Our lives take place increasingly against a background of conspiracy theories.
From the vaccines altering your DNA, to the accusations that the US election was ‘stolen’, to QAnon, we seem surrounded by frightening scenarios of all kinds. It is not that conspiracies never ever happen. It is more our willingness to believe them so readily which makes me wonder.
Why is the contemporary world so awash with these things? And why should Christians think twice before buying into them? Here are some general thoughts to bear in mind.
First, we should realise that the Postmodern mindset, which informs modern society, sets us up for conspiracy theories. Unlike a Christian worldview, it doubts that there is such a thing as truth, and sees all communication as manipulation of the weak by the strong. If we accept this, then everything is actually a conspiracy.
Second, because a lot of people like to believe something, that doesn’t mean it’s true. As Christians especially we should understand that. Think of the success of The Da Vinci Code. The human psyche loves the sensational rather than everyday facts and evidence. Third, as our world becomes more
apocalyptic in its feel, it is easy for Christians to forget the truth of common grace. The Bible does not see every non-Christian as a threat, or worse, some scheming demon. They are fallen sinners, yes, but relatively speaking many are good, sensible people, and all are made in God’s image. Let’s keep things in perspective.
Maybe some personalities are more prone to conspiracy theories. Here the book Educated by Tara Westover is instructive. In it she tells her story of being brought up in Idaho by her Mormon family who live ‘off grid’ – no birth certificate, avoidance of government, public schooling, hospitals and medication, which are all, according to her very dominant father, a conspiracy of the ‘illuminati’. Meanwhile, their own home is a violent and abusive place, something of a bunker prepared for ‘end-time’ – firstly linked with the supposed millennium Y2K catastrophe which never materialised. The only ray of hope comes as Tara is discovered to have a gift for singing and her father obviously enjoys the congratulations and reflected glory. Later, as she begins to break away and attends Brigham Young University, she hears a lecturer describing bipolar syndrome and immediately feels she is listening to a description of her dad – depression, paranoia, euphoria, delusions of grandeur, persecution complex. Are those of us with a bent towards such things more prone to conspiracy theories?
The recent Netflix docudrama The Social Dilemma is a ‘must-see’. Put together with the help of those who have worked in powerful positions within Google, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, it raises big questions about the ability of the internet to promote conspiracy theories, and indeed to destabilise society.
We should realise that the AI search engines behind the screen are not there with the object of you finding truth. They cannot even recognise truth. The algorithms are optimised to ‘success’ for advertisers – which simply means keeping your attention. They will, therefore, tell the conspiracy theorist basically what he wants to hear – and they are very good at calculating that. Hence, for example, given the same question, they are likely to point Republicans to certain websites and Democrats to others – with the result that both sides see each other as ‘stupid’. Your internet search for ‘the facts’ is frequently not what you think it is. Is this a conspiracy?
John Benton is Director of Pastoral Support at The Pastor’s Academy, http://www.pastorsacademy.org