Monday, January 25, 2021

Christians and Conspiracy Theories: Have We Lost our Minds?

Shortly after the attack on the US Capital, a close friend sent me the following text:

"Not sure if you are experiencing similar things with people (mostly Christian), but it seems like there is a lot of hysteria and conspiracy theories being tossed around about what is going to happen over the next week or so.  I am honestly finding it very frustrating because it just seems people are taking things and running with them as if they are true, without really taking the time to check sources or see if it makes sense."

My friend's frustration is certainly understandable when one considers that Christians are supposed to be proclaimers and lovers of truth and abstain from falsehoods.1  But if this is indeed the case, then why are so many Christians taken in by conspiracies?  I fear that what we are witnessing is the rotten fruit of anti-intellectualism within the evangelical church. 

In his book Love God with all Your Mind, philosopher J.P. Moreland explains that "it is safe to say that from the arrival of the Pilgrims to the middle of the nineteenth century, American believers prized the intellectual life for its contribution to the Christian journey.  The Puritans were highly educated people (the literacy rate for men in early Massachusetts and Connecticut was between 89 and 95 percent) who founded colleges, taught their children to read and write before the age of six, and studied art, science, philosophy, and other fields as a way of loving God with the mind.  Scholars like Jonathan Edwards were activists who sought to be scholarly and well informed in a variety of disciplines.  The minister was an intellectual, as well as spiritual, authority in the community."2.   However, this is clearly no longer the case.  To a large degree, American evangelicalism has strayed from the Scriptures, church history, common sense and its rich intellectual heritage. 

So, how did we get here?  How have we gone from being a thoughtful, intellectually vibrant people to those who are sometimes quick to believe conspiracies and falsehoods?  Moreland explains that "[i]n the middle 1800s...things began to change dramatically, though the seeds for the change had already been planted in the popularized, rhetorically powerful, and emotionally directed preaching of George Whitefield in the the First Great Awakening in the United States from the 1730s to the 1750s.  During the middle 1800s, three awakenings broke out in the United States: the Second Great Awakening (1800-1820), the revivals of Charles Finney (1824-1837), and the Layman's Prayer Revival (1856-1858).  Much good came from these movements.  But their overall effect was to overemphasize immediate personal conversion to Christ instead of a studied period of reflection and conviction; emotional, simple, popular preaching instead of intellectually careful and doctrinally precise sermons; and personal feelings and relationship to Christ instead of a deep grasp of the nature of Christian teaching and ideas.  Sadly, as historian George Marsden notes, 'anti-intellectualism was a feature of American revivalism."3.   And, while Moreland is clear that there was nothing wrong with emphasizing  personal conversion, he argues that the emphasis on personal feelings and emotions resulted in an "intellectually shallow, theologically illiterate form of Christianity."4

When the church as whole walks away from its rich intellectual heritage, and begins to emphasis emotions and personal experience over the life of the mind (Matt. 22:37) and intellectually careful and precise sermons,  the result is what we are seeing today.  And a people who do not value evidence-based beliefs will quickly be taken in by falsehoods.

We must find our way back.  Dr. Moreland argues that the evangelical church must "move toward a clearer, more biblical understanding of the Christian mind and how Christ Himself wants to shape our thinking...As disciples of Jesus Christ, we must ask how we can become the kind of people we need to be to bring honor to Christ, to help turn the culture toward Him, and to be lights in the midst of darkness for our families, friends, churches and communities...We must rededicate ourselves to being deeply spiritual of whom it can truly be said that 'Christ is formed in you' (Galatians 4:19).  And, given the times in which we live, we must also obey Jesus' admonition to be as 'wise as serpents, and harmless as doves (Matthew 10:16, KJV)."5

Surely the reasons people are quick to believe conspiracy theories are multi-faceted and my goal is not to oversimplify, but to perhaps identify one of the root problems.  While this post may not offer a complete answer, hopefully it serves as the beginning of one.  

I am encouraged by the many Christians I know that represent a studying, learning community that values the life of the mind.  But we have a long way to go.  We must learn to think well again.  We must return to our rich intellectual heritage and take seriously the words of the Apostle Paul:

"Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor..." (Ephesians 4:25).  

Courage and Godspeed,

1. John 4:24, 1 Cor. 13:4-6, Ephesians 4:15; 4:25
2. J.P. Moreland, Love Your God with All Your Mind: Revised and Updated, p. 16,
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid., 16-17.
5. Ibid., 19; 40.

Related Posts

5 Theses on Anti-Intellectualism by Justin Taylor

Video: Loving God with All Your Mind by J.P. Moreland

What Are the Laws of Logic? by J.P. Moreland


Dorothy Becker said...

Regarding Christians and Conspiracy Theories, one of the root causes of falling for these false narratives is the modern Pentecostal Prophetic movement. Their predictions over the last year have been in alignment with many of the conspiracy theories floating around. Sad to say, two of my prayer partners from church turned me on to this movement, and I was really deceived by it. It came at the cost of great personal confusion and anxiety as I was tossed about with every wind of doctrine. But I learned my lesson, and have returned to the solid rock of the written Word of God. When the prophets start contradicting themselves, walking back their own prophecies, (while being unwilling to admit that they got it wrong), modifying prophecies as events unfold, and telling people to "eat cake" as a demonstration to God that you believe the words of the prophets will still come to pass, albeit later than we were told...And when one popular prophet issues this command, "Every angel, host of heaven, heavenly creature appointed to the justice assignment on planet earth be released and empowered to level 10 NOW!", it is just too much for any thinking person to take seriously. I can hardly keep from laughing!

Chad said...

Hello Dottie,

Wow. Thank you for sharing. As I said in the post, the reasons Christians are so susceptible to believing conspiracies is multi-faceted.

I wouldn't be too hard on yourself. I think these past few years have been really hard on everyone. I think it is GREAT you learned from it and it brought you back to the Word of God!

Deuteronomy 18:21-22 is always good to keep in mind when judging supposed prophets and prophecies:

"But you may wonder, 'How will we know whether or not a prophecy is from the Lord?' If the prophet speaks in the Lord's name but his prediction does not happen or come true, you will know that the Lord did not give that message. That prophet has spoken without my authority and need not be feared."

Hope you are well and God bless!