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Christians and Conspiracies

February 5, 2021 | pride, social issues, theology | No Comments

Hands on ears

“You can’t handle the truth!”

That classic line from Colonel Jessup in the witness stand became a waving flag for many. It is so enticing to think we own the truth, and that those who can’t “handle” it are naïve, weak, or cowardly. Delivered to perfection by Jack Nicholson, Jessup hammered a wedge between truth and fantasy, and of course we all know which side we’re on, don’t we?

What most overlook is that Colonel Jessup was fooling himself. Yes, the character was a courageous leader with a distinguished career, but he was also a vindictive bully who fought to suppress the truth about his own culpability in the death of private Santiago.

The fall of humanity commenced with an assault on truth, and it sometimes feels the battle against truth has never been more relentless. Among followers of Christ, this should be obvious. We witness in the secular culture a frequent denial of reality: whether the humanity of the unborn, the immutability of sex, or the facts of history. Our reaction might range from despair to compassion to mockery, but too often we forget these are lost souls under the dominion of dark spiritual forces. So, what’s our excuse?

Why do so many of our brothers and sisters in the Lord commit the same denial of reality they mock in unbelievers?

Christians and conspiracy theories

A disturbing number of professing Christians are entranced by dark QAnon conspiracies, anti-vaccination hysteria, unverifiable claims of stolen elections, or bizarre fantasies regarding the nefarious machinations of Bill Gates, like one recent commenter at The Gospel Coalition:

Note: James Corbett is a well-known internet provocateur who never met a conspiracy he couldn’t profit from.

Much digital “ink” has been spilt over the last 12 months on Christians and conspiracies, though it is difficult to tell whether this has had much impact. Those most inclined toward conspiracy theories are the least likely to benefit from the articles, or might read them only for the purpose of arguing. The articles have mostly focused on refuting the specific conspiracies or warning of the moral implications. Both are on point and send a valuable message. They might help protect fence-sitters from plunging into the abyss. Another category of articles will tell you how to avoid them. The problem is that people don’t care. Explaining to a conspiracy hound how to tell truth from fiction is like teaching my dog how to eat healthy: he doesn’t see the point, he’s sure it doesn’t apply to him, and the conversation’s going nowhere. [“Just give me what you’re having, and I’m good” – the Spaniel]

To make a real impact on true believers in false beliefs, we must look beyond what they believe to why they believe. Not every popular myth really qualifies as a conspiracy theory in a literal sense. For our purposes here, the distinction is unimportant.

The Gospels report that after the resurrection of Christ, the priests conspired with the Roman guards to report that the disciples stole the body (Matthew 28:11-15). So, conspiracy theories have been around as long as conspiracies, and in this case we have a twofer – a real conspiracy by the priests and guards to spread a false conspiracy theory concerning the disciples. But this historical example exhibits elements true for the 21st century as well as the first. Conspiracy theories don’t pop out of nowhere. Often, they are instigated by bad actors with ulterior motives who know they are untrue.

Why they resonate with us

This problem is far more nuanced than simply dismissing conspiracy theorists as gullible and uncritical thinkers. Indeed, many are. But forces in our own mental programming and our environment strongly drive us in that direction.

Humans are by nature curious. God designed us to seek understanding and explanations. With diligent effort, a broad fund of knowledge, and the wisdom of experience this often works. The blessing of a curious nature led to the spectacular technological progress of the last few centuries. We don’t just want to know how nature works. We want to understand how people work, why things happen, and why people do the things that they do. Serious sociology and psychology – there’s a lot of unserious work in both fields – are responsible and efficient means to satisfy this impulse. So are forensics and fields of legal investigation. Conspiracy theories, on the other hand, are a cheat – a short cut into a blind alley. They are cocaine for the curious mind. One hundred hours of watching YouTube videos is no substitute for years of education but can seem very persuasive and succeed in creating an unwarranted sense of certainty. They might be wildly off-base, but for the purpose of “solving” the puzzle are equally effective, and sometimes even more emotionally gratifying than the boring truth (for reasons considered below).

A second force is almost certainly the anchoring effect of entertainment. Over our lifetimes we consume thousands of hours of film and television drama, and more often than not some dark conspiracy is underfoot. If we pause to reflect (thinking with Kahnemen’s System 2), we might admit that these are rare in real life, but we do most of our thinking in System 1, which is heuristically driven and powerfully influenced by non-rational factors such as recency and ease of recall. So if day after day, week after week, year after year we are fed conspiracy stories, they are bound to seem more plausible. How do you think Hollywood changed public attitudes toward homosexuality in such a short period of time?

The third factor is the unprecedented availability of misinformation and disinformation enabled by the Internet. Old barriers to publication and distribution have been eliminated and everyone now has a platform. Engineers at Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram developed systems that focus and amplify the impact of misinformation, though that was not their intent. We naturally want our opinions confirmed, and complicated algorithms are specifically designed to keep you engaged by telling you more and more of what you want to hear, while you are guaranteed to be surrounded and supported by like-minded company.

A fourth issue that must be acknowledged is that conspiracies really do happen. True conspiracies are rare. Many authors have explained why they are rare, seldom succeed, and how to spot the fake ones. Nonetheless, the simple fact that some have happened affords the true believer “moral license” to believe in one or more that are purely fictitious.

Sinful disposition

Unfortunately, not all internal factors inclining us toward conspiracy theories are so innocent and defensible. There is a dark element to many that appeals directly to the vilest of human impulses.

Conspiracy theories feed our ego. The sense of superiority that comes from being “in the know” can be intoxicating. Like Neo in “The Matrix”, proponents imagine themselves escaping the blinders of society by taking “the red pill” and becoming the hero of their own pathetic little fiction. The act of embracing a lie to become something greater was the offense of Adam, and in this we are truly his offspring.

Some anti-vaccination activists focus on past use of one or two fetal cell lines in vaccine development. (The morality of this has been fully addressed by a number of authorities including CMDA). There’s no clear boundary between having a sensitive conscience and overt moral grandstanding, and the feeling I get when engaging some of these activists is that they know they are morally superior to other Christians, and that they want everyone else to know it as well.

Conspiracy theories malign the innocent and justify our prejudice. Among all conspiracy theories, the bloodiest, most contemptible, and most enduring must be those surrounding the children of Abraham. From being blamed for the bubonic plague in the 14th century, to accusations of conspiring with the enemy in late 19th century France, to the wildest fantasies of an uber-rich and uber-powerful global cabal, the Jews have suffered the most from conspiracy thinking, and experienced the deadly power of lies with six million deaths under the Third Reich.

Anti-semitism appeals to some of the worst human impulses – to feel superior to those who are different, to justify our prejudices, to rationalize our own conduct, and to absolve us of personal responsibility for failure. Hitler rose to power blaming the Jews for every real and perceived shortcoming of early 20th century Germany, including their loss in World War I. A newly elected congresswomen from Georgia blamed the 2018 California wildfires on Jewish space lasers – rhetoric described as “inflammatory” by the Wall Street Journal in an apparently unintentional act of punnery.

Antivaccination activists presume almost all of the millions of worldwide physicians who both prescribe and use them are either stupid or malevolent. Righteous people do not believe such things.

Willful deception

For many, many reasons we are predisposed toward embracing conspiracy theories. We are the demand side of the marketplace. On the supply side is a vast industry of private and state actors competing for profit, fame, or influence and eager to provide.

There are bad actors out there with an intent to deceive and the means to do so.

The antivaccination movement traces its roots to the work of the former doctor Andrew Wakefield, who published a paper in Lancet in 1999 claiming to have found a connection between the MMR vaccine and autism. Later investigation established that the research was fraudulent, that Wakefield had to have known, and that he was motivated financially by the promise of riches from the plaintiff’s bar. Provocateur and shyster Alex Jones rose to notoriety after 9/11 peddling the crackpot notion that the terrorist attack was an inside job executed by the highest levels of government. He is now being sued – one hopes successfully – by the parents of schoolchildren murdered at Sandy Hook, after Jones carried on for months arguing the tragedy was a hoax and the bereaved parents were merely actors. Whether Jones believes such nonsense I neither know nor care, but peddling it to a gullible and willing audience has made him both rich and famous.

It’s spiritual warfare that must be fought with spiritual weapons. Jesus didn’t cast out demons with superior arguments.

Emerging evidence over the last several years has pointed to the involvement of hostile foreign states in manipulating American public opinion. The communist regime of China now exercises near-veto power over American film production, where profits speak louder than principles. (US social media are blocked in China, and the local versions are tightly controlled. They’re not stupid.) Russian activity on social media in the US and other western democracies is well documented. Far from the simplistic narrative that they attempted to promote the election of Donald Trump, Russian-promoted social media plays to all extremes of the political spectrum. Their presumed intent has been to promote civil strife, discord, resentment, and polarization. They must be thrilled with their apparent success.

Christians who believe Scripture must take seriously another source of deception – the spiritual realm. The spiritual entities at war against God are consistently characterized as both attractive and deceiving. If we believe Scripture, then the battle for truth is much more than an argument with our opponent. It’s spiritual warfare that must be fought with spiritual weapons. Jesus didn’t cast out demons with superior arguments or by instructing their victims in critical thinking.

“Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”

Ephesians 6:11-12, NKJV

It requires much less effort to assert a claim than refute it.

Conspiracy fans and anti-vaxxers never really engage in serious research, though they routinely claim to have done so. “Research”, in this instance, amounts to watching hours of video and consuming large doses of polemics manufactured for and posted to fringe websites. Those never make one an expert, but can make someone feel like one. A little knowledge can seem like a lot when you have no idea how much you don’t know. It takes no real effort to blindly accept a list of 20 or 30 assertions and repost them on Facebook, as I’ve seen so much of in the last year. It takes an extraordinary amount of effort to track down the source of each claim and spot the error. Organizations such as the Christian Medical & Dental Associations frequently post careful rebuttals on vaccination myths and health misinformation, but it’s a whack-a-mole game with newer and more ridiculous claims surfacing with depressing regularity.

Consequences

Succumbing to such deceptions exacts a great cost for both individuals and the Church at large. They corrupt our character, demolish our credibility, lead us to sin against others, and place us in alignment with malevolent spiritual forces.

Corrupted character.

Conspiratorial thinking thrives on pride, and nourishes it in turn. It takes a considerable amount of arrogance to assert superior insight over legitimate experts in a field. I have, in turn, been accused of arrogance in dismissing their arguments. Pride exists within all of us to one degree or another, so I stand guilty as charged. However, in this instance humility is submitting to the judgment of an overwhelming consensus of experts, not standing in opposition to them. Genuine love and yearning for the truth, on the other hand, is a fruit of the Spirit (Ephesians 5:9).

Lost credibility.

When either individuals or large sections of the Body become known for embracing and promoting disinformation, we compromise our credibility on the more important issues. The secular community will reason that if we’re crazy on one score, the rest must be part of the package. We have a duty to them, and a responsibility to God, to preserve our reputation. (1 Peter 2:12)

Slander.

Hurling false accusations against other groups or accusations is slander, and an explicit violation of the ninth commandment. Christians should never be known for such conduct, nor for tolerating it in their midst.

We become pawns to the Father of Lies

Scripture is abundantly clear that there is more to reality than what we perceive with our senses, and that a spiritual war has been raging since Creation. There is no DMZ in this conflict.

“You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it.”

John 8:44 NKJV

If we are not on the side of truth, then we are on the side of the enemy. This belief, though, can become deadly when we begin to think we own the truth. The only path along this narrow ledge is to admit our personal limitations and exhibit humble submission toward those in authority – in this case, meaning those most qualified in the subject. We shouldn’t rely on pastors in matters of science, we shouldn’t rely on scientists in matters of theology, and we should seek health advice from our doctor, not the internet.

For those passionate about the truth, the ongoing struggle against misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy thinking can be daunting. The first concluding principle should be to check yourself. (Matthew 7:5) The second is that yes, we are our brother’s keeper. How the Church should deal with conspiracy theorists is a sensitive and complex matter, but it cannot remain faithful to Christ and passive in this regard. We must understand why people are drawn to them, so that the root causes might be addressed. Ultimately this is a spiritual battle, but thankfully we are not unarmed against such a challenge (Ephesians 6:10-18).

Courage, Sacrifice, and Corona-spiracies

April 17, 2020 | health, pride | 2 Comments

Are we even talking about the same religion here?

As COVID deaths were skyrocketing in the Lombardy region of northern Italy, overwhelming local hospitals, Samaritan’s Purse (SP) – the Christian relief ministry headed by Franklin Graham – airlifted an emergency field hospital to Cremona, Italy. Staffed with both SP workers and emergency medical volunteers, the 14-tent 68-patient field hospital arrived on March 17 and began taking patients by March 20. It has been in continuous operation since.

America was to be next. On April 1 in New York’s Central Park, Samaritan’s Purse erected and ran an emergency field hospital to care for overflow patients from Mt. Sinai hospital. Volunteer physicians, nurses, and ancillary personnel stepped forward, risking their lives to care for victims of a rampant epidemic. By April 17, SP had admitted and cared for more than 130 patients. Courage in the face of danger is just another day’s work for SP, who heroically helped shepherd Liberia through the 2014-2015 Ebola outbreak.

Meanwhile, an obscure independent Louisiana pastor defiantly held Easter Sunday services attended – he claimed – by 1,220 churchgoers (though the true number was probably much lower) putting hundreds of lives at risk of illness and death.

In a more tragic case, blues musician and itinerant preacher Landon Spradlin died from COVID only weeks after dismissing it as “mass hysteria” and driving to New Orleans to preach the gospel during Mardi Gras. He fell gravely ill on the drive back home to Virginia. How could someone be so tragically wrong? The usual simplistic answers don’t really address the core issue. It wasn’t “science denial” – even excellent scientists can be fatally mistaken. It wasn’t his politics – when it comes to respecting the nationwide social distancing guidelines, there is scarcely any difference between Democrats and Republicans. It wasn’t the fault of Donald Trump, as one left-lurching acquaintance of Spradlin’s uncharitably alleged. Nor was it misinformation from the mainstream news media, although it could have been. In the runup to America’s COVID pandemic, many governments and institutions dropped the ball.

Intellectual pride and its consequences

The sad story of Leonard Spradlin points to a naïve yet ultimately fatal certainty: not in God, not in Scripture, neither in religious authorities nor in any public institution, but in himself. In that regard, he is us. The universal affliction of pride inclines everyone of us toward overconfidence in our own opinions. But no matter how sincerely and fervently we nurture a belief, our beliefs do not bind God. God’s opinions are not contingent upon our own. Just because we think it, doesn’t make it true.

Crises such as this can bring out both the best and worst in human behavior. Recent headlines have proclaimed:

We’ve previously seen how human credulity cuts across culture, ideology, intelligence, and education. Most of these “coronaspiracies” are completely secular in nature. The professing Christians highlighted here are extreme outliers even within conservative and Evangelical circles, but they crave the attention. Many within the media are more than happy to provide that attention. It confirms their own biases and helps to foster the false narrative that most Christians are anti-scientific bigots.

Spradlin hurt only himself and those he loved. Many secular actors have descended into criminality. In recent weeks, over fifty cell phone towers have been vandalized across the United Kingdom by fanatics consumed with the bizarre belief that 5G towers are causing COVID. I have read some of the circulating polemics on this issue, which I will not dignify by linking here. The clever admixture of fact with fable can seem quite persuasive to someone with no particular scientific expertise. They press the hearer with a barrage of claims in rapid succession, a tactic that has been dubbed the “Gish gallop” after the debating strategies of the late young-earth proponent Duane Gish. Typically, all of the claims are either false sources or misrepresentation of legitimate sources, but the time and research required to thoroughly refute each one can be truly daunting. They might even throw in a few true claims to enhance the illusion of plausibility. An average person could never afford the time or effort to fact-check the sources, and usually lacks the skill to do it.

Christians are neither more nor less vulnerable to such manipulation, though probably more inclined to some fringe beliefs while less inclined toward others. A disturbing number of Christians have fallen for anti-vaccination myths, risking not only their lives but the lives of innocent children. Almost always this is wedded to the conceit that there is some great conspiracy of government, physicians, and “Big Pharma” to suppress evidence and thrust an allegedly dangerous product upon an unsuspecting populace. Anti-vaxxers seem impervious to the fact that leading authorities such as Focus on the Family and the Christian Medical and Dental Associations have taken great care to defend vaccinations and debunk false claims. Anti-vaccination and other conspiracy myths utilize the same persuasive appeal of ancient gnosticism – a chance to elevate one’s own self-importance through the possession of “special” knowledge. Recently on National Review, Andrew Stuttaford (an atheist) expressed it perfectly:

The draw of a conspiracy theory to its followers is reinforced by the perception it gives them that they are in the know. They reckon that they have discovered what the “sheeple” could not, endowing them with a sense of superiority that is as enjoyable as it is undeserved, a fact that hucksters of all stripes have turned to their financial, political, or other advantage over the generations: Sign up with me and I’ll tell you what’s really going on.

“Corona conspiracies”, April 13, 2020

Suspicion of the media and government can be totally rational if a consistent standard of skepticism is applied across the board. One should not believe everything that is reported, simply because it is reported. But it is a much greater error to abandon all skepticism toward less reputable, even more ideologically partisan sources.

Bringing out the best

Times such as this call for courage, hope, selflessness, and humility.

The courageous doctors, nurses, and technicians of Samaritan’s purse reflect the image of Christ, who willingly set aside heaven’s glory to fully know and experience the most profound suffering and agony.

Through trust in God’s saving grace and final sovereignty, we can enjoy a confident hope that this, too, shall pass and that glory awaits on the other side of death’s door.

We demonstrate our selflessness by accepting burdensome restrictions, by respecting social distancing, by wearing masks (if they help), by reaching out to those in greater need than ourselves, and patiently enduring the economic hardship in order that many more lives may be spared.

Lastly, and most importantly, let’s stay humble. Accept how much we don’t know, then act accordingly. Only health experts are experts in health. Humility may save your life.


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In our next installment: “Pandemic: Endgame”