Christianity has a credibility gap today. On the one hand, Christians lay claim to the most powerful narrative that has ever been told of God’s patient, enduring, suffering love for His people. On the other hand, the amount of other narratives that Christians also tell, particularly about conspiracy theories and what not as we are witnessing in the present coronavirus crisis, which often substitutes any credibility we would have in telling the Gospel narrative of Jesus to others with an automatic disbelief that will not give a serious hearing.
Why is it that Christians, especially in the West, seem so prone to conspiracy? The answer is complex, with no single explanation. One part of the explanation, to be honest, is probably the way that many people who call themselves Christian and maybe even believe themselves to be devoted to their faith have not really any life of following Jesus to impact the way they think about the other narratives that get told. Secondly, there may be some stereotyping going on, in which people are more willing to see the flaws about Christians than they are of other people, thereby remembering and exaggerating the conspiracy theories among Christians more than others.
I think both of those are partial explanations, but there is a third explanation that I think is important. Whether we realize it or not, we Christians have often come to equate faith in God with the intuition through various means. Belief is some you feel in the heart, and God leads us through the voice in our hearts. I do not doubt the truth of these things, but there is often an implicit belief that emerges from this: God is discovered and known in and through the intuition. Then, with this implicit belief in tow, it is a half-step away from the next belief: my intuition is a reliable source of truth.
Before explain why this is the problem, I want to point out the theological problem here: the often implicit belief we have that God is discovered in our intuition. The problem here is not the belief that we often hear God’s leading to us in our intuitions, but that we somehow have the belief that I can go to find God in the heart, in my intuition. Forgetting the words of Jeremiah 17.9, Christians are often lead to believe that they can discover the presence and truth of God through their hearts and intuitions. However, it is God who make Himself known to us, not our intuitions who discover God. While we believe that God is faithful to make Himself known to us when we seek Him, He is not bound to make Himself known in a particular way or at a particular time. Even as God is committed to us, God is also free to realize His commitment to us in ways we can not control. Without this understanding of God’s freedom, we risk turn our intuitions as not simply a place where we may hear the voice of God, but treat our own intuitions and our heart themselves as themselves the voice that leads us to truth.
This leads to a problem then: conspiracy theories are deeply rooted in our intuitions about people, power, and morality. If you were to look at a bevy of conspiracy theories, you will discover a pattern: most conspiracy theories rely on people amassing a plethora of “evidence” that do not directly point to any harm or evil done, but they explain all the evidence together by a basic intuition they have of some veiled, malicious and criminal plot. To the one buying into the conspiracy theory, the veiled malice is so obvious and clear; their intuition just rings out loud and clear “There is evil afoot.” Often, however, believing conspiracy theories is the result of people who, for whatever reason, can not accept that things are not going according to their values and plans and they intuitively impute malicious motives due to the experienced threat to their values. It is the indirect and often symbolic threat that the surface narrative represents that motivates the intuitive construction and acceptance of the alternative, conspiracy narratives, although more directly experience threats can stem believes in conspiracies also.1
Now, our intuitions are not automatically wrong or evil. Often times, our intuitions point out something to us that we would otherwise overlook or never picked up on. Our intuitions should not just be ignored. But intuitions alone don’t get you truth. There is something more than is needed to prevent our intuitions from giving birth to the ‘naive’ acceptance of conspiracy narratives: analytical thinking.2 When we engage in analytic thinking, we are putting various beliefs, include our own intuitions, to the test to see how well it coheres with everything else that there is.
Roughly speaking, analytic thinking is the cognitive ability to try to determine what type of information one needs to verify something, processing that information, and understand the key points that are relevant for the topic at hand. Alternatively put, analytic thinking puts specific beliefs to a test through seeking to determine what is important to determine the belief’s veracity, actively being open to that information, and then carefully processing that information.
Intuitions are lot like a seedbed in a garden: you will reap and find enjoyment from them as you put the time time to sow and care for them. If you put in a lot of dedicated, careful attention to plant, fertilize, water, pull weeds, etc., you may grow a beautiful garden. If, however, you just throw some seeds down and let nature take care of the rest, you will likely find a weed-infested garden. The point is that our intuitions are places where the treasure troves of understanding and insight may come to flourish, or they can be a place where error and darkness come to take root. Our ability to think analytically can help us to put the care and time to tend the seedbed of our intuitions.
However, in order to have a robust analytic perspective, there are a few prerequisites that are necessary. We don’t just come out or even naturally learn how to think analytically. We have to learn to do it, but before we can put our minds in the place to do it, we have to have a heart that is prepared to think analytically.
Firstly, a person must be able to distance themselves from the cognitive confidence in the veracity of the beliefs they hold to. This is not the same thing as distancing oneself from the belief and its important to one’s life. The former is confidence about the truth-status of the belief, whereas the later is the pragmatic confidence that the believe has. While these two can be related to each other, they are not the exact same thing.
For instance, I believe that in the existence of a God who created and sustains all the world that we see and even things that we don’t see. This believe also defines my life as it impacts my sense of vocation, my way of life, the type of books I read, my willingness to date someone, etc., etc. in an ever increasing, overarching sense. Both in my mind and in my way of life, my believe in God is important. However, when I start to think philosophically about God, theology, etc., I will often engage in an analytic thinking about the belief in God along the lines of something like, “On what grounds do I believe in God and which of those grounds, if lost, would I lose my believe in God?” The purpose of this question is not to negate the belief, but to explore my own thinking and put it to the test. By being able to distance myself from my confidence in its veracity, I am able to put forward various question that can allow me to more robustly understand why it is that I believe.
Today, I would not say that I believe in God because I simply take the Bible as the evidence of its truth, though the Bible is the most important source for understanding God. This is the case even though the cultural background I grew up in unthinkingly treated the Bible itself as evidence of God such that people should listen to someone quote the Bible, as if the words of the Bible are themselves direct evidence of the truth. In my earliest days as a Christian, I might have put forward the Bible itself as evidence of Christian faith, even though upon present day reflection on my past, that wasn’t what lead me to believe. Through my analytic thinking on the question of God and on what grounds I do believe and would not believe, I have discovered that the Bible are witnesses whose testimony I have considered to have veracity for other reasons, including personal experiences, historical study of the account of the resurrection, etc. My ability to distance myself from the basic intuitions I had about faith allowed me to come to a deeper and more thoughtful account for my faith by.
Far from the skepticism of analytic thinking ultimately tearing apart any faith, when my skepticism was healthy, it built my faith up over time, even as there were periods where my faith and analytic skepticism about it created tumultuous periods because of other experiences in my life. However, for many people, such a way of thinking is considered tantamout to not trusting or believing in God, even though my faith in how I lived my life was being increasingly defined by my trust in God, even as I could analyze and distance myself from the confidence I had in the real existence of God. When the Bible talks about faith, it is talking more about the pragmatic faith where one’s believe and trust God impacts how one lives one’s life, not as a system of meta-cognitive confidence about specific beliefs.
Granted, a skepticism for its own’ sake that demanded indefeasible proof for God in order to believe would tear apart at that deeper, pragmatic trust and faith. Yet, this isn’t the problem of analytic thinking and question, but rather a problem of what type of evidence one is expected in the first place. In fact, such a high-octane skepticism is often a poor facsimile of analytic thinking in that it seems to demands and look critical at evidence, but it does so in a very superficial way that doesn’t gives thought to whether such a high standard of evidence is even needed in the first place. In fact, high-octane skepticism is often a “naivete in reverse.” Such high-octane skepticism is regularly driven by an unexamined intuition about the standards of evidence.
Now, I might have seemed to rambled off topic, but I really haven’t. There is a reason that some people consider analytic thinking about faith and God to be an affront to faith and belief: because their picture of critical, analytic thinking about God is like that of the high-octane skeptic. When people think intuitions are the source of truth, then when they think of critical, analytic thinking about God, they are prone to think of such thinking as if it is a high-octane skepticism about God, or that is ultimately leads to it. By being slaves to one’s intuitions about God, they have trouble imaging analytic thinking as being a tool in service of faith.
There is a reason such a practice of faith through the intuitions has been planted in the hearts of Christians in the West. The Enlightenment and the later scientific revolution appeared to “monopolize” reason, leaving Christian faith to be the domain of other parts of human life but not really lived out in critical thinking. This lead to the pervasive belief that rational people didn’t really believe in God, or if they do, it is to be the respectable “mainline” type belief, where they have a respectable faith that doesn’t really challenge other social and political commitments. Society had a way of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy that Christians were not rational, reasonable people, thereby culturally fashioning Christians to be the type that understood and experienced their faith through their intuitions. Put simply, if you expect people to act a certain way, you will often reinforce their behavior to act that way and that is what Western society has done to Christians, particularly of the evangelical or charismatic sort.
The end result is that Christians have been reinforced by society to let their intuitions determine the scope and nature of their faith. The end result is that such an uncritical acceptance of the intuition as the center of the discovery of truth has also inculcated the susceptibility to conspiratorial type thinking. The conspiratorial thinking of Christians is the evidence of the intellectual ‘oppression’ of the Enlightenment, ultimately internalizing the voices of the people who were against the Christian narrative about God as our own truth. The pervasive, ideological power about who reasons and has knowledge that the Enlightenment and Scientific revolution inculcated has cast it shadows over Western Christianity, to which there is one way to break the chains of the intellectual oppression: to make churches the gardens of analytic thinking about God.
The way Paul would have labeled this is as the discernment of the spirits. When Paul talked about discernment in 1 Corinthians, however, he wasn’t talking about some fuzzy, mysterious, esoteric intuitions about truth. He was talking about people seriously thinking and consideration of what other believer’s brought forward in the belief that the Spirit of God was inspiring them. However, Paul’s language of discernment (διάκρισις and διάκρινω) is pulled from the language of philosophy in talking about making differentiations. I won’t push this too far here, except to say that the corporate worship of the believers was to incorporate a reflective discerning about what was said and done that amounted to an alternative way of life and thinking from the conventional, Greco-Roman philosophies, but not the abandonment of careful thinking.
A recovery of this heritage would go a long way to bringing people who claim allegiance to the most powerful narrative in the world to being the type of whose thinking and proclamation would be more credible, as we learn how the critically and analytically test the spirits of the conspiracy in our midst and become people who can increasingly speak with a voice that others will want to listen to. But to do this, we must break the chains of our Enlightenment oppression, but not by abandoning reasoning and analytic thinking because it is “dangerous,” but, through being in Christ, redeeming and transforming it as a tool used in service of divine truth, love, justice, and peace. This won’t happen simply by people getting on twitter and lament about how Christians don’t do this as this is a common complaint already, but it will come by people creating the opportunities to meld Christian faith in God with analytic thinking for the wider laity, combined with preachers learning and themselves extolling the virtues of this. Whether that will happen or not is up for grabs, but let us not look lightly on the power for revival that comes from such a way of Christian life, as the Wesleyan renewal and revival was fueled by a man who himself fought the shackles of the Enlightenment and its stranglehold on religious life and practice.
- As a side note, it is helpful here to make a distinction between the conventional way that conspiracy theories develop from other forms of social fear about the intentions of other people. The vast majority of conspiracy theories are grounded in the lack actual evidence of malice and malfeasance. On the other hand, there are people who may be prone to believe in an existence of a conspiracy for other reasons, such as abuse victims may believe that those associated they can associate with their abuser are out to control or harm them. In the case of abuse, the person has actual experiences of abuse that then seeds their intuitions about other associated people, whereas in the conventional conspiracy theory, the person has no real direct experience or evidence. Not all beliefs in conspiracies are created the same way.