Corralling Conspiracy Theories
Q-Anon, 9-11, the JFK assassination, Anti-Vaxers, mail in ballots, fake moon landings, and flat earth. If you are a pastor, parent, teacher or disciple maker in the church in 2020, you have most likely encountered one or more of these ideas. “How can a pastor best lead during a time when we are awash in conspiracy theories that people often promote?”
“To be an American in 2020 is to live in a petri dish ideal for growing conspiracy theories.” This was the opening line of a June 2020 article in Politico magazine by Zach Stanton.
Joe Rogan is currently the most popular podcast on the internet. He recently signed a multi-million-dollar contract to produce content for Spotify. His second most watched podcast of all time occurred when he hosted two famous conspiracy theorists, Alex Jones and Eddie Bravo in an episode called “Alex Jones Returns” (Tryon).
According to the journal, Advances in Political Psychology, “Conspiracy theories are attempts to explain the ultimate causes of significant social and political events and circumstances with claims of secret plots by two or more powerful actors” (Douglas, et al., 2019).
The Bible affirms there is nothing new under the sun (Eccl. 1:9), so we know conspiracy theories are not new to the human experience. The main difference in our time appears to be speed of distribution. Just as this article arrives within seconds to your inbox, the digitization of ideas through the internet amplifies the pace at which we must process information, both reliable and speculative. As pastors, we truly need the “wisdom from heaven” that is “peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit” (James 3:17).
There are valid psychological reasons why we are attracted to conspiracy theories. According to the journal, Current Directions in Psychological Science, “People may be drawn to conspiracy theories when—compared with non-conspiracy explanations—they promise to satisfy important social psychological motives that can be characterized as epistemic (e.g., the desire for understanding, accuracy, and subjective certainty), existential (e.g., the desire for control and security), and social (e.g., the desire to maintain a positive image of the self or group)” (Douglas, et al., 2017).
So how should we navigate this phenomenon when confronted with a real-life church attendee, friend, student or family member seeking our opinion as a Pastor, disciple maker or teacher?
Here are five guidelines for spiritually enriching and formative dialogue with people of faith who seek your feedback regarding conspiracy theories:
- Accept the person. It is tempting to dismiss a person when they are vocal about embracing a conspiracy theory. Instead of instant dismissal, listen for the motivation as to why they entertain the ideas of the theory. This was the practice of Jesus when people came to him with paradigms that did not align with the Kingdom of Heaven (Mk. 9:33-37). Jesus always accepted the person and presented the truth in love (Matt. 7:1-2; Prov. 15:1). People had the freedom to disagree with Jesus, but could never claim they felt dismissed. Can you identify a person in your life who embraces a conspiracy theory? Do you accept them for who they are? Can you consider asking them if they feel accepted and just listen?
- Ask engaging questions. There is great benefit in allowing people to explain the content of their beliefs regarding conspiracies (“…everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak…” James 1:19). Harvard Business Review authors, Pohlmann and Thomas (see below) offer a helpful strategy for asking questions. They recommend a four-step approach: 1) “clarifying questions” to uncover the intent behind what is said; 2) “adjoining questions” to broaden the applicability of beliefs to other areas of life; 3) “funneling questions” to challenge assumptions and go deeper; 4) “elevating questions” to find agreement on bigger picture issues rather than the immediate details. This Socratic approach to engagement with a conspiracy theorist is contingent on patience and respect, but allows the person space to hear themselves and possibly reconsider the validity of their presenting theory. What kinds of questions can you ask that will help a person process and “hear” themselves?
- Affirm the good, connect the gospel. The motives of many conspiracy believers are not only for control or security for their own lives, but also for the oppressed, the vulnerable and a hunger for justice. Somewhere in the intersection of emotions and ideas, there is often a middle ground where the conspiracy can be debunked and the underlying motives can be connected to the good news of Jesus. Through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, eternal justice has been achieved (Acts 17:31; Rom. 5:8). How can you disassemble the presentation of a conspiracy theory and connect the positive underlying motives to the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
- Agree on community priorities. One of the reasons people embrace conspiracy theories is the desire to maintain a positive image of the self (Douglas, et al., 2017). In other words, the perception of possessing an inside scoop makes a person feel special. It is our role as Christian leaders to help people understand they are special, but it is because of their inclusion in the family of God through Christ (John 1:12; Rom. 5:6-8). In the journey to establishing this understanding, leaders must provide guidance for conspiracy theorists regarding community priorities. We must be willing to help a person captured by the latest conspiracy to understand the bigger missional and ecclesiological picture. By engaging people intellectually, conversationally, spiritually and socially, we can emphasize timeless Biblical truths and deemphasize conspiracy theories. What are some ways you can emphasize biblical truth in love as the priority in your faith community and deemphasize conspiracy theories?
- Amplify that Christ brings ultimate satisfaction. If the research is correct, people are searching for satisfaction of epistemic, existential and social needs. It is vital that we amplify faith in Jesus Christ as the answer that brings satisfaction (Rom. 5:1). John Wesley described stages of Christian formation as “natural,” “under law,” and “under grace.” Some of the Christians embracing conspiracy theories fit Wesley’s description of those “under law.” “The (person under law) fears but does not love God, walks in the painful light of hell; has no peace, lives in bondage, sins unwillingly, and fights but does not conquer” (Burwash 79; 1 John 4:18).
To learn more about corralling conspiracy theories, see the following resources:
Douglas, Karen M., et al. “Understanding Conspiracy Theories.” Political Psychology, vol. 40, Feb. 2019, pp. 3–35.
Douglas, Karen M., et al. “The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories.” Current Directions in Psychological Science, vol. 26, no. 6, Dec. 2017, pp. 538–542.
Macdonald, Andrew. (June 10, 2020). In Christianity Today, “The Exchange with Ed Stetzer.” “Conspiracy Theories, Engaging Online, and Wisdom: The Intersection of the Three and How to Respond Biblically”
Pohlmann & Neethi Mary Thomas, T. (August 1, 2018). Relearning the Art of Asking Questions.
Stanton, Zack (Sept. 4, 2020). You’re Living in the Golden Age of Conspiracy Theories. .
Tryon, Oliver (Aug. 23, 2020). The 10 Most Viewed Joe Rogan Experience Podcasts.
Wesley, John, and N. Burwash (1988). Wesley’s Doctrinal Standards: Part I: The Sermons. Schmul Pub. Co.
Intellectual contributor: Dr. Eric Hallett, district superintendent of the Central Canada District of The Wesleyan Church.
Executive editor: Russ Gunsalus
Curator of content: Dave Higle