Sunday, February 20, 2011

Christians and Conspiracy Theories

A conspiracy theory is defined:
...any claim of civil, criminal, or political conspiracy. However, it has become largely pejorative and used almost exclusively to refer to any fringe theory which explains a historical or current event as the result of a secret plot by conspirators of almost superhuman power and cunning. [source; by the way, this is the only time I will quote Wikipedia]
Conspiracy theories include a wide range of beliefs, some examples being:
  • Jews were behind World War II
  • The government covered up alien landings in Roswell, NM
  • The moon landing was faked
  • The American government was behind the September 11 attacks
Many self-professing Christians have embraced conspiracy theories, upholding them as representations of the truth regarding the events to which they pertain. Therefore, I would like to move that conspiracy theories are in fact working against the Christian faith, and will attempt, God willing, to demonstrate this. Please note that, in discussing this, I am not proclaiming any Christian who believes in a conspiracy theory unsaved, but am only trying to give a brotherly rebuke and call for discernment towards those who may have never had their beliefs or passions therein questioned.

First, they lead a person into a cult-like atmosphere

It should be noted beforehand that the vast majority of people enjoy at least entertaining various conspiracy theories. There is nothing wrong with humorously pondering on various conspiracies. There is likewise nothing wrong with looking into the conspiracies, or asking questions about certain ideas that might be construed as conspiracy theories.

However, those who uphold conspiracy theories as an absolute truth often act as if they are part of a special sect. Everyone outside their group are "misled" or guilty of deep "ignorance," whereas they are the bearers of some great knowledge. This extreme thinking is often found in fringe groups or cults, where an "us" and "them" mentality grows, where those outside the group are "unsaved" because they do not yet possess this great knowledge. It also becomes dangerously close to a kind of Gnosticism, in the sense that some secret knowledge or truth is hidden, but can free a person upon acceptance of it and join the group.

Loyalty to a conspiracy, in fact, may usurp a Christian's priorities in other areas. For example, a Christian may become more passionate about a conspiracy than about the word of God, prayer, or worship life. They may even look down on or insult other Christians who do not share their viewpoint, especially if their brother or sister in Christ attempts to rebuke them or show them the error of their thinking. I have seen (and experienced) self-professing Christians who believe in conspiracy theories insult, belittle, or condemn their Christian brothers and sisters solely because they either do not believe in the conspiracy.

Such adoration of a conspiracy therefore leads to an idolatry, where the conspiracy itself is an idol distracting a person from the worship and commands of God.

Second, the vast majority of conspiracy theories are based in some part on falsehoods or distortions of the truth

One nature of conspiracy theories is that, in order to survive contradictory evidence, circular and dishonest reasoning has to be employed. An assumption might be made that a political, religious or commercial entity planted the contradictory evidence to lure people away. Sometimes the evidence may simply be dismissed outright, either without reason or for a very shallow reason. For example, a 9/11 "truther" encountered a New York City policeman who had been present when one of the World Trade Center buildings went down. When the policeman told the "truther" that he had been there, and it wasn't explosives that brought the building down, the "truther" simply replied, "You're wrong!" Another "truther," interviewed on Penn and Teller's television program, responded to the question on where the 3,000 casualties of September 11 are by saying that they're in hiding because they're in cahoots with the government. The response was so disconnected from the harsh reality that Penn said in a voice-over: "I hope this guy runs into one of the victims' families. I'm sure they'd love to hear, 'Daddy's not coming back because he works for the government.'"

It can't help but be noticed that the supposed legitimacy of conspiracies centers around not facts or evidence, but doubt. For example, a Holocaust-denier may point out that, after World War II, the initial total numbers of Jews killed differed from various reports. There is nothing wrong with bringing this up, but the answer is not honestly sought. Instead, it is assumed that these numbers must be changing because the entire thing was made up, and thus this is provided as "evidence" for the Holocaust being false.

All of this is an example of the begging the question fallacy, in which a person's concluding premise is either subtly or obviously inserted into the argument to lead to the desired conclusion. It is immediately assumed that a conspiracy must be present, and therefore all conclusions are drawn from the presupposition that a conspiracy has taken place. Many of us have even heard people try to justify conspiracies with "I'm just saying this sounds kind of strange," or, "I'm just saying it's possible." Again, none of these prove anything. In order for a conspiracy theory to be valid, there has to be some connection between the event that has taken place and the conclusion drawn by the person.

Many proponents of conspiracies often brag that they have a kind of "ultimate truth" when it comes to these events, however when pressed for real evidence their case often comes up lacking. Many conspiracies are centered around not evidence but speculations on motives or special interests that prove nothing concrete. For example, a conspiracy theorist may have much to say about motives for the CIA to have wanted to kill John F. Kennedy, but they will never be able to pinpoint any direct evidence that would give probable cause that they were behind the shooting. Again, there is nothing inherently wrong with entertaining various possibilities, but in order for the possibility to be considered valid there has to be some evidence in favor of the accusation made. Despite this, conspiracy theorists will defend to the death against all criticism, declaring that they know the truth. This is despite the fact that their supposed "evidence" would not even be enough to grant an arrest warrant, let alone indict the person or group they are accusing of murder. In fact, in most conspiracy theories the crux of the argument seems to rely on one or two pieces of "evidence" supporting the conspiracy idea, even if there is a mountain of evidence supporting the conspiracy theory's refutation.

A Christian engaging in this kind of activity, either knowingly or unknowingly, is therefore engaging in lies and purposeful deception. Like Muslims who are forced to use double standards in regards to their own faith and Christianity, Christians who engage in this activity are forced to hold double standards and inconsistencies. For those who are called to follow Divine Truth, it is a terrible and offensive thing to engage in man-made lies.

Third, for these reasons, conspiracy theories are an insult to the rationale given to us by the Lord

Galileo once famously said, "I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use." The apostle Paul instructed Christians to "examine everything carefully" (1 Thess 5:21). The author of Proverbs likewise wrote: "How blessed is the man who finds wisdom and the man who gains understanding" (Prov 3:13). To think, to reason, to use logic and to use our rationale - all of these were gifts from God. They are not the primary source of all knowledge, nor the sole basis of all knowledge (this was the error of the Enlightenment and later humanists), but they were nevertheless gifts given to us by God for our use. They were first and foremost given by God in order that we may be capable to know of Him, and secondarily to understand all that is around us.

With conspiracy theories, all of that is thrown out. We are instead called to engage in emotions, to engage in pride, and to follow fallacious logic for the sake of an idea separate from God. Indeed, this thinking follows the course of human logic separate from the discernment given by God, leading a person instead to appear insane. It is childish naivety on parade as grownup knowledge. As the apostle Paul wrote, "Professing to be wise, they became fools" (Rom 1:22).

Conspiracy theorists, of course, will demand that they are using rationale, logic and other elements of the mind, and that they are merely asking questions to get to the heart of the truth. However, we have already established that the very nature of the vast majority of conspiracy theories is grounded on fallacy and paper-thin evidence. Even when a conspiracy theorist admits this, they will still turn around and declare their belief to be the absolute truth, and will still attack, insult, belittle, or criticize anyone who disagrees with their point of view. They are forced to change behavior, even against fellow Christians, in order to defend this idol they have begun to worship. They have done so by forsaking the very intelligence and rationale given to them as a gift by God.

Again, I am not writing this to condemn anyone or declare that any Christian who believes in a conspiracy theory is going to hell. I reiterate that this is merely a call for discernment, even for those who may not believe they follow conspiracy theories. God bless.