Christians and Conspiracy Theories
“You’ve been vaccinated against COVID?” he said with a horrified gasp. “Don’t you know that the mRNA will cause your body to shed spike protein fragments, rendering people sitting next to you infertile while simultaneously introducing 5-G responsive nanoware that will leave your brain vulnerable to the influences of the deep state and the incoming Ko-Dan Armada?”
OK, so the last part was a surreptitious nod to 1980’s nerd culture, but substitute George Soros or Bill Gates, and I suspect that most of you will readily recognize the above flood of misinformation as an all-too-real phenomenon in American Christian culture. I would be willing to bet that many of us can easily name relatives, friends, or social media acquaintances that have espoused at least one or more of the false beliefs listed above.
This acceptance of misinformation extends far beyond COVID-19, touching most, if not all, aspects of our common life together as a nation and as the Body of Christ. Who among us has not struggled lately with the desire to isolate into enclaves of the like-minded, to look at the pews across the aisle from us and ask what it is our brother or sister in Christ truly believes about the world around us and whether we can trust them? Who among us has not felt the fracturing effect of this suspicion on our ability to communicate Christ’s love to those around us?
This is not a trivial matter. If the faith once delivered to the saints is indeed real, then we have been entrusted with something that our world desperately needs in order to find healing, wholeness, and rest. But if we cannot even agree on the nature of the world around us, why should we be believed by those outside the church? At this point it is difficult not to rush toward potential solutions, but before we do it is first necessary to understand where this came from. By exploring the shape of the path that led us here, perhaps we can find the direction needed to get past it. Doing this, though, will involve wading into perhaps even more controversial territory among Christians: Protology and Eschatology, creation and the Second Coming.
The Beginning of Time, Science and Ken Ham
Looking at the overall landscape of American Christianity, it may seem almost self-evident that an ongoing war of some sort between science and faith is the natural state of things. On one side we have popular Christian websites such as Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis proclaiming that a literal (or “plain”, as they often call it) understanding of Genesis 1 leads to a seven-calendar-day creation roughly six thousand years ago. On the other side, we have popularizers of science such as Richard Dawkins who present a vision of the scientific method destined to lead us into agnosticism. This current détente, however, is far from inevitable.
Both Judaism and Christianity understand God not just as a rational being, but as the source and ground of all rationality and logic. They also conceive of the universe as a contingent construct; one that stands apart from God, does not have to exist in the form it currently does, and could potentially have been otherwise. “It was this truth,” said T.F. Torrance in his work Divine and Contingent Order, “that originally gave rise early in the Christian era to the pursuit of empirical or experimental science.” As image bearers of God (and therefore participants in his Divine rationality) it is possible for us to systematically study the universe (which as a fellow “creature” also takes part to some extent in the same rationality) and arrive at consistent answers. While this approach is imperfect (as, being a human enterprise, it must be), it has also given rise to both a deep understanding of how the physical world operates and how to usefully manipulate it for our own ends, and rightly enjoys a privileged place in how we acquire and apply knowledge. It does, however, come with a bit of a catch: to use it correctly we must subject our cherished ideas to (as the philosopher Karl Popper described it) falsification. Put more simply, we must be willing to be proven wrong.
It was, of course, inevitable that this investigative approach would be turned toward the beginning of time, and it is perhaps unsurprising that it uncovered evidence at odds with a “plain” reading of Genesis (again adopting Ken Ham’s terminology). In truth, the concept of a “plain reading” of a text like Genesis is troublesome at its core, as what appears plain to a 21st century Westerner reading a translated version through post-Enlightenment eyes is not the same as what would appear plain to a post-exilic Israelite hearing this same text read aloud in Hebrew by a priest. Indeed, figurative interpretations of Genesis have long flourished within the church. But as the Enlightenment drew on, our tolerances for such latitude seemed to ebb; many Christians concerned with protecting their faith from the advances of liberalism and modernism hardened their stance toward any alternative ways of reading Genesis. It is not difficult to trace this thought process through the intervening centuries to such current young-earth creationist organizations as Answers in Genesis and the Institute for Creation Research. What matters here are not so much the particulars of this history, though, but the fact that both halves of this narrative are deeply embedded in the substrate of the American church. Many current Christians thus grew up with a strange mix of respect for “science” as a means to acquiring common understanding, and a deep distrust of this approach as it had been applied to origins. This has a great deal to do with the current Christian appetite for the conspiratorial.
As a child of the 1980s who grew up attending a fundamentalist church, I can testify to this dichotomy from personal experience. In my own congregation “Science” was mostly seen as something to be trusted, but when the subject of origins arose this attitude quickly changed to one of fear. And the way in which this cognitive and emotional gap was bridged was by reference to conspiracies. After all, if science was to be seen as a positive means of understanding the world, then some explanation must be offered for why it yielded an evolutionary message in some contexts. Therefore, the narrative ran, conspiracies must exist that were being used by (here some shadowy individual, academic organization, or philosophical movement would be cited) to cover up the “true” science that pointed to a plain reading of Genesis. Thus, cognitive dissonance was minimized, and we could continue to use the technological outcomes of scientific progress (not least vaccines) without contradiction. In retrospect, though, this approach only worked as well as it did due to the remains of an inherited, shared trust of science that was destined for collapse. This is exactly what happened.
In the end, there is no real a priori reason for treating evolutionary theory as different than the rest of science (the young-earth creationist distinction between “observational” and “historical” science notwithstanding). As respect for the scientific process as a means of generating a shared narrative faded, it became progressively easier to use the “conspiracy” approach to explain away any scientific information, no matter how rigorously demonstrated, that might contradict someone’s personally preferred understanding. This process was well underway before the COVID-19 pandemic, but the sudden appearance of a global societal stressor requiring many public-health decisions that were unpopular from a political perspective seemed to throw accelerant on the blaze. After all, if someone already believes that scientists are engaged in an act of conspiracy to ignore, or cover up, evidence in favor of a young earth, it is perfectly natural to extend this to conclusions regarding the effectiveness of COVID vaccines—if you are already prone, for social reasons, to believe that vaccines are inherently harmful or (perhaps worse) means of societal control.
Eschatology and the LaHaye Effect
Fast forward from the beginning to the end of time. While Christians have for millennia confessed in the Nicene Creed that Jesus “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and His kingdom will have no end,” claims regarding the specifics of what, exactly, this event will look like have varied considerably over time. A survey of the entirety of this landscape is beyond the scope of this essay and, in terms of the rise of conspiracy theories, is not really required. Instead, we need only focus on the early 1830’s, where a small group of Christians led by (among others) John Nelson Darby were busy developing a novel way of looking at the relationship between God, Scripture, and humanity called Dispensationalism. Largely unique at the time it was formulated, this interpretive framework has grown significantly in the intervening years and has become a dominant part of evangelical discourse.
A core aspect of this approach is the absolute separation of the historical people of Israel from the church, and it is seen as a Christian’s duty to “rightly divide the word.” Practically speaking, this often amounts to going through specific biblical texts line by line, determining which components pertain to which group. It was this exercise that first led the founders of this approach to believe that the second coming would occur in two stages. The first (termed the “Rapture”) only pertained to the Church and involved their escape from a declining world. The second (termed the “Glorious Appearing”) involved Christ returning in power to set up an earthly kingdom in fulfillment of God’s promises to the Jewish nation. If you are a child of the nineties who worshiped in any moderately conservative evangelical circles these terms should sound familiar to you, as they appeared prominently in the Left Behind books, a series of novels written by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins that lays out this theology in light sci-fi thriller format. These, however, were just the most well-known works of a larger literary genre that had existed for decades and included texts such as the fictional Illuminati by Larry Burkett and the non-fiction Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsay.
Having grown up amongst the Plymouth Brethren (the denomination that eventually grew out of Darby’s original eighteenth-century gatherings), I was intimately familiar with these books, and central to all of them was an attempt to address one fundamental question: how could the Antichrist (here conceived as a world leader of singular influence and power) meld the warring nations of our planet into a single totalitarian state given the current state of the world? The answer in each of them, predictably enough, was via global conspiracy. Indeed, even a cursory reading of these works will reveal many of the concepts seen in current conspiracy theories, such as the existence of a “deep state”, the impending occurrence of multiple manufactured world crises (see the pseudo-documentary Plandemic for an example of this), and an ultimate move toward a semi-pagan one-world religion devoted to Antichrist worship. And, in each one, only a small remnant of conservative fundamentalist or evangelical protestants could clearly see what was happening as it all unfolded. This is eerily familiar to the approach taken by many American Christians during the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the protests that followed shortly thereafter. Here, again, it should not surprise us that those with a priori beliefs in an interpretational scheme that demanded the existence of global conspiracies would apply that approach broadly during times of unrest, if only to assure themselves that they were among the remnant who knew the truth.
Strengthening What Remains
Caught between the (semi) proverbial rock of Ham and the hard place of LaHaye, many Christians–especially American fundamentalists and evangelicals–have been progressively conditioned to resort to conspiracy as an explanatory heuristic, and it is thus inevitable that we find ourselves where we are today. During my time at home during the ongoing pandemic restrictions of 2020, I came across a copy of The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, a book published by historian Mark Noll. The work is a scathing indictment of evangelical intellectual culture, beginning with the remarkably provocative line: “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” Far from sensationalist, however, this is a thoroughly researched work that lays out the issues I’ve presented above in academic clarity. What is perhaps more remarkable, however, is that it was published in 1994. Having read this book last around the turn of the millennium, it was frankly somewhat shocking to see the logic of his academic argument playing out around me with almost prophetic force two years ago. There is no special revelation here, though, only a sober-minded analysis of what can happen to a human mind under stress that has already tacitly accepted the alternative realities of conspiratorial thinking.
How, then, should we live knowing these things? First, those of us that have not been caught up in the conspiratorial mindset need to understand that we cannot simply sit by and observe. While it may be true that we are not the source of the problem, and it is certainly true that the Church as a whole does not believe and teach these things, we need to understand that those outside the Church may not see it that way. Given the ubiquity of social media, and the tendency of those who espouse conspiratorial thought to shout it from the rooftops, it seems quite likely that more and more non-Christians will begin to equate these aberrant and patently false ideas with the Gospel itself. By failing to confront this, then, we have effectively placed a millstone around their necks (or, at the very least, refused to remove one when we might have done so). While we may not personally have created this problem, we are, as members of the body of Christ, responsible for it to at least some extent. We need to own this.
Second, we need to reclaim the understanding of our own faith that led to the development of science to begin with, namely that the universe is logical in its behavior, understandable–at least in part–by those made in the image of God, and (most critically) that we can be wrong in our understanding of it. At its heart, the scientific method is simply a way to rigorously call our personal opinions to task and compare them to the benchmark of real events, and thus offers an ongoing, readily accessible way for people to understand what is really happening in the world around them. This is not to say that scientists cannot be wrong (for humans, error is unavoidable), but we must return to an acknowledgement that the scientific process provides a consistent tool for examining reality. Perhaps more to the point, we must also acknowledge that if the use of this tool reveals something that contradicts our own pet positions, it is far more likely that we are simply wrong than that some shadowy conspiracy is manipulating the data to confound us. It is a lack of such humility in the face of real data that (among other things) is poisoning much of our public discourse.
Third, and perhaps most important, we need to recover faith, true faith, in God, as opposed to faith in propositions alone. Too often we place more weight on the bullet-point style statements that we use to explain our faith than we do in the truth, beauty, and love of God Himself. It is important that we do not introduce a false dichotomy here (I, for example, subscribe wholeheartedly to the points of the Nicene Creed), but consider that when our faith is largely placed in specific ideas we hold, it is easy to slide into the belief that our faith stands or falls based on our capacity to defend those ideas. If something is actually true, though, then there is a deep sense in which it needs no such defense. True things remain true regardless of whether anyone knows them or not. In a similar vein, if the God in whom we as Christians have put our trust is the true ground of all being, then His existence, love, and grace does not depend on our faith in any way but are rather the source of it. It is He who created us, and not we Him. Once we understand this it frees us to be finite, frees us to be wrong, and frees us to change our minds about our understanding of some aspect of the world or interpretation of scripture in the face of new evidence without threat to the core of our faith. In short, it frees us to be humble before God and neighbor.
God has chosen, in his omniscience, to place the good news of Christ’s lordship and healing work in our hands, and over and over the Church has had to carefully examine what it has been entrusted to make sure that it can be seen for what it is and, if need be, to clean it off. It is time to do this again.
Dr. Aaron W. Calhoun is a professor of pediatric critical care medicine at the University of Louisville, with numerous scientific publications in the fields of healthcare simulation and medical education. He has long had an interest in the intersection of science and the Christian faith. Dr. Calhoun lives in Louisville, Kentucky with his wife, Jamie; his three children Noah, Samuel, and Meredith, and somewhat loutish dog by the name of Benny. He enjoys the outdoors, reading everything from fantasy to David Bentley Hart and N.T. Wright, and computer programming/game design.