Why do Christians seem to get drawn into conspiracy theories?

I’ve seen this question asked by a couple of bloggers recently. My general response is that we should not assume that they are particularly more susceptible to them than anyone else it is just that we are generally more aware of it among Christians. However, the question about what will make those Christians that are susceptible accept and believe them.  I want to suggest that there are a couple of obvious answers.

The first is  …

Because trusted Christian sources publish them.

Here is a comment published by Christianity magazine:

We’re entering a dangerous time in the history of Western democracies – and that danger is not primarily from a mob of redneck conspiracy theorists. Rather it is a handful of Californian billionaires with an unparalleled power in human history, who pose the biggest threat. Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. It’s time for that monopoly to be broken up and citizens and governments to regain their freedom.[1]

Now that paragraph takes us into classic conspiracy theory territory.  I plan to explain why in more detail in a future article but the important thing here is that it is a statement made by a prominent, articulate Christian leader and writer, David Robertson and it was published in a mainstream, reputable Christian publication.

Now, here’s the thing, David Robertson is a phenomenal writer and has a strong reputation as being a fierce defender of the Gospel, having debated with and written a book in response to Richard Dawkins. He has pastored a large church and regularly writes for magazines as well as having his own popular blog.  He is not some fringe lunatic, he is thoughtful and engaging. I personally would say that whilst his style is combative and marmite, he is provocative so even when you don’t agree with him, he is the sort of writer who usually gets you thinking.

However there is a risk with being  a general commentator and as a blog writer I’m of course vulnerable to it to.  Those of us who tend to write tend to be opinionated. We have lots of opinions and we have high confidence in them. We wouldn’t write other wise.  We also tend to be generalists.  We read widely, we think, argue and then we write. We often think out loud and so to the to and throw of debate in comments, twitter threads and response articles is how we sharpen our thinking.  The benefit as well is that a blogger will read stuff that others haven’t got time to do and synthesise it so we are all better informed. The risk is that we are dealing with topics that our outside of our lane.  So, let me deal with my own context and that of a friend.  My friend Steve Kneale has qualifications to masters level that have required him to engage in history, politics and theology.  He is also a pastor in an urban context. His studies and his expertise  give him a level of expertise in those areas.  I have qualifications at Bachelor’s level In Law and to Masters level in Manufacturing Management and in Theology and Pastoral experience.  I have worked in industry with responsibilities for change management, systems implementation and process control. I have also pastored a church.  That means I do have some expertise in areas such as law, data analysis and behavioural science as well as theological/pastoral experience. 

This means that Steve and I can blog on a wide range of issues and we can apply those areas of expertise to the questions involved. However, outside of all of those subject areas, whilst our views may be interesting, informed and even occasionally right, it does not mean that we should be treated as trusted experts in those areas. I suspect you know that when you read my blog. If I sray off into areas such as medicine for example, then the more original my thinking the more likely it is that I’ll be spouting nonsense. And if one day I write absolute nonsense on a medical matter and one of my medical friends tell me so, then that will not be a personal attack and not demean me in any way.

Now, as it happens, the specific article David wrote was in the context of an argument he was making that was taking him into areas including technological development and its relationship to free market economics as well as the law and its relationship to the control of free speech.  He is walking into areas where I not only have an interest but some experience and I read the whole article and my own immediate response was that it was overall a stinker. Now, that’s the job that a good editor and good publisher should have done. David’s job is to write interesting comment. His editors have a responsibility to check it before it goes out.

When Christians read articles in main stream magazines, as opposed to reading blogs or having a chat over coffee at church or down the pub with some mates, they expect the articles to have gone through a filter process. They can reasonably assume that the article has been run by a few people who have the background to check those things out. Maybe David’s article was but if it was then something seems to have gone wrong. But now we have a conspiracy theory out there that has been authenticated by a trusted and reliable source.[2]

Something similar has happened in print literature too. My dad comments that my granddad would often announce “it must be true I read it in a book.”  A few years back a book was doing the rounds which told of the heroic story of a Christian evangelist.  A few people, including some friends of mine happened to have enough expertise in some of the relevant areas to say “hold on, this book has some serious factual inconsistencies.” The result was that it, its author an its publisher’s credibility were shot to pieces but by this time it had been widely sold, circulated and read.

I have a feeling for how this happens. First of all the old christian media must now find ways to keep up with the new social media content. I can turn around two instant reaction articles on my blog within 30 mins. The monthly journal cannot compete with that so it has to adapt. My view is they should focus on something different offering deeper less time limited content but the temptation is to go head to head with bloggers. The result is that there is pressure to get content online. Secondly, I think that some platforms try to offer what they call balance. I’ve picked up on this before. Balance ends up being a case of putting two extreme opposites in their most extreme format. This encourages contributers to write the type of content that will get published. Nobdoy wants a middle of the road consensual position because that’s dull, even if it is more reflective of where specific constituencies are coming from.

So, the first way to protect Christians from conspiracy theories is to stop publishing them.

Because we make some risky alliances

The consensus view is that Jeremy Corbyn failed to confront antisemitism, allowed it to flourish and may have even propagated antisemitism himself.  Whether or not that means he was/is anti-Semite has been hotly disputed with his closest allies insisting that he did not have a racist bone in his body.  So, how did he end up in that position and how did a racist position become so entrenched in a political movement that prides itself in being anti-racist?

The answer is that the radical left in the UK made common cause with those on the fringes of international politics and protest. They saw a common concern to speak up for the weak and the vulnerable. This led to them sharing platforms with people who in their speaking up for the Palestinian cause had gone beyond legitimate criticism of Israel into antisemitism.  The racist views were imbibed but the hard left were blind to the danger. How could they be aligning with racism when they were so opposed to it?

I think there is a risk for Christians. Some of our views put us on the margins, our concern for the welfare of the unborn being a prime example.  At the same time also, because we experience attempts to restrict us from holding, sharing or acting on specific views we have made a particular virtue of the right to free speech and that has aligned us with all sorts of people who also are complaining that their freedom is being infringed. Guess what, it’s no surprise but the untolerated views of some of those people just happen to be conspiracy theories. 

COVID-19 adds a further risk Christians are frustrated at the restrictions on meeting and a re genuinely hurting especially when they see failures on government policy. But guess who are the likely bedfellows when it comes to protesting lockdowns?

I think that in a similar way, we can also begin to allow platforms to overlap so that prominent Christians risk allowing their legitimate defence of free speech to drift into the endorsement and acceptance not just of the freedom principle but of the actual things being said.

Because some have been systemically exposed to questionable eschatology

When I preached through Revelation, we talked about how so often people get things the wrong way round. They find this one verse that talks about 1000 years and instead of getting the meaning of that one verse from the context of the book and the chapter, thet decide what they think it means and then interpret the whole book and all Eschatological passages in their light of what they think the “Millennial” verse means.

The problem is that throughout history, this has led to various attempts to identify specific events, signs, and images with people, places and times in history. Unfortunately those applications are based on unsound exegesis but also simply don’t square with the facts on the ground. You know, there was an attempt to prove that the ECC (previous name for the EU) was The Beast and its leader would be the anti-Christ. One argument in favour was that its ten members represented the ten toes of the beast. As well as that not quite working eschatologically, when a few more members joined it was no longer a group of ten.

When the facts and data don’t fit your claims, you have a choice. You can either acknowledge your claim was wrong or you can bunker down into the conspiracy claiming that the truth is there but hidden.

Conclusion

It is important that we are careful not to spread conspiracy theories. That means for those of us who have the privilege to comment and to publish that we need to take that responsibility seriously and treble check the claims we make.


[1] Why Donald Trump’s Twitter ban is bad news for Christians (premierchristianity.com)

[2] Incidentally this is also central to an argument David is making which is that online platforms like twitter should be subject to the same legal controls as publishers.  I will explain in a further article why this is problematic (the word problematic here is the classic use of English understatement).

The full, pure conspiracy theory is known as Qnon and involves beliefs that the world is falling under the control of a Cabal including Hollywood, The Democrats and businessmen.. To be clear, the article is not communicating the full unadulterated conspiracy theory and I am convinced that the author and publishers would be horrified at the associations. However, this is exactly why editorial care is needed. My advice and request is that the concerning paragraphs are edited to distinguish specific criticism of Amazon and Twitter from the suggestion of something more co-ordinated and sinister.

Also for clarification whilst this article offers three explanations/risks it is primarily the first that I think is problematic in this case. Ceretainly the third example is not present in this example.