If your social media newsfeeds are like ours, then they have been chock-full of conspiracy theories about the coronavirus and our government’s response to it. We see many of our Christian friends considering conspiracy theories—if not believing them, at least listening to them. Why are conspiracies so appealing right now?
The Plandemic video has captured wide attention with its false claims about the COVID-19 pandemic. The film stars Judy Mikovits, who used to be a legitimate medical researcher, but has since fallen afoul of the scientific establishment. She promotes the view that vaccines are harmful and that the novel coronavirus was manipulated by genetic engineers. The video has been removed from YouTube (which for some only provides evidence of how deep the conspiracy truly goes!). And it doesn’t take long to discover that Mikovits’ work was properly discredited.
Also last week there was a viral image going around Facebook claiming that no employees of Walmart, Amazon, Target, Costco, or Kroger have tested positive for COVID-19, so it is ridiculous that small businesses have to remain shut. It is so easy to make or share such a graphic, and it “seems correct” to people who are frustrated that businesses are restricted. But a quick fact check showed multiple actual news agencies reporting that many Walmarts have become epicenters of COVID breakouts and have had to be shut down.
We wish these kinds of conspiracies and spreading of false and dangerous information were limited to Facebook friends and fringe groups. But unfortunately that is not the case—Christian leaders are also fueling the flames.
When Conspiracies Are Fueled by Christians
As one example, several days ago, a senior leader at a prominent Christian organization sent out an “urgent” email about the pandemic. He made the disclaimer that he’s not speaking for his employer in this, but his platform and credibility for his audience comes from there. His 2700-word email was full of all-caps warnings and conspiracies about the “very evil people” pushing “fake science and fake medicine.” His main argument is that Dr. Anthony Fauci and others are engaged in a demonic “globalist hoax” to deceive and control the population to lay the groundwork for a “new world order.” Add in further links like a lecture on the Illuminati, (“this is not conspiracy theory, but conspiracy fact”) and a self-filmed exposé under a QAnon banner, and…well, you have quite an email. Not only did the email contain advice that directly contradicts the overwhelming consensus of scientists and public health experts, but it urges prayer for “people to rise up in peaceful civil disobedience” against such guidelines.
When Christian leaders urge rejection of public health measures, we need to be blunt about the impact their words can have. An influential University of Washington model cited by the White House recently doubled the estimate for coronavirus deaths through August to a startling 137,000 (with an upper range approaching a quarter of a million), largely due to decreased social distancing and growing death totals. This is serious and life-threatening.
Coronavirus misinformation recently found its way onto even larger stages. The Q Ideas conference draws thousands of Christian leaders each year to hear TED-style talks by the world’s most prominent Christian leaders and thinkers, with thousands more reached online by videos of past talks. We applaud much of what Q has done over the years with thoughtful analysis of complex cultural issues from a Christian perspective. Unfortunately this year some talks fell far short, in ways that were dangerous to public health. The Q leadership transitioned this year’s event to an online-only “virtual summit,” billed as an opportunity to equip Christians for our current pandemic moment. Yet two of the most prominent, double-length speaking slots were given to speakers who provided a stunning barrage of conspiracy theorizing and long-debunked claims.
One of these slots was an interview Q Ideas founder Gabe Lyons had with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., a noted anti-vaccination activist. In it Kennedy asserted without challenge a number of long-debunked falsehoods about vaccines, from the claim that vaccines aren’t safety- or placebo-tested (they are), to claims that vaccines poison children and cause autism (they don’t). In another double-length talk, Josh Axe, a chiropractor and naturopathic doctor who sells nutritional supplements online, touted the curative powers of various “natural” remedies, which he pitched as biblically-mandated immune-boosters. “God created your body to be able to fight off viruses,” Axe said. “You just have to follow his Word and follow the principles in the Bible”—principles that, according to Axe, include using oils, herbal supplements, and thinking happy thoughts. By taking this route, we’ll show that we have faith in God, instead of “faith in a pill or a shot”—a disturbing translation of the old faith-vs-science dichotomy into the realm of medicine. Lyons gave enthusiastic support to these talks (“we…have another option to fight off a virus than just relying on medicine”) and defended the promotion of their claims (so that anyone can decide if “we think it’s true or we think it’s not true”).
We do not question the motivation of such people. We think they genuinely believe they are providing an important service to get truth out there. And we agree with so many of their Christian convictions. But unfortunately, in this matter they are undermining the public’s trust in the very people who are trying to keep us safe. In our recent livestream with BioLogos founder and National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins, he praised his “dear colleague and friend” Anthony Fauci, whom he speaks with daily, as “the most remarkable expert in infectious disease in the world.” “So when Tony answers the question, listen carefully,” Collins said. “You’re going to get the straight scoop. Tony is a truth-teller.” What a shame that Fauci has become the focus of so many misguided conspiracies.
As Christianity Today reported a couple of weeks ago, Christians seem disproportionately susceptible to misinformation and conspiracies about COVID-19. That is due, undoubtedly, to the way ideas are packaged in the culture wars in our country. Scientists and their expertise have been lumped together with other academics and left-leaning causes. And all of us are hard-wired to find affinity with the groups we identify with.
Responding with Science
It’s not hard to see how conspiracy theories can be appealing in times like this. A complex world inevitably leaves gaps in our finite understanding. But a “good” conspiracy theory can fill in every gap, every unknown, by conjuring up invisible forces, secret motives, and double agents. (Have you ever had a 9/11 conspiracy theorist tell you there are still a few contradictions and explanatory gaps he hasn’t been able to figure out?) There’s an implicit appeal to our human pride, too—who wouldn’t enjoy the ego boost of “knowing” what the majority doesn’t, of catching a glimpse behind the curtain, of being smarter—or at least more clever—than the world’s top scientists?
Haarsma, Stump & Buller
But the all-consuming urgency of the present crisis gives a stark reminder to why we need both good science and responsible Christian faith.
Nor can we say that advocates of fringe ideas are unintelligent. The chemist Linus Pauling was one of the greatest scientists of all time, yet he spent the later years of his life advocating that large doses of intravenous Vitamin C were an effective treatment for cancer—a fringe idea that he advocated right up until his own death (ironically yet tragically, from cancer). Pauling was a true genius and made passionate arguments that we nonspecialists would hardly have been equipped to rebut. And yet—crucially—he was unable to marshal the scientific evidence to convince the broader scientific community of which he was a part.
When we at BioLogos prioritize the consensus views of the credentialed scientific community, we don’t do so because we think any scientists are infallible. We do so precisely because we know they are not. The painstaking processes of the scientific community, from rigorous peer review to pointed questioning at a professional scientific conference, would have no reason to exist if scientists (collectively at least) were not acutely aware of their own ability to make mistakes and overlook competing explanations. And while none of these processes are themselves guarantees of infallibility, they are the best methods we have for weeding out errors and cohering around the scientific explanations most likely to be true. What’s amazing about science is that it’s continually self-correcting. Scientific errors are corrected by other scientists—hardly ever by an armchair commentator sitting down in front of a webcam.
Responding with Faith
Relying on expertise might sound elitist, but it is grounded in the biblical principle that we have different gifts. 1 Corinthians 12:14-26 reminds us that all parts of the “body,” from the most prominent to the most overlooked, serve an essential role as part of the greater whole. There’s no room in Christianity for disdain for the humble and often thankless work of sanitation workers, food producers, and truck drivers. But there’s likewise no room for dismissing the essential role of scientists, doctors, and public health experts. We all have a role to play:
“The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’ . . . God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.”
As we steward the power of our influence through every Facebook post and every retweet, we should remember that we’re not following Jesus’ command to be “wise as serpents” if we’re swayed by the emotional manipulation of a conspiracy theory or a slickly-produced video. And we’re not “harmless as doves” if we spread misinformation or sow confusion in the midst of a global health emergency.
We’ve come a long way from the world of medieval scribes, to the printing press, to our current world of retweets, blogs, YouTube documentaries, and mass emails. The frontiers of our knowledge have grown exponentially, and yet often it seems that each grain of truth gets diluted in a sea of misinformation. The algorithms of social media platforms are specifically designed to boost engagement (and therefore ad revenue) by rewarding emotionally-charged content. Ironically, as conspiracy theorists cry foul if their ideas are “censored,” the reality is that endless contradictory voices contribute to what has been called a “censorship through noise” that drowns out real information.
For the past decade, BioLogos and the numerous scientists, biblical scholars, and Christian leaders in our network have worked hard to show that quality science and biblical faith can go together in a mutually-enriching harmony. Over the years we’ve addressed a number of tough issues, from evolution to gene editing to climate change. But the all-consuming urgency of the present crisis gives a stark reminder to why we need both good science and responsible Christian faith.
In a world of conspiracies and misinformation, we’ve been able to provide podcasts and articles from top scientists. We gained fresh insights from Old Testament scholar John Walton on the book of Job and how it can reframe our thinking about these chaotic bits of God’s world. Tens of thousands of people watched our livestreamed conversation with NIH director Francis Collins. And we’ve produced several other articles and podcasts on the topic (you can find them all by browsing for resources with the coronavirus tag).
We’re hard at work on content like this because we’re convinced it’s needed now more than ever. We aim to promote deep Christian faith that is relevant for our times—shaped by a careful reading of Scripture and the Christian tradition, and informed by the best of contemporary science.
Let’s recommit ourselves to finding reputable sources, vetting claims, pushing back against misinformation, and promoting solid science, in loving service to God and our neighbors.
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At BioLogos, “gracious dialogue” means demonstrating the grace of Christ as we dialogue together about the tough issues of science and faith.