I have noticed an awful lot of Christians buying into what amount to conspiracy theories. I’m not convinced it’s a majority by any stretch, but I am inclined to believe that a higher than average proportion of Christians buy into them compared to the wider population (though, as is typical of conspiracy theories themselves, I’m not sure I can statistically back that up – it is essentially a hunch). The big question is: why?
Some cocky Atheists will probably chime in with some unsubstantiated nonsense that Christians are just more gullible than other people, what with their theism and all that. Of course – despite their claim to be rational, evidentiary followers of science – it is the kind of claim that is actively not supported by any of the available evidence. But there does seem to be something in the Christian psyche that gets drawn more readily to conspiracy theory and it does bear asking why.
Why are Christians drawn to conspiracy?
I suspect there are two over-arching reasons why there is a propensity to believe conspiracy theories among believers. First, we adhere to a worldview that necessarily cuts against mainstream thought in various ways. Second, there are certain issues that flow from that worldview that mean we often hold views that insist majority opinion is necessarily wrong.
The first of those matters in a more general sense. We are aware that our worldview is necessarily different to most other people. Therefore, the sense of standing out from the crowd and holding to things that appear different – even things that many would consider a bit ‘out there’ – is kind of baked in to the deal.
The second issue compounds the first. There are moral issues on which Christians stand clearly against mainstream majority opinion. There are questions of science on which we disagree with those invested in other theories which make us, not sceptical of experts per se (more on which below), but willing to question assumptions made, interpretations of observable phenomena and the conclusions drawn as a result (for example, see this thread on String Theory).
Why should Christians not be drawn in?
The fact is, however, that Christians typically shouldn’t be drawn into conspiracy theories (at least, not without absolutely astounding and utterly compelling evidence in their favour, which almost never exists). I think there are at least three reasons why.
First, and most importantly, Christians are called to be people of truth. Jesus insists that our ‘yes’ should be ‘yes’ and our ‘no’, ‘no’. James tells us we should have no need to swear oaths because our ordinary word should be so truthful that there simply isn’t any need to intensify them. We are to be people characterised by truth and concerned with what is really and actually true.
The problem with conspiracy theories is they are rarely grounded in the truth. They are typically grounded in mistrust and, quite often, misinformation. It also relies on our own, potentially untruthful belief, that we know more than we really do about the situation itself. That is not to say the majority are always right – lots of examples can be shown where majority opinion was, indeed, wrong. But consistently, majority opinion changed in line with the undeniable evidence that was presented. For example, Barry Marshall and Robin Warren – men who won a Nobel Prize for their work on peptic ulcers – were consistently told they were wrong until one of them purposefully ingested bacteria to give himself an ulcer and took the remedy to cure himself. The difference between this and conspiracy theory is that the undeniable evidence presented to the majority of experts in the field led them to change their opinion, making what was the minority position the new majority stance. Conspiracy theories, by contrast, never produce such evidence and never overturn the consensus, suggesting they are not based in the requisite fact.
Second, Christians should be careful about adopting conspiracy theory positions because we are called to treat people with respect. Conspiracies tend to rely on the assumption that almost everyone in a particular field is operating in bad faith. It is tantamount to calling them all liars who are out to dupe people. This is a far cry from showing the proper respect to everyone that 1 Peter 2:17 insists we must.
That, of course, doesn’t mean that people can be wrong. It doesn’t mean the majority might be mistaken. It equally doesn’t mean that they might be operating out of a different worldview, with different assumptions, that lead to wrong conclusions. But there should be a basic willingness to accept that most people are honest in their endeavours and the observations they make are both valid and not cooking the books for their own ends. That is, essentially, what the peer review system exists to stop. One or two might operate that way for a variety of reasons, but it is hard to believe that everybody working in a particular field might be in on whatever lie is being propagated and harder still to believe that other fields to which those findings are relevant would equally be pulled in. It simply doesn’t give people the due respect scripture calls us to give them.
Thirdly, Christians should be wary of conspiracy theory because we are called to be humble. Those who buy into conspiracies typically insist that they know far more about the field in question than they do. What is more, they usually insist that they also know the motives of – not just a few – but almost all those working in that field. It claims a level of insight into operations, motives and fields of knowledge that most of us, if we’re being those truthful people the Bible calls us to be, simply don’t have.
As someone with some level of knowledge and qualification in history, politics, philosophy and theology, I might rightly get a touch concerned with somebody telling me they know my mode of operation and my motives based on things they read on the internet and in a single book (books not being subject to the peer review process) despite no actual qualifications or knowledge of the area in question themselves. Whilst any layman has a perfect right to look at any given field and draw conclusions about what they see, an honest person admits that they do so as a layman with limited tools to assess the information they are reading. When a majority of people in the field conclude differently, and provide significant (and peer-reviewed) evidence as to why, it does smack of arrogance to insist that we know better because we did a lot of reading off Google. Unless there are significant numbers of people disagreeing with the majority position – and oftentimes there are – we need to be honest about the level of what we really know.
How can we avoid buying into groundless conspiracy theories?
It seems to me we would be greatly helped by doing at least three things.
First, we would do well to admit our limitations. I have no problem admitting that I am at the mercy of the scientifically trained when it comes to questions of the sciences. Since my GCSEs, I continued precisely zero scientific study. I have the broadest of handles on certain matters of physics and biology, but I just wouldn’t presume to tell my Dad – an Engineer by training – anything about how engines work. I am just in no position to comment (though, I do wish those trained in the sciences would return the compliment to those of us with a significantly better grasp of the humanities cf. this). If we admitted that there were plenty of things we just do not know, we might not fall foul of foolish conspiracy theories quite so readily.
Second, we should give people the due respect that their qualifications deserve. I am still amazed by the number of people who think that their cancer will be cured by eating a diet of carrots or something because they read it on the internet. The fact is, a five year medical degree, rising up through the ranks of the hospital system to consultancy and many years working in oncology is worthy of more respect than a nutritionist writing a lifestyle blog. It just is.
By the same token, we need to recognise which qualifications are actually worthy of respect in any given field. We need to recognise, when we do not have valid qualification in a particular field, that we should give due weight and respect to those who do. Moreover, even if we are inclined to disbelieve majority opinion in general because of non-Christians operating outside of our worldview, when believers working in those same fields are also affirming the majority view, we have to take seriously the fact that we are calling fellow believers liars and charlatans when we insist on our conspiracy theory view. We need to give people due respect, and that includes respecting their qualifications and their integrity to speak to the issue.
Finally, we shouldn’t camp out against experts in the field without solid evidence to speak outside our field and with solid biblical reasons for doing so. If the Bible clearly and directly refutes a scientific position (spoiler alert: it almost never does because it isn’t a science textbook), then we might have valid grounds to deny the majority view. But in the absence of such clear refutation, we shouldn’t camp out against expert opinion without clear and irrefutable evidence that they are wrong. That is NOT inference and accusations, but clear and irrefutable evidence. We otherwise have to admit that we are speaking outside of our sphere of knowledge and not give ourselves credit that we clearly don’t warrant.