Earlier this year, research website YouGov released the findings of a survey compiled by data journalist Hoang Nguyen. Researchers asked participants, “Do you believe that the world is round?” Most respondents (84 percent) said they’ve always believed the basic scientific fact, but surprisingly, five percent said, “I always thought the world is round, but more recently I am skeptical/have doubts.”
That may seem like a high number, but skepticism about the Earth’s shape jumps dramatically among millennials: seven percent of 25- to 34-year-olds have their doubts, and 10 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds say they are not sure if it’s flat or round.
The research also had another interesting outlier: The more religious someone is, the more likely they are to believe the Earth is flat.
According to the research, 52 percent of flat-Earthers say they are “very religious” and 23 percent are somewhat religious—a far greater number than non-religious flat-Earthers.
The flat-Earth movement has grown so much in Christian circles that Answers in Genesis—a multimillion-dollar nonprofit that espouses “young Earth creationism”—has a large page on their website dedicated to combating flat-Earthers.
We’re looking for answers, and a conspiracy theory finds a really good answer for what happened.
– Dan Jolley
The author of the piece, Dr. Danny Faulkner (who holds multiple degrees in astronomy and physics), offers this anecdote about a surprise discussion with colleagues about meeting a seemingly well-educated young Christian who believed the Earth is flat: “Within days of my conversation, I had two additional, yet independent, conversations with people having similar concerns about two other Christian young people … With three conversations over less than a week, I wondered, ‘Is something going on out there?’”
To answer his rhetorical question: Yes, something is going on.
Conspiracy theories are now a major part of culture, and many share a common premise: A powerful group of elite individuals are withholding or distorting the truth. Many flat-Earthers believe NASA was created to deceive humanity about the true nature of reality, so only the elites can know how the world really works. Everyone else believes a lie. Flat-Earthers are out to expose the truth.
Sure, believing the Earth is flat seems pretty ridiculous, but why are Christians so susceptible to believing it and other “theories” far outside the mainstream? And what happens when conspiracy theories move from the realm of the ridiculous to something much darker and more sinister?
I WANT TO BELIEVE
“We have many biases in our mind to try and make us understand the complex world that is our world, and one of those biases is confirmation bias, which is where you just find information that supports your viewpoint,” explains Dr. Daniel Jolley, a scholar who studies the psychology of conspiracy theories.
Experts believe our tendency to fall into the trap of confirmation bias can lead some people to slip into a rabbit hole of conspiracies. The problem is especially prominent in the internet era, where people can find information that confirms whatever value they hold—and ignore any information that does not.
For example, if someone believes the mainstream media only produces “fake news,” they can simply ignore it and seek information from alternative sources.
“With one quick search, you’ll be able to find people who are similar to you, and there you are, you’re stuck in that chamber,” he explains. “With conspiracy theories being so powerful, so influential, they can change our beliefs without us realizing. We can be in this chamber and realize that this conspiracy theory we read on this blog or on Twitter has taken over our belief, and then we stay supporting that. Which shows the peril of conspiracy theories really, and how they’re potentially quite dangerous.”
The danger he’s talking about is very real. Many modern conspiracy theories—from the flat-Earth movement to people who think terrorist attacks and mass shootings are actually “false flag” operations coordinated by the government to sway political opinions—operate just a few steps away from a singular, larger idea: that a secretive global elite, who some believe are the “Illuminati,” are pulling the strings while also pulling a veil over everyone else’s eyes.
“If your central belief is that people are conspiring and you don’t trust the information they’re giving to you, you then can endorse multiple conspiracy theories,” Jolley explains.
Many of these conspiracies date back to ideas found in a century-old book known as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The book, which also contains strange-looking symbols, was said to be the meeting notes from a secret gathering of Jewish leaders and Freemasons, “The Elders of Zion,” who outlined their plan to conspire to slowly take over the world’s media, governments and banks in an effort to destroy Christianity. The book, however, is a hoax, and was written with the sole intention of turning people against Jews. It was used by Nazis and German schoolteachers who taught it to students during the Holocaust.
Despite being debunked as a fraud decades ago, some of the ideas in The Protocols have cropped back up in modern conspiracy theory circles. Alex Jones, arguably pop culture’s most notorious conspiracy theorist, draws an audience of hundreds of millions to his site InfoWars, and has even met and interviewed powerful political figures—including President Donald Trump. (In 2015, Trump told him, “Your reputation is amazing” in an on-air interview.)
Jones professes to be a Christian and frequently talks about attacks on what he sees as “Christian” values. However, Jones holds many extreme and dangerous ideas.
For example, he believes billionaire George Soros is the head of a “Jewish mafia” that actually worked alongside Hitler. Recently, Jones was banned from major social media platforms after suggesting that the victims of mass shootings were actors.
Since then, many parents of children killed in shootings have been harassed by conspiracy theorists and Alex Jones fans.
Following the “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Jones took to the radio to speculate that many of the people there were “leftist Jews” who incited violence to make the white supremacists look bad. He said, “I mean, quite frankly, I’ve been to these events, a lot of the KKK guys with their hats off look like they’re from the cast of Seinfeld. Literally, they’re just Jewish actors.”
But even if an internet user doesn’t know the more insidious origins of the conspiracy theory they’ve begun to research, the results of buying into it can be devastating.
The Worst Case
On Dec. 4, 2016, a then- 28-year-old man named Edgar Welch drove several hours from his home in North Carolina to a pizza restaurant in Washington, D.C. and stormed in, armed with a loaded AR- 15 and several other firearms. Welch believed the restaurant was actually a front for a child sex-trafficking ring run by powerful political figures. He had come to save the children, and blow a conspiracy theory wide open.
Along with consuming InfoWars videos, Welch frequently posted about politics, the Bible and his Christian faith on social media. It was there he first learned about “Pizzagate,” a conspiracy later propagated by Jones, that, coupled with his faith and passion to save children, inspired Welch to the storm the restaurant.
As he soon found out, there were indeed children in Comet Ping Pong pizzeria—eating dinner with their families and other customers. There was no trafficking ring.
Welch has since been sentenced to four years in prison for endangering the lives of the people in the restaurant that day. He later apologized, writing that he “came to D.C. with the intent of helping people I believed were in dire need of assistance, and to bring an end to a corruption that I truly felt was harming innocent lives.”
They were beliefs that formed while learning about conspiracy theories on the internet.
Welch’s case is extreme. Most people who encounter—or even fully believe—conspiracy theories don’t take up arms and storm family restaurants. But such actions are becoming more common.
This fall, Soros, who supports the Democratic Party and is the subject of many anti-Semitic conspiracies, was among the high-profile figures who had pipe bombs mailed to their homes.
But it’s the more subtle behaviors of conspiracy theorists that concern people like Jolley. He points to people who reject science (beyond just flat-Earthers) and whose behaviors risk other people’s well-being.
“We typically find out that if someone believes … that the climate scientists affect their data for funding, they’re less likely to reduce their carbon footprint,” he says.
Notably, a 2015 Pew Research Center poll on the topic found that the group with the highest percentage of people to not believe that the Earth was getting warmer because of human activity was white evangelical Christians. Only 28 percent believed it.
Along with climate change deniers, Jolley also points to people who reject scientific data about vaccinations and refuse to vaccinate their children, leaving them in danger of contracting deadly diseases.
But Jolley says to truly understand why people believe these ideas in the first place, you have to understand human psychology. What his team has found is that at the core of these behaviors and tendencies is something very simple: a need to feel like you’re in control.
“If you imagine, a big event happens—a plane goes missing or someone dies—people want to explain why that’s happened, because it makes them feel uneasy and anxious, which are not good feelings,” he explains. “So we’re looking for answers, and a conspiracy theory finds a really good answer for what happened. That theory can actually make you feel more in control and less anxious, less uncertain. You know what has happened.”
Jolley is right; it’s only natural to look for answers in a confusing world. But Christians should forgo the temptation to look toward a conspiracy theory to make them feel more secure or in control. After all, the Bible says, “Trust in the Lord … and lean not on your own understanding.”
Conspiracies offer easy answers, and that can be part of the problem.
Jessica Stephens is a freelance writer living in Cincinnati, Ohio, with her terrier, Buffalo.