The essential meaning of a conspiracy is “a secret plan made by two or more people to do something that is harmful or illegal.”1 The English word conspiracy is derived from the Latin verb conspīro/conspirare and means “to plot/unite,” “to act in unison,” or “to act in accordance with someone.” A conspiracy, therefore, is never the work of one individual but always of a group, whether small or large. Though we cannot deny that conspiracies exist, we must learn to differentiate between genuine conspiracies and speculative theories about conspiracies.
Exhibit A of an actual conspiracy is the scheme of Satan and his host of fallen angels to foil the plan of salvation. The Bible reminds us that “we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Ephesians 6:12, KJV2).The devil, along with his co-conspirators, is clearly plotting against humanity; that much is clear. He is orchestrating the evil events on planet Earth. He is not only diabolical but also clever. His stock in trade is fear, and he seeks to pry our eyes away from Jesus and train them on dark, foreboding themes.
This quest to separate us from Jesus is often accomplished by distracting well-meaning people with sensational and even fanciful stories. And this is where conspiracy theories come in. While it is true that the Bible highlights Satan’s conspiracy against humanity, we are also warned that false teachers will seek to deceive us. “Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4:1).
Various forces shape current events, but the fact that politicians sometimes lie and corporations sometimes cheat does not mean that every phenomenon is the result of a tortuous conspiracy. Though it is tempting to prefer suspicion over an evaluation of data, facts, hypotheses, and probabilities, resist that urge!
Another difference between real conspiracies and a conspiracy theory is that actual conspiracies are deliberately hidden, real-life actions of people working together for their own malign purposes. Conspiracy theories, in contrast, are deliberately complex and reflect an all-encompassing worldview. Instead of trying to explain one thing, a conspiracy theory attempts to explain everything, discovering connections across domains of human interaction that are otherwise hidden. In doing so, conspiracy theories often oversimplify world events in order to find a scapegoat or an explanation for events that otherwise appear unexplainable or threatening. Furthermore, the overwhelming majority of proven conspiracies are relatively short-term projects, whereas conspiracy theories almost always posit a much larger time frame where not just one offense but a whole series of crimes over a period of years, decades, and even centuries is proposed—often on a global scale.
Real conspiracies are usually the work of a small group of people, whereas conspiracy-theory scenarios involve many people. A gigantic deception, such as staging the moon landing or the 9/11 attacks would require hundreds, if not thousands, of insiders and accessories. But the large number of insiders that would be necessary for such a complex plot militates against the reality of their existence because it is virtually impossible to keep the activity of such a large group secret.
We also must keep in mind that historical events are the result of a complex set of facts. The world as we know it is made up of an extremely large number of interacting agents, each of whom has a set of personal goals and agendas. This poses a significant problem for conspiracy theories where large-scale plots are presumed. For a conspiracy to be successful, all parties would have to set aside their own interests and devote themselves entirely to the service of such a global conspiracy. However, different groups with different agendas all acting in concert is something that is very unlikely, if not impossible. For this to happen, one must assume that human beings can direct the course of history according to their own intentions by linking together disparate phenomena defying all probability.
In other words, for conspiracy theories to succeed, one must assume that history is plannable. The philosopher Karl Popper aptly argued that “the relevant question when explaining dramatic historical events is not ‘who wanted something to happen?’ but ‘why did things not happen exactly in the way that somebody wanted?’ ”3
Defining a conspiracy theory is difficult, but one expert has noted three basic criteria: (1) nothing happens by accident, (2) nothing is as it seems, and (3) everything is connected.4 Wherever these three elements are present, a conspiracy theory is likely at work. This leads us to the question of why some people seem to be so attracted to conspiracy theories.
conspiracy theories give a sense of security and make us feel special
First, conspiracy theories allow people to suppose a coherent and consistent understanding of the world. They, thus, help to meet the desire in all of us to be secure and in control. Especially when we are anxious and feel powerless, we are more likely to subscribe to conspiracy theories that give the impression of providing answers to inscrutable events. To explain the otherwise unknown gives us a sense of security. When we think we know the course of events, we feel safe and assume that we are more in control.
For many people, this is more attractive than having to live with inscrutable events or a future that is not known in all its details. We human beings do not like to live with unanswered questions, especially if they pertain to significant aspects of our lives and human existence. We all have a hard time living with random events. Most people dislike chaotic circumstances. No one can live in constant ambiguity. The idea that we are at the mercy of forces we do not fully understand or comprehend and that we are subject to powers outside of our control is frightening. We want to know who did it and how it was done. We feel a sense of safety when we recognize a familiar pattern because our intelligence, given by God, is a pattern-seeking intelligence. Discerning patterns helps us construct stories that make sense and give meaning to the world around us.
Conspiracy theories, however, hijack this ability and link loosely connected events into semicoherent scenarios, thus providing context and meaning to events that otherwise frighten us. In the words of Christian writer D. L. Mayfield “People believe conspiracy theories because it is psychologically easier to believe a singular and unlikely narrative rather than engage in a hard and complicated reality where your own long-term participation is needed.”5 The irony in this is that the far-reaching effects of a conspiracy theory are often far more frightening than the event the theory tries to explain.
how can we talk to each other?
Talking with someone who firmly believes in a conspiracy theory can be challenging. Many find themselves so deeply convinced of their beliefs that significant parts of their life and worldview center around them. That is why a simple argument does not usually change the mind of another person. It only tends to reinforce their prior opinion. Nevertheless, here are a few things that can help when we talk with someone:
1. Appreciate the person. Reaching the heart and mind of one who holds different opinions works only if we have a genuine desire for the appreciation and well-being of the other person. This does not mean that we approve of everything they believe; we simply distinguish between the person and their opinions. This is what Jesus practiced in His interaction with others. Often, how we communicate is far more important than what we say. So, stay calm and stay friendly.
2. Listen; do not preach. We need to listen attentively and respectfully. The power of attentive listening is a sign of respect that shows the other person we care. Instead of lecturing them, listen attentively. Try to ask good questions. “How did you become interested in this theory?” “Where did you get your information?” “Have you considered other explanations?” Try to find out if certain fears drive their interest in a particular conspiracy theory.
3. Check the sources. Determine who wrote the content and who is quoted in it. Are they named? Do they have expertise in the area and experience in the particular subject that lends credibility to their claims? Be wary of claims made by “insiders,” anonymous internet posters, or anyone citing hearsay as fact. If you read something that makes an incredible claim—one that seems too good, too awful, or too weird to be true—check to see if it is being reported elsewhere. If it is an important story, other outlets will confirm the details.
4. Check the context. Try to check the original source that is cited and see if the quote distorts the original meaning or even leads to false conclusions.
5. Be wary of content that plays on emotions. Conspiracy theories often exploit feelings of anger and fear. If something really gets you fired up, wait until your emotions cool before reposting or sending anything to friends.
6. Expand your news sources. Every news source has its bias, so you should check a variety of local, national, and international outlets for current information. Do not rely solely on social media for your news.
7. Distinguish between facts and speculation. Conspiracy theories tend to mingle facts and speculations. Put your critical thinking hat on and try to properly distinguish between the two. Learn to discriminate between reliable and unreliable sources of information, knowing that falsehood spreads more easily than truth.
8. Determine the impact of the conspiracy theory. Find out and sense what impact the conspiracy theory has on the life of the person who believes in it as well as on those around them. If it encourages cynicism, derogatory sentiments, anti-Semitic theories, paranoia, or end-time fear and anxiety, then something is wrong. When these theories slander perceived enemies with innuendo and unsubstantiated allegations, a red flag should go up. If the knowledge of such a theory promotes pride and self-righteousness, be warned. As the Bible says, “Knowledge puffs up while love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1).
As Christians, we are told to “test them [prophecies] all” and “hold on to what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). We are also encouraged to “love [our] enemies” and “do good to them” (Luke 6:35). This spirit of Christ should characterize all of our interactions, especially with those who hold different opinions. Through it all, we can rest in Christ’s salvation and trust our lives to His keeping. “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
This article is the condensed version of a longer article, “Dealing With Conspiracy Theories,” that appeared in the BRI newsletter Reflections, December 2021, 1–8.
Frank M. Hasel, PhD, is the associate director of the Biblical Research Institute of Seventh-day Adventists.
1. Merriam-Webster, s.v “conspiracy,” accessed November 10, 2021, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/conspiracy.
2. Bible verses marked KJV are from the King James Version.
3. Jovan Byford, “How to Spot a Conspiracy Theory When You See One,” The Open University, accessed April 13, 2022, https://www.open.ac.uk/research/news/how-spot-conspiracy-theory-when-you-see-one.
4. Michael Butter, The Nature of Conspiracy Theories (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2021), 10.
5. D. L. Mayfield (d_l_mayfield), Instagram, May 7, 2020, https://www.instagram.com/p/B_5ASfUJszu/.