[Editor’s Note: Brett Salkeld is Archdiocesan Theologian for the Archdiocese of Regina, Saskatchewan. He lives in Regina with his wife Flannery and their 7 children. Brett’s latest book is Transubstantiation: Theology, History, and Christian Unity (Baker Academic, 2019). He also has a podcast, Thinking Faith! He has also studied the phenomenon of conspiracy theories in the Church. He spoke to Charles Camosy about the problem.]

Camosy: Can you tell us a bit about how you developed an expertise in conspiracy theory thinking? Especially as a pastoral problem for the Church?

Salkeid: Last fall, during the Amazon Synod, I started noticing conspiracy theory style patterns growing more prominent on social media. Those patterns made healthy engagement difficult or impossible and led to some tricky pastoral situations in which people felt misunderstood or antagonized.

I brought this to my bishop, suggesting that folks doing pastoral work in the Church, including bishops, might do well to familiarize themselves with these patterns of thinking and that we might benefit from some professional development on this front. His response was to ask me to start studying the question! I was a little surprised (I’m not a psychologist or a philosopher), but I took him up on it.

Brett Salkeld, the Archdiocesan Theologian for the Archdiocese of Regina, Saskatchewan. (Credit: Courtesy to Crux.)

I started reading widely and paying very careful attention to the patterns I was recognizing on social media. Of course, once COVID-19 and the lockdown hit, things simply exploded. Having studied the issue in some depth, I felt much better equipped to recognize and articulate the patterns we’re all seeing on social media now. Like lots of people, I used to have the sense that something was “off.” Now I have clearer language and categories for describing just what that is.

I understand you had a very difficult situation develop with regard to Catholics in your orbit who rejected belief in evolution. I always tell people who ask that it isn’t an issue for Catholics, but your experience has proven me wrong, I think.

I think it’s probably still fair to say that for most Catholics evolution does not present a problem. But yes, I recently ran into a situation. I wrote a piece on our archdiocesan blog six years ago arguing that Catholics certainly could, and probably should, believe in evolution. That piece recently came to the attention of a kind of self-appointed Catholic watchdog who wrote a takedown of it in a newsletter. As I considered his arguments, what became clear to me was that his method was the same method I had been researching at my bishop’s request. It was conspiracy theory thinking!

I had always felt that creationism, to which I had been exposed as a teenager, was intellectually disingenuous, but now I had the tools to see how it operated: presuming ill intent, “gotcha” questions, reversing the burden of proof, failing to distinguish between verifiable and unverifiable claims, uncritical and arbitrary use of sources, etc. I wrote a response to the take down and in it I started exploring the idea of creationism as a form of conspiracy theory thinking.

I was gobsmacked when, a couple weeks later, this little piece earned me a 53-page rebuke with 8 signatories! It was obviously futile (if sorely tempting) to respond point-by-point to such a tome. And such a response would give the conspiracy theorists the exposure they thrive on. But the piece did give me a neat opportunity to work through my ideas on conspiracy theory thinking because it provided so many helpful illustrations of it. I did this work at Church Life Journal a couple of weeks back in a piece titled Catholic Creationism as Conspiracy Theory. Many have found it helpful for understanding other kinds of things they are seeing on their social media that have nothing to do with evolution. Pastors have even written to ask for more information because they notice this kind of thinking is becoming a pastoral challenge in their congregations. So I’m exploring other venues for helping us all think about this.

Why do you think that people are drawn to this way of thinking? And perhaps in a related question, do you think the pandemic has made the problem worse?

Conspiracy theory thinking seems to be part of the human condition. We have always been susceptible to it, and most of us believe at least some things by means of it. It is a kind of intellectual laziness that manages to satisfy our desire for understanding while also making us feel like the good guys (often both hero and victim) in the story. It also serves to protect us from the complexity of the world, which can be very threatening. That is why conspiracy theories make very comprehensive claims like, “This explains everything!” They then carefully select the data to fit the established narrative. In a bid for security and stability, conspiracy theory thinking develops very effective techniques to ignore, dismiss, or reinterpret any data that runs counter to the theory. This makes them incredibly persistent and frustrating to confront. They are like intellectual diseases that have developed immunity to the standard treatment.

I find it fascinating that the serpent in the garden used a classic conspiracy theory technique. Specifically, there was a kind of sly rhetorical question (“Did God really say that?”) accompanied by a partial truth (“you won’t die if you eat this”). We all see this pattern – the leading question accompanied by carefully curated data that gives the impression of allowing the hearer to come to their own conclusions and therefore to think of themselves as an independent, critical thinker – on social media every day. And what was so tempting for Eve is what makes conspiracy theories tempting for us: Knowledge and power.

The world is a complex and confusing place. Conspiracy theories give us the illusion that we are “in the know” and that we are in a position to do something about our situation. And they have a pretty remarkable, and sordid, track record of leading to action, whether that is showing up at a pizza joint with a rifle to rescue trafficked children, or refusing vaccination, or burning 5G cell phone towers.

I don’t think there is any doubt that the pandemic has made things worse. Conspiracy theories thrive in times of uncertainty, anxiety, and fear, when our need for security and control is keenly felt. And the lockdown has meant that many people are spending even more time on social media, which can exacerbate the situation. Social media spreads falsehood more easily than truth, in large part because its algorithms favour reactivity over rationality. Because of this, even arguing with conspiracy theorists on social media helps their theories get exposure.

Moreover, social media pushes us further into ideological silos where conspiracy theories can become markers of belonging, a way to signal membership in a group of right thinkers or heroic truth tellers. This is amplified in groups that already feel marginalized or attacked by the broader culture. Almost all of the full-fledged conspiracy theory thinking I see is from very heavy social media users.

I get the sense that many Christians, often not without reason, are deeply skeptical of what “the world” is saying versus what the Church or the Bible has to say. When does a healthy skepticism cross a line into conspiracy theorizing? 

Christians have good reasons to be sceptical about the claims made by, e.g., government, the academy, or mainstream media. Such groups do not have a good track record of accurately representing Christians or Christianity. Moreover, on life issues in particular, they are so obviously compromised that it is hard to imagine them being completely trustworthy on other important matters.

Moreover, conspiracies really do exist! The problem with conspiracy theories, as we have come to use the term, is not that they posit the existence of conspiracies. Nor is it that they are sceptical. It is that they are intellectually dishonest.

We tend to identify conspiracy theories by their content, generally related to the existence of shadowy powerful groups with nefarious motives controlling our institutions. But it is the form of them that is really interesting and deserves more attention. Conspiracy theory thinking is not just bad reasoning, but a particular form of bad reasoning that has inoculated itself from good reasoning. In short, a conspiracy theory is unfalsifiable by design. This is why debunking seems so ineffective.

The most paradigmatic conspiracy theory move, one G.K. Chesterton mentions in a famous passage from Orthodoxy, is reflexively dismissing any argument as just what one would expect a conspirator to say if the conspiracy were true. Consequently, anyone who even questions the conspiracy theory can be ruled out of court as either a conspirator or a dupe. Plandemic even built this move right into its marketing plan, arguing, in advance, that the fact that the documentary would be taken down was evidence of its veracity. There are other, similar, moves. One is to respond to a request for evidence in support of the theory, not with evidence, but with a request for evidence disproving it (reversal of the burden of proof) or with the suggestion that the enquirer “do their own research” (passing the buck).

Debunking the content of conspiracy theories is still valuable and necessary work. Because they rely on ignorance to sound plausible to non-conspiracy theorists, making people aware of the facts can protect many from adopting and spreading dangerous nonsense. While we have some folks posting things like “This is all a hoax” or “Finally, the TRUTH is coming out, everyone MUST watch this,” on our social media, we also have people who post the same material with an honest question like, “Does anyone know if this is true?” Fact checking is essential to help this latter group.

But we also need to learn to recognize the form of conspiracy theory thinking in the abstract. I say “in the abstract” because we can all do it in the concrete. We have no trouble intuiting when someone who disagrees with us engages in this form of argumentation. But if we had the categories to see just what they were doing and why it is logically invalid, we would be better prepared to avoid even being tempted by conspiracy theories. Indeed, once we get good a recognizing conspiracy theory thinking, the theories practically debunk themselves.

Any tips for responding pastorally when these situations become a problem?

I think there are two key elements. The intellectual is actually the less important of the two, but it should not be overlooked. We need to model good thinking and teach good thinking, and with particular reference to this species of bad thinking. This is especially helpful for those who are tempted by conspiracy theories, but not committed to them.

The more important element of our pastoral response, though, is to address the existential questions underlying people’s attraction to conspiracy theories. We live in a time of deep anxiety. There are even media outlets, including some Catholic ones, who butter their bread by keeping their audiences in a state of perpetual anxiety. In response we need to build real community.

Social media provides a faux communion that often builds up barriers rather than breaking them down. People who spend their days chasing conspiracy theories on the internet feel isolated and alone. It is terrifyingly easy to have a falling out with someone on social media even when you and they could disagree vigorously and joyfully over a beer and wings. Chesterton said that what a conspiracy theorist needs is not argument, but fresh air. The conspiracy theorist in your life probably needs someone to talk to. And about something other than conspiracy theories.

A final point. Many of the conspiracy theorists you know are people who are, in principle, committed to the spiritual life and to prayer. In my experience, when the conversation shifts to prayer, people can often recognize that conspiracy theory thinking is destroying their capacity for inner peace. It functions, spiritually, like an addiction. It does not bring satisfaction but frantic pursuit. What is needed for many is not a debunking, but a discernment of spirits. When people are told they are wrong, they are likely to dig in, but if they are asked if they are anxious, they often open up. If the spiritual battle is engaged, the intellectual one often follows as a matter of course.