I just listened to an interesting podcast on the weekend about Flat Earthers, and there is a Netflix documentary about them called Behind The Curve (haven’t finished that one yet). They talked about the psychology of conspiracy theorists, and that they fall along both political lines. If you think you are somehow losing, you blame the group that you see as in power or “winning” and you come up with a conspiracy theory to explain it. Right now, it’s so easy to find a community of believers online that will take you down a rabbit hole quickly.

They also talked about levels of conspiracy theory, that they build on each other. Belief in a flat earth is built on the belief that the moon landing was faked (or you have to believe that to believe the earth is flat). Most people won’t leave their new community of skeptics because it becomes their social life, like religion, and also like religion, you can wink at others’ naivete or lack of being in the know like you & your new friends are. The podcast said the only way to talk people out of a conspiracy theory is to take them back up to the next level (e.g. the earth is NOT flat, but the moon landing was probably faked). You have to eliminate one wrong belief at a time.

But again, you only get there if you are the type of person who readily sees large unnamed groups of people being secretly in control. The podcast said those on the left tend to think it’s corporations with secret cabals and those on the right think it’s government. I tend to think that conspiracy theorists are the extremes on both ends (that start to resemble each other). Psychologically, they are more like each other than they are like more moderate people.

I have a stack of books in my garage about the Titanic disaster (that I started amassing before the movie, but kept reading them even after). There were a lot of interesting facts, but ultimately, I never found any of the conspiracy theories compelling, and there were a lot of them. What I saw that I believed was just human mistakes and hubris all the way down, life lessons with a big death toll. I was also listening to a podcast about the conspiracy theory about the moon landing being faked. My dad worked on the Saturn V along with thousands of other engineers. He was for sure not in on any conspiracy, and as he pointed out, they didn’t even have the technology to fake it back then. But was NASA, as discussed in this podcast, a propaganda machine? Yes, in part. That’s a fair criticism. So a conspiracy theorist grabs onto NASA’s shifty behavior and spins it into meaning everything is fake. Which is slightly more understandable at least. There are other factors as well, such as the fact that the US’s reputation was at stake and that the USSR had beaten us to the finish line on every other mark in the Space Race. It was a real Cinderella story. It’s not so far from that to believe it was an actual fabrication.

In a recent online discussion, it was noted that many Church members seem to be conspiracy-minded. I observed that within the Church people may be more comfortable talking about conspiracy theories because we are already talking about some outlandish beliefs we share as a community, so in the minds of people who like conspiracy theories, this is just an extension of being an insider to secret knowledge others don’t have.

According to an article in Psychology Today, reasons for believing in conspiracy theories can be grouped into three categories:

  • The desire for understanding and certainty
  • The desire for control and security
  • The desire to maintain a positive self-image

We all love to ask questions, and everyone is prone to false beliefs and facile answers. Conspiracies take longer to understand due to their complexity, so they often have more staying power when someone accepts them. Additionally, motivated reasoning is often at play with the conspiracy theories a person accepts. There is a desire for them to be right because the alternative is threatening or unpleasant. From the article:

Conspiracy theories can give their believers a sense of control and security. This is especially true when the alternative account feels threatening. For example, if global temperatures are rising catastrophically due to human activity, then I’ll have to make painful changes to my comfortable lifestyle. But if pundits and politicians assure me that global warming is a hoax, then I can maintain my current way of living. This kind of motivated reasoning is an important component in conspiracy theory beliefs.

According to another article in vice.com, it’s a person’s worldview that makes them more prone to this type of thinking:

The agreement with specific conspiracy theories is not so much dependent on the specific topic, but is rather the manifestation of a more general worldview. The ‘conspiracist ideation’, ‘monological belief system’ or ‘conspiracy mentality’ can be thought of as the general extent to which people see the world as governed by hidden, sinister forces.

The sense of having no control as a factor was tested by researchers:

In one study, research participants who were asked to remember instances over which they had no control, such as the weather, were more likely to accept a conspiracy theory than those who were asked to remember instances in which they do have control (eg what they wear or eat). In a similar vein, survey respondents who faced working conditions with reduced levels of control (eg long-term unemployment, temporary employment) expressed greater levels of a conspiracy mentality than those who had more control (eg permanent employment). The rationale behind this is that lacking control increases the need to engage in the compensatory illusion of control—that is, in conspiracy theories. Detecting patterns where there are, in fact, none at least leaves open the possibility of gaining control, whereas the attribution of, say, a natural disaster to unchangeable and uncontrollable weather dynamics does not.

This isn’t the whole story, though, and it goes hand in hand with what the Psychology Today article said about maintaining a positive self-image. For some, that is dependent on feeling like a person with special knowledge not known to all.

Belief in conspiracies can serve to set oneself apart from the ignorant masses—a self-serving boast about one’s exclusive knowledge.

There was a fascinating study using an invented conspiracy theory to see whether conspiracy-minded people found it more attractive if it was widely believed or only believed by a small minority. The results showed that the fewer people who believed it, the more enticing those who believe conspiracy theories found it. If it was widely accepted, well, to quote a conspiracy theorist, “That’s what they want you to believe.”

In what ways does the Church prime itself for belief in conspiracy theories (if it does)?

  • The Church’s rhetorical bent sometimes includes a skepticism of science or academic experts (e.g. “the world believes x, but we believe y.”)
  • Our pioneer narratives often include a one-sided view that leads to persecution complex.
  • Some folks are naturally gullible when confronted with complex information and prone to simplistic understanding of theology and scripture as well.
  • The Book of Mormon specifically talks about groups that have made covenants like a cabal to overthrow governments or commit murder and hide it, referred to as “secret combinations.”
  • The temple, while sacred, is also secret, meaning the content of what happens there is reserved for an elite group of insiders and is often referred to as additional knowledge or enlightenment.
  • People who join the Church as converts are often experiencing a difficult period in life, one that is comforted by the worldview presented to them through the Church. Life isn’t working out for them on some level, so this is a better way. The pieces all fit together suddenly. (This sounds quite a bit like what conspiracy theorists say regarding the theories they espouse).
  • The Church (and really all Churches) is designed to meet the same psychological needs: understanding and certainty (answers to questions), more control and security (a new community!), and a positive self-image.
  • The Church’s unique truth restoration narrative sets it apart from all other faiths, the only one that has avoided the pitfalls of apostasy and error.
  • The Church is still very much a minority religion within Christianity, one that has the cachet of being “special” by not being believed by many people.
  • Religious belief is usually based on a feeling or gut instinct, not the byproduct of facts and proof. Nobody becomes a Christian because they proved the resurrection happened.
  • A belief in Satan is essentially a (conspiracy) theory in which a third of the host of heaven are plotting against us, trying to prevent our salvation and exaltation.
  • Some ex-Mormons view the Church as a conspiring entity, deliberately deceiving others or withholding information while taking their money.

However, if you aren’t prone to believe conspiracy theories, this doesn’t mean that you will be just because there are compelling aspects to our culture for conspiracy theorists. I suspect it just colors the way a person talks about their faith and the things they find most compelling within the Church. How do they feel about access to prophets (special inside divine knowledge)? Do they attribute trials or difficulties to Satan’s influence? Do they deride “the world” as lesser or lacking in divine truths that they possess? Do they see other faiths as naive, duped by wicked preachers practicing priestcraft?

  • Do you encounter conspiracy theorists among Church members? What theories do they seem to believe?
  • Do you believe conspiracy theories?
  • Do you think the Church attracts them specifically, or that it’s just viewed differently by them?