Why Do So Many People Believe Conspiracies?

February 10, 2021

• Democrats along with other global elites and deep state operatives are running a child sex trafficking, Satan worshipping ring that is part of a much larger global conspiracy.
• The 9/11 terrorist attack was an inside job planned by the US and Israel to justify the invasion of Iraq in order to grab Arab oil.
• COVID is spread by 5G technology.
• COVID vaccinations contain tiny nanochips to track our movements.
• The 2020 Presidential election was stolen by big tech using rigged voting machines that switched millions of votes from Republican to Democrat.

These are all entirely false claims that are believed by tens of millions of Americans including millions of evangelical Christians. If you are a follower of Jesus and if you claim to believe that the Bible is the infallible word of God, then truth matters to you. Or at least, truth should matter to you! After all, the word truth is used 224 times in the Bible. We are told in Scripture that the reason God’s wrath is revealed from heaven is because we “suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18). We’re also told by the Apostle Paul that God desires everyone to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:3–4).  

The Apostle Paul further tells us that the last days will be characterized by the very same things that we are presently experiencing.

2 Timothy 4:3–4 (NIV)
3 For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. 4 They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.

It is interesting that virtually every book in the New Testament warns followers of Jesus to be on guard against false teaching and lies. False teaching and lies are not a marginal concern to New Testament writers. Rather, combatting false teaching and holding on to “the truth” is central to our Christian faith. So, why have so many of our fellow believers been swept away by belief in conspiracies and rumors that are unsupported by an objective assessment of the evidence?

Belief in conspiracies tend to spike during times of crisis, such as terrorist attacks, natural disasters, times of rapid societal change or war. It’s important to note that belief in conspiracies is not a recent phenomenon. Historians tell us that conspiracies have been believed across cultures and across history. For example, in the year 64 AD, the great fire of Rome destroyed much of the city of Rome. Thousands of people were left homeless and many died. The emperor, Nero, was out of town when the fire started, but quickly, a conspiracy theory spread which alleged that Nero deliberately set the fire in order to rebuild Rome according to his own vision. In response, Nero came up with his own conspiracy theory in which he blamed the Christian community for initiating the fire. This led to fierce persecution of Christians by the Roman government.  

There are even conspiracy theories in the Bible. A famous conspiracy involved the chief priests and elders, along with Roman soldiers, who claimed that Jesus’ body was stolen by the disciples while the soldiers fell asleep.

Why are conspiracy theories commonly believed during times of crisis? Psychologists tell us that conspiracy theories are driven by our desire for understanding. During times of rapid social change, it’s hard to make sense of seemingly random events. A conspiracy assists people to “connect the dots”, to find a pattern for why things have happened the way they have. Conspiracy theories give us an explanatory grid for understanding complex events.

Second, conspiracy theories also enable people to regain a sense of control. Individuals not only have a need for understanding the world around us, but also a need to exercise some kind of power or mastery over the world. Social scientists tell us that people who feel powerless are more likely to believe in a conspiracy theory than those who feel a part of the power structure.  

Third, conspiracy theories appeal to our pride. A believer in a conspiracy is now an “insider” and “a holder of privileged information”. That was the attraction of the Gnostic heresy in the early church. Gnostics were part of the “initiates” who were let in on secret information available only to the “enlightened”. As someone coming from a charismatic tradition, I can testify that the appeal to pride to become one of the “enlightened” is a powerful temptation, especially for charismatic Christians.

Fourth, as Michiko Kakutani, the Pulitzer Prize winning literary critic for the New York Times, pointed out several years ago, we are living in a period of “truth decay”. Kakutani wrote, “The term “truth decay” has joined the post-truth lexicon that includes the now familiar phrases such as “fake news” and “alternative facts”. And it’s not just fake news either: It’s also fake science (manufactured by climate change deniers and anti-vaxxers, who oppose vaccinations), fake history (promoted by Holocaust revisionists and white supremacists), fake Americans on Facebook (created by Russian trolls), and fake followers and “likes” on social media (generated by bots).”

Fifth, part of our current experience of “truth decay” was described by the Christian philosopher Francis Schaeffer when he famously wrote about the division that modernists drew between values and facts. Schaeffer used the metaphor of two stories in a building. The lower story is facts that are held to be objectively true and testable. The upper story is values that are considered to be private, subjective and relative. So, according to Schaeffer, modernism held on to the objectivity of facts. Or as Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan observed in his oft-repeated statement, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”  

That may have been the world of the 1960’s and 1970’s, it’s not the world that we live in today. We live in a world in which we not only wrestle over values and moral judgments, but also over “facts”. We live in a world, in short, where no matter what you assert, a person can immediately find 10 videos online contending for exactly the opposite perspective.

This attack on facts began a child of the “New Left” in its desire to expose the biases of Western, capitalist, patriarchal, hetero-centric thinking. The New Left suggested that truth was entirely perspectival. Truth claims, according to the New Left, were designed to keep “elites” in power.  This child of the Left became weaponized by the political Right over the past 30 years. Mainstream media has been deemed to be “lame stream media”. Opinions by scientists are dismissed as part of the opinions of the coastal elites. Every truth claim is now seen as a political claim.  

Sixth, institutions have suffered a crisis of credibility. The Pentagon Papers exposed the disturbing reality that the Johnson Administration systematically lied about the American potential for success in Vietnam. Reporters for the Boston Globe, in the famous Spotlight series, exposed cover-ups of pedophilia by Catholic priests. The New York Times suffered a grave blow to its credibility in the Jayson Blair scandal in which a reporter was found to have plagiarized and fabricated his stories. The list goes on!

Seventh, we have lost “gatekeepers of truth”. Social media has “democratized” the publication of information. Gone are the days when if you wanted to know something, you would turn to the Encyclopedia Britannica or listen to the news on one of the three major networks. One no longer needs to vet information, get past an editorial board or a review process in order to publish information. A person no longer needs to own their own newspaper or television station. Everyone can produce a YouTube video and immediately have it published across the globe.

Eighth, we suffer from the disease of “both side-ism”. Because we live in a culture that believes that truth is always partial, we have fallen prey to the idea that to be fair one has to listen to both sides even if “both sides” do not have equivalent credentials, expertise or access to the facts. So, there may be an overwhelming consensus among scientists regarding the efficacy of wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID. But if an “expert”, even in an unrelated field claims that the science is bogus, that person deserves a full and fair hearing so that the public may be exposed to “both sides” of the debate.

One tobacco industry executive cynically said in a memo, “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the “body of fact” that exists in the minds of the general public.” All a political party or a corporation needs to do is find some “expert” to contend that the scientific consensus about something is entirely wrong, repeat the “expert’s” statements over and over again, and doubt is established in the public’s mind.

How can we combat the loss of truth and the problem of truth decay?  
Psychologists tell us that it’s extremely difficult to dissuade someone who believes a conspiracy because the person already deeply mistrusts mainstream sources of information. Standard counsel for determining truth includes checking with one of several non-partisan fact-checking sites, such as the Pulitzer Prize winning Politifact, FactCheck.org or Snopes.com.  

But there’s a biblical way to determine the truth.  

The context for Paul’s method for discerning truth in the book of Ephesians is a discussion about the church and the practice of Christian community. Scripture teaches that our values and beliefs will be shaped by the community that we choose for ourselves. We always need to ask ourselves what is the community that I’m a part of doing to my soul? As a result of being a part of this community, am I becoming a better person? A kinder person? A more joyful person? A more grace-filled person? Or am I becoming an angrier person? A more anxious and fearful person? A person more filled with anger and rage? The community that we choose and the community that we listen to will shape our values and our beliefs.

Of course, a person’s chosen community these days could be our online community – our Facebook or Reddit community. So, we Christians need to press pause and ask ourselves – what is the political or religious or social group that I’m a part of doing to my soul?  

But not only do we need to choose our community well, but in discerning the truth, we need to pay attention to our hearts. The Apostle Paul writes this:

Ephesians 4:17–18 (NIV)
17 So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. 18 They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts.

The Apostle Paul provides us with a deep analysis of why we are open to certain kinds of arguments and closed to others. Have you ever talked with someone and presented them with evidence that you think would convince any reasonable person, but your argument didn’t convince them at all? Instead, the person became even more entrenched in their perspectives. The Apostle Paul tells us in Ephesians 4:17-19, that the issue of discerning what is true is not simply a matter of the intellect. There may indeed by a problem in a person’s thinking, a certain “futility of their thinking”. There may be a mist lying over the mind that can only be blown away by the Holy Spirit. But the deeper problem is not intellectual and will not be solved by better statistics or stronger arguments. Rather, the organ for discerning the truth is not the head according to the Apostle Paul, but the heart.

The Bible frequently points to the condition of our hearts as the reason why we are unable to hear the truth. In other words, the issue of discerning the truth is not only how much information you have in your head, but what I’ve called for years “the inclination of our hearts”. As a pastor, I’ve always cared about shaping people’s hearts. I know that any argument I offer can immediately be challenged by six counterarguments. The question we must always ask ourselves is why are we inclined to embrace certain arguments? Why are we disinclined to embrace other arguments?

What protects us from being deceived is not the truth we know, but the truth we love! The Apostle Paul writes this:

2 Thessalonians 2:10b-11 (NIV)
They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. 11 For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie

If you are a person who loves the truth – about yourself, about your flaws and your strengths, about your family, about big issues like race and our country or smaller issues like whether you’re a good listener or tend to get defensive – if you’re a person who loves the truth even if it’s different than what you grew up with or will cost you dearly, then you’ll receive more truth! But if you’re a person whose heart is hard to the truth – because it threatens you or a personal interest of yours or your group – then the truth you have will be taken away. Set your heart on loving the truth in every area even if it comes from sources that are unpopular with your particular group! Be someone who loves truth and always wants more truth!  

How can we determine what’s true? Choose your community wisely! Keep your heart soft! Love the truth!