A podcast for new atheists, lifetime atheists, ex-evangelicals, truth-seekers, and free-thinkers
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Why are evangelicals such easy prey for conspiracy theorists? It's not like they're behind most of it and there are plenty of people out there who don their tinfoil hats who don't carry Bibles.
On the surface, the answers should be easy – we're talking about a group of people who have been taught from infancy (in many cases) to regard sensationalistic and clearly fictional content as fact. It's not good enough for the creation myth to be allegorical. No. That girl existed. That snake existed. The sin problem really was encapsulated in a piece of fruit and a decision. A dude actually, factually lost his superhuman strength because the girl he was fucking cut his hair. A bunch of people literally destroyed a structure that modern demolition equipment would find difficult to fall... by yelling at it.
Christians are taught to take all of this literally and they are taught not to question authority. And by “authority” I mean anyone who seems to know more about something than they do and has enough Jesus to back up their message. And yes, they do come up with their own conspiracies – just look at the satanic panic – but, like with everything else, they're largely one-trick ponies. The conspiracies they manufacture usually revolve around the supernatural. It takes outside sources to fuel the flames of things like COVID denial and anti-vaxxing.
But there is way more to it than that and we are going to examine some of the deeper reasons why some Christians, particularly evangelicals, buy in to so much conspiracy absent of any kind of logic, counter-argument, or proof.
It all begins with this pervasive notion that runs through all of Christianity that everything that happens in life is somehow part of a larger divine plan. It's the classic good versus evil scenario that has been long permeating American culture (along with many others around the world, of course, but we are really really good at this in the U.S. - just look at our entertainment industry).
“Around 4 in 10 religious Americans who are members of a local congregation believe the results of the 2020 election were not legitimate, according to the January 2021 American Perspectives Survey, a study conducted by the Survey Center on American Life, a project of the American Enterprise Institute based in Washington, D.C. Just under 1 in 5 accept the QAnon conspiracy theory that former President Donald Trump has been fighting a cabal of child sex traffickers led by Democrats and Hollywood elites.”
The Rev. Mark Fugitt, pastor of Round Grove Baptist Church in Miller, Missouri is one of many religious leaders who has noticed an increase in conspiracy theory chatter in the local church. What was once a fleeting, sometime thing has become more commonplace since the days leading up to and during the 45th presidential administration. He said, “I would say we have a lot more people who are QAnon adjacent. They’re sharing content and repeating stories and they have no idea where they are from.” He also stated that things he hears from his congregants about QAnon and other conspiracy theories are “rooted in fear.” No surprise there. The Fear Factor: It's not just for local churches anymore!
Let's quickly define what QAnon is if anyone is still fuzzy on this. From the same source: QAnon is a web of wide-ranging conspiracy theories that has gained increasing attention since 2016, when it came to public attention during the presidential campaign. It is propagated by someone referred to as “Q,” who claims to have access to insider information which is doled out to the public in bits and pieces known as “Q-drops” on social media sites. Among QAnon’s conspiracy theories — which have been widely debunked and discredited — is the idea that former President Donald Trump is fighting a global ring of child sex traffickers.”
“QAnon represents a consolidation and repackaging of various fears and conspiracy theories that have attracted people for decades, if not centuries,” said Joseph Uscinski, co-author of American Conspiracy Theories and a professor at the University of Miami. 'Those ideas predate QAnon. The problem is that QAnon adopted them,' said Uscinski.” Their messaging isn't even unique – just very sharply focused and presented in a way that appeals to the target audience!
Whether this really is just one person or a network of subversives, one thing about QAnon is clear: It operates with a goal of weaponizing evangelicals and using that toxic cocktail of faith and nationalism as the explosive in every bomb they drop on social media. And their plan is working. I keep thinking about Ender's Game and how one kid from galaxies away managed to take down an entire alien race in an initiative based largely on conspiracy theory and prejudice.
By all appearances, QAnon wants to disable the American experiment. How ironic that they are targeting (and succeeding in recruiting) people who consider themselves patriots to derail their country and the values upon which it was built.
And they figured out early on who their most effective mouthpieces would be. It only took a week for QAnon to start playing the Scripture card. They played right into the hands of White Evangelicals and their message has been gaining momentum since. And, to me, there has to be more to it but I won't go into my own theories here, only because I know just how easily crazy breeds crazy and I prefer to broker in fact, not create my own conspiracy theories.
Getting back to the article, the same pastor agrees that this upsurge in belief in conspiracy theory is dangerous. It's dangerous to individuals, to local churches, and to our nation. What he doesn't get around to saying is that this is the monster that he and many others have made. And they made it by perpetuating the concept of faith. You don't have to see it to believe it. American evangelical churches are finally starting to reap what they have sown and we have seen graphic examples of how, most of which having to do with American politics, just in the last few months.
And politics does go a long way in creating a toxic cocktail of faith and nationalism that far too often leaves the door wide open for entities like QAnon to get their voices heard, and worse, taken seriously. We are going to look in depth at how both of those things and more factor into this insane perpetuation of misinformation in a few.
Next, I want to take a look at this problem from a directly insider perspective. The author of this article is a PASTOR – clearly on the liberal side of things, but still an evangelical pastor – who flat out admits that there are three key reasons why there's a sucker born into a Christian family every minute and why they're so impressionable.
Source: https://bit.ly/3eexczY - “Faith, Apocalypse, and Nationalism: Why Evangelicals Are Vulnerable to Conspiracy Theories” by Joel Lawrence
“...many of us have found ourselves in conversations with believing friends or family who have come to believe these conspiracies. In addition, many in our churches have become devotees of them, posting their views on Facebook, Twitter, or Parler.
We are living in a time of wild conspiracy theories, from Pizzagate, to QAnon, to the notion that Covid is a hoax and the vaccine an instrument of corporate control. In the aftermath of the 2020 Presidential election, these theories have broken out into the open, as President Trump, along with his advisors and lawyers, claimed, without presenting actionable evidence in court, that the vote was rigged.
According to the Presidential narrative, this vast conspiracy involved Hugo Chavez, Dominion voting machines, Republican governors and Secretaries of State, Democratic poll workers in largely African American cities, Antifa, and countless others. These theories thrived in an environment of conspiracy, eventually leading to an attack on the United States Capitol, in which five people lost their lives and the safety of legislators were threatened.
As pastors, we must ask: How have we arrived at the place where millions of Christians have placed their faith in these theories, which have no grounding in reality?”
And he goes on the highlight three key elements of the experience of evangelicalism as likely culprits: faith, apocalypse, and nationalism.
“To state the manifestly obvious: Faith is essential to Christianity... But conspiracy theories also operate by faith...”
“look behind the appearances for a larger narrative” (alternative facts, anyone? There's a reason why this shit works...)
“Many evangelicals in the Trump years looked for patterns and actors lurking behind the appearances, and so were captured by theories with no basis in reality because their training in faith taught them not to believe that reality is all there is.”
“A common observation regarding conspiracy theories is that they thrive in times of disruption. The QAnon conspiracy exploded in popularity when the Covid pandemic hit, incorporating theories about Covid as a bioweapon unleashed on the world in order to assert a new world order. Belief in Trump’s claims about the election are fueled by fears of the end of Christian America or the triumph of the secular and the destruction of our way of life. Experts tell us that these theories grow in times of disruption because the human psyche has difficulty dealing with the uncertainty and fragility of life.”
Lawrence goes on to explain the thought process and how quickly the evangelical mind gets steered in the direction of conspiracy. 'Something couldn't really wipe out our entire species, could it? Isn't God greater than that? It must be some kind of hoax. Bill Gates trying to microchip us or something...'
“Faith is not dependent on sight.” This right here is the central reason why these people never need proof of anything. They just decide to believe shit and they believe it because seeing may be believing but the two don't necessarily have to go together. Think of the story of doubting Thomas in John 20 or Paul urging us to “walk by faith, not by sight” in 2 Cor. 5:7.
Over and over again we hear the the same message oozing out of the pages of the New Testament: “Belief =good, asking for proof=bad.” This is the core message in those two examples. We also see it in 1 Cor. 13 (for now we see through a glass darkly, then we shall see face to face), and in the litany of ways people exercised their faith chronicled in Hebrews 11. From the time they can understand they are taught that proof is irrelevant and that faith provides the relevance to any fucked up point of view.
The more I think about this the more I feel for the average pew-sitter. How utterly deprived they've been of the luxury of independent thought. How incapable their faith has made them to apply reason to anything... I can't imagine living inside a mind that is that much of a prison. Even when I was one of them, I still had a big enough window to the world open inside my head to know it was out there and that it offered more than what I was settling for. Most never make it that far in thinking about this. Most never understand concepts like facts and truth in any mature, adult way.
“Large segments of evangelical Christians have been trained to look for a roadmap to [the] future in apocalyptic literature, especially the Book of Revelation.”
Remember the Wormwood/Chernobyl thing?
“This apocalyptic fervor creates a ready market for prophets who make claims to have heard from God what exactly it is that he is doing in a particular historical event... In this time, untold numbers of “prophets” have made claims about the election, declaring that God has raised up President Trump as his instrument for saving Christian America, and that God has declared that Trump would have a second term. These “prophets” claimed to receive a word from the Lord...and have called millions of their followers to trust their word. Therefore, anything that would stymie President Trump’s second election must...involve Satanic forces manipulating the Deep State or election software algorithms... Having declared that a political figure is God’s elect instrument, the “prophet” is able to reveal the dark forces working to destroy God’s chosen leader.”
Lawrence goes on to explain that apocalyptic thinking breeds violence and cites the storming of the Capitol as a manifestation of “prophecy”-fueled violence.
“At the heart of Christian Nationalism is the notion that America is a unique instrument of God in the world...”
Many Evangelicals believe that America plays a central role in the book of Revelation and that we are the power that rises up and demonstrates the true power of God to the world. We are the “shining city on a hill” as it were. They think that America has been somehow chosen by God to be the force that carries out his will in the world, even now. We have to start now if we are going to be the global presence needed to take down the antichrist. “Let God arise. Let his enemies be scattered!” (Ps. 68)
I smell another David A.R. White movie coming on... although I think it's been done already to a degree. We'll just not think about the Road Warrior state of affairs here depicted in his Revelation Road movies for a sec...
But Christian Nationalism is primarily about three things:
Securing and protecting Christian values – Moral majority, evangelicalism in politics
Imposition of Christian morals on law and governance (Sharia law, anyone?)
The belief that we (atheists and secularists) are the enemy and that as a people belonging to God, this country has the obligation to silence us, vilify us, and taint the reputation and interpretation of all things secular and establish governance from a god-driven perspective
“The sense that America is being taken over by godless secularists, thereby threatening America’s status as the Blessed Nation, is an important factor for understanding why so many evangelicals voted for Trump, and why so many were willing to believe him as he promoted conspiracy theories. He is seen as a person who can manfully defend Christian America from her enemies and who was raised up by God to do the hard work of total culture war, even if it means he is a bit uncouth and perhaps not exactly a paragon of the moral virtue that American Christianity ostensibly is committed to ensuring. Character matters when the President is a liberal, but when he is a conservative, fighting conservative battles to save America’s status as blessed, character is less important than effectiveness.”
To tie this all together, let's look at a little conspiracy theory that cropped up in 2016 and was the observable catalyst to the rise of QAnon. I'm speaking, of course, of Pizzagate. It was THE conspiracy theory that gave rise to the levels of toxic, violent allegiance to 45 and the surge of hatred of all things liberal. Hilary Clinton was abusing kids in the basement of a DC pizza parlor. I mean, just read that sentence aloud a few times and marvel as it just starts sounding crazier and crazier and crazier. But where did it all start?
Here's a very basic timeline for Pizzagate:
November 2016: John Podesta's emails are hacks and posted to wikileaks
“On the afternoon of Sunday, December 4 2016, 28-year-old Edgar Maddison Welch, of Salisbury, North Carolina, walked through the front door of Comet Ping Pong and pointed an assault rifle in the direction of an employee, according to the Associated Press. The employee fled and called police, but Welch fired his gun, possibly striking the walls, door, and a computer. No one was hurt.
Police surrounded the pizzeria, according to The Washington Post, which said Welch emerged about 45 minutes later, his hands in the air, to surrender to authorities. He told police he'd gone to the restaurant to "self-investigate" reports of the child-trafficking ring.
He was carrying a Colt AR-15 rifle, a Colt .38 handgun, a shotgun and a folding knife. Police charged him with assault with a dangerous weapon, other weapons offenses and destruction of property.
Earlier, Welch allegedly drove his Buick LeSabre into a teenage pedestrian in North Carolina, according to Slate. The 13-year-old "suffered head, torso, and leg injuries, WBTV reported. Welch stayed at the scene until police arrived, WBTV added, although a witness said it appeared Welch didn't try to avoid striking the pedestrian.
In a statement after the incident at Comet, Alefantis called out the dangers of fake news. "What happened today demonstrates that promoting false and reckless conspiracy theories comes with consequences," he said. "I hope that those involved in fanning these flames will take a moment to contemplate what happened here today, and stop promoting these falsehoods right away."
Except, they didn't...
In 2019, Ryan Jaselskis walked into the restaurant and set a curtain on fire. He was arrested, tried, and sentenced to four years in prison.
In 2020, the whole thing churned up again, this time targeting a younger audience on TikTok, and started being associated with QAnon. The theory HAS become less political, morphing into a vehicle to falsely accuse celebrities including Christy Teigen and Ellen DeGeneres along with brands like Wayfair. That's right. According to this popular (and utterly laughable) theory, Wayfair's catalog is a front for a sex trafficking business! How did they figure that out? Some of their products have female-centric names attached to them so they must be selling sex with young girls, not furniture.
I almost wrote in my notes, “What is the fascination with sex crimes in some of these theories?” but it quickly occurred to me that with all recent conspiracies aside, sex is one of the key things that evangelicals really obsess over. They want to control what happens in our bedrooms – who we take there, when we take them there, how many we bring with us in there, how many bedrooms we visit, how you dress and behave if you were born with a penis, how to dress and behave if you were born with a vagina... of course it's going to perk their ears up like a dog who hears the food bag rattling when the word sex is used in an “Avengers, assemble!” kind of context. The authors of these theories play into these obsessions and insecurities and it mobilizes people who are afraid of their own bodies and urges to respond in angry, violent, and visceral ways. At that point it doesn't matter if it's factual. It's already personal.
Now, this is the part of the episode where I typically try to offer some kind of solution or call to action about how we can respond to the issue at hand. Honestly, this one is a big one and I don't know if there really is anything actionable that we can do here aside from the same things I recommend about any kind of counter-argument with theists. Present the truth in a lucid, level-headed way and at least get the opposing view out there. How much good it will do is a good question. What I do know, however, is that doing nothing won't change anything.
Their own book tells them that they shall know the truth and the truth shall set them free. That would be great if they actually wanted to be free, but lie I've said before: the shackles of evangelical faith are heavy and they are strong and they leave marks long after a person breaks free. This kind of thinking won't be changed by an offering of facts. It won't be changed by offering better messaging. It'll change by shutting down the voices of the messengers that sow division and create chaos.
This is, once again, not a matter of free speech. It's a matter of silencing the rabble yelling fire in the crowded theaters of evangelical thought and not providing an audience for conspiracy theorists to reach. That means demanding that platforms like Facebook, Twitter, 4Chan, and Reddit provide more than the unconvincing lip service they respond with whenever things like Pizzagate happen. At the end of the day, no one who runs those platforms actually cares about their role in this game until it starts impacting their bottom line or until their inaction becomes the target of too much conversation and negative press. THEN it's time to disable Twitter accounts. THEN it's time to stop selling the pillow-pusher's wares. THEN it's time to distance from negative influencers.
And while it may seem hopeless, keep in mind that there are plenty of us out there who once thought like this, at least on some level. We were easily duped, convinced, and motivated to believe things without evidence and we did. We also changed. And we're not the only ones who can. Stay vocal. Stay mobile. Don't be afraid to present counter-arguments or be the voice of reason in the conversation.
Somewhere out there right now, a devout evangelical is poring over all of this and starting to think that maybe remaining part of a religion that breeds these kinds of thoughts and actions is a bad idea. Somewhere out there, there's a pastor who sees this issue for what it is and has the guts to admit the root causes. Somewhere out there, a middle-aged couple in Massachusetts is pumping out content that raises awareness of these problems and is addressing them every week in the hopes that along the way one or two people out there might understand the dangers inherent in belief and start taking their lives back.
Our voices matter. Reason matters. Truth matters. And it's when we get committed to finding and embracing the truth, when we add our voices to the growing throng of non-religious free-thinking, secularist, humanist people out there who want better for our country (and the lives of the people who live here) than anything QAnon will ever be able to deliver long-term, that we will start seeing that all-important shift in the direction of rational thought that leads to people getting and staying unbound.