Who's Afraid of Conspiracy Theories?
The church risks letting its aversion to conspiracy theories lead it into an unhealthy trust in human authority.
If you traffic regularly in spheres of Christian conversation, you may have already been warned fourfold about the dangers of conspiracy theories. From The Gospel Coalition to CBN, just about every evangelical thought leader has weighed in on the problem. But much of our caution against conspiracy theories, though timely and important, lacks a robust call for critical thinking. Instead of encouraging thoughtful and discerning Christian engagement with even the weirdest offerings from the marketplace of ideas, the prevailing discourse seems to be advising avoidance and fear. These attitudes are fundamentally anti-Christian; after all, we have not been given a spirit of fear. (2 Tim. 1:7)
The Truth is Out There
Full disclosure: I’m a big fan of The X-Files. Arguably the biggest television show of the 90’s, the supernatural adventures of FBI Agents Mulder & Scully tended to revolve around a theme of distrust. Distrust of accepted scientific explanation and the word of the "trustworthy" were rivaled only by an even greater distrust of the federal government. The X-Files’ initial nine-season run came to a close in 2001 and, according to lead actress Gillian Anderson, this was due to a changing atmosphere that discouraged state skepticism.
In an interview with the Daily Beast, Anderson said,
The X-Files ended during the Bush administration, and we learned very, very quickly after 9/11 that people couldn’t speak up openly in public about what they thought we should do, or shouldn’t be doing as the result. Most of our show up until that point was—and still is—about government conspiracies. There are conspiracies now about the government having known about or having caused [9/11], or about it being a ruse and an excuse for us to go into Iraq—but it became no longer OK for people to accuse the government of being deceitful or untrustworthy. And that was the backbone of our show.
What the X-Files did well, in its own "creature feature" way, was encourage people to critically engage with the weird and preposterous. The character of Scully, the supernatural skeptic who had a decent dollop of trust in authority, was oftentimes proved right by the trenchant believer Mulder. The yin and yang of Mulder and Scully represented both sides of the human spirit: the desire to believe, and the inclination to doubt. While abundant in the X Files, this tension is noticeably absent in the majority of mainstream Christian media and narrative. Instead, sentimentality and a xenophobic call to live sheltered lives reign supreme. Why does a secular TV show do a better job of demonstrating the power of discernment than the average evangelical?
Scripture tells us that upon salvation, we receive the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 3:16). Far from only being our conscience regarding personal choices, Jesus says in John 16:13 that the Spirit will lead us into “all truth.” We see also that the Spirit is specifically sent by the Father (John 14:26) to testify of Christ (1 John 5:6) and wields the Word of God as its ‘sword’ (Eph. 6:17).
This should give us great confidence as believers. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit provides conviction, remembrance, testimony, and discernment. Of course, this does not mean that believers are never deceived by falsehoods or are immune to falling prey to absurd doctrines. The indwelling means that we are not defenseless, ignorant lambs led to the slaughter. Just as we are provided a way out of temptation (1 Cor. 10:16), we are given the presence of the Spirit to help us live holy lives. This includes discernment of the truth.
Being in the Marketplace
Armed with such confidence, we should be able to enter the marketplace of ideas humbled and ready to talk. The Christian, who holds this temporal life lightly in eyes that see eternally, should be able to ask questions, entertain concepts, read books antithetical to his faith, and sup with strange sinners without having his identity enslaved to these things. Consider the witness of Paul in his engagement with the Athenians in Acts 17, where he “reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there.” (v. 17)
Paul’s approach is more Augustinian than Benedictine: front-facing involvement, not cloistered solitude, is what caused some of Paul’s listeners to sneer, but caused others to say, ”‘We want to hear you again on this subject.’” (v. 32)
Conspiracies like Q-Anon are false, but we must not avoid their adherents.
In Augustine’s short book “On Christian Teaching”, he offers this word of advice for participation in the secular marketplace:
We should not avoid music because of the associated pagan superstitions if there is a possibility of gleaning from it something of value for understanding holy scripture…We were not wrong to learn the alphabet just because they say the god Mercury was its patron, nor should we avoid justice and virtue just because they dedicated temples to justice and virtue…A true Christian should realize that truth belongs to the Lord, wherever it is found, gathering and acknowledging it even in pagan literature.
If Augustine is right that "truth belongs to the Lord," then we can operate in public conversations with peace. Consider our present attitude toward conspiracy theories in light of Augustine’s attitude toward the pagan superstitions of his time. It takes only a cursory look at the beliefs of Q-Anon theorists to assess just how batty they are, but should we throw out all questioning of our state’s virtue, the holding accountable our public figures, and reasonable suspicion of "decided science" along with their battiness? Should we fear the alphabet just because the god Mercury is its patron?
Is it more Christlike to shun Q-Anon adherents or take them out for a pint and talk things out? Are conspiracy theories always the ravings of lunatics, or are they simply ideas to be sifted through and judged biblically with the peace of Christ reigning in our hearts? If all truth is the Lord’s, and we are the Lord’s, then we must be willing to evaluate the truthfulness of an idea regardless of its reputation. Avoidance and fear are not tools of those who love reconciliation and the truth, and the use of these vices will only serve to further the ‘us vs. them’ divide.
I believe there are three important things that can help us interact thoughtfully and carefully with fringe concepts.
Know Your God & His Word Intimately: The Greek word for discernment is diakrisis, which means to judge or distinguish. Before we take our first steps into our day, let alone our forays into controversy, we should meet first with our God. This is no arbitrary thing. A judge who wishes to judge fairly makes himself deeply acquainted with the law. To seek truth well, we must know Him who is Truth best.
Know Your Culture, Define Your Terms: When Paul entered the meeting of the Areopagus, he told the men of Athens that he knew about their altar “to an unknown god” because he had “walked around and examined your objects of worship” (Acts 17:23). Paul didn’t show up ignorant of his audience, and neither should we. We should seek out the prevailing arguments of our day and work to understand them. In the case of conspiracy theories, we should know what wacky stuff is bouncing around the web these days and apply the Word of God to it. Preaching avoidance instead will only lead to more fortified echo chambers.
Ask Questions Widely & Wisely: Free people speak freely. If our identity and destiny is hidden in Christ, we can ask questions of the world around us with joy. George MacDonald once wrote, “He who feareth to doubt, Lord, in that fear doubteth Thee.” If the Lord is the Lord of our spiritual doubt, then He is also the Lord of our doubts toward the powers that be in this world. This does not mean that we encourage distrust without due cause, but we approach the dominant narratives of our day with a lightness, courage, and wisdom that aligns with Jesus' instruction that the disciples be "wise as serpents but gentle as doves."
Conspiracy theories run amok and often cause damage in personal and public lives. This is verifiably true. Unfortunately, the current trajectory of our conversation around conspiracy theories will only serve to deepen the social and political division we currently suffer.
Not long ago, Snopes.com, one of the most well-known fact-checkers in the business, posted an article titled, “Why Creationism Bears All the Hallmarks of a Conspiracy Theory.” The opening paragraph of this article directly references Q Anon, The Capitol Riots, and the “myth of the stolen US election” and then states that Young Earth Creationism is a “much more enduring conspiracy theory”, creating a false equivalence between the two. Regardless of where you stand on Young Earth Creationism, it’s clear that its reputation in the secular realm has escalated from silly to dangerous. These conflations of fringe theories with widely-accepted religious beliefs will be more easily employed the more we neglect robust, critical dialogue about both in the public sphere. Now is the time for Christians to be in the world but not of it, to resist our avoidance of the margins, and to hold all things, even our questions, with a light grip.