Christianity has always been associated with conspiracy theories.
Jesus had only been out of the grave a few hours when his persecutors were paying off Roman guards to say the disciples stole his body. This was buried in the implausible lie that the guards knew the identity of the body snatchers, but had been asleep at the time (Matt. 28:11–15). The story was unlikely, but it was believed because it was convenient.
According to Tacitus, emperor Nero blamed Christians for causing a massive fire in Rome, which sparked a new outbreak of horrific persecution. As the emperor feared for his power, he had to create a common enemy that could be defeated to rally allies, diverting public focus from his atrocities.
So Christianity has been the subject of conspiracy theories since its inception. But recently some Christians have become known for spreading conspiracy theories, which may undermine the gospel witness of the church.
Nature of Conspiracy Theories
Conspiracy theories sprout up around struggles for power, whether in civil or denominational politics, and can lead to destructive responses. In his recent book, Conspiracy Theories: A Primer, political scientist Joseph Uscinski argues, “Conspiracy theories posit a powerful enemy whose goals may pose an existential threat to humanity” (5). Our polarized political climate is a natural breeding ground for conspiracy theories.
Our polarized political climate is a natural breeding ground for conspiracy theories.
Sometimes “conspiracy theory” is used as an epithet for contested interpretations of data to avoid considering opposing views fairly. In contrast, Uscinski offers a more precise definition:
Conspiracy theory is an explanation of past, present, or future events or circumstances that cites, as the primary cause, a conspiracy. . . . Conspiracy theories are inherently political. Conspiracy theories are accusatory ideas that could either be true or false, and they contradict the proclamations of epistemological authorities, assuming such proclamations exist. (23)
Conspiracy theories are nothing new, but technology has introduced new challenges to culture by undermining epistemological authorities. The democratization of information made possible by the internet has empowered citizen journalists, magnified creative voices, and amplified the reach of some brilliant thinkers who might otherwise have remained unheard. The gatekeepers can no longer control the available content, and some have allowed their biases to undermine their attempts to fairly moderate content. As a result, it has become more difficult to find trustworthy sources of information.
Further, many conspiracy theories are non-falsifiable. In other words, any evidence for or against the theory is used to strengthen it, never to weaken it. Uscinski writes:
For the conspiracy theorist, the fact that we don’t have good evidence of a conspiracy only shows that the conspirators are good at covering their tracks. . . . But because of their non-falsifiability, conspiracy theories should not be thought of as true or false, but rather as more or less likely to be true. (27)
At some point, no evidence will shake confidence in a firmly held conspiracy theory, since the denial of a conspirator is only further evidence of the conspiracy.
What to Do About Conspiracy Theories?
The nature of conspiracy theories makes combatting them seem like a daunting task. Uscinski’s Conspiracy Theories is only a primer that purports to be a guide to the nature, popularity, virulence, and political implications of these theories. As a result, it does little to provide concrete solutions to the Hydra-like challenges that a culture saturated in conspiracy theories presents.
The best way to stop conspiracy theories is to cut off the flow of conspiratorial words.
Thankfully, Scripture gives us some helpful advice that will help us extinguish conspiracy theories from our midst. Just as a primary way to fight a wildfire is to remove fuel to stop the spread, the best way to stop conspiracy theories is to cut off the flow of conspiratorial words.
Here are a few ways that we can stop the spread of conspiracy theories:
Be slow to speak. James 1:19 reminds Christians, “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” Conspiracy theories often spread rapidly like gossip because they’re interesting and, especially in a polarized social climate, they demonize an out-group. Time to think gives time to evaluate whether the conspiracy is true. Often a conspiracy theory is debunked within days of creation. Aside from the dopamine rush of a popular social-media post, there is little lost and much to be gained by waiting a few days or weeks for an epistemological authority to weigh in on the theory.
Default to charity. Paul urges charity in dealing with controversy in Galatians 5:14–15: “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.” Just as we’d hope others might give us the benefit of the doubt when bad news spreads about us, we should also extend that benefit until more evidence is made known from trustworthy sources.
Consider your words carefully. Jesus reminds us in Matthew 12:36, “On the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak.” I believe we will also give an account for what we share on social media. This warning should cause us to vet our sources carefully and to not share when in doubt. All of our communication should glorify God, which means that there may be some things we choose not to share, even if they prove true in the end.
Consider what other perspectives might be available. As Proverbs 18:17 reminds us, “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.” Unfortunately, when an untruth is broadcast on social media and later corrected, the retraction rarely gets the same attention. Thus, many people are left believing that the first, false impression is unquestioned truth. Similarly, Deuteronomy 19:15 requires multiple witnesses for a crime to be charged against someone. Most conspiracy theories don’t meet that standard.
Conspiracy Theories and the Christian Tongue
As James 3:6 reminds us, “The tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.” We can’t effectively spread the gospel to our neighbors while demonizing them for their political views through conspiracy theories.
We can’t effectively spread the gospel to our neighbors while demonizing them for their political views through conspiracy theories.
Instead, James says, “The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace” (3:17–18). This wisdom seems the polar opposite of conspiracy theories.
If we’re to be known for the renewing power of the gospel, we must delight in Jesus above all in our conversations. When Christians are purveyors of conspiracy theories, we undermine our ability to communicate the deeper truths with the power to bring healing to a broken world.