A Guide to Loving Your Conspiracy Theorist

On the Low Anthropology and Grace of Talking Across the Divide

Bryan J. / 1.13.21

And so, in conclusion, FDR knew about Pearl Harbor, and he allowed the attack to happen so that America would get involved in World War II. He has the blood of American patriots on his hands. 

I still remember the silent cringe in that classroom 16 years ago as we witnessed a classmate self-destruct in front of us all. Our friend, who was no dummy by any stretch, had gone down the wrong Internet rabbit hole and made the Advanced-Knowledge-Pearl-Harbor conspiracy theory the cornerstone of his senior capstone project. To be fair, this was 2005. All the students of that era were still learning to parse fact from fiction online. But those of us in the classroom knew enough to know that, a mere month or so from graduation, our friend’s grades and, by proxy, his college admission, were all suddenly in jeopardy.

That story came to my mind as I watched the images of the capitol riots last week. As conspiracy theories and the political divide continue to dominate the headlines, a national dialogue is coalescing around a fundamental question: how do you convince someone that their conspiracy theory is wrong? More broadly than the immediacy of current events, how do you get someone to change what they believe? These are, of course, extensions of another, more theological question: how can people change to be better? It’s a question for the ages, not just in our own divided and divisive time. 

Jesus had a remarkable insight on that question of changing people’s hearts and minds. He doesn’t offer a checklist of actions to perform, nor does he advocate the creation of a carrot-and-stick method of incentives. Instead, he advocates for humility and repentance … in the person who wants others to change!

It’s a quirky pattern evident throughout his ministry. A man comes to Jesus demanding that the rabbi intervene in an argument about his family’s estate, and Jesus refuses to get involved (Luke 12). Instead, he takes the occasion to rail against the dangers of greed, presumably the greed of the man who asked for Jesus to intervene! Others ask Jesus if the massacre of some Galilean rebels was God judging those rebels for their sins (Luke 13). Jesus’ response turns the tables: unless they repent, they will end up just like those who were massacred! Which is to say, whenever the question is about other people — “How do we get them to stop believing in conspiracy theories” — Jesus says in response, “Forget about them, what about you?” 

If Jesus’s strategy is right —  redirecting outrage through a slice of humble pie — then perhaps there are some practical ways we can become useful in bringing God’s love to the conspiracy theorists in our lives. If there’s someone we love, whether they believe the tabloids or think jet fuel can’t melt steel beams, here are a few questions to ask ourselves before we turn to our loved ones with our questions:

Have we become fully convinced that human beings are not, fundamentally, rational creatures? Even though the biology community has dubbed our species homo sapiens, literally “the wise men,” the proliferation of social science research available suggests we may have been hasty in that designation. The matters of the mind are enslaved to the desires of our hearts, and so the expectation that human beings should be rational at all times and in all things is outdated at best — and naïve at worst. An adjusted anthropology will align our expectations as we work to love those captivated by a conspiracy theory. 

Can we draw from our past personal examples of faulty thinking? In Romans, St. Paul articulates that one of the impacts of sin is how it corrupts the mind. Thinking becomes futile, wisdom and folly are confused, and our thought processes are corrupted (1:21-28). Theologians call this the noetic effect of sin: we don’t just miss the mark when it comes to behavior, but our thought life also misses the mark.

Some might have thought, as noted above, that human beings are free and rational creatures. I once thought Hawaii was a state during World War II (it wasn’t). An adult colleague once admitted he didn’t know the moon had phases until someone pointed it out to him in college. Maybe we’ve worked the twelve steps and discovered ways in which our addiction co-opted our rationality to justify our self-destructive behaviors. If the Christian acknowledges that his or her own mind is prone to faulty thinking, it creates the space to view our peers with faulty thinking in a sympathetic light.

Are we prepared to make an imperfect attempt at unconditional love? One of St. Paul’s arguments in Romans is that God’s unconditional love in Jesus’s death and resurrection transforms our minds (Rom 12). It’s worth asking what in us needs to die, mirroring Jesus’s own willingness to die, so that someone else may be loved. Do we debate because we want to be viewed as intelligent? Do our deeply held political convictions need to die? When we are impatient or grow frustrated at another’s opinions or ideas, the roots of that impatience usually reveal the beliefs or values that prevent us from loving someone with something akin to God’s grace.

When my classmate made the bold pronouncement that FDR allowed Pearl Harbor to happen, our teacher stood up from his seat with a gentle smile. “Woah, woah woah. It seems as if you’ve found some unhelpful sites on the Internet that influenced your research. Let’s talk after class and see if we can’t sort this out.” My classmate did not flunk his capstone, by my teacher’s grace and goodwill. In fact, my friend went on to graduate from the Air Force Academy and join a special forces unit, the kind that went on missions so secret that, if he actually told me what he did, he might actually have to kill me. It’s really a gracious ending to a story that might have derailed this student’s life.

As the national conversation continues about how to respond to violent conspiracy theories, Jesus may just be on to something. A dose of humility might be the medicine we all really need. It was my teacher’s kindness that changed the heart and mind of my classmate. Don’t we all wish we had that kind of gentle patience in our life? Who knows? It might even create in us the kind of graciousness that could lead our loved ones to be captivated by another far more scandalous story. I mean, you know the story of what actually happened two thousand years ago at that empty Jerusalem tomb, don’t you?

Other helpful Mbird links for more reading:

Hiding in Plain Sight: The Lost Doctrine of Sin — A look at how the psychology of cognitive biases mirrors the New Testament’s understanding of sin. A talk given by Cambridge University professor Simeon Zahl.

Righteous Minds, Moral Matrices, and the Real (Non-)Difference Between Liberals and Conservatives — Our own DZ reviews the scholarship of Jonathan Haidt on moral psychology. Morality is not just ethical, but binding and tribal. See also the talk he gave at our 2014 NYC conference (video above).

We Are All Sociopaths (For Love) — DZ explores how/why people do the crazy things they do with the help of essayist and cartoonist Tim Kreider.

Tim Kreider and the Perils of Outrage Porn — “One reason we rush so quickly to the vulgar satisfactions of judgment, and love to revel in our righteous outrage, is that it spares us the impotent pain of empathy, and the harder, messier work of understanding.”

The Importance of Listening — An online seminar on listening via our Talkingbird podcast.

When the Solution is to Listen: The Timely Reminder of Helena Dea Bala’s Craigslist Confessional — More on the power of listening, this time from a secular perspective.

John Gray and the Politics of Grace — A review of John Gray’s book The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths. “Gray’s dismantling of our ideas of human progress, if taken to heart, open up our need to the only unity of justice and love possible — that of a love ‘which covers a multitude of sins.’”

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5 responses to “A Guide to Loving Your Conspiracy Theorist”

  1. Amanda McMillen says:

    “If the Christian acknowledges that his or her own mind is prone to faulty thinking, it creates the space to view our peers with faulty thinking in a sympathetic light.” I mean. so good.

  2. Anna says:

    This is a fantastic response to ‘call-out culture’ however I wish there was a bit more on the necessity to say something (but say it well and with love) when someone does fall down that internet rabbit-hole.

  3. BP says:

    Jesus is saying, right now, as reflected in the examples, “how the heck do YOU know your conventional wisdom is correct and the “conspiracy” theory is wrong?”

  4. Pierre says:

    Thanks for this perspective, Bryan. It is both challenging and loving. I think you’re addressing a deeper, longer-term project that we need to undertake in this country, one that will be difficult, if not impossible, without a hefty dose of grace and humility.

    I’m interested in what you think about a faithful short-term response, though. Yes, in the long term we need loving and honest conversations to help guide people away from dangerous conspiracy theories. But that’s a decades-long project to undo massive media-abetted conspiratorial brainwashing, and meanwhile the danger is clear and present, right now. Masked men with zip ties invaded the U.S. Capitol, searching for the people who represent me in this democracy, trying to violently overturn the results of an election. If my senator had responded to this terrifying invasion with, “Hmm, maybe I should examine my own faulty thinking before I criticize these men” while locked down in his office, I would justifiably call that an insane response to the situation. These conspiracies have real, tangible, dangerous impacts, and the long-term work won’t protect us from threats of armed protest at all 50 state capitals (per the FBI) in the next week.

    You wrote:
    “Do our deeply held political convictions need to die? When we are impatient or grow frustrated at another’s opinions or ideas, the roots of that impatience usually reveal the beliefs or values that prevent us from loving someone with something akin to God’s grace.”

    I have a hard time with that. I am impatient and frustrated at the opinions and “ideas” of Donald Trump and those who he incited to storm the Capitol. The roots of my impatience are a genuine fear that their violence will not only destroy our democracy and hurt my vulnerable neighbors but also further harm me psychologically, physically, and spiritually. I speak as a gay man whose civil rights may erode under the right-wing Supreme Court that Trump has solidified, and I believe the threat is many degrees worse for communities of color. If my desire to protect my vulnerable neighbors – as well as the mind and body God has given me – is what prevents me from loving the insurrectionists, I guess I can’t do it. Jesus will have to love them for me. I believe too strongly that this is a Bonhoeffer moment for Christians in our democracy.

    • Ian Olson says:

      I agree, Pierre, and I guess the heart of what Bryan says goes towards rejecting Manicheanism while strenuously opposing falsehood. Holding on to the possibility that *I* am wrong doesn’t mean I have to treat what I am incorrect about as being equivalent to what the insurrectionists are incorrect about, only that I do not come to the question as one who is pure to those who are impure. Because we can be right in our judgment about, for instance, QAnon and other crazy conspiracy theories, but wrong about something else, wrong in one of the ways we arrived at that right judgment, wrong in viewing ourselves as so enlightened we could never be duped by such craziness, etc.

      The problem isn’t only faulty thinking: it’s faulty feeling and faulty sensing, also. Faulty love. If we really believe that our rationality justifies what our heart loves, then it’s not just a problem with our thinking, it’s a problem with our souls. And that’s why I agree and think this is a particularly dangerous moment. The challenge is always how to direct repugnant sinners towards the truth via God’s justifying grace, but that general truth is especially difficult to navigate when blatant sins and blatant disregard for reality are so dangerously on display. Our calling doesn’t change but the particular case requires we latch onto all the tensions, I think, which precludes a simple, “Well, we’re all sinners and we’re all wrong in one way or another, so I’m not going to touch this issue.”

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