As a Christian I find myself constantly surprised by the way that otherwise considered and seemingly thoughtful people can be swept up in such wild notions of what is going on in the world. On one level it is fascinating, but in other ways it is deeply troubling, especially when it has such an impact on the health and wellbeing of people both within and outside of Christian communities.
I don’t have the time or patience to describe all of these ideas here, but if you’ve spent any time on social media you probably know some of them and the age of Covid-19 has led to an explosion of views. Various permutations and combinations of some core ideas are at the heart of most of them. Nations’ leaders are somehow in league with the entire global medical profession to dupe us for all sorts of purposes; to squash our freedom, to enforce communism and totalitarianism, to enrich pharmaceutical companies, to compel you to take vaccinations, to brainwash you with 5G cell towers… the list goes on. The question I’ve been reflecting on is why do Christians, especially pockets of the faithful among conservative Christianity, find themselves swept up in what are often clearly quite preposterous ideas? So here’s a few suggestions:
1. Being in on something secret
One way of understanding Christian faith is to see it as special truth that only you and your religious tradition have grasped. A truth that will not only save you from an eternity in hell, but also open your eyes to realities that no-one else sees or understands. The sense of purpose, meaning and importance that this fosters is hard to explain if you haven’t experienced it for yourself. When you’re in on something this big, it can be kind of intoxicating.
The mission of the church, and therefore of your life, is to get as many people in on this special knowledge as you can. I remember talking with a colleague when I was first working in science in my early 20s, and the topic turned to religion and God. My heart started to race as I realised I had a chance to speak my secret knowledge out loud. I desperately hoped that they’d hear what I’d have to say, that they’d respond, and that I would be able to take them a step closer to knowing what I knew. What an exhilarating (albeit high-pressure) way to live.
In many respects, these sensations are similar to what we see in conspiracy theories, so perhaps it is no wonder that some Christians are so easily caught up in them. At the heart of both is a belief that you have secret knowledge, that you see what is really going on, that you know the “truth”.
2. A distrust of “the world”
Hand-in-hand with the sense of insider secrets, is the idea that the “world” is the domain of “the enemy” (which if you don’t know, is generally the devil and demons and so on). The “world” isn’t simply ignorant of the truth but is filled with those who work against the truth, against God, and against God’s people. This means that all the happenings in the world must be seen with the eye of discernment. Politicians, especially those who are less inclined to be religious (and often on the left side of the aisle), are “Godless” at best, or “anti-God” at worst. While fostering a critically reflective stance toward governments and power structures is healthy and necessary (and an important part of faith in many respects), the base assumption that everyone is conspiring against you and your beliefs fosters a persecution complex (which I’ve written about here) that is ripe for the emergence of conspiracies. If the “enemy” is using political leaders to oppress the church, then perhaps it can make sense to interpret the actions of a government during a global pandemic as taking advantage of (or even falsifying) Covid-19 for nefarious and demonic purposes.
3. Rejection of science
Connected to both ideas outlined so far, certain forms of Christianity have also struggled to accept the role of science in the modern world. Before the advent of science, God was the reason and source for so much of what happened in the world, but science came along and stole God’s thunder. We began to explain many things through natural means that had previously been the domain of God’s influence. The rise of evolutionary theory was the last straw for many religious folk, and the unnecessarily hostile attitude of some atheistic scientists toward religion did not help the relationship either. And so many Christians now see science – at least in some respects – as a part of the world’s rejection of God. While most accept medicine, technology and so on, this generalized distrust of science paves the way for the flourishing of anti-science conspiracies related to climate change, vaccinations, and now, Covid-19.
4. An eschatology of fear
Woven through all of this is the influence of eschatology. If you’re not familiar with that term, theologians use it to refer to what Christians believe about where things are headed. What is the fate of humanity, the earth, and the universe as a whole? Where does all of this end up? For many Christians growing up in the 20thcentury (especially Evangelicals, Pentecostals and Charismatics), we were thought to be living in the end-times, the years preceding the return of Christ. Not only that, it was believed that in the end-times the rise of the anti-Christ would coincide with a global world order that would suppress Christian faith and control everyone with the mark of the beast.
This theology is not talked about anywhere as much as it used to be, especially among more contemporary churches, but the remnants of it echo in the background and emphasise the sense of secret insider knowledge, antipathy toward the “world” and distrust of science I’ve discussed so far.
If there is a an effort going on, under the radar, to institute a one-world government that will be the enemy of God and of Christians, it makes a lot of sense to be highly suspicious of anything that has a global impact. Perhaps this is also why issues of climate change and a global pandemic are seen as particularly worrisome.
The energies that are grounded in conspiratorial theologies end up self-centred and narcissistic, lacking in empathy and wisdom. Everything becomes about “our rights” and an imagined persecution, and when the focus of the church becomes primarily on its own self-interest it is no longer following Christ.
All in all, this combination gives rise to a religion of mistrust and fear. It should be said that I have no problem with people expressing frustration about the situation we find ourselves in, because everyone is frustrated in this highly unusual time. But I do have a concern when the biggest question for the church is over the rights to meet being delayed by a few weeks, rather than on the much larger questions related to the saving of human life, not to mention how Christian communities could function as life-giving points of connection and wellbeing in times of crisis.
Michael Frost works in the arenas of theology, spirituality and social change. He is interested in the idea that theology should subvert harmful ideologies and open us up to liberating and transformative conversations. He hosts a podcast and blog called In the Shift, for when life and faith go off script. Follow him on Facebook here.