QAnon, Faith, and Skepticism

To State the Problem in the Form of a Question, What’s the Right Point on the Credulity-Skepticism Spectrum?

David Clay / 9.29.20

About a month ago, I listened to an NPR story on the growing popularity of the QAnon conspiracy theory among white evangelical Christians. QAnon is actually a hodgepodge of related theories, but the basic idea is that President Trump is waging a secret (?) war against a cabal of satanists/pedophiles/vampires who surreptitiously run the country.

As part of the story, NPR interviewed conservative evangelical pastors in despair over their congregants’ enthusiastic acceptance of QAnon. One senior pastor in Texas said this: 

As a Christian, as a church, we’re going to be spreading the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ because that’s the most important message in the world. So if the people spreading that message are also spreading easily debunked, crazy lies, why would the message be believed, right? Why would we listen to my friend Joe, who says he’s a Christian and who’s telling me about Jesus, if he also thinks that Communists are taking over America and operating a pedophile ring out of some pizza restaurant?

Not for the first time, I found myself wondering if Christians are more likely to be credulous, or if credulous people are more likely to be Christians. After all, if there was no one willing to believe in weird things, then there would be no Christians; the core of our faith is that a first-century Jewish day-laborer is God. This leads to a pretty difficult question: on what basis do I as a Christian accept — indeed, stake my life on — some strange beliefs while rejecting others

According to the 19th-century British philosopher and mathematician W. K. Clifford, what makes the difference is sufficient evidence. Indeed, Clifford writes, “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” The responsible person critically and carefully examines all the available evidence, both for and against, before making a decision. According to Clifford, nothing less than the survival of civilization is at stake:

In like manner, if I let myself believe anything on insufficient evidence, there may be no great harm done by the mere belief; it may be true after all, or I may never have occasion to exhibit it in outward acts. But I cannot help doing this great wrong towards Man, that I make myself credulous. The danger to society is not merely that it should believe wrong things, though that is great enough; but that it should become credulous, and lose the habit of testing things and inquiring into them; for then it must sink back into savagery.

On this view, the Apostle Thomas was commendable in his demand for tangible proof before believing in something as far-fetched as the Resurrection. The Risen Jesus, of course, is a bit less impressed: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (Jn 20:29).  

An agnostic acquaintance of mine once said that this verse was his least favorite in Scripture, as he thought Jesus was encouraging the kind of credulity Clifford so forcefully denounced. Willingness to believe a very weird thing indeed — and that without empirical evidence — is apparently a virtue.

But the rest of the New Testament makes it clear that while faith is a virtue, undue willingness to believe just anything one hears most certainly isn’t. John himself instructs his readers to “test the spirits to see if they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 Jn 4:1). In other words, he’s telling us to make good use of our critical faculties. In Acts, the Bereans who evaluated Paul’s preaching by Scripture are not written off as hard-hearted and slow to believe, but are rather praised as “noble” (17:11). 

At the same time, though, this spirit of critical evaluation becomes difficult to shut off, and may even mutate into outright skepticism. It’s very well to evaluate a strange new teaching by the standard of Scripture, but what’s to keep people from eventually turning their critical guns on the Scriptural narrative itself? That was, in fact, precisely what started happening in the 18th century among scholars seeking to explain certain oddities in the biblical text. 

The difficulty is maintaining a heart and mind open to strange and supernatural truths, but at the same time sufficiently critical to avoid damaging falsehoods. To state the problem in the form of a question, what’s the right point on the credulity-skepticism spectrum? 

That, frankly, is not an easy question to answer. It’s comforting to remember that coming to know the ultimate truth doesn’t hinge on answering it correctly. That truth is simply a gift. The blessedness of the future believers of whom Jesus spoke is the same as the blessedness of Simon bar Jonah, who arrived at the true identity of his Master as the result of neither careful investigation nor blind faith, but from God’s gracious revelation (Mt 16:17). 

Figuring out how to believe the impossible while maintaining an appropriate skepticism might be important for all kinds of reasons. It may even be that our civilization hinges on it. But, thank God, our salvation doesn’t.