It seems these are fertile days for conspiracy theories. And it seems christians are especially prone to believing conspiracies.
Climate change is a greenie plot? Covid isn’t real, it’s just the flu? Or is it caused by the 5G phone network? Vaccinations lead to autism, or are a way to control us? Hilary Clinton was part of a satanic sex ring based in a pizzeria? Christians are being persecuted in first world countries? Barack Obama was a Muslim born outside of the US? Trump really won the election?
Lots of people believe these things, without a lot of evidence. Are christians more prone to these beliefs, or does it just seem that way?
What is a conspiracy theory?
A conspiracy theory is a belief that some covert but influential organisation or individual is responsible for an unexplained and generally negative event.
It isn’t too hard to think why. These times are “unprecedented”.
- A global pandemic that no-one seems able to control.
- Catastrophic bushfires in Australia.
- An American president who tried unsuccessfully more than 50 times to get the courts to agree with him that the election was a fraud – and still millions of Americans believe him.
- Britain hellbent on separating itself from the rest of Europe, despite the damage that will do.
- Climate change, terrorism, refugees, billionaires.
- And, some think, a plot by the United Nations to take over the free world.
“There’s good evidence that conspiracy theories flourish during times of crisis,” says psychiatrist Joseph Pierre.
For the moment, it doesn’t matter whether these conspiracy theories are true or false. The reasons people believe them are pretty much the same in either case.
What makes people prone to believe conspiracy theories?
Some people are innately more likely to believe in conspiracy theories:
- mistrustful or overly suspicious, especially towards elites and experts;
- socially alienated or isolated;
- intuitive rather than analytical – dependent more on personal experience and other people than objective evidence;
- anxiety – they feel distressed by uncertainty and feel the need for security and control;
- self-focused, with a need to feel special;
- likely to think meaningless statements are profound, and to infer meaning and motive where others don’t.
Response to the external world
While these personal characteristics may predispose people to believe in conspiracies, it is their response to the outside world where this propensity expresses itself:
- prone to see patterns and links that may not be actual;
- confirmation bias – they listen mainly to one source of information, perhaps news media, social media, church, or peer group (see below);
- cognitive dissonance – they have experienced unmet expectations or a major setback in their thinking, such as losing an election, experiencing disappointment in some important event, having prayers unanswered, finding someone they trusted is untrustworthy, etc;
- feel the need to explain some unexpected disappointment;
- find comfort in explaining a chaotic world – important events surely can’t have mundane explanations;
- likely to be cynics and defiant and mistrustful of authority;
- people gravitate towards conspiracy theories that affirm their own views.
Finding a place in the group
People want to belong and have self esteem. Sometimes this leads to a greater openness to conspiracy theories:
- it is easy for some to follow the prevailing view in their tribe (just as others find it easy to oppose the status quo!);
- being part of a group that “sees” the conspiracy that others can’t see can make a person feel special and knowledgeable, and so maintains self image;
- a conspiracy means blame can be attributed to others, not us;
- a small group of like-minded people, especially on social media, can reinforce each other and make each other feel better by repeating the “truths” that they know and outsiders don’t.
How do conspiracy theories arise?
Sometimes, of course, the conspiracies are true, and they arise because evidence for them is uncovered. The tobacco companies really did suppress their knowledge of the smoking-cancer links for decades.
Sometimes it is governments that conspire to make gains not legally allowed to them. For example, “the Iran-Contra affair in the 1980s, when senior US officials conspired to sell weapons to Iran – then under an arms embargo – and channel the proceeds to rebels trying to oust Nicaragua’s socialist government.”
Sometimes it serves the interests of influential people (governments, corporations, media outlets) to invent conspiracy theories to gain a financial or electoral advantage. Time magazine reports: “The chief conspiratorialist of the last 10 years is now the President of the United States,” says Harvard University researcher Joseph Vitriol.
Donald Trump promoted the false Barack Obama “birther” conspiracy theory. More recently he promoted the election fraud conspiracy theory despite over 50 court cases being thrown out for lack of evidence. There is good evidence that fossil fuel companies are promoting a bizarre theory that thousands of scientists from hundreds of organisations and scores of countries are part of a conspiracy to promote climate action. (It seems more likely this is to deflect attention away from the clear scientific facts that are a threat to their profits.)
And then there are conspiracy theories that seem to arise out of nowhere. An innocent comment, shared on social media, misinterpreted deliberately or accidentally, goes viral and people believe it without checking. The pizza parlour sex ring conspiracy seems to have started almost accidentally, but was quickly escalated by people wishing to derail Hilary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
So are christians more prone to conspiracy theories?
At first sight, it seems likely this could be true. After all, christians in the US have remained some of the strongest supporters of President Donald Trump, despite so many of his statements and conspiracies being shown to be untrue. Christians in the US seem to be the most sceptical about climate change, evolutionary science, vaccinations and the United Nations. And christians are comfortable believing things that are less provable.
But the experts say that christians are no more predisposed to believe conspiracy theories than anyone else. But the reasons why they believe them are different.
Christians (and other religious believers) are more inclined to anti-intellectualism and less likely to be analytical thinkers. They are more likely to see the hand of God, or the devil, in important events, and so see meaning and conspiracies where others don’t. They have strong beliefs that may bias their reading and thinking, and are likely to be mistrustful of experts who present facts that threaten their beliefs. Creationists are more likely than others to believe in other conspiracies too.
Non-believers tend to have a different set of causes and reasons. They are more likely to be independent and mistrustful of authority and the political system (whereas christians are more likely to trust authority). They are more likely to be “populists” who mistrust the elites generally. Non-believers in religion often have other beliefs that may lead them to similar cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias as christians.
We can all be subject to the psychological and group forces that can lead us to want to avoid an unpalatable truth. So we all could find a conspiracy theory attractive. Christians are apparently not significantly different to others in this regard.
There is no substitute for an open mind and a concern for the truth, even a difficult truth.
There are ways we can help ourselves and others avoid conspiracy theories. But that will have to wait until another post.
- Why people believe in conspiracy theories – and how to change their minds. The Conversation, 2017.
- A psychologist explains why people cling to conspiracy theories during uncertain times. Business Insider, 2020.
- Who believes in conspiracies? New research offers a theory. Science Daily, 2018.
- Some people are more likely to believe conspiracy theories. Here’s how to know if you’re one of them. Mashable Australia, 2020
- The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories. Karen M. Douglas, Robbie M. Sutton, and Aleksandra Cichocka. Association for Psychological SCience, 2017.
- Unpacking the Relationship between Religiosity and Conspiracy Beliefs in Australia. Inga Jasinskaja-Lahti & Jolanda Jetten. Author Manuscript.
- Why People Believe in Conspiracy Theories—and How to Reason with Them. Goop.
- Creationists more likely to believe in conspiracy theories. Christian News, 2018.
- Revealed: populists far more likely to believe in conspiracy theories. The Guardian, 2019.
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