Conspiracy Theories

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The truth is out there.

That was the mantra of The X-Files, the wildly popular 1990s TV series in which a pair of FBI investigators – skeptical Dana Sculley and true believer Fox Mulder – explored a vast array of paranormal phenomena, ranging from werewolves to mermaids to ghosts. 

Along the way they uncovered a conspiracy to hide what our government knows about extraterrestrials – aliens-among-us who are intent on transforming humanity into a slave race.  The villain was “the cigarette-smoking man,” a shadowy figure with a serious nicotine habit.

Sculley and Mulder never quite figured out the whole story, of course, and never found quite enough evidence to go public and save the world.

But that’s par for the course when it comes to conspiracy theories. 

Science writer Michael Shermer, editor-in-chief of Skeptic magazine, is probably the world’s leading expert on conspiracies and conspiracy theories.  He points out that those two categories, which are easy to confuse, are definitely not the same thing.

Conspiracies, for example, can be quite real.  The Johnson administration conspired to cover up the nature and extent of the Vietnam War.  The Nixon administration plotted to hide the details of the Watergate break-in.  A cadre of terrorists conspired to hijack four commercial airliners and attack the United States on September 11, 2001.  

Conspiracy theories, on the other hand, are unproven assertions that claim to know the “real story” behind significant events.  JFK, for example, was assassinated by the Mafia (or maybe Cuban agents or friends of Vice-President Lyndon Johnson or the military-industrial complex).  Last century a UFO crashed near Roswell, New Mexico, and doctors performed autopsies on its alien occupants.  The September 11 terror attacks were perpetrated by U.S. agents because the Bush administration needed a pretext to invade the Middle East. 

Conspiracies and conspiracy theories are part and parcel of Bible history, too.

A consortium of powerful individuals, including members of the Jewish religious establishment and Roman occupiers, conspired to kill Jesus.  When his tomb turned up empty the following Sunday morning, they decided to float a conspiracy theory that his body had been stolen by his disciples.  In 1965, British scholar Hugh Schonfield published ThePassover Plot, a conjecture that Jesus (with Judas’ assistance) schemed to fake his own death on the cross by drinking a slurry of drugs.

There’s almost no end to the variety and creativity of conspiracy theories.

On any given day you can download podcasts claiming the Holocaust never happened; that our minds are being controlled by the “chem trails” deposited in the atmosphere by jets; that rogue agents of the British government assassinated Princess Diana; that NASA faked the moon landings; that the results of the 2020 election were manipulated by a Venezuelan dictator who died in 2014; and that “Jewish satellites” with laser beams started the recent fires in California. 

These notions are notoriously resistant to falsification. 

If you try to prove there is no government plot to hide the reality of alien abductions, or that the Knights Templar aren’t secretly running world affairs, it only proves you’ve been taken in by the conspiracy. 

Why is it so hard to overturn such improbable ideas?

Shermer suggests that most people have a low tolerance for ambiguity.  In a world that often seems to be teetering on the brink of chaos, we want answers.  We yearn for a story that makes sense of things, that connects the dots, that accounts for events that otherwise seem random and unpredictable.  Conspiracy theories provide a measure of assurance that we’re finally in the know.  We “get” what’s going on.   

The yearning for a narrative that makes sense of things appears to be a universal human hunger. 

But that’s not the same thing as searching for the truth.

When push comes to shove, a great many people will settle for a conspiracy theory instead of doing the hard work of discerning reality.  Why?  Conspiracy theories are exciting.  They give us a feeling of control – at least we know a bit of what’s really going on.  And they almost always absolve us of responsibility.  Strange forces and mysterious figures are running the world’s show, and there’s nothing we can do about it.

The Jesus Story that emerges on the pages of the Bible is different. 

It invites verification.  “These [details of Jesus’ life] were written so that you may know that he is the Messiah” (John 20:31).  Paul lists the names of people who met the resurrected Jesus, as if to say, “Check out their stories for yourself” (I Corinthians 15:3-8).  It claims to be public news, not esoteric information for a handful of insiders: “These things were not done in a corner” (Acts 26:26). 

The Jesus Story makes demands.  It not only claims to make sense of the world but insists that we do something about it.  The world is a mess.  So are we.  God is a God of action who has rolled up his sleeves and is asking us to join him in the ongoing work of rescue, healing, and redemption. 

Philosopher and theologian Dallas Willard’s most famous book is The Divine Conspiracy.  What was he talking about? 

God has openly “conspired” to empower and equip any person, from any background, in any life situation to become one of his representatives in the world. 

You can be one of them.

Don’t settle for rumors, guesses, and conspiracy theories about the meaning of life.

The Truth is out there