Compare and Contrast Faith and Conspiracy Theory

I have been learning a lot about conspiracy theories. A definition is “a belief that some covert but influential organization is responsible for a circumstance or event.” Yet, in reading about typical characteristics of those who believe in conspiracy theories, I feel that I am reading much about people of faith–including myself

Some would say that the commonalities are strong:

  1. Desire for control–Roger Scruton wrote that faith’s aim is to provide reassurance of the unknown
  2. Secret knowledge–from the Bible’s writings, inner “promptings,” and “Reformed epistemology” that no one else can prove or understand.
  3. Moral superiority (by forgiveness by acceptance of and belief in a creed, in the case of Christianity) that saves us from danger.

On the other hand, there appear to be differences. Joe Pierre, a psychiatrist, wrote that a difference between those adhering to orthodox faith and “conspiracy theists,” as he calls them,

That makes conspiracy theories different from, for example, religious beliefs that are grounded in faith and arguably a wish to believe. Conspiracy theories, in contrast, start with disbelief in conventional wisdom in favor of a kind of secret, malevolent, “real story” that’s being hidden from the public through some cover-up. There’s good evidence that this disbelief is rooted in mistrust.

That does seem to me to be a significant parting of the ways. In fact, in this case, the orthodox accept what is believed to be true, and want to follow authority; whereas conspiracy theorists reject authority, perhaps because of deep seated distrust

There are certainly elements of faith that sound helpful; yet in the form of conspiracy theory, are very dangerous. And the fact that we share elements doesn’t mean that faith is false.

I hesitate to post this, as I don’t want to fall into the Dunning-Kruger trap of theorizing about areas of psychology that I don’t understand. If someone with training in that area can comment and clear things up more, I would sincerely appreciate it. Several of my friends and family are currently involved in conspiracy theories. Disagreement with them has caused me to introspect more.

I would be interested in your thoughts–why do those of faith fall for conspiracy theories so readily? How can we avoid that pitfall, and emerge more humble and willing to learn? Thank you.

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Excellent question @Randy. We definitely need a shrink on this site.

I don’t think religion lends itself more to conspiracist ideation than the absence of it, despite the fact that the post Jewish religions and others are fundamentally literal about supernatural evil. It’s a proposition that would need testing. I’ll do some research.

The British are 97% irreligious by non-attendance but every other person you meet has a degree of conspiracist ideation. As do I of course, but that’s because I trust the elite in power - including in all but one church - to hypocritically act in their own interests [some of which are more enlightened than others] which they cannot be truly vulnerably open about [as even enlightened interests can be politically alienating].

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Dr Pierre pointed out in the above linked pages a tendency among those holding to conspiracy theories to be excessively teleologically inclined. Thus, if something happens, it must be from someone willing it–not just from the natural world. It can be an immature response. For example, we may have noticed this as a parent, or even recall experiencing it as a child–if a toy is missing, a burglar took it. It can’t be because we forgot where we put it.

Blaming someone also implies an easier way to control things. When bad things happen, such as when Vesuvius destroyed Pompeii, many pointed to the immoral lives of some of the inhabitants (though children and godly Jews lived there too; some said it was retribution for the destruction of the Temple, that occurred 9 years earlier). Adrienne LaFrance wrote in the Atlantic,

It is cruel to blame the victims of an epic volcanic eruption for their demise. But understandable, too. It is human nature, after all, to seek higher meaning, even justice, in events that are otherwise impossibly tragic—even though, and perhaps precisely because, it is rare to find it. There is fear in this way of thinking: Maybe if those people deserved to die, I will be safe.

Maybe someone with a psychology degree will step in and help here. However, it does seem that we can be careful about excess blame shifting, even if we feel distrust in our governing authorities.

It’s evolutionary collateral @Randy. We have, in the words of Jonathan Haidt, hyperactive agency detectors. That twig waving in the dark could be the upwind. Or a deer. Or a bear. Our taboos are dietary. What’s for dinner, us? At every stage of our social evolution we project that on the already projected supernatural. Hunter, shepherd, potter, sower, warrior, enemy, priest, king. We project the supernatural itself from our theory of mind, from dreams, altered states, intoxicants, illness, the weather, nature including our cognitive bias. These are all by-products of over half a billion years of evolved psychology with net survival value. Every technology becomes a metaphor for the human mind and its grand ideas, cosmologies and therefore the gods that evolve to God. Smelters, looms, clocks. For most here God is still a deadly but otherwise useless set of ancient Egyptian scales from four thousand years ago. Evolution actually finds survival value in the genetic basis of psychopathy. 1% of us are psychopaths. Helplessly deficient in empathy. Three times more if we are lawyers or leaders. Intriguing that. Justice is blind eh? And all leaders have to be ruthless at some point.

Conspiracist ideation is inevitable in the evolved mind.

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It sounds very plausible to me (psychology degree or not) that this is exactly what we do, and almost certainly for the sake of self-reassurance. And it is also directly addressed by Jesus, whose reaction to the news of the fallen Siloam tower (Luke 13) delivers his unequivocal rejection of the entire premise.

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At the risk of this belonging to another subject, I’ll continue it here anyway as being at least tangential to the subject.

I struggle with the Christian teaching on this (that we should not smugly consider ourselves ‘safe’ or ‘more righteous’ just because we didn’t happen to be among the victims of something). On one hand … yeah … Schadenfreude = bad. We get that. It’s why we suppress the display of it even more than we suppress the feeling itself. Even if our consciences can’t quite deliver us from the feeling itself, we at least are motivated to not be “seen in the act”. It’s image maintenance.

But here is the obvious retort to that (in my mind): If somebody is killed by an auto crash and the news report informs us they were speeding and not wearing their seatbelts - yeah we are all sorry it happened and can genuinely greave with bereaved loved ones. But why shouldn’t I take some internalized comfort in (negatively seen as smugness) the fact that I will continue to make different choices so as to reduce my chances of (note: I did not say “prevent with certainty”) a similar fate for myself? How to prevent that from becoming unwarranted judgmentalism against victims that causes me to run afoul of Jesus’ sharp rebuke, is less clear to me.

The more successful we are in our own (or better yet, society’s) eyes the more we fall into this temptation of judgmental attitude. This is an interesting recent article where researchers suggest that it is those who exercise the most admirable self-control that can end up being the cruelest people. Those with less self-control might actually be the first ones to obey their conscience against an establishment if that established authority is presiding over injustice and cruelty. The very self-control that we so admire and cultivate can also be our moral bane apparently.

And yet - I certainly would want people to learn from my mistakes, even if … especially if my mistakes cost me or others their lives.

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It certainly seems that way. Ponzi schemes, political manipulation, multi-level marketing, health scams, essential oils, and abusive leadership all seem far too common in church groups.

Perhaps we have the cart and horse backwards. Perhaps those who tend to fall for such malipulative schemes are attracted to religion, and the tendency to have faith is the common bond. A little disturbing, as a person of faith. Anyway, I am thinking of this as one of my Fundamentalist type friends managed to remove some of the shackles of his black and white judgemental ideas, and found joy and a new peace in a more grace and loving church. All good. But now I see on Facebook he posts a lot of stuff parroting the current political conspiracy stuff, which makes me think his basic personality remains, as @Randy put it, teleological. Sort of like Paul changed his understanding, but never lost his zeal.

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from “Unpacking the relationship between religiosity and
conspiracy beliefs in Australia”:
We examined the interrelation between religiosity, anti-intellectualism, and political
mistrust in predicting belief in conspiracy theories. Improving on previous psychological research on the link between religiosity and societal and political attitudes, we assessed the predictive power of religious self-categorization and the importance attached to one’s own (non)religious worldview predicting belief in conspiracy theories separately.
Applying quota sampling in a study in Australia (N = 515), the sample consisted of
48.9% believers (i.e., those who self-categorized as religious persons) and 51.1% nonbelievers (i.e., those who self-categorized as non-religious persons). The results showed that believers and non-believers did not differ in the belief in conspiracy theories.
Unpacking this further though, we did find that the extent to which religious worldviews were endorsed predicted belief in conspiracy theories. Among believers, the importance attached to their religious worldview was directly associated with higher belief in conspiracy theories and this link was partly mediated by higher anti-intellectualism.

When we play getbadnews.com we can learn how to dig into the psychology our gullibility and it will make us as well more critical of those clickbaits. Conspiracies are best seeded by exploring peoples fears on an emotional level that they are controlled by someone who does not share their opinions, so it woks the better the more opinionated they are.

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Interesting study. One might wonder if those results are universal, or limited to Australia. It certainly seems like religious people are more susceptible to deceptive schemes in my experience, but that may be because that is the predominant culture I live in. In fact, it is hard in the Bible Belt to find many who are not at least nominally religious.

Just read an article that seemed relevant. It stated that people tend to project their ethics on others, so people who lie a lot tend to expect others to do so also, and basically honest people tend to trust and think others are honest also. In doing so, they are easy marks for the liars of the world, so maybe that is why Christians tend to be scammed more.

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Yes, but does that carry through for mistrust? For example, those who believe in conspiracy theories, do they believe because they also tend to be dishonest? Difficult one.

Supposedly, those who mistrust, are more likely to be skeptical. Now, that should translate into being more skepical of conspiracy theories too, but maybe they find solace there with like minded people. Maybe I should be skeptical of that article.

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Hah! That is a good one. No, I am sorry… I am really interested in it. It sounds helpful. Tolkien had Gandalf say “The treacherous are ever distrustful,” of Saruman… I don’t know what to think. It is fascinating stuff. Can you link the article? I would like to read it.

It is not that Christians in general are treacherous, I should say. However, I think that @jammycakes would agree that those who are most biased to taking faith and the Bible over reason are also the first to claim bias in “godless evolutionists,” and use a double standard in measurements. I wonder if our tendency to find comfort in details of faith (excessively) can spill over into distrust of scientists who give a different narrative–say, in Covid or global warming.

Science and faith, Dr Pierre wrote, can fill our need for certainty–but science less so, because it’s exposed to constructive criticism. It is hard for me to live with uncertainty, though it’s healthier.

I know a conspiracy theory fan who has described herself as “skeptical,” which makes me think that is the wrong word. Skepticism as I see it tends to require evidence and make decisions on that basis, which might be why it’s associated with atheist/freethought ideas. I would be more likely to describe most conspiracy theorists I know as suspicious. Their ideas are usually not based on well-researched or analyzed evidence or ideas, but on assumptions that usually have some deep-seated beliefs or mistrust at their core. Maybe it depends on whether it’s people or ideas that are the targets of mistrust.

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Unfortunately that just means skeptical of the general consensus among scientists and of qualified medical researchers and practitioners. What they need is more skepticism toward their own epistemic position which is just as limited as all of ours’.

^This.^

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I think it just showcases how there is probably no such thing as a universal skeptic. All of us are selective skeptics. Some things gain relatively free entry to our sympathetic ear, and other things less to our fancy (for good or bad reasons) we will challenge and research mightily before granting any grudging acceptance (if indeed we ever get to a point of accepting something even tentatively).

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What happens in my experience is that in many Christian circles, there’s a lack of balance in how to approach such matters as reason, science, facts, critical thinking, evidence and the like. I’ve sat through a certain amount of teaching by various people over the years that insists (or at least strongly implies) that:

  • facts are not the truth
  • reason is the enemy of faith
  • science is something “secular” that is not to be trusted
  • insisting on evidence is unbelief
  • university degrees are something to be ashamed of
  • experts are arrogant know-it-alls
  • Jesus’ command to become like little children means being spoon fed everything by your pastor and questioning nothing.

I can understand where pastors who teach these things are coming from. They see people such as Richard Dawkins and liberal theologians crying “science” and “reason” as if these were some kind of blunt instrument with which to attack faith and religious conviction, and then they over-react and go to the exact opposite extreme of shunning these things altogether. But the result is that people end up dropping their guard and getting into deception as a result.

Back in the 1990s, there was a popular adage in Charismatic circles that “the correct response to misuse is not disuse but proper use.” This was usually said in discussions about the Gifts of the Spirit, but it’s an adage that also needs to be applied to reason, science, critical thinking, facts and evidence as well. What we need as Christians is some solid teaching about how to approach these things in a way that views them as tools in our armoury to protect us against deception, while at the same time not allowing them to overwhelm us to the point of losing our faith altogether.

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I am a retired Psychiatrist but I not sure as such I can add meaningful words to the discussion of Faith and Conspiracy theory What came mind as I read the discussion so far is what is meant by Faith Faith be believe in an “idea” or it can mean “trust” Often Faith involves both an “idea” and “trust” or better “truth” and “trust” There needs to be a balance between truth and trust. We can have a truth and mistrust or we can have no truth but still trust that something is true.
All the things that can interfer with the search for truth such as ignorance, misinformation, biases, etc can lead to inbalance on the side of truth. All the things that interfer with trusting such as bad past experiences, letdowns, etc can lead to inbalance on the of trust. Conspiracy Theories involve and rest on inbalance on truth or trust or both,Just some thoughts…
Don

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Welcome to the forum,Don. We could use some psychiatric help around here, but realize your limitations due to the Goldwater rule!:wink:
Trust certainly can be be negatively affected by previous experiences, and an example in the current situation my be the low acceptance in the black community of vaccination due to the past abuses in medical research.

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welcome to the forum. I define faith to be “trust in something to be true in the absence of proof”. If one has proof one has knowledge thus is unable to show trust, e.g. risking oneself for something unknown.

Now the question is what the driving force is behind your faith, e.g. do you take a risk for your own benefit, or for someone else’s benefit. If it is for your own benefit it is doomed. The promise of an ultimate physical existence as in a physical resurrection is the ultimate trap to enslave us to sin, e.g. the permanent physical separation from God for eternity, making us want to be the forever self. Surely in the phantasy of many this is an image resembling them in their most potent youth, not as old, frail and riddled with ailments. It is the prosperity gospel for what is the ultimate in materialism. The magic money tree promised by tele-evangelists https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7y1xJAVZxXg is quite harmless in comparison. Like conspiracy theory it targets those who have not got the intellectual capacity to oversee the intellectual incoherence of the proposed. The success of conspiracy theories lies in feeding the idea that one now possesses superior knowledge to what the “elite” wants us to think, and the absence of proof is taken as a requirement for its truth value as it therefore is not common knowledge leaving oneself in an intellectual elitist position.
As such in abides to the definition of being faith based, but in case of the conspiracy theory the trust is based on the mistrust of something else, so on bad experience as you hint on

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