further. This is the point of the folk, and scholar’s, wisdom, “the more I know the greater my ignorance.”
So I suppose one could say there is one kind of “certain” knowledge, that of apprehending the limits inherent in being embodied createds.
Second, as to knowing in a scientific sense, there are levels. One may know in the sense of a law, like that of gravity. Near-“certain” because of so many repeated demonstrations and observations. (Still never really certain because a law, like that of gravity, is not the reality, just the best description one has at the moment. And in fact the law of gravity has been overturned: Aristotle to Galileo to Newton to Einstein and so on.)
The next level of knowledge in science is that of theory. You might think of a successful theory as a sort of baby or not-quite-yet law. High confidence again due to verification by testing and testing and still more testing. The theory of evolution is a good example. When folks hear the phrase they often confuse theory with hypothesis. The latter is the educated guess with which one begins the practice of the scientific method. Hypothesis is merely square one on the Monopoly board of science; theory is at the very opposite end of the practice, one half-step short of law.
Anthropogenic warming is in, or at least close to, the latter category, in terms of the broad relation between CO2 levels (and those of other greenhouse gases) and planetary temperature. Our studies of Earth’s climate history provide robust evidence of CO2 level as one of the 4 principal causes of climate change over many thousands, even millions, of years, along with the astronomical cycle (3 cycles in Earth’s orbital geometry), volcanic activity, and solar output.
To wit, warm epochs in the past were periods of high CO2 and vice versa. It is true that important details remain open to question, such as the rate of future warming. Our mathematical models are impressive but again they are only simulations of the vastly more complex real deal so always open to improvement.
Backing up a bit, I should have mentioned that speculation about the thermal effect of emissions from fossil fuels dates to the late 1900s. This “educated guess” was based on a by-then clear understanding that Earth is only inhabitable because of the greenhouse effect.
Quickie short course: the sun is so hot it emits extremely short-wave radiation, energy which zips through our atmosphere like the proverbial knife through butter. However, the Earth is much, much cooler, so that it re-radiates the energy outward in the form of long-wave length “heat” that CO2, methane, ozone and other gases are able to trap in the lower atmosphere with great efficiency. (This “extra” leaks out to space at night so over time Earth usually remains in heat balance.) Consider Mars and Venus by comparison. Both have mostly CO2 atmospheres, but Mars has such a thin atmosphere it lacks the “blanket” needed to trap the outgoing energy near the surface and hence is cold, while Venus has a thick atmosphere with a super9efficient greenhouse effect, hence mean temps of 800-900F.
Q: How do you, as a Christian (and, I think, as a fairly conservative guy) think about this issue differently than some of your colleagues in climate science.
Another toughie to answer briefly.
First, they are right to be skeptical. Just as there was some core of truth about Hilary’s famous “vast right wing conspiracy,” I am confident that there is a strong undercurrent among advocates and progressives in general to place, and enforce using state power, ever-greater limits on personal freedom. (And like the right-wing conspirators, not out of some dark impulse but because of a sort of true-belief faith, in the case of the progressives in “positive”—rules, regs and laws designed to maximize equality of condition–as opposed to the “negative”—“don’t tread on me”—freedom conservatives favor.)
But finally, it don’t make no nevermind, as we say in TX. Or: just because you are paranoid don’t mean there ain’t a bad’un behind you. See answer above: Earth is habitable only because of a wonderful (for us) process that we are overdoing. Liberal plotting and conspiracy notwithstanding, enough extra CO2 is like enough extra jelly donuts: warmer/fatter. Trads of all folks should be first to remember that we are not and never will be “as gods.”
Another reason for conservative dubiety is they intuit, correctly, that they have been lied to by advocates. I.e., “leaving fossil fuels behind won’t be that hard.” Complete and profoundly disingenuous nonsense. (Sort of like “you can keep your doctor, it won’t cost more, etc.” with health care.) Elites think that ordinary folks are so stupid and selfish that they can’t be told the truth about sacrifice.
Fossil fuels were the most transformation discovery in human history since fire itself. The challenge of moving away from their use even done gradually will be immense, something on the order of the Great Depression, WWII, and Europe’s Black Death plagues.
Another common theme from advocates: “we are all in this together.” Yeah, right. Folks see Al Gore and Bill Gates in their vast estates gobbling up energy, and elites with few if any kids living in huge homes, taking jetliner flights to climate conferences–each of which has a greater environmental footprint that a redneck family for a year—all smug in their confidence that by a. recycling and driving hybrids—behaviors that don’t inconvenience them one iota–, and b. preaching to nobodies about how awful they are to drive gas guzzlers, they are sorting with the angels.
And of course they also almost universally support policies like “cap and trade,” which will double or treble energy cost. Again, no big problem, merely some modest tweaking of lifestyle (fewer trips to Cabo, etc.)…but try to imagine the impact of a summertime monthly electricity bill of $800 or $1,000 for someone of modest means living in an older home or trailer.
All the above have unfortunately contributed to many traditional losing sight of our No. 2 marching order: the well-being of the least of these. Opting out of the conversation is consequential, because by participating they could hugely influence new policies and regs, which are surely coming one way or the other. For instance, to lobby for James Hansen’s “fee and dividend” plan, which would raise energy costs enough to cut back emissions but would all be rebated to individuals/families at year’s end. (Progs mostly hate fee and dividend because all the taxes in cap and trade go to the state. As in California now, and Australia earlier, neither of which effectively cut CO2.)
Q: What would you say to those who think manmade climate change is basically a ploy driven by some other political or ideological agenda?
Guess I sort of answered this above: “First, they are right to be skeptical. Just as there was some core of truth about Hilary’s famous “vast right wing conspiracy,” I am confident that there is a strong undercurrent among advocates and progressives in general to place, and enforce using state power, ever-greater limits on personal freedom. (And like the right-wing conspirators, not out of some dark impulse but because of a sort of true-belief faith, in the case of the progressives in “positive”—rules, regs and laws designed to maximize equality of condition–as opposed to the “negative”—“don’t tread on me”—freedom conservatives favor.) But finally, it don’t make no nevermind, as we say in TX. Or: just because you are paranoid don’t mean there ain’t a bad’un behind you. See answer above: Earth is habitable only because of a wonderful (for us) process that we are overdoing. Liberal plotting and conspiracy notwithstanding, enough extra CO2 is like enough extra jelly donuts: warmer/fatter. Trads of all folks should be first to remember that we are not and never will be “as gods.”
But Let me know if you want further clarification.
To recognize that there is a problem with climate change is one thing… but what can the global community actually do about it at this point?
I should have already stressed this point: we can do nothing about the warming from the emissions already done. And frankly not much in terms of actually “fixing” the problem anytime soon. We are going to have to adapt to a warmer world. The key question is how much warmer. The toughest aspect of doing that is that those who sacrifice now will not live to experience any of the benefits.
James Hansen leads the so-called 350 movement, That is, to get CO2 back to 350 ppm from the current 410 or so. (~275 at the start of the Industrial Rev.) Very unlikely methinks, at least without massive economic disruption, with most disastrous impacts on the world’s nobodies. I believe that a doable objective (doable, anything but easy) is to get the level stabilized at or below 450 and then by ~2100 with luck, hard work and sacrificeback down to around where it is currently. That means something like a 5F rise by century’s end. A big challenge, but nothing like the 10F or more which could well present an existential threat if we if we don’t begin to flatten the rate of increase.
Returning to your question, if we could go back in time 20 years I would say that candor would have made a big difference. A forthright message of the need for shared sacrifice like ML King Jr.’s Christian-morality based movement. Recall his own personal example of sacrifice writing from the jailhouse, etc. Maybe too late for that now. In a self-referential age like the one we now inhabit, post-modernity, evidence along no longer persuades many unless it bolsters what they already believed. (And new studies make it clear that is as true of liberals as conservatives.)
Maybe if a Francis Collins led a movement of traditional evangelicals….? Perhaps somehow combined with Ron Dreher’s “Benedict Option”…in which we do retreat in some manner to spiritual “sanctuaries”—living as we do in an alien and ever more hostile post-theistic world—but reach out from them to that world, kind of ala Jeremiah’s concern for the pagans.