What is one of the more frustrating aspects of working in Central Asia? Conspiracy theories. Yes, every westerner on social media has that one relative relative or friend given to indulging in, spreading, and defending conspiracy theories. But in the West these conspiratorial types appear to be the minority (at least for now). There seems to be a general belief in the principle of Occam’s Razor, that when faced with a simple vs. complex explanation, the simple is most often the truth of the matter. Unfortunately, the Central Asian/Middle Eastern mindset is the exact opposite. When faced with a simple vs. complex explanation, most from our region believe that greater complexity means greater plausibility. By way of example, the vast majority of locals from our region believe that the US created ISIS for the completion of its own finely-crafted schemes. Very intelligent and otherwise thoughtful people chuckle at the perceived naïveté of anyone (like me) who believes that America actually wants to destroy ISIS. This can lead to some very interesting conversations. Now it seems that this regional preference for the complex over the simple has gone global as arguments over Covid-19 conspiracy take over social media.
The frightening thing about those given to conspiracy theories is that so many of them are smart people. The line between those who give credence to such theories and those who don’t is not mere intelligence. Sometimes it seems like it’s actually those with the more active minds that are the more easily entrapped. I have had to think long and hard about this reality as relatives and good friends have been sucked into the whirlpool of conspiracy theory and pulled away from steady Christian faithfulness. Rather than intelligence, the dividing line seems to fall somewhere along the mind’s ability to recognize which patterns are real and which patterns are of its own creation. Let me explain.
The human mind is incredible at recognizing patterns. The mind is so strongly wired to recognize patterns that it can even find them in places where they don’t exist. The mind can in this way impose patterns and connections onto things where there is no pattern and where there are no connections. It is at this point the mind must perform another crucial function – it must differentiate between the true pattern and the pattern of its own creation. I believe this is where conspiracy theorists and others part ways. The wise are able to see when a pattern is not really there.
Anyone who has read C.S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet will know that much of the story takes place on the planet Mars, within large canal-canyons, populated by various alien species. The presence of these canals was no product of fantasy writing, but an aspect of Lewis’ foray into science fiction. In the 1940s, the possibility of extraterrestrial-built canals on Mars was accepted science by many. Early astronomers claimed to see these canals criss-crossing the planet. Others, as they looked through their own telescopes, went on to back up these claims. They saw straight lines scarring the surface of Mars. They saw canals. However, later telescopes improved such that astronomers could clearly see that the canals were not present on Mars and had never been. What happened? The human mind, powerful pattern factory that it is, created or imposed these lines as it sought to interpret the diverse surface of Mars through telescopic lenses. Shadows, canyons, and craters were connected by the mind and eye and paired with the power of suggestion to create an idea that was accepted as scientific fact by many. But it wasn’t real. The connections were imposed, and not actually there. If this can happen with Mars, where else might it be happening?
It is relatively easy to spin a convincing tale of supposed connections. I remember messing around with some of my English students not too long ago as we discussed the connections between their Central Asian language and English. “Do you know that the English word business comes from your language? Take the word for goat in your language, bizin, and add the English noun suffix for a female, -ess, and you can clearly see how long ago you had a woman who sold goats, a bizin-ess, and that’s where the term business comes from in modern English!” My students thought the connections I had just spun quite convincing until I went on to tell them that I was just joking and asked them to please not share this as legitimate English etymology.
Our world is chock-full of true patterns and connections, but also full of spurious patterns and connections (Hence the proverbial “correlation does equal causation”). The ability to distinguish between the two is a crucial part of living in reality. Yes, it is that serious. Those who believe false conspiracy narratives are partially living in a world that is not the real one. And that is a terribly unchristian way to live. Christians are those who live in the real universe, having had their minds enlightened to the truth and their hearts realigned with God’s eternal wisdom. Yes, we imperfectly labor to daily fight off the twisting of reality by the world, flesh, and devil, but we are a people characterized by walking in the light – seeing and living in the patterns of the real world.
It is dangerous for a Christian to flirt with conspiracy theories since they are things that “promote speculations, rather than the stewardship of God that is by faith” (1 Tim 1:4). Like a drug or a good story, our mind enjoys conspiracy theories for the stimulation they provide. But they can grow mutant and even take over. I have seen it happen to one of my best friends. The best evangelist I’ve ever known among our people group is now a wild-eyed laughingstock, convinced he is the true king of a nation that does not exist and that the spies of the UK and New World Order constantly tail him. He once gathered dozens and dozens to hear the good news of Jesus, packing them into a vibrant house church where they renounced Islam and professed allegiance to Jesus. He now wanders the city, dropping in on his few remaining friends to see if they have any secret intel on Trump and Boris Johnson’s next moves. He played with the conspiracy theories. Over time they came to seem more plausible. Then they took over his mind. He does not know that he does not live in the real world.
Will everyone who continues to entertain conspiracy theories end up like my friend? No, but some will. Playing with reality is a dangerous game, especially since we often have underlying motives such as guilt, shame, and trauma that might nudge us to believe a meta-narrative that we prefer to the real one. Conspiracy theories make us feel important, they get us off the hook, they tap into our desire to see meaning in everything, to see a sovereign hand behind all the events of our lives. Sometimes we are duped into believing a false pattern. Other times we want to.
What can we do to grow in wisdom so that we are able to better recognize true patterns and connections from false ones? Here is one crucial part of the answer: We must immerse ourselves in the biblical wisdom literature and its worldview. The wisdom literature of scripture (Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Sermon on the Mount, James, etc.) aggressively pursue the answers to hard questions about reality, cause and effect, and the eternal wisdom of God present in creation and revelation. Many conspiracy theories are dependent upon a view of man that is frankly incompatible with what we see in the wisdom literature. The Bible teaches that a wicked man might have his way for a time, might seem to flaunt all justice and still prosper, but sooner or later he will come to a sudden and terrible end. Sin is self-destructive by its very nature. This means that many theories that are dependent on vast multi-generational organized networks of secret power simply can’t be true. Sin always implodes things before it can get that far. Someone makes a run for the money. Someone sells his birthright for fleeting moment of illicit pleasure. Someone loses his temper and people get killed. It’s the end of The Godfather over and over again. Men are just too broken to be able to pull off what the conspiracy theories often demand – not to mention divine justice, that will sooner or later intervene and bring Babel crashing down. At the root of many conspiracy theories seem to lie an inflated anthropology and an underdeveloped theology of the justice of God. A proper anthropology and theology of God’s justice are built from soaking in the poetry and wisdom of the scriptures.
I’m not saying that all conspiracy theories are bunk. Sometimes those with money and power manage to sin secretly on an elaborate scale. The CIA really did topple the government of Mohammad Mosadegh in Iran. There is also the influence of the enemy spiritual realm to consider, a la Screwtape Letters. They might have the ability to pull of something on a scale mere humans don’t with our short-sighted sinful desires. But I am saying that most conspiracy theories are bunk. And there are far better ways for Christians to spend their time than entertaining them. All Christians need to be able to distinguish between real patterns and patterns projected. This is one important way we can fight for truth in a very confusing world.