I love a good conspiracy theory. In college I got really into that 90s conspiracy about the Illuminati, Trilateral Commission, Council on Foreign Relations, and the New World Order (not kidding… I devoured entire books). I never bought into the fake moon landings, or the end times stuff, but you’ll never convince me that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. Aliens, big brother, nefarious politicians, big tech colluding with the government, those half-baked theories have brought me hours of enjoyment.
The conspiracy theory is a belief that a secret group of people has banded together to mislead, manipulate, or scam the general public through the execution of an elaborate scheme to gain money, power, or some kind of sadistic pleasure. These comforting, if not cloyingly narcissistic yarns, are meant to assuage the anxiety of those of us who feel both disturbed about the state of the world, and distanced from the levers of power. They are often far-fetched, even a little kooky, but that’s okay because the main function of the conspiracy theory is to provide a light-hearted diversion, a benign way of lampooning a world that is often confusing, infuriating or just plain stranger than fiction. The conspiracy theory can stimulate a healthy suspicion of power, a tragic imagination, and (as long as you keep your sense of humor) nobody gets hurt.
However—and I really cannot stress this enough—you cannot build your life around a conspiracy theory!
Today’s conspiracy theories no longer fit neatly into the benign guilty pleasures category. They are doing actual tangible harm. Adherents to the modern conspiracy theory are prolonging the pandemic, endangering the community, even committing heinous crimes. And they’ve gone mainstream. We used to make fun of the tinfoil hat brigade. Now we elect them to congress.
The modern conspiracy theorists are the ones storming the capitol and killing capitol police. They are the ones wasting hundreds of millions worshipping Donald Trump and drinking in the big lie. They are the ones shooting up D.C. pizza joints, refusing to wear masks or get vaccinated. Many of them believe the pandemic was the creation of Bill Gates, who wants to inject you with a tracking device (heads up: your cellphone is the only tracking device big tech will ever need).
In 2020, The Guardian published a partial timeline of QAnon related crimes. It’s disturbing. Theirs doesn’t even include the federal crimes committed during the 01/06 insurrection, the man who blew himself up in an RV parked outside AT&T building in Nashville on Christmas day, 2020, or the California man who murdered his two children with a spearfishing gun (granted, that was a QAnon-slash-lizard-people conspiracy theory combo). Forbes puts the tally of QAnon related crimes at around 80, but that’s definitely low.
So, I can’t join the fun of conspiracy theorizing anymore, because now there’s a body count. Thanks for ruining a truly excellent way to blow off steam and avoid doing my actual work, everybody. You have forgotten the cardinal rule of conspiracy theories: never take them seriously.
The QAnon faithful have convinced themselves that prominent Democrats and Hollywood actors are Satan worshippers, who drink the blood of infants (or eat the children’s bodies) so as to stay fit and young looking. They’ve even got right-wing Jesus (Jim Caviezel) promoting a disturbing conspiracy theory called adrenochroming. This is where (fill in the blank with a famous person you hate) has been caught kidnapping young children, viciously torturing them, then harvesting an imaginary compound they call oxidized hormonal fear, and ingesting it to make themselves more powerful and young. Basically it’s a real-life Monsters, Inc. (the Pixar movie) only these people are not kidding. One-in-five Americans (a majority of the Republican Party) have bought-in to the Q. They call themselves patriots, and their movement is as popular as some religions.
The anti-vaxxer movement has been making claims about Thimerosal, mercury poisoning, and autism for decades. The only problem is there is no serious academic study to back up their claims, and a mountain of studies that debunk it. These are the people leading the charge against the COVID-19 vaccine. It’s the same superstitious, magical thinking that led to the Salem witch trials. That’s not a conspiracy theory anymore. That’s a moral evil.
If you’re a QAnon, anti-vax, anti-mask conspiracy theorist and you’ve made it this far (unlikely), I’m sure you are already talking back to me. You think you’re just telling it like it is, that you know the truth, and the rest of us are sheep. You deplore me for my condescension and hate me for being part of the problem. You despise me for not at least giving you the dignity of victimhood, and you are determined to prove yourself right. I get it. But you need to know two things. First, almost every conspiracy theory in history has turned out to be wrong. Second, the rest of us who are trying to live in a painful reality without the comfort of a truth-denying narrative. We can see what you’re caught up in. As you spout your theories all we can hear you say is: I am so, so very afraid. Your closed-minded rejection of all controverting evidence is transparently juvenile. Even your bloated confidence smacks of denial.
Sadly, Americanized-Christianity has given the out-of-control conspiracy theorists a solid push. Programmed from the very first Frank Peretti book we opened, we were convinced that an invisible army of angels was all around us, doing battle against a legion of demons who were pulling the strings of this present darkness. We were taught to be suspicious of science, democrats, and government authorities. We were told not to give any oxygen to doubts, facts, or competing ideas. We had to be strong in our convictions, and cut ourselves off from naysayers. We were sold silver bullets at church, and magic elixirs at church camp. We alone knew the truth. Everyone else was blinded. I mean we were primed to become a generation of conspiracy theorists.
As a pastor, all I can say is I’m sorry. The church needs to do better.
As a human, all I can say is: you wanna speculate that the Crown killed Princess Diana? Be my guest. You wanna obsess about chem-trails and Area-51. Go for it. But for the love of God, don’t build your life around a conspiracy theory. Push away from the computer, stop binging wack-job YouTubers, just say no to the anti-vax, anti-mask, deep-state delusions and come back to the pack. We’re facing a real-life catastrophe here, and we could use your help with reality.
A LOOK BEHIND THE CURTAIN OF CONSPIRACY THEORIES:
CTs are 100% about psychological comfort:
The conspiracy theory is an elaborate coping mechanism, a bullet-proof way to avoid psychological pain. It’s more comforting to believe a CT than the official story, when the official story makes us feel scared, guilty, helpless, or hopeless. When the events of our lives seem too crazy and unimaginable for our current understanding of reality, when cultural changes seem like they might adversely impact our lives but we feel powerless to affect change, or when we simply cannot imagine ourselves in the world that is emerging around us, then a conspiracy theory can be incredibly comforting.
CTs are about avoiding culpability:
The conspiracy theory is a fantasy that allows us to avoid any reality that calls into question the way we’ve chosen to live our lives, or reveals how we’re actually responsible for our own catastrophes. Conspiracy theory is an attempt to escape the inescapable reality that we reap what we sow. There’s no bogey-man doing this to us. We’re doing this to ourselves.
CTs are narcissistic:
Most conspiracy theories rely on a large number of people having to keep a massive secret while pulling off an unimaginably intricate scam/heist, often in plain sight. Yet while the rest of the world has been duped, the CT theorist has seen the light. They insist: I have access to the truth you don’t have. It’ll be revealed in time so just accept what I say. The conspiracy theorist never accounts for the utter ego-centrism of their claim to be part of an elite group of people who have figured this all out. Modern right-wing conspiracy theories, in particular, wrap themselves in the language of patriotism, equating themselves with Washington, Jefferson, and Adams when they are actually fighting to maintain the status quo. These movements, ripe with conspiracy theories, are not radical. These guys want to maintain white-majority rule. Most CTs are a form of self-deluded gnostic narcissism.
CTs are a form of purity code:
Anytime you are being offered a scapegoat or a silver-bullet, you can be sure there’s a purity code at work behind the argument. The silver-bullet lets us place our hope in a coming person or event which will finally put things to rights. All we have to do is trust the plan. Scapegoating allows us to pile our own sense of guilt and shame upon someone else, and then send them out into the desert. It’s more psychologically tenable to blame an individual or group than to acknowledge that the systemic structures are at fault, and that we are highly invested in keeping those structures intact. CTs are a means of avoiding our own complicity in a sometimes dark and complicated world. Crash ideological purity codes into a world that has suddenly gotten larger than our understanding of it, and what you get is a conspiracy theory.
CTs selectively ignore controverting evidence:
Conspiracy theorists are remarkably resilient. They have an answer for everything that nearly always strains the gnat and swallows the camel. Conspiracy theories often connect obscure coincidences and dubious facts into a narrative so intricate it cannot be proven or disproven, but can only be believed. However, there are always these obvious factual problems with the theory that go unacknowledged or unexplained. True believers have to go all-in on elaborate connections and obscure counterfactuals, while remaining completely blind to controverting facts right on the surface of things. For example: the conspiracy theory that 9/11 was an inside government job meant to start a war with Iraq (jet fuel can’t burn metal, the planes were empty, and so on). They believe the U.S. government was smart enough to engineer this incredibly elaborate scheme and keep it secret, but too stupid to make sure the hijackers were from Iraq? (The were Saudi nationals). CTs completely ignore any evidence that doesn’t fit their frame.
CTs never face the music:
Do you know how many conspiracy theories actually turn out to be true? Almost none of them. But the CT pushers are never called to account (I’m looking at you Y2K-ers).
Follow me on Twitter: @Tim_Suttle