RLTV: 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