Conspiracy theories are to truth and life what arsonists are to a hot and dry summer in Australia.
Back in May I wrote a piece about the dangers of conspiracy theories and why it is the duty of Christians to not only avoid them, but also to refute them. At the time I was preaching through Colossians (and we still are!), and we made note of the warnings given by God about entertaining myths. As Colossians highlights, in the church “such things promote controversial speculations rather than advancing God’s work”.
At the time I tweeted what should have been a fairly innocuous statement, “In light of the growing proliferation of nutty conspiracy theories, I’m pleased that we’re currently studying Colossians at Church. Colossians presents a clear repudiation of gnosis. Christians are to be people of reason not speculation, love not fear.”
I was wrong; this was a highly controversial thing to say.
In particular, I addressed the growing issue of QAnon, which is a political conspiracy theory nest that has recently morphed into a pseudo-christian and cult like religion. In the United States the FBI now consider some QAnon members a domestic terrorist threat.
You can find the original article here (with links to several important investigative pieces from the Atlantic and the ABC).
In the last few weeks I’ve had a number of conversations with people in the community who are hearing more of these conspiracy theories. For example, one friend today copied a text message that is being sent to people. The message claims that you have been in contact with someone who has COVID-19 and you must no self isolate. This scam is signed by “COVID-19anon”.
Such messages are foolish, needless, and potentially life threatening.
Other friends are sharing stories of peoples who are convinced that COVID-19 is a hoax orchestrated by the Government. It is interesting to note that those who are thinking this way also tend to believe in other conspiracy theories as well.
The alternative position to conspiracy theories isn’t to lock your brain away in the freezer and glibly accept everything Governments say as gospel truth. Most of us understand that our political leaders are fallible and that they sometimes massage truth for the sake of political point scoring. There is however a massive gap between grasping political biases and believing in Government led hoaxes.
Over the weekend, one of the Pastors at Mentone led a group discussion on 1 Timothy ch.4. While unintended, the words couldn’t come at a more pertinent time.
1 Timothy 4:6 says, “Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly”. This chapter of Scripture is helpful for Christians in guarding themselves against conspiracy theories. Here are 7 salient points:
- Paul assumes such ideas will appear and grab hold of peoples imaginations.
2. Paul assumes some of these theories will filter into churches.
3. Paul believes these myths have demonic origins; they are not from God.
4. In verses 3-4 he gives examples, which refer to teachings that deny creational order and good.
“They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth.For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving,”
5. Paul tells Timothy that he has a responsibility to publicly repudiate these matters (vv. 6;11).
6. These ‘godless myths’ compete with and contradict the “truths of the faith” upon which Christians ought to be ‘nourished’ and “follow”.
7. Whereas what is true and good produces godliness and life, these speculations drive a wedge into ones faith in Christ and are destructive in all kinds ways.
In addition (as I pointed out in my previous article on the issue), conspiracy theories often lead to gossiping, slandering, and to divisive behaviour. All such behaviour is sinful and contrary to how Christians are to speak and act. One of the sad ironies is that when someone leaves a church because they believe COVID-19 is a hoax, they are in fact proving Paul’s point in 1 Timothy 4 and Colossians 3.
The sad reality is, it is very difficult to persuade people who believe conspiracy theories that they are mistaken. Conspiracy theories succeed because they play into pre-existing assumptions, and they justify irrational political and religious beliefs. Conspiracy theories don’t depend on evidence but on capturing those seeds of doubt or inquisitiveness that otherwise may lay dormant in the consciousness. Conspiracy theories can be refuted with reasoned argument and with actual experts but this unlikely to convince the skeptics.
I understand that people have some warrant for being suspicious of media and of politicians; many (not all) are prone to exaggeration, fear mongering, and sometimes they espouse straight out falsehoods. In treating truth this way, they encourage doubters and feed the skepticism that may have otherwise lay dormant among the population. And yet, throwing babies out with the bathwater is a really dangerous way to live.
Last week Andrew MacDonald (who is the associate director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center Institute), made this important statement about Christians and the media,
“Having acknowledged the failures in journalism, it is critical that Christians resist the temptation to reject mainstream reporting altogether. This is a critical mistake that leads us down the pathway to isolation whereby we invalidate any news article we find unfavorable.
Moreover, there are good journalists in major outlets, even religion journalists who strive to understand and report on evangelicalism in all fairness. At times, this leads them to our failures, but in other cases they want to detail the nuance and complexity within the movement. I might not always agree with them, but I respect their integrity and desire to report honestly.
This all-or-nothing mentality also suggests a poor understanding of Christian engagement. Our goal should be a maturity to engage the new reporting of our time with a critical eye rather than to shout bias upon seeing the outlet logo. We need to read critically across a wide range, accepting hard truths that are well supported rather than if they support our political or cultural narrative. We need to resist our temptations to echo chambers; a temptation that is common to many other subcultures across the globe.”
This crazy year has another 5½ months to go. When there are crucial issues facing society, conspiracy theories are not far behind intruding with their secret knowledge and special insights. Handling the real issues is difficult enough for most of us without having also to put out these needless spot-fires.
Ed Stetzer is right when he says to Christians,
“Long story short, you’re ultimately bringing harm to yourself and your community. You may make yourself feel like you’re making a difference when you are not.
Most importantly, we damage our witness and that of your church when you focus on unproven theories and speculation more than the good news we’ve been commanded by our Lord to proclaim.”