“Help!  There’s a Conspiracy Theory in My Church!!”

Four useful ideas for Christians and Christian leaders

Nigel Chapman

In 2022 I edited a discussion paper called Who to Trust? Christian Belief in Conspiracy Theories1 by ISCAST Australia.  ISCAST is an organisation for Christians who work in science and technology, or otherwise take an interest in how those fields connect with Christian faith.  A good number of us have science and theology degrees and approach these issues from both sides.

We didn’t try to summarise everything that’s out there.  The topic is large and multifaceted, and it has only become a major focus of study in the past decade or so, so it is still comparatively new.  We tried to read widely and select what we thought would be useful to Christians, especially Christian leaders and Christians who work as experts or public authorities, and can thus be the target of conspiratorial accusations.

This article offers four pieces of practical advice based on the paper.  These are the thing I personally consider the four most useful ideas that we came across.  I won’t be providing references here, since anything of interest can be followed up in the paper itself.

Table of Contents

Index. 228
1. Good Conversations are Possible 1,821
2. Think about Fringe Mistrust 1,799
3. Think about Mainstream Knowledge 2,024
4. Focus on Christian Behaviour 1,379
Total words. 7,251

1 https://iscast.org/conspiracy

§1. 

Good Conversations are Possible

Conversations about conspiracy theories are proverbially frustrating.  We sometimes feel, about our aggravants, that “You just can’t reason with people like that!”  And they repay the feeling.  But there are good reasons to think you can have some sensible discussions about conspiracy theories.  Or at least, you can have better conversations than you expect, and you can prevent many of the bad ones.

Having good conversations means finding common ground.  Minimally, that means recognising that conspiracy theories are not always wrong, and do not always cause problems.  This should be self-evident, but acknowledging it may help to build some rapport at the start.

The main reason we know that conspiracy theories are not always wrong is that there are many historical examples of conspiracies being exposed.  Think of Watergate, the tobacco industry’s coverup of the effects of smoking, or lesser-known horrors like the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment.  Because conspiracies do occur, we can’t assume that theories about them are always wrong or stupid.  Those that have been exposed have been more like crime, corruption, and the prejudicial abuse of power than the kind of international supervillainy that we find in the largest conspiracy theories.  Still, they establish a baseline for what’s possible.  They reinforce that we should be critical of powerful people and institutions and hold them to account.  That should be common ground for us.

We should also be able to agree that many or most conspiracy theories are wrong.  The theories are working with incomplete information and trying to connect the dots, so there will always be wrong guesses and ideas that don’t go anywhere.  The various theories disagree with each other about who’s pulling the strings and what they’re trying to accomplish, and they can’t all be correct.  Those/ who believe in conspiracy theories are often the first to say that some conspiracy ideas are crazy – the lizard people, the flat earth – because they resent being associated with them, and they think such ideas are used to discredit more sensible views.  This is not something that dismisses all conspiracy theories, so, again, it should be common ground.  We can’t suppose that all conspiracy theories are valuable, any more than we can assume that all are worthless.  They have to be considered case by case.

We can’t even assume that conspiracy theories will always cause problems.  This should be emphasised, because the usual reason we get talking or worrying about them is that some theory’s adherents are causing problems, whether in families, churches, communities, and in society at large.  Understanding the possible problems can help us identify badly behaved conspiracists, and can also help more conscientious conspiracy theorists to set themselves apart from those stereotypes and gain a fairer hearing.

What problems do conspiracy theories commonly cause?

Conspiracy theories can cause personal problems regardless of whether they are true or false.  First of all, they can be bad for individuals.  A person’s isolation and anxiety can escalate, tendencies toward depression or paranoia can be triggered, and if they reject good health advice or try to attack public authorities there may be much more serious and lasting consequences.

Secondly, and relatedly, there’s damage to the individual’s character.  For some, including some Christians, conspiracism leads to making false accusations, issuing angry insults, and fanning social strife (see §4).  We should be very careful about making these kinds of choices.

Thirdly, there’s disruption to relationships.  Conspiracism is notorious for stressing or breaking even lifelong connections with friends or family.  We cross an obvious line when we become willing to burn those relationships.  This can feel, to others, like a change in our character, especially if they feel that the person they knew would never have done that.  This is why we often hear ‘cult’ analogies for conspiracies.  In fringe religious movements, dependence on the cult is sometimes reinforced by splitting off adherents from their other social networks.  Conspiracy theories can produce a similar dynamic, whether intentionally or not, and we should be alert to this.

Fourthly, this disruption can expand to schools, community groups, and churches, undermining their positive purposes and driving people apart and away.

And fifthly, there’s damage to society and democracy.  All our public institutions rely on some degree of public trust in order to do good and run smoothly.  If criticism of democratic institutions turns quickly or carelessly toward conspiracy theories, this can corrode public trust.  When citizens feel less served and less protected by society they become less likely to act positively or generously toward others.  They may not feel that they can depend on their moral and social universe anymore, and that the common good has been subverted.

While these problems are serious, they are not beyond solution.  Conspiracy theories can always be argued, discussed, and critiqued in ways that do not cause these problems.  Christians should be committed to truth, justice, community, and the common good – so we should be especially capable of overcoming these problems, whether we are arguing for or against any given conspiracy theories.

Even where these problems do occur, nobody starts out wanting them to happen.  People usually think of themselves as good people who are doing good – helping others – and we can connect over this understanding.  We may especially find common ground in wanting to preserve our relationships in the face of tensions.

Importantly, the problems that do occur are not always the fault of the conspiracy theorist.  Often other people can be at least as angry and provocative, particularly if they think that conspiracy ideas are stupid or contemptible.  They may see no way a good or honest person could believe what that person believes.  They might freeze or panic or react badly, when (say) a seemingly racist conspiracy theory comes up in a group discussion.  We each must take responsibility for understanding and persuading each other, and do so as an alternative to conflict and division.

If, as Christians, we decide we want to investigate a particular conspiracy theory, we should also decide at the start that we will not contribute to these problems; or if we have done so, that we will stop acting in these ways and try to make amends.  We can model and teach better behaviour.  As we shall see in part four, there’s a lot in the Bible that’s relevant to our behaviour here, and to preventing the common problems that arise.  We can manage conspiracy theories as an ongoing phenomenon by expecting, not that Christians give up conspiracy theories, but that they do them better, or in more obviously Christian ways.

Where to start and what to ask?

What kind of questions will direct our conversations away from conflict, and toward more self-consciously Christian behaviour?  Try these seven for starters:

Do you want to talk about this?
Some people don’t want to talk.  They will just want to preach or rant at you, or will be unable to make any argument you can respect, so there will be situations where you simply cannot have a constructive conversation.  Others may be open to real conversation, but not with you.  You may personally lack the depth of relationship or understanding, or the free time, that is required.  You might just have to say: “If you find everybody cuts you off over this, I’ll always be here for you.  But we can’t have a conversation at present, as far as I can see.”
Would you ever burn personal relationships over this?
Because conspiracy theories can lead people to disrupt relationships, it may be worth asking if either of us would do so willingly.  Deciding this at the start may help to focus on some shared priorities or prompt some reflection on the way we want to talk.
Why do these kinds of conversations often go badly?
What is it that causes angry exchanges, or makes it hard to continue listening or talking?  How have we each seen these conversations unravel?  How can we do better?  Can we say what we want from these discussions?
Is there a single summary document that you fully stand behind?
Something comprehensive and authoritative.  Something which discusses good examples of opposing views, clearly understands them, and respects the people arguing them.  Not a video, but an article, so it’s less emotional and easier to discuss and critique.  (This may not exist.  In which case…)
What are the best versions of each other’s views?
Is there a version of your side’s position that you think is the strongest, and that you wish people would understand, perhaps instead of less impressive versions?  And what version of your opponent’s position would you like to think you would hold if you had grown up over there?  Is there an objective and non-emotional summary of these views that we could discuss?  Something that genuinely understands and respects opposing views, and acknowledges conscientious disagreements?  Something that’s not a daily drip-drip-drip of videos or articles that are piecemeal and only persuasive to those who are already committed to them.  Could you ask around and find something like this?
How confident are you about the different ideas?
It’s easy to assume that people believe more or fewer conspiracy theories, and better or worse ones, than they really do.  Everybody believes in some; nobody believes them all.  So we need to ask and clarify what we each are really saying.  In particular, a single conspiracy theory can have different levels of mistrust.  Think about any government or business conspiracy theories.  Some will say they’re just negligent or self-interested, others that they’re corrupt, others that they’re controlled by secret evil groups, others that they themselves are the secret evil groups.  If we list all the different types of claims that appear in each kind of theory, we can identify what we each do and don’t believe.  Rating our confidence on issues on a scale of 0–10 can be useful for thinking about why we find some things more persuasive than others.  (Why is this more plausible than that?  Why is that not a 10?  How could I get from being a 2 to being a 7?)  This helps us distinguish an individual’s positions from extreme views.
Shall we swap our news sources for a month?
Conspiracists are often reluctant to say where they get their information from.  It may be worth probing why.  Those who interact with them may not themselves have good information sources, but just have gone along with prevailing views.  What if we spend some time reading each other’s social media feeds, and see each other’s virtual worlds?  Or what happens if we take a month off from thinking about the issues at all?  – Does that change our impact on the world?  Does it change us?

§2. 

Think about Fringe Mistrust

The best general concept for understanding conspiracy theories is fringe mistrust.  It is the best because it will resonate with conspiracy theorists themselves.  If you say that they are gullible, deluded, and fearful, they’ll just say no we’re not – you are!  Then they’ll add that you’re misrepresenting and unfairly dismissing them.  However, if you say that they mistrust mainstream experts and authorities, they will agree, and will say that the mistrust is justified.  That will go further in a conversation.

The mistrust is generally that of the fringe toward the mainstream.  These should be familiar ideas.  From the fringe side, the mainstream are the establishment, the status quo, the powers that be.  From the mainstream side, the fringe is everyone they consider strange, marginal, and suspect.  Fringe and mainstream are words we use for other people, rather than ourselves.

The fringe contains science or history deniers, alternative medicine, racists and nationalists, religious sects or cults, fundamentalists, and even extremists, that is, people who promote or resort to violence.  You might have seen a range of such groups show up at protests during the recent pandemic.  While fringe groups don’t agree on much, they are united in saying that there’s something wrong with the mainstream, especially with its understanding of the world.  They agree that the mainstream is mistreating critical free thinkers like themselves.

Most importantly, the fringe are in some way stigmatised for their beliefs.  Their ideas are not just considered wrong, but also unacceptable, so that people on the fringe experience rejection for them.  Being stigmatised gives them a common experience and identity, and another reason for rejecting the mainstream.  Not all fringe groups are equally suspect, of course.  Nazis are on the fringe, but conspiracy theorists are not as stigmatised as Nazis.  They just share the common dynamic of being alienated from ‘normal’ society by rejecting things the mainstream sees as good and important.

The mainstream of society is a big target and there are lots of ways to critique it.  The mainstream contains people who are powerful and might be corrupt.  It contains ‘elites’, meaning anyone who has an outsized influence on society, whether that is intellectual, financial, political, cultural, or any other kind.  It contains corporations who are motivated by profit and may be greedy, amoral, and exploitative, if not actively criminal.  It contains ordinary people with busy lives who don’t ask fringe questions, and so can be dismissed as unthinking ‘sheep’.  Most importantly, it contains thought leaders and officials who claim to have a consistent and factual view of the world, which can be attacked by claiming to find contradictions.

You will of course by now have noticed that conspiracy theories fit into the fringe, at least insofar as they reject mainstream experts and authorities.  Not all conspiracy theories do so.  Some, like many of the engineers who questioned the collapse of the World Trade Centre towers, make careful arguments and try to persuade the experts and authorities, as well as the general public.  But others feel antipathy toward a society that they think is unfairly rejecting and suppressing them.  Conspiracy theories can explain why they are on the fringe.

We can usefully define ‘conspiracy theories’ in terms of mainstream and fringe.  A conspiracy theory is any suspected conspiracy that is not recognized by mainstream experts and authorities.  A conspiracy theorist is someone who promotes such theories.  And conspiracists are the set of people who, other things being equal, tend to prefer conspiratorial explanations of public events.  Likewise for conspiracism as a movement.

In these terms Watergate was a conspiracy, because it was exposed by newspapers and the police, and people went to jail for it.  On the other hand, the idea that NASA faked the moon landing is a conspiracy theory, because it hasn’t achieved such public confirmation.  Needless to say, many on the fringe disagree with the mainstream’s assessment of what is and is not a conspiracy.  That’s part of the mistrust.

The mainstream and the fringe are divided by more than just differences of opinion.  In particular, conspiracy groups have a different approach to information than their mainstream opponents.  The UK philosopher Quassim Cassam has observed that they prefer sources that are speculative, contrarian, esoteric, and amateur.

Speculative sources  are based on conjecture and guesswork: “Just asking questions.”  Such sources will seem important if you believe the real evidence has all been suppressed; if so, your main business will be “connecting the dots” between seemingly isolated facts.
Contrarian sources  are intentionally and resolutely opposed to official explanations.  They’re seeking truth but not in an impartial or disinterested way; they’re looking specifically for the lies they believe that the mainstream are telling.  They want to find holes in official accounts; they say that things are not the way that they seem.
Esoteric sources  are strange and complex; full of secrets, mysteries, and bizarrities.  But then, if the ‘truth’ of the world is just a carefully constructed lie, why wouldn’t the real truth sound strange or unusual?
Amateur sources  are those that are not relevantly qualified, or not in the right areas – at least mostly.  Which to some degree is unavoidable if you think most experts and authorities are typically wrong, and are deliberately excluding contrary views.  When the experts and the authorities cannot be trusted, it makes sense to try and work it out yourself, becoming amateur sleuths and internet detectives.

Mistrust explains a lot

The fringe actively mistrusts experts and authorities.  This means the establishment and its elites, the corporate military industrial complex, and Big Everything—the people who profit from The Way Things Are.  They look at qualified experts and they see ivory tower intellectuals who lack common sense, who have an agenda, are not accountable to the public, and look down on everybody else.  That’s why they think fringe sources are preferable; why the speculative and contrarian and esoteric and amateur really seem like heroic freethinkers taking a conscientious stand.  More so than their opposites: the published researchers, the received wisdom, the established science, the relevantly qualified people.  Mistrust is a simple idea but it will take you a long long way toward understanding conspiracism and conspiracists.  Here are seven ways it influences conspiracism:

Mistrust explains why conspiracy theorists feel insightful.
An anti-vaxxer may not understand immunology to an introductory college level, may not be able to answer the first set of tutorial questions in the first class, but they do understand that big pharmacology firms could take shortcuts with vaccines for the sake of profit.  That seems like prudence and common sense.
Mistrust explains why conspiracy theorists feel confident.
They believe that there’s something wrong with the kind of information sources that contradict them, so they mistrust and avoid these.  As a result, they mostly hear from people who already agree with themselves.  That can lead to overconfidence, because they never see their ideas being tested or critiqued by people they trust.
Mistrust explains why the best predictor of belief in conspiracy theories is already believing in other conspiracy theories.
Once mistrust is learned, especially mistrust of anything ‘mainstream’, it is easily redeployed.  This explains why conspiracy theories can be a gateway to other fringe ideas, and vice-versa.
Mistrust explains why conspiracism appeals to groups who are in conflict.
People who have a history of oppression, who are losing political and social power, or who see themselves as persecuted all have mistrust that they can build upon.  That’s why, all over the world, majorities in society share conspiracy theories in order to marginalise minorities – and why minorities share them to undermine majorities in return.
Mistrust explains why political conspiracism has boomed in the past twenty years.
Recent western history has seen polarisation and populism increase in public life.  Polarisation amplifies your mistrust of enemies, while populism amplifies your mistrust of elites.  As you will have seen, both movements eagerly share conspiracy theories about their opponents.
Mistrust explains why conspiracy theories are self-sealing.
Any contrary idea can be attributed to already mistrusted sources, or connected to already mistrusted ideas, and so discounted as suspect.
Mistrust explains why Christians have such trouble finding simple moral answers to conspiracism.
Mistrust is ethically ambiguous.  It is good when it is justified, and bad when it is not.  Whether it is justified may not be a simple question, since the issues may be complex, obscure, and difficult for amateurs to judge.

Two kinds of conspiracy theories

The theme of mistrust is nicely expressed in the Dutch researcher Jaron Harambam’s concept of postmodern conspiracy theories.  You might know what modern and postmodern mean, specifically that ‘modern’ does not mean ‘now’, it means the period from 1650 to 1950.  The ‘modern’ era was the age of enlightenment and progress, exploration and discovery, industrialisation and trade, education, democracy, and so on.  Postmodernism is the counter-reaction that asks whether all this progress mostly served established power interests through colonialism, racism, sexism, slavery, exploitation, and environmental destruction.  It is suspicious of power, and the stories that serve those who hold power.

Harambam writes that ‘modern’ conspiracism is a child of the Enlightenment: it believes that the world is rational, and that if you’re smart and diligent then you can do the work of figuring out what’s going on, and then persuade others of your findings.  Modern conspiracy theories are based on evidence; they want to get the evidence before the experts so that it can be confirmed.  In modern conspiracy theories, the enemies are typically opposing “our government”.  Harambam calls this secure paranoia, as it says the world is rational and people can come together against external threats.  This kind of paranoia soothes anxiety.

But ‘postmodern’ conspiracism assumes that much of public life is secretly opposing the interests of the general public, so that anything presented as official or authoritative is very likely part of a gigantic program of deception.  Even if you can’t prove any of this to the degree that, say, a court of law would require, you know deep down that something is not right.  In postmodern conspiracy theories there’s no point trying to persuade the experts, because they’re most likely part of the problem.  Likewise, “our government” is probably the enemy, or one of them, or at least under their control.  Harambam calls this ‘insecure paranoia’, as the world is not necessarily rational or reliable.  This kind of paranoia builds anxiety, because the enemies are everywhere and reason will seldom suffice to defeat them.

Certainty has given way to doubt, and conspiracy has become the default assumption in an age which has learned to distrust everything and everyone.  (Peter Knight)

There’s all the difference in the world between a person who concludes that a conspiracy is happening, and a person who assumes it at the start.

§3. 

Think about Mainstream Knowledge

If fringe mistrust is a useful idea for understanding conspiracy theories, what about the subject of that mistrust?  We can call this ‘mainstream knowledge’, which is to say, the knowledge that the mainstream of society produces and relies upon.  Nobody mistrusts all of it.  Almost everyone is happy to live at a time in history with medicine, technology, news media, democracy, the rule of law – a raft of institutions of public knowledge that are on their side.  So how should we think about this ‘mainstream knowledge’, the ways it is produced, and the things that can go wrong with it?

Many important facts are not obvious, and many important decisions are not simple, so we rely on experts to understand them.  Facts about the world come from the institutions that study the sciences, or from applied sciences like medicine, or from other organisations that undertake academic or commercial research.  Facts about human life and experience come from the humanities, especially the study of politics, society, and history.  Further, much knowledge is judged by public institutions like journalism, democratic government, and the courts.  Authorities will usually be expected to formulate policy or responses to events on the basis of agreed facts and expert judgements.

The mainstream of society mostly trusts these institutions of knowledge, or at least believes existing measures are sufficient to detect and deter abuses.  Conspiracy theorists disagree.  They say that things are not working like they should – that public understanding and decision-making has in some way been taken captive by private interests.  So we should ask why the mainstream of society considers these to be good sources of knowledge in general.

This means thinking about ‘liberal’ societies, which are societies that try to make individual freedoms serve the common good, whether economically, politically, or epistemologically.  By epistemologically, I mean in the way that we form and test our ideas about the world.  Three major aspects of such societies are 1) rights and toleration, 2) objectivity and fallibility, and 3) persuasion and disproof.  These principles have – supposedly – been gradually baked into our institutions of knowledge.

Rights and Toleration

Conspiracy theorists, perhaps more than most people, insist on their rights to speak freely and follow their consciences.  In this respect they are part of the western liberal tradition, which established these values in public life in the period between, roughly speaking, 1700 and 1900.  These ideas, especially as they were formulated by John Locke, arose partly out of Christian reflection on a partly Christian catastrophe.  After the Protestant Reformation, half of Europe was no longer politically subordinate to the Vatican, and in the new power vacuum, a series of major wars ran for nearly 150 years and, especially in the north, caused enormous devastation.  The wars were as much political as religious, but many of the partisans understood them primarily in religious terms.  By the end, nobody wanted to go through that again.  But could we find a better way to resolve our disagreements in public life?

In Letter Concerning Toleration (1689) and An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), John Locke brought together a set of solutions which will be immediately recognisable today.  He said that 1) people possess ‘natural rights’, which include things like life, liberty, and control of their bodies and property; 2) governments are created by ‘popular sovereignty’: the people appoint them to give them their natural rights; and 3) we have to tolerate dissenting views.  People must be free to argue for different beliefs, and also free to criticise them.  They must be argued out, so that we kill off bad ideas, rather than kill each other.

It might appear that religious truth, if it is agreed to be the most critically important of all truths, must not tolerate error, and that governments must be true to God and so, take proper and ultimate care of their people by preventing errors.  But Locke offers three essentially Christian arguments against this: 1) There is no use of force in the service of religious truth that could not equally well be used against it in a different situation.  2) The use of force does not change the heart, and so, does not achieve the fundamental purpose of religious truth in the first place.  And 3) governments are not competent to decide religious truth anyway.  Rather, we should tolerate even those ideas we believe to be seriously wrong, and ensure the freedom to persuade and argue over them, both for and against.  These ideas fit well with democracy.  A democratic system makes government accountable to the public by organising the regular non-violent transfer of power between differing political parties by public vote.  This is an ‘agonistic’ system: it recognises there will always be political conflict, but that some kinds of conflict are productive, and so, tries to put some rules around the conflict, and thereby channel it toward compromise and persuasion and away from violent solutions.  This also has some Christian foundations in the belief that no human being is fit to have unchecked power over others.

These kinds of rights – freedom of speech, freedom of conscience – should sound familiar to conspiracists, because they allow conspiracy theories to be freely discussed.  But these rights cut both ways: they also allow the free critique of conspiracy theories, and require conspiracy theories to invite and respond to correction if they wish to participate in the formation of public knowledge.  Liberal societies require this of everyone.  This brings us to the second pillar, objectivity and fallibility, and then to the third, persuasion and disproof.

Objectivity and Fallibility

When the Royal Society was formed in 1660, its approach to science reflected these developing ideas.  Its motto, Nullius in verba meant ‘Not taking anyone’s word for it’ – not when you can go and check.  But this suspicion of traditional authority does not mean that all ideas are equally good.  Liberal institutions aim to be tolerant of divergent views precisely in order to subject them to informed criticism, so that public truth is determined on its merits and is not subject to the biases or misconceptions of individuals.

“Good men are men still liable to mistakes and are sometimes warmly engaged in errors, which they take for divine truths, shining in their minds with the clearest light.”  (John Locke, 1690)

So if we look at our public institutions, we will notice that they all, over time, have developed rules and norms that aim to produce knowledge and filter out errors.  Ideally, as Jonathan Rauch puts it in The Constitution of Knowledge, they practise “open-ended, depersonalized checking by an error-seeking social network”.  This means they believe in objectivity and fallibility.

Knowledge we rely upon in public life must give the same result for anyone – at least to anyone competent to investigate it – and not be dependent on any private viewpoint or perspective.  It must be disprovable, and only knowledge that survives disproof should be accepted.  Such knowledge is only accepted provisionally, because there may always be a better understanding that arises in future.  And today, there’s too much knowledge to be held in any one person’s head, so human knowledge lives in networks of experts, and the sum of our public knowledge is the knowledge that has successfully persuaded these networks.  We aim for objectivity and disproof as grounds for persuasion.

Persuasion and Disproof

Consider how this works in science.  Not everybody is smart enough to become a scientist; many lack the required access to education; and it takes a long time.  Still, anyone with such good fortune can choose this career path.  The way it works is that you have to publish your ideas or discoveries, and so subject them to criticism and disproof.  You send these to academic journals, and perhaps your peers are persuaded by them.  Or perhaps they disagree and write a long critique.  Or perhaps they can’t replicate your results, and they publish that in reply.  Maybe no one is persuaded and your ideas die of neglect.  But if your ideas do persuade people, then they are accepted into the network of information, and the community of expertise, for that area of human knowledge.

Or consider journalism, which became generally self-correcting around the 1920s when journalistic codes of ethics were widely adopted.  Verification, independence, and accountability became professional obligations for anyone claiming to serve the public by reporting news of public interest.  So instead of talking about ‘fringe sources’ or ‘mainstream media’, we can talk about objective journalistic standards.  If a news source publishes an accusation, but does not give the accused a right of reply in that article, it’s not doing journalism.  If a news source doesn’t prominently distinguish between news and opinion, or disclose all possible conflicts of interest, they’re not doing journalism.  If a news source never publishes prominent corrections, then either they never make mistakes – which is unlikely when reporting on still-developing situations – or they’re not doing journalism.  And so on.  What are they doing if they’re not doing journalism?  If they’re not serving the public then who are they serving?

An idea is not right or wrong just because it is mainstream, nor for that matter because it is fringe.  But the process can be clearly right or wrong.  If it tries to be objective, publishes its best understanding and invites criticism from informed people, and takes pride in correcting itself when it makes a mistake, then it will tend toward true results.  These approaches to truth serve the public by improving public knowledge.  Rather than dismissing the mainstream or dismissing the fringe, we should distinguish good or bad science, good or bad journalism, and good or bad conspiracism, wherever we see it.  We should do this for all claims to public truth, whether from our public institutions or from self-styled independent researchers.  Mainstream institutions who act in these ways are good; those who do not are bad.  Likewise for fringe sources.

Of course there are plenty of problems with both science and journalism – and indeed all our public institutions.  All our liberal institutions are the product of hundreds of years of refinement – often gradual and piecemeal, but effective enough to have given us the real expectation that they can and should serve the common good.  They are fallible, and require active maintenance.  Powerful people can undermine them if we don’t take care, and conspiracy theories can be used for this purpose.  However, they have been built over time precisely to address some of the questions that conspiracy theories are asking: vested interests, personal biases, censorship and propaganda, and so on.

Public institutions can help hold each other to account.  Newspapers can report scandals in government, science, or journalism itself.  Governments can support good journalism and good science through legislating for transparency and accountability.  Legislative measures like freedom-of-information requests, or protection for whistleblowers, are how some historical conspiracies have been exposed.  This of course extends to other institutions like the courts, or public health, or regulatory policy.  Conspiracy theorists should be supporting these measures, which try to serve our common good by making people with power accountable to society at large.

So western society in general poses a challenge to conspiracism.  Are conspiracy theories successfully saying that its mechanisms for discovering and refining truth have collapsed beyond repair?  Can conspiracy theories integrate these institution’s strengths into their own investigations?  Can conspiracy theories publish their findings, invite criticism, and make public corrections of any mistakes?  And if they don’t, are they really doing any better than the mainstream?

§4. 

Focus on Christian Behaviour

A fourth useful idea for thinking through Christian belief in conspiracy theories is to focus on behaviour rather than beliefs.  Focusing on behaviour gives us ethical common ground and helps us have good conversations.

Conspiracy theorists will tell you they are seeking truth and justice.  Yet conspiracism is notorious for wild accusations and slander, strife and partiality, sometimes insincerity and pride, and often rage and insults too.  You don’t have to be a Christian to think these things are wrong, but there’s enough about them in the Bible that Christians ought to categorically reject them.  If we look at the way fools are described in the book of Proverbs, we’ll notice parallels with these kinds of behaviour: fools “believe anything,” are “quarrelsome,” are “wise in their own eyes,” are “mockers and scoffers.”  Any person can pursue conspiracy theories without behaving in these ways, and Christian conspiracists must ensure they do not.  Each of these problems is worth thinking through.

Slander and accusations.  If you distrust public institutions in a systematic way, then you are very likely to start making accusations against others, especially public officials, experts, authorities, or anybody plausibly linked with ‘elites’.  Conspiracy theorists are often careless with their accusations, going well beyond what they could reasonably defend in court if they were sued for slander or libel.  For Christians, slander and negligent falsehoods are sins.  If a Christian does not care whether they are making false accusations or not, and does not try to make corrections or restitution if they do so, then their behaviour is evil.  This equally applies to supposedly Christian sources of news, or supposedly Christian public figures.  What assurance of their Christian character could anyone offer as a substitute for their actual behaviour?
Strife and partiality.  In the New Testament “enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions” are called “works of the flesh” (Gal 5:19–21).  Strife is attributed to two main causes: quarrelsome people and partiality.  We have to do the work of persuading others, be open to reasonable critique, and not be quarrelsome.  We have to be models of God’s own impartiality toward literally everybody, and not perpetuate injustices through bias, partisanship, polarisation, or one-sided thinking.
Insincerity and pride.  These are the most subtle tempatations of conspiracism.  If we are sincere, if we speak as people who stand before God, that means genuinely caring and actually checking that what we say is true; we can’t just automatically repeat what ‘our people’ are saying.  If we’ve made a mistake we must then make apologies, corrections, and even reparations.  Sincerity means repenting and changing.  We can’t be ducking accountability for what we’ve said (Prov 26:19).  So no “just joking” or “just asking questions” if we’ve actually made some perfectly clear allegations.  And we must not claim to be wiser than we are, or let ourselves be manipulated through a sense of importance in having insider knowledge.
Rage and insults.  There are examples in scripture of people getting angry and insulting people.  Jesus does so on occasion.  But there are also clear warnings about the dangers of speaking in these ways.  Because anger “lodges in the hearts of fools” (Eccl 7:9) we must be slow to become angry.  It can never be a reflex or a first response.  Likewise insults.  We must sometimes rebuke foolishness or hypocrisy.  But there must never be verbal retaliation or the demeaning of a person instead of their actions.

For each of these points we can spell out Christian ethics that will quickly settle the question of whether a person’s involvement in conspiracism – or politics – is undermining their day-to-day faith and behaviour.  Are they willing to follow Christ in their conspiracism?  Are their fellow Christians willing to when they discuss these issues with them?  Will we respect each other’s freedom of conscience, but at the same time work to “agree” – to find agreement and understanding – with each other?  If conspiracy theory disputes were causing a fracture in our churches, communities, or relationships, could we trust a third party to arbitrate for us?

Innoculation

If we find conspiracy theories are causing problems in our churches and communities, we might ask several different questions about the best way to respond.  “How do we fix this?”  is the most obvious.  Or if that doesn’t work, and no quick fix is apparent: “How do we manage this in an ongoing way?”  These are obvious questions that need answering.  But we could also ask ahead of time: “What can we do to prevent these problems before they occur?”  Everyone we’ve read seems to agree that it’s difficult to displace a conspiracist view of the world once it takes hold.  Conspiracism mistrusts any kind of expertise or authority that could be used to correct it.  The best established idea in conspiracy theory research is that inoculation is better than cure.

Inoculation says to get in first and give examples of conspiracist thinking and why it can be a problem.  This can make people more wary about conspiracist claims, and associated wrong behaviours, before they begin.  But there’s an important moral caution to mention here.  Inoculation is a way of taking power over others.  We’re getting in first in order to influence how they see other information and to stop others getting in first.  We should explain what we’re doing so that they can think about it for themselves and so that they know to recognise it.  Inoculation has to be about liberation, not control.

Here’s how inoculation might be applied to the four ideas I have already mentioned.  Recall that the ideas were: (1) Good Conversations; (2) Fringe Mistrust; (3) Mainstream Knowledge; and (4) Christian Behaviour.

Good Conversations.  If Christians took the gospel seriously, then they (we) would be seeking to become the world’s master communicators.  Conspiracy theories offer some of the best exercises in understanding other perspectives.  Teaching debating skills in churches is a good way to teach perspective-taking, bridge building, and communication across ideological gulfs.  It’s a tremendous opportunity to develop some highly reusable skills and knowledge.  (Debate topic: “Are conspiracy theories the way that elites are controlling us?”)
Fringe Mistrust.  We should not say that mainstream is good and fringe is bad, or vice-versa.  And we shouldn’t say that mistrust is either good or bad in any blanket way.  The question is not whether something is mainstream or fringe, but whether it’s actually good science, medicine, journalism, and so on.  Some kinds of mistrust are prudent, and others are corrosive and destructive to our common good.  We should recognise that some fringe views will be correct or at least valuable, even though most will be wrong, especially when there are so many conflicting ideas on the fringe.
Mainstream Knowledge.  Our public institutions have standards they claim to uphold, and mechanisms for self-correction.  That means we can distinguish values and processes from experts and authorities.  Take journalism, for example.  If someone mistrusts the ‘mainstream media’, then ask what journalistic standards their preferred sources follow.  Don’t defend bad journalism from any source; demand better values and processes from everyone, whether mainstream or fringe.  Likewise for any of our public institutions: we should understand and strengthen the mechanisms of transparency and accountability that catch mistakes and conspiracies.  One of the ways Christians who work as experts and authorities in mainstream institutions can help inoculate others against the bad effects of conspiracism is to speak in churches, talk about our work and our faith, explain how knowledge in our field is really formed and tested and corrected, and what the real problems and dangers and dissatisfactions are.  That’s going to be a lot more interesting and convincing than a general, unfocused sense that “something’s not right.”
Christian Behaviour.  Lastly, we can teach good behaviour and demand it from anyone who claims to represent Christians in public life.  If people say they’re Christian, but they won’t show Christian character in discussing conspiracy theories, then there’s a deeper problem than conspiracy theories to address.  The important areas include slander and falsehoods, strife and partiality, foolishness and conceit, and rage and insults.  We’re unlikely to have good conversations until they fix that.  But we are already obliged to be teaching good character in these exact areas.