The problem with conspiracy theories is that they often have some element of truth, if not an element of factual truth, then a story that bears some resemblance to the structure of things. The other problem with conspiracy theories is that what counts as a conspiracy theory depends on where one stands. Certain liberals see the world controlled by international corporations. Certain conservatives see the world controlled by shadow states. Certain religious folks see the devil’s behind everything. Some of each see the end of the world as we know it just around the corner. Each sees their understanding as the one based in the facts, based in reality. Each labels the other view a conspiracy theory, a mental creation spawned from wishful thinking and bad movies.
Some time ago my family and I found ourselves motoring along Sussex Drive. The road we wanted to take along the river was closed. We passed the entrance to Rideau Hall on whose grounds are currently the residences of the governor general and the prime minister. A few days later a man drove through the night and, according to news reports, crashed his truck through the gates of those grounds. He then set off on foot, armed and apparently looking for the prime minister. It has since been reported that the fellow had been lapping up online conspiracy theories related to the coronavirus, especially the hottest one at the moment known as QAnon. Conspiracy theories have real world consequences, even if they seem to have other-worldly origins.
The Atlantic recently ran a long piece by Adrienne LaFrance on QAnon, which ended with the suggestion that the conspiracy theory is essentially a new religion falling in line with a few others homegrown in the USA. The core of the comparison seemed to be that, like a religious tradition, QAnon had startling views about the end of the world, a strange origin story, a string of sacred revelations, and it could not be disproved. Like any good religion, it’s adherents tended to describe their coming to adhere, with much gratitude, as an experience of rebirth.
The article in The Atlantic reminded me of a moment on a trip I once took to Israel and Palestine. Our group of travelers was on a bus, being shuttled from one historic location to another, when I happened to see one of my companions put down a book, look at his seatmate and say, “Aren’t you glad we really know what’s going on?” The speaker was reading one of those bazaar end-times prophecy books, which purported to explain how recent world events were predicted by the book of Revelation. New versions of these books come out every year or so to re-correlate the predictions with the unfolding history that failed to match the predictions of the last book. Oddly enough, none of these authors seems to be dissuaded by the fact that all previous employers of the genre have been flat out wrong.
So this all brings up an important question: How is the Christian faith different from a conspiracy theory? Honestly, I’m not sure how some of that end-times-obsessed stuff, with its terrible reading of the book of Revelation and a few other passages, is all that different from a conspiracy theory. Both are pushed by people who feel disempowered and want to see some type of logic within the chaos of current events.
Conspiracy theories are different from valid theories in that they require an avoidance of verifiable facts. Versions of the Christian faith that flee science and are scared of historical research aren’t all that different from conspiracy theories. And, yes, certain secular ideologies fall into that category too. Thoughtful Christianity, though, finds the tools of the historian and scientist to be useful.
Sound Christian theology is, I think, open to being corrected by verifiable facts. It is falsifiable. At the core of the faith is not the unexplainable, it is the beautiful, wonderful, intricate world that we do know. Christians are prompted to see transcendence and meaning, not by a few crumbs of alternative stories, but by the world we all experience. Furthermore, Christianity is not mostly a set of curious theories about what is going on behind the news. Christianity is an ancient way of life shaped by reconciliation and worship.
There is, of course, much more that could be said. The challenge of differentiation is important. There are elements of Christianity that lend themselves to an alignment with conspiracy theories—the coded language in some parts of the Bible, the belief that there is more to the world than meets the eye, the cultivated habit of questioning dominant narratives—but that is far from the whole. At a time when everyone has their own news feed it’s important to think these things through . . . and then to do it again.