In today’s digital age, disinformation, and propaganda can spread at alarming speeds, often inciting fear and confusion and causing instability within social, political, and religious circles. Suppose individuals are unaware of undue influence and the tactics used in information warfare, intentionally devised to instill distrust in our institutions. In that case, they can easily become entangled in harmful conspiracy theories.
Understanding how people fall victim to false beliefs, their negative impact, and how to help individuals disentangle themselves from conspiracies is essential. To further explore these issues, I interviewed Dr. Michael Austin and Dr. Gregory Bock, who recently published a book called QAnon, Chaos, and the Cross: Christianity and Conspiracy Theories.
Dr. Austin and Dr. Bock are accomplished scholars with extensive experience in ethics and philosophy. Michael W. Austin, Ph.D., is a Foundation Professor of Philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University, Senior Fellow of The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute, and current president of the Evangelical Philosophical Society. He has published 13 books, including Humility and Human Flourishing and God and Guns in America. His work focuses on ethics, character cultivation, and the common good. Complementing his work, Gregory L. Bock, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion and Director of the Center for Ethics at the University of Texas at Tyler. He is editor of volumes 3 and 4 of The Philosophy of Forgiveness and co-editor of Righteous Indignation: Christian Philosophical and Theological Perspectives on Anger. His research areas include bioethics, the ethics of forgiveness, and the philosophy of religion.
Although I am Jewish by faith, I support the principles of Christianity and all major religions that promote truth, peace, love, and forgiveness. Their collaborative work, QAnon, Chaos, and the Cross, is a compendium of essays exploring the rise of conspiracies like QAnon, an online conspiracy group I wrote about in my book, The Cult of Trump. Their book raises awareness about the allures and pitfalls of conspiracy theories and draws upon Christian principles for discerning truth from misinformation and fostering productive dialogues.
Conspiracy Theories and Their Impact on Faith Communities
While a healthy measure of skepticism toward government, scientific, or religious institutions can be justified, people can be deceived into believing rampant conspiracy theories that are dangerous because they fuel fear, anger, and confusion and reduce people’s willingness to consider the common good.
Dr. Bock raised his concerns about deep-seated anger over conspiracy theories within the church community and how this contradicts the Christian commandment to love your neighbor. He explained that while anger might have a place in some circumstances, it shouldn’t impede the ability to show love and compassion towards others. Dr. Austin added that a significant aspect of faith involves serving others and contributing to the community. However, there’s a rising trend of spending countless hours engaging in heated debates about topics such as the “Great Awakening” propagated by QAnon, detracting from the essential tenet of service to others.
Anger and fear are potent emotions that tend to override our critical thinking and common sense, sometimes leading to falling out with loved ones who have an opposing view to our own. Accepting a conspiracy theory as fact does not make a person weak, stupid, or gullible. As humans, we naturally seek out meaningful explanations, and, particularly in times of instability, anyone can be vulnerable to indoctrination and adopting beliefs that offer a simple answer for complex events. By understanding how undue influence operates, we can better manage our reactions and foster more compassionate interactions with others.
Examining Sources of Information and Knowing a Tree by Its Fruit
Our discussion explored strategies for discerning fact from fiction, which is especially relevant in this era of AI manipulation, disinformation, information warfare, and deep fakes. Confirmation bias can lead us to accept information that resonates with our beliefs uncritically, so it is vital to scrutinize the sources of information and resist the urge to adopt and share unverified stories.
Dr. Bock highlighted the role of intellectual autonomy in this process but also cautioned about its potential misuse. The mantra of “think for yourself” is often touted by conspiracy theorists to question mainstream thought or consensus. However, he explained that while independent thinking is invaluable, it’s equally crucial to trust the expertise of others. Having a balance is key; we can apply independent thinking to discern who the real experts are, and after that, their insights can be trusted without undermining our intellectual independence or succumbing to blind faith.
Dr. Austin added that intellectual courage is also essential, especially in communities where certain beliefs or theories are deeply entrenched. Taking a step back to examine beliefs critically can be challenging in such groups. Still, it is important to take a position of humility, accept when we are wrong, and be willing to change our viewpoints in light of compelling evidence.
We also discussed the Christian metaphor of “knowing a tree by its fruit” as a guideline for distinguishing truth from falsehood. By observing the outcomes – the ‘fruits’ – of a belief, we can know whether it is a healthy or unhealthy view to adopt. For example, if accepting a belief results in anger, hatred, dehumanizing others, or racist language, it contradicts religious and ethical principles. However, if the ‘fruit’ manifests as love, peace, patience, kindness, self-control, and gentleness, it reflects positively on the belief system.
Strategies for Interacting with People That Believe in Conspiracy Theories
Engaging with someone who fervently believes in a conspiracy theory can be an exasperating experience. Maintaining patience and resisting the urge to react with anger can be challenging. Moreover, using logical arguments to dissuade them often backfires, further entrenching their beliefs.
In our discussion, we talked about the importance of adopting virtues like open-mindedness, respectful curiosity, and active listening when engaging with individuals who believe in conspiracy theories. Dr. Bock suggested that our responsibility, borne out of love and care, is to engage empathetically and thoughtfully with loved ones who subscribe to such beliefs. Dr. Austin added that this interaction should be grounded in a mutual quest for truth and humility toward the other person. Drawing from my experiences working with former cult members, taking a reciprocal approach to examining beliefs is another effective way to influence a loved one positively. This Strategic Interactive Approach involves asking them to share something compelling that influenced their point of view and offers to explore it together while also having an opportunity to share something that influenced my own perspective for mutual consideration.
As we navigate an increasingly polarized world, we must arm ourselves with strategies for reassessing our beliefs, cultivating critical thinking, and engaging empathetically with those holding opposing views. But ultimately, it is through the steadfast pursuit of truth and unwavering practice of love and kindness; we can secure freedom of mind.
QAnon, Chaos, and the Cross: Christianity and Conspiracy Theories by Michael W. Austin (Editor), Gregory L. Bock (Editor)