Sunday, September 22, 2019

Conspirators and Theorists

In a post entitled “Why You Should Resist Conspiracy Theories”, Stand to Reason’s Aaron Brake warns his fellow Christians about the dangers of falling for the counternarrative. Conspiracy theories, Brake says, are rarely true. If you believe them, you undermine your own witness, not to mention the case for the resurrection of Christ.

That’s a powerful statement to make, and it probably shouldn’t stand without a little closer examination.

I found Brake’s article extraordinary on a number of levels, so much so that I wandered around stewing about it for a couple of days before deciding to hazard a response. Oddly, I find that I mostly agree with his conclusions while disagreeing with almost everything he says on the way to getting there. More on that later.

A Familiar Story

When a fellow believer tells me the popular narrative is mostly correct, and that real conspiracies are actually very few and far between, I cannot help but recognize the familiarity of the message even if I find the source of it surprising. This is the exact same storyline currently being pushed — and pushed hard — by the secular media, even as they too engage in regular, documented distortions of the facts to suit their own agendas.

Consider the following recent headlines and ledes:

Conspiracy theories like QAnon could fuel ‘extremist’ violence, FBI says (The Guardian, August 1, 2019)

Conspiracy theories are dangerous — here’s how to crush them (The Economist, August 12, 2019)

Conspiracy theories, both powerful and enduring, can wreak havoc on society (Time, August 15, 2019)

Conspiracy theories are a dangerous threat to our democracy (Washington Post, September 3, 2019)

There’s a fair bit of fear-mongering going on there, wouldn’t you say? Wreak havoc! Dangerous threat! Violence! Those are just in the last month or so, and there are dozens more like them from all sorts of major news sources. Apparently it is currently very important to our North American media to call into question the credibility of anyone who claims to possess information supporting a version of events that deviates from the popular narrative.

Poorly Understood, Poorly Defined

So when a Christian shows up saying exactly the same thing as all secular media sources are saying just as mechanically and predictably as if someone sent them all the same script on the same day, I can’t help but wonder why that might be. Was Aaron just stuck for a topic for his column and went with the headline in that day’s paper? Did he feel the secular media was not getting the message out with sufficient urgency, clarity and range? Did he think Christians need to hear how dangerous conspiracy theories are from a fellow believer before we would buy in? I have no clue, but I find it curious. Doesn’t mean there’s anything sinister afoot, of course. But when Christians find themselves walking in lock-step with secularists in denouncing almost anything, my antennae invariably go up.

One major problem I have with calling conspiracy theories “outlandish” and “dangerous” is that the expression is not very well understood and almost never carefully defined. As a result, it gets applied far too broadly. By way of example, Brake cites the Flat Earth Society, theories about the Kennedy assassination, questioning whether the 9/11 attacks were really committed by Muslims, speculation that the Apollo 11 moon landing was a production of the late Stanley Kubrick, and accusations that crisis actors have been used to stage some recent mass shootings. The secular articles whose headlines are cited above add speculation about Jeffrey Epstein’s cause of death, questioning the “science” of climate change, speculating that the Clintons have had innumerable enemies whacked throughout their political careers, and the theory that Mexicans are taking over Texas.

In the view of the media, these are all dangerous conspiracy theories, and perhaps some of them really are. Others are not. But calling them dangerous dodges two questions: a critically important one (Are they true?) and an another that seems at least worthy of consideration (Dangerous to whom?).

Not All on the Same Level

The hype notwithstanding, these so-called “conspiracy theories” are manifestly not all on the same level in several different ways, whether the metric under consideration is the amount of available evidence for the counternarrative, the credibility of the dissenters, or the potential danger posed to society by those who hold the theories.

For example, the fact that the Mexican population of Texas is growing and increasingly influential is not a “conspiracy theory” at all; it is a demonstrable fact. Texas is on track to be majority Hispanic by 2022. Such a “conspiracy theory” is obviously not on the same evidentiary level as questioning the moon landing. It is established beyond reasonable doubt. Nor are the invasive intentions of many of the new “Texans” in doubt. Check out the “Make Texas Mexico Again” hats for sale here if you doubt it.

Again, when we speak of dissenter credibility, these “conspiracy theories” display considerable range. To the best of my knowledge, there is no serious scientific evidence at all for a flat earth, but plenty of very credible scientists dissent about the validity of Michael Mann’s “hockey stick” graph of global temperature increases, the legitimacy of using CO2 as a proxy for warming, and many other aspects of the climate change narrative. The myth of scientific consensus on the matter is just that.

Likewise, a wide range of potential dangers may be posed by people who believe in conspiracies, all the way from zero to 100. At one end, the mass shooter in El Paso obviously believed the increase in Hispanics in his backyard needed to be addressed by way of violence. On the other hand, it is hard to see how believers in a flat earth, a faked moon landing or, fifty-plus years after the fact, the FBI assassination of President Kennedy, pose any sort of threat to anyone other than, perhaps, the credibility of those pushing the conventional wisdom.

Thus, lumping all “conspiracy theories” in the same basket and making generalizations about them is clumsy and misleading, and characterizing all and sundry as “dangerous” is more likely to make the lives of innocent cranks and oddballs unnecessarily miserable than it is to help cut down on terror attacks.

“Conspiracy Theory” is Not a Compliment

Then there is the issue of the term itself. The phrase “conspiracy theory” was not in common use prior to the early 1960s and is pretty much universally considered a pejorative. It is not a compliment to call someone a “conspiracy theorist”. It is a synonym for quack or nutjob. A “conspiracy theory” stands in contrast to the prevailing narrative, the conventional wisdom, and the currently accepted account. You call something a “conspiracy theory” in order to disparage the evidence for it and to make its adherents look like fringe-dwelling kooks and tinfoil hat wearers.

However, what is and isn’t a conspiracy theory is very much in the eye of the beholder. We have already seen that some so-called “conspiracy theories” are not the least bit theoretical. They are simply facts that the powers-that-be would prefer not to acknowledge at present. Equally, the expression is circumspectly avoided when referring to all sorts of situations in which there was certainly a conspiracy, and about which plenty of people offered theories.

The “Conspiracy Theory” That Wasn’t

Take, for instance, this issue of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Aaron Brake starts his article with this:
“The oldest and earliest documented naturalistic explanation for the empty tomb and resurrection of Jesus was a conspiracy theory: The disciples did it. The disciples stole the body. This account, given by the Jewish religious leaders of the day, is recorded in the Gospel of Matthew.”
This is so wrongheaded it can only be described as completely backwards.

The story that the disciples stole the body of the Lord Jesus was not a “conspiracy theory” in the way we use the term at all. It was the exact opposite of a conspiracy theory. This was the popular narrative, promulgated by those in power; as Brake says, “given by the Jewish religious leaders of the day.” That explanation was not being put forth by a tiny group of true believers; rather, it was the conventional wisdom of the religious elite. To express a contrary opinion to it was to risk arrest and death. When did any conspiracy theory in history ever wield that much clout?

“The Chief Priests and Elders Plotted Together”

Now, there was certainly a conspiracy related to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and there were definitely theories about it bandied about in the public square. Matthew puts it this way:
“The chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, and plotted together in order to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him. But they said, ‘Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar among the people.’ ”
This is a classic conspiracy: a plot by the Jewish religious elite to arrest and kill Jesus without the general public becoming aware they had engineered his death. The Romans did not suddenly decide to move against Jesus for suspected insurrection: rather, he was taken by night, brought before them and lied about repeatedly. When the lies failed to convince the appropriate authorities, intense pressure was exerted to make sure it would be more politically expedient to execute Jesus than release him.

As is often the case, theories about the Jewish conspiracy shortly began to appear in the public square. Concerned about having their guilt become a matter of record, the conspirators took a page from The Economist: “Conspiracy theories are dangerous — here’s how to crush them.” That’s exactly what the Jewish religious authorities tried to do when the story they were trying to suppress began to surface.

The Real Conspiracy Theory

Here’s the theory they were up against:
“For truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel.”
At first there were only a couple dozen Galileans and Jews advancing this conspiracy theory, then suddenly it spread. Within a couple of months there were thousands.

Some of these new Christians proclaimed their theories boldly, including Stephen, who spoke of “the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered.” He laid out his conspiracy theory before those same betrayers and murderers, including the high priest himself. We all remember how that ended. The conspiracy theorist was stoned to death for telling the truth.

In fact, the “theory” was correct. The conspiracy was real, and the Jewish religious establishment did everything it could to stamp out any theorizing about it.

The Official Narrative Still Stands

You never hear the term “conspiracy theory” used to describe the Christian account of what happened to our Savior at the hands of the Jews, but that’s exactly what it was, and it was the credibility and growing acceptance of that moonbat theory that terrified the religious elite. They complained to the disciples, “You are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.”

So then, far from resisting conspiracy theories as Aaron Brake encourages us, the disciples actually promulgated one, and did so with such great success that their story has been believed by tens of millions. However, the “official narrative” still stands, even today. Undaunted by two thousand years of spectacular failure on the part of the Jewish religious elites at suppressing the first century’s most notorious conspiracy theory, conservative talking head Ben Shapiro recently characterized Jesus Christ as “a Jew who tried to lead a revolt against the Romans and got killed for his trouble.” The conspiracy is still in place, and the spiritual descendants of the conspirators are still recycling the same false storyline their fathers tried to peddle with limited success.

Real conspiracies naturally give rise to theories. How could they not?

Putting the Brakes on Brake

I can see I’m going to need another blog post to deal with Aaron Brake’s failed attempt to establish criteria for successful conspiracies, and with his almost-entirely-useless recommendations for assessing the truthfulness of conspiracy theories. But let me finish by quoting the man himself:
“As a Christian, if you sincerely believe in these outlandish conspiracies, you are undermining your witness for Christ, undercutting your own case for the resurrection and giving people a reason not to listen.”
Now, I did say that I mostly agree with this conclusion (provided we make a necessary correction), but for very different reasons than Aaron Brake’s. The correction is this: I see no problem whatsoever with Christians believing conspiracy theories.

Sure, some of the theories Brake uses as examples are ridiculous, and I cannot imagine they would attract a lot of serious Christian attention. Others are not ridiculous at all. In some cases, it is the popular narrative that’s ridiculous. Still, even if some Christians do believe outlandish conspiracy theories, it is difficult to see how that poses a major problem for their relationship with the Lord, so long as the believer holds his convictions in good conscience, having done his due diligence and satisfied himself of the truth to the best of his ability. After all, where disputable matters are concerned, “each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” The problem is not in believing the theories, but in encouraging others to believe a particular version of events where the facts are in dispute and cannot be determined with certainty, and where the matter is not sufficiently important to put your witness or credibility at risk over. There are lots of such opinions held by Christians, and Paul’s instruction about them is “The belief that you have, keep between yourself and God.”

So yes, by all means keep your theories to yourself, Christians, except of course the ones that really matter.

The Outlandish Theory That Was True

It is hard to imagine a time in which the potential for greater disinformation and the spread of lies has existed than today. In a world where every fact is disputed, where news and propaganda can circulate in milliseconds with equal ease, where expertise is often faked, where “credible” people tell lies for reasons of politics or personal gain, and where even a person’s image can now be made to say things he didn’t say, I will be nobody’s critic for believing conspiracy theories I don’t personally hold to be true. They may be right and they may be wrong, but it is the evidence that decides that, not the fact that the dissenting opinion is held by a tiny or much-ridiculed minority.

As for the charge that Christians who believe conspiracy theories are undercutting their own case for the resurrection, that is simply ridiculous. First of all, the specific argument for the resurrection that is supposedly at risk is not “mine”, or “ours”, or even an argument made by the Church fathers, but a rather recent one advanced by J. Warner Wallace in his book Cold-Case Christianity. It is only one of many points in favor of the resurrection, and it’s not one of the better ones, since it depends on a misapplication of the term conspiracy theory to what was in fact the popular narrative of its day. Brake has the first century actors precisely reversed. In reality, the popular narrative of the Jews was a lie, and the “conspiracy theory” advanced by a tiny group of despised disciples of Jesus was God’s honest truth. It may have seemed outlandish to many to indict the high priest and the elders of the people, but it was absolutely the right thing to do.

In the case of the resurrection, the conspiracy theory eventually trumped the false narrative, just as it should. Perhaps the same fate awaits some of today’s “outlandish theories”.


  1. Concerning global warming it is simply clear that the current data is too much in the mud and needs more time to allow definit conclusions. It would be better to simply focus on doing better housekeeping with our planet overall and see if the data will firm up with time. Also, there are competent competing theories out there, see here -

    "The hard data overwhelmingly shows that recent warming has not been catastrophic and that humans are better off in our moderately warmer world."

    1. Agreed. It's pretty clear the damage that stands to be caused by massively reorganizing world economies to fight climate change well exceeds any (admittedly microscopic and very conjectural) good that may come of the effort.