What's in a Conspiracy?

How do conspiracy theories draw in people who are otherwise sensible? Is there a biblical viewpoint on this topic?

As lock-downs return, protests surge, not just in Canada but around the world, as the second wave of this pandemic rages on. Authorities and experts attribute this to pandemic fatigue, and I do believe that plays a big role. But there seems to be something more – something else – behind some anti-mask protests and the outlandish claims made by some groups around the purported origin of this pandemic and the agenda of specific actors. Why is it that conspiracy theories seem so attractive even to people who otherwise exhibit sound judgment?

I’ve been reading and thinking a bit about this, and it’s enlightening to see what psychology and sociology have found, and how in my opinion this lines up with what the Bible has to say on this topic.

The Flath Earth Conspiracy

The key takeaway is that conspiracy theories are not about information, but about challenging authority. To illustrate this, let’s step away from COVID for a second and let’s talk about the “modern flat earth” movement. The idea that Earth is flat is considered antiquated, held by several primitive civilizations. However, the theory has made a comeback, fueled by so-called “Flat Earth Societies” across the world, including in Canada. They espouse that Earth is a flat disc centred on the North Pole and bordered by Antarctic ice. Notorious flat earthers have included NBA stars Kyrie Irving and Shaquille O’Neal, though both have since claimed that they were joking on this. And in a funny yet weird exchange, in 2017 Elon Musk asked Twitter, why was there no “Flat Mars Society”? The response from the official Flat Earth Society’s account was: “unlike Earth, Mars has been observed to be round.”

These people don’t just act their part; they hold these beliefs deeply, and will argue eloquently for them, invoking and twisting complex science in the process. For instance, confronted with the fact that a flat Earth wouldn’t have gravity, flat earthers will say that what we perceive as gravity is in fact Earth constantly accelerating upwards. In this view, things don’t fall; the whole disc that they claim Earth to be is constantly accelerating upwards. Everything on it moves up with it, and if something is loose, Earth will accelerate and run into it. Such constant acceleration eventually would cause Earth to exceed the speed of light, which is considered impossible. When confronted with this fact, flat earthers will say that time can become progressively slower as years go by, keeping their explanation within the realms of the theory of relativity.

Debunking this hoax shouldn’t require so much complexity. There’s a very simple device called the Foucault pendulum, which you might have seen in a museum or science centre. It’s used to prove that the Earth rotates. Also, you can estimate the durations of commercial flights between cities on a flat earth map, and compare those times to the actual durations of the flights in the real world. You will find that the Earth cannot be flat.

However, faced with these and other arguments, flat earthers will fight and dig deeper into their beliefs. What that tells you is that the problem really isn’t information, or disinformation for that matter. What experts have found is that flat Earth conspiracies are about rejecting authority and its role in defining reality. And ultimately, that is what lies at the heart of every conspiracy theory.

The COVID Connection

Going back to the coronavirus – who is the face of the pandemic for you? For me it’s Ontario Premier Doug Ford, or Health Minister Christine Elliott, or chief doctor David Williams. In other words, my local authorities. I don’t mean to say that I associate them with all the evil caused by the virus. It’s just that they are the ones making and communicating government decisions around the pandemic on a daily basis.

If a person isn’t pleased with decisions affecting their ability to eat out, work out at the local gym, or having to wear a mask, it’s perhaps logical that they may resent the authorities making these decisions. The virus makes no public health decisions, and you can always argue that the humans in charge could have chosen different measures. Most people can handle this discomfort as an inevitable part of this situation; but others will search and fall for elaborate alternative explanations of the agenda behind the government’s decisions.

To be clear, my point here is neither an endorsement nor a critique of the actions of any specific government. One way or another, authorities at all levels have made mistakes. But with human institutions, I think that was to be expected; that will always be the case whenever these institutions are engaged. Our public health bodies have gone back and forth on the pertinence of wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID, especially when it comes to cloth masks. The same applies to the official stance on airborne transmission of the virus. But I don’t think the ultimate goal is to deceive and confuse us, any more than a loved one would give us information that is inaccurate with the best intention to keep us safe. Public health bodies, however, are in a position of authority, unlike our loved ones, which can muddle how we perceive their intent.

Also, this is not an indictment on science. If anything, I would say it’s a testament to the way science works. The cornerstone of science is the skepticism required by the scientific method. No previous knowledge is unassailable. No potential explanation is ruled out up front. Good science ruthlessly follows its methods, even if they lead to a conclusion that contradicts a previous finding. After all, this is how we went from the Ptolemaic or geocentric view where celestial bodies revolved around Earth, to the heliocentric view which puts the Sun at the center of the solar system. From Newton’s laws of gravity to Einstein’s more accurate and comprehensive articulation of them. To not understand this is to place an unreasonable expectation of infallibility on science, and the same applies to government.

Ultimately, it seems to me that conspiracy theories thrive when natural elements of democracy and history trigger behavioral elements against authority and its role in defining reality. By definition, democracy is the government of the people. There is a need to hold governments accountable, to have adequate checks and balances, and even to permit peaceful and non-harmful dissent and protest.

It’s also not like there is no precedent for governments lying to their citizens. This brings with it the need to enable and protect whistleblowers who denounce corruption or a divergence between government actions and the greater public good. As an example, consider the massive global surveillance efforts by America’s National Security Agency exposed when Edward Snowden felt they warranted breaking confidentiality provisions in his role as a CIA employee and subcontractor. Whether you think he is a hero or a traitor, the outcome would have been very different in an autocratic society.

When our natural reticence against government overreach, fueled by history and by difficult current events, reaches a tipping point, our defiance of authority may lead us into conspiracy theories. Notice that pure knowledge doesn’t play much of a role in this process. We may not be able to reason with conspiracy theorists, in the purest sense of that word, but we may be able to have better conversations by understanding where do they really come from.

To recap, then, we have three elements: otherwise healthy manifestations of democratic exercise and historical recall, which can spill over to defiance of authority through conspiracy theories. When I look at this from a biblical lens, I find a consistent message, but at the same time, it gets a bit more complicated.

A Biblical Angle

The idea of adopting a troublesome viewpoint that seems to speak an alternate truth to what power or authority propose is as old as the narrative of creation in Genesis. God tells Adam and Eve, “You may eat the fruit of any tree in the Garden of Eden, except the tree of knowledge of good and evil. For the moment you eat it, you’ll die.” Then Satan comes in and goes, “Oh, so you can’t eat the fruit of any tree?” (That’s the first lie.) And Eve goes, “No, we can eat the fruit of every tree except this one, or we’ll die,” and Satan goes, “Oh, you won’t die.” (That’s the second lie.) “You’ll just be like God.”

Now, this isn’t in the Bible, but think for a second what Eve must have felt as she ate the fruit. I suspect that she went from some initial trepidation, to realizing after, I don’t know, 15, 30, 40 minutes, two things: first, she hadn’t died; second, she could now tell apart good from evil. At least for a split second, she must have thought that God was a liar and the snake was the “deliverer” that gave her “the truth” to “open her eyes” and “break free from oppression.” Can you see the pattern? Of course, Christianity doesn’t agree with her assessment. This is a conspiracy theory at its tragic finest.

Therefore, I think the Bible upholds the behavioral concern. Elsewhere, it says that human will is deceptive and prone to pride (Jer 17:9). The Bible doesn’t endorse Insta-worthy “follow-your-heart” messages; hearts aren’t meant to be followed but led, and who or what you choose to lead your heart will have significant implications.

Looking now at the government and historical dimensions, I think they take on an increased relevance from the biblical worldview. Most Christians acknowledge that the Bible establishes a distinct sphere of authority and influence for human governments. But the limits of this sphere are hotly debated. Christianity teaches obedience and collaboration with authorities, but at the same time, frontal conflict with human powers features prominently in Christianity’s answer to the philosophical question of destiny, of future, of the final times.

This tension has been present since the very dawn of our faith, as it expanded throughout the Roman Empire under various levels of tolerance and persecution, leading to the bloodbath by Nero and following emperors. Curiously, with the conversion of Constantine came an unexpected development: the posterior institution of Christianity as the state religion of the Empire, leading to the concept of temporal power of the church. To some extent, these cycles have repeated and intertwined through history up to this day. And because of this, to the secular distrust of the ruled against the rulers, various Christian parties may add their own layers of paranoia or resentment.

In the end, from a Christian perspective, I think the same elements I outlined before are relevant to understand conspiracy theories. Citizen/government relationships and history influence our perception of authority and its place defining our reality, with additional nuances if you are a believer. When these elements reach a tipping point, universal behavioral concerns make some of us susceptible to conspiracy theories.

As for me, Christianity’s commitment to absolute and objective truth stands against me taking my feelings, desires, beliefs and convenience and shaping them into my definition of reality. But of course, that’s just my opinion.

Where From Here?

Where do we go from here? I think we have three conclusions. First, the rise of conspiracy theories isn’t due to a lack of knowledge of intellectual ability or a failure of science. Instead, it has to do with discontent with authority capitalized by unscrupulous elements in times of turmoil, especially in these globally connected times.

Second, I think this helps to explain why authorities must proceed carefully, and excel in how they communicate, when it comes to implementing measures to control this pandemic. I think our best health officials understand this deeply. Conspiracy stems from rebellion, and more authority may only make things worse.

Third, at the lay level, I hope this helps us have better conversations with those around us. The issue of conspiracy theories is not knowledge, evidence, debate or persuasion. It is a matter of empathy, grace and wisdom. My hope and prayer is that we will find the right kind of strength to remain civil with our disgruntled acquaintances and their favorite conspiracy theories, as we continue to step up for truth in our small public squares.

Published: November 30, 2020