Jimmy’s Table PodcastCuriously evangelical. Politically homeless. A dreamer of small things. On this podcast, I am having conversations about the intersection of faith, life, and culture.

Conspiracy Theories Are Real (Sometimes)!?!? ~ Episode #58

Conspiracy Theories

Today’s podcast is all about conspiracy theories. Whether we are talking about the Freemasons, the Illuminati, or “The Family” (documentary series on Netflix), we all are familiar with a wide variety of conspiracy theories in which the world is controlled by secret people plotting against everyone else. As Americans, we love conspiracy theories. But why is that?

We have a long history of such theories. For example:

  • Our founding fathers and their charges against King George…
  • Who really killed JFK?
  • What happened to Jimmy Hoffa?
  • Area 51 and aliens.
  • 9/11 truthers.
  • Donald Trump conspiring with Russia.
  • The suicide of Jeffrey Epstein.

We always feel like someone powerful is behind the curtain pulling all the levers that make our world go round. There really is a Wizard of Oz, a man behind the curtain.

In today’s podcast, I explore the political and psychological reasons why conspiracy theories appeal to us so deeply.

This is inspired by the recent coronavirus pandemic, and many people attempting to explain how it came into being and the political and economic fallout associated with it. Is the coronavirus something sinister by Bill Gates, Donald Trump and his cronies, a bio-weapon made by the Chinese government, or by the American government? Or is it even something that the Democrats are using in a plot to overthrow Donald Trump, to get him out of office by running the American economy into the ground, and so that they can implement their socialist utopia?

Conspiracy Theories Can Be True!

Conspiracy theories can drive us wild. And why? Because as it turns out, sometimes conspiracy theories are actually true. Just ask Julius Caesar. Many dictators worry themselves to death over conspiracy theories, always wondering who is going to take a stab at the throne. Conspiracies do exist in the world, and there are people who organize with other people with certain agendas and commonly agreed upon objectives. And they do meet in the shadows.

And I believe our love for conspiracy theories runs in our national DNA as Americans. It’s something passed onto us by our founding fathers, who engaged in all sorts of bat crap crazy conspiracy theories that made us suspicious of government and people in power. The American Revolution probably would have never happened without it. King George wasn’t the tyrant they made him out to be. (Or was he?)

Whatever the case, as a result, it’s not hard for conspiracy theories to find very fertile soil in our collective psyche. Maybe that’s why movies like National Treasure, or books like The Da Vinci Code just stick with us so well. They play into our penchant to believe there is something nefarious always going on behind the curtain.

And as a result, we can’t help ourselves in sharing our favorite conspiracies on Facebook. The Facebook share button is probably our worst enemy.

What is a conspiracy theory?

Looking at an entry on Wikipedia on Conspiracy Theories:

A conspiracy theory is an explanation for an event or situation that invokes a conspiracy by sinister and powerful actors, often political in motivation, when other explanations are more probable.The term has a pejorative connotation, implying that the appeal to a conspiracy is based on prejudice or insufficient evidence. Conspiracy theories resist falsification and are reinforced by circular reasoning: both evidence against the conspiracy and an absence of evidence for it are re-interpreted as evidence of its truth, whereby the conspiracy becomes a matter of faith rather than something that can be proved or disproved.

It’s kinda like if you suspect someone is a spy. So you ask them, “Are you a spy?” And they reply, “no!” “Well, that’s exactly what a spy would say!” wouldn’t they? That’s how a lot of conspiracy theories work with their own internal logic. They are often based on questionable evidence, based on secret suspicions, and confirmed with circular logic that creates an infinite feedback loop.

Why Do We Believe Conspiracy Theories?

Talking about an article by Max Read, I look at the following 5 reasons Read gives for why we believe conspiracy theories, as well as my own exposition:

  1. Conspiracy theories are a long-established method of organizing and understanding the modern world. – In some sense they are natural. The world is complex and has a lot of levers. With minds that understand the world in a very Enlightenment manner, we want to make sense of all the laws that govern all those levers, and the logic between them. When one of them doesn’t function as we expect, we become suspicious. “There must be something else going on here…”
  2. Conspiracy theories are a way for people to exert control over or within unstable, complex systems.Sociologist Türkay Salim Nefes underlines the political nature of conspiracy theories. He suggests that one of the most important characteristics of these accounts is their attempt to unveil the “real but hidden” power relations in social groups. Likewise, Roger Cohen writing for The New York Times has said that, “captive minds; … resort to conspiracy theory because it is the ultimate refuge of the powerless. If you cannot change your own life, it must be that some greater force controls the world.”
  3. Conspiracy theories are a symptom of a crisis of legitimacy among representative institutions – When government officials, corporations, and religious organizations lie, falsify data, spin, and put forward “alternative facts,” and engage in questionable behavior, it makes everyone a bit suspicious about motives. In an age of “Fake News,” trusted institutions become highly questionable.
  4. Conspiracy theories are a function of informational overload. We suffer from what one NY times article calls an Infodemic.”
  5. The world is rife with conspiracies – Everyone has an inside scoop about what’s really going on.

What Can We Do To Combat Conspiracy Theories?

As a Christian, and I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’ve noticed we tend to be gullible regarding some things. Whether we are talking about things that sounds “mark of the beast-ish” or a “one world government/new world order.” But this shouldn’t be the case. As a people who are concerned about the truth, and should have a love for the truth, we should be the opposite of gullible. We should be driven by actual truth, and truth doesn’t come easy.

Instead of being gullible, we should be a people who love the truth, who love facts, and the world as it actually is. We should realize this is a divine calling and mandate. And sharing half baked theories with something we just stumbled across on social media or YouTube isn’t in keeping with a heart searching after truth. We need to guard our heart and mind in this area.

We should be people who realize the limitations of our knowledge, and only share the things we know to pertain to reality. That might make us feel uncomfortable at the end of the day, and may require that we defer to people we trust and to believe experts in areas of knowledge that we are not.

But if the truth really matters, we should prefer to have such a mindset rather than engaging in gossip sorta type behavior. For at the end of the day, if we share something that we have not verified as true, we are fundamentally no different than a liar. Just because you believe something is believable doesn’t mean it gets you off the hook for being a liar.

Ask hard and critical questions. Examine all the evidence. And let the truth have its day. Stay away from conspiracy theories.

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