What's Wrong with Conspiracy Theories?
By Michael Peabody
The other day someone sent me a link to an "Antichrist Decoder" that has been posted online by an otherwise reputable Christian ministry. You can type in anybody's name and the program will calculate the value of the name in Roman numerals.
After checking my name to make sure that I was not the Antichrist I looked at the other names that people had plugged into the decoder and learned that Barack Obama is not the antichrist, neither is Barack Hussein Obama. Ronald Wilson Reagan's name doesn't add up to 666 even if you type in two "v"s to make the W.
People were having fun with the decoder and for the uninitiated it would be at home in a carnival next to the "Love Meter" or "Magic 8 Ball." Perhaps an "antichrist decoder" made the rounds on the county fair circuit in years gone by, or a 666 Decoder Ring was the cheap plastic treat in the box of Cracker Jacks.
A conspiracy theory hits the same synapses as the Weekly World News or National Enquirerproviding junk food for the mind that masquerades as a nutritious meal. Just this last week while little Falcon Heene was presumably floating above Colorado in a UFO-Shaped balloon, YouTube videos that his dad made about how Hillary Clinton could be a "reptilian shape shifter" spiked in popularity. And each night millions tune in hear George Noory on Coast to Coast AMwhile he discusses tunnels under the pyramids and portals to other dimensions. And every year seekers crowd churches to hear the latest interpretations of Scripture that specify how mysterious political events are aligning to bring the world to an end. The problem with the cheap thrill of side show conspiracy theories is that concern about legitimate issues is eventually eroded as the carnival callers "cry wolf" so often that the real wolves can count on a feast.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines "Conspiracy Theory" as "a theory that explains an event or set of circumstances as the result of a secret plot by usually powerful conspirators."
Christianity as a whole is planted on a conspiracy theory that one day the world will end and that there are forces at work right now among the "principalities and powers" of this world that will effect that change and that rescue is coming from outer space and that you can communicate with tremendous powers simply through the power of thought. We don't often view it in these terms but that's how it would sound to a Martian if he happened to walk into a church service.
In reality, some conspiracy theories are true and verifiable, but others are not. It is important to distinguish between verifiable or substantiated truth and error because any error, even if it is meant well, tends to corrupt the entirety of the message. In the religious world, people tend to take "judicial notice" of scripture so speaking in harmony with an established text is generally accepted, but other issues require proven and reliable evidence or they will, of necessity, be questioned. Believing that something bad is afoot if it is not mentioned in scripture with specificity must be backed up with substantial evidence if listeners are to take it seriously.
Conspiracy theories that float around without substantial grounding in truth present several serious drawbacks.
First, conspiracy theories that do not come true affect your credibility.
"A good conspiracy is unprovable. I mean, if you can prove it, it means they screwed up somewhere along the line." Mel Gibson's character inConspiracy Theory (1997).
Around the year 2000, the millennial conspiracy nutcases (we call them now) came out and said that the world would end, planes would fall from the sky, and the electrical power grid would crash. Then, following 9/11 George Bush was going to institute marshal law and become dictator for life. Today, the H1N1 vaccine is a mind control drug and amounts to biological warfare.
Is there any truth to these conspiracies? Perhaps there is, but nothing has happened in the first two, and I am predicting that the vaccine will not create a nation of zombies. Still there are people who email me tons of information about FEMA concentration camps, mass production of body bags, and all kinds of fascinating things. I usually read them because it is fun to be afraid but each time it seems less and less likely. There is too much "conspiracy" noise out there to distinguish the truth from the error, and unfounded conspiracies based on nothing more than the eyewitness report of a "friend of a friend of a friend" are not persuasive.
Second, conspiracy theories can distract you from present responsibilities.
"A Conspiracy!" cried the delighted lady, clapping her hands. "Of all things, I do like a Conspiracy! It's so interesting!" – Lewis Carroll, My Lady, Sylvie and Bruno (1889)
There is an old saying that it is possible to be "so heavenly minded that you are of no earthly good." You can also be so "conspiracy minded" that you are of no earthly good.
When people tell me about conspiracy theories I often ask them whether they have taken the time to learn more about their faith or do good in their communities. They may show me some pamphlets they gave to people to "warn" them about whatever they think is going to happen but most of the time they haven't done much more.
I do write this from a Christian perspective and I've learned over time that we really do have a lot of freedom in the United States and in Canada for the most part to speak freely about religion or politics, and to assemble. There are challenges from time to time which can be addressed but we still have the ability to address them. In a large sense, religious liberty is a supportive ministry that can be called upon when needed but does not necessarily need to be front and center unless there is a specific need for it.
Religious liberty ministry is like a fire extinguisher in a glass case. It must be charged up and ready to go. It needs to have all the resources to handle severe fires, but the sign says, "In case of emergency, break glass." It can be used to inform people of current events but never to distract from the main mission of the church, which I believe is set forth in the Great Commission.
This segues nicely to the third reason I have a problem with conspiracy theories.
Third, conspiracy theories can become the center of your faith.
"Our cause is a secret within a secret, a secret that only another secret can explain, it is a secret about a secret that is veiled by a secret." Ja'far as-Sadiq (6th Imam)
A while back there was a group of borderline Seventh-day Adventists who decided to spread the gospel by talking about the antichrist. They put up billboards all over the country, reserved space in major newspapers, and otherwise launched massive media campaigns. Most of the ads appeared to be miles of tiny text punctuated by dire warnings and a picture of the purported antichrist.
This would appear to be evangelism in the negative – in other words, tell people about the bad in the world to teach them what's good. It's like former rock stars and drug dealers turned religious who tell stories of their fascinating lives. They had money, power, fame, mansions, cars, planes, and everything else you could ever want in life. But then the stories become far less interesting when they become Christians and now live in their vans traveling the country. I suppose it works for some people so I'm not going to knock it, but it's usually made me more curious about their past than about what's happening now.
I've met a lot of people who will tell all their friends about conspiracy theories thinking that they are sharing their faith. I met one person who went around giving out copies of Foxe's Book of Martyrsand would regale listeners with stories about extreme torture. Entertaining? Weirdly so. But effective? Yes, in turning people into atheists.
Leading somebody to an understanding of 666 is not the same as sharing one's religious faith. It may seem like more fun but it doesn't do much good in making an argument as to why people should want what you have.
Fourth, conspiracy theories can cause you to create enemies out of people whom you should be befriending and cause you to question the sincere motives of others.
"There will ever be some who take delight in dwelling upon the real or supposed faults and failures of others, and who employ their time in seeing, hearing, or reporting something that will destroy confidence in the person criticised. Few are without visible faults; in most persons careful scrutiny will reveal some defect of character; and upon these defects in others, some professed Christians delight to dwell. The habit strengthens with indulgence, and a love for gossip becomes their ruling passion. They gather together the tid-bits of reports,–all of them, it may be, utterly devoid of truth,–and feast upon the scandal, and share it with others as a rare delicacy." Ellen White – Review and Herald, August 28, 1883.
Weird stories about aliens, Freemasons, the Illuminati, the Trilateral Commission, or any other group can draw unreasonable and unnatural lines between people. One person I met is fixated on the idea that there will one day be a holy war in America and is planning to run away into the mountains to hide from it all, but is afraid that he will not be able to escape persecution when it comes because the persecutors will have GPS and heat detectors.
Unfortunately, this person has become a virtual hermit who believes he is living a pious lifestyle when in reality he makes Howard Hughes look normal. If he would put some of his tremendous mental horsepower to work helping people with problems that they are facing today, such as poverty, homelessness, illiteracy, and any other ways, he would make a tremendous impact for good. But instead he has twisted the plot around so much that he views any meaningful interaction with the real world as dangerous. Almost everybody is involved in a conspiracy against him, and he believes that most people in the world are formulating plans to do him wrong. The world has pretty much stayed the same but he has become a paranoid freak.
I've met wild eyed conspiracy theorists in many areas of life, not just religion. It is very difficult to reason with a person like this because if you question them, they believe that you are now part of the conspiracy. They think the worst of anybody they disagree with.
Hiding away on a mountain somewhere is not a call to piety. Conspiracy theories may have their place as mile markers but they should not impede forward progress.
In reality, the truth is out there, but you're not likely to find it in a decoder ring. True appreciation of faith or even religious liberty issues do not thrive in fear or require a crisis to be meaningful. You can help liberty thrive when you care about the world and engage with it and the people who live here. Tell the verifiable, undeniable truth and the facts will speak for themselves.
"He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?" Micah 6:8