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?
This post is timely. Several friends and acquaintances in my orbit are convinced that government measures to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 are a carefully orchestrated plan to (1) steal our freedoms, and (2) enrich “Big Pharma” and its malevolent backers (which include every bogeyman you can imagine, from George Soros to Dr. Fauci). They are convinced that the medical establishment is acting in bad faith for an ulterior motive.
I think the factors you list ably explain this extreme reasoning. Personally, I can’t imagine being so self-assured to believe that my crack “research” (oftentimes consisting of Facebook posts and videos) uncovered a grand conspiracy that no one else knows about.
Within the church, I think “secret combinations” in the BOM is a huge justification for adopting conspiracy theories. From an actual conversation: “Really, you think that Democratic leadership is actively trying to destroy America, rather than simply pushing policy prescriptions that you happen to disagree with?” “YES. The BOM warns of secret combinations, does it not?”
Great post. I think Mormons are uniquely positioned to be (willing?) victims of conspiracy theories, mainly because of the reasons you already laid out. There is, IMHO, at the core of Mormonism, a kind of righteous paranoia that goes something like this: “We’re the only true church, so that means that everyone else (including Satan himself) is out to get us, so we need to be really vigilant and make sure there’s no apostasy and no false doctrine being taught so that we maintain the purity of the church and ensure that it’s always the way it was back in Jesus’s day because we’re the only true church.” Obviously, that’s not all Mormons, but during the last thirty five years I’ve spent in the church, that seems to be the thinking on the part of the more hard-line members and the more hard-line leaders. Combine that kind of paranoia with the belief that we have secret or “special” knowledge about how god and the universe REALLY work and the things you mention about skepticism of science and reason (esp. the vilification of intellectuals) and the notion that “feeling” trumps any kind of legitimately arrived at scientific knowledge, and you’ve got the perfect breeding ground for conspiracy theories.
The other aspect of this, of course, is the psychological one that you mention. So much of what we all do to deal with the harsh realities of our world involves the unfortunate tendency to lie to ourselves in order to feel better rather than confront the difficult and complex truths of the world. Religion performs that function (perhaps that is its chief function) and so do conspiracy theories, as you point out. I think when those two things combine, there’s a lot of power that can be exerted upon folks who tend to see religion as a kind of self-soothing, self-justifying set of beliefs rather than a set of beliefs that are designed to make our earthly experience more complex, more rich and more difficult. I’ve seen this borne out often in real time at church. I’ve been in so many Sunday school lessons where a lot of the default answers to complex issues are either “secret combinations” or “Satan” that at this point, it almost seems like a Mormon reflex to just blame hidden or unseen forces for anything we’re uncomfortable with. And of course, the reason why especially church members are hard to reason with is that you’ve got not only the thought process that leads to the embracing of conspiracy theories, but you’ve also got the indoctrination that the church performs, pounding members starting with their time in primary that this is “the only true church” and that all others are flawed because they don’t have the “truths” that we do. So you’ve got a kind of double indoctrination happening that really resists any attempt at measured and reasonable discourse. That’s really a big part of the story about how the Mormon Church has become the architect of its own obsolescence.
Yes, many in the church teach a healthy skepticism of science. I’ve have bishops and stake presidents – good men who I looked up to otherwise – bad wacky world views.
My last stake president believed that doctors are all about money and can’t be trusted. He sold (a lot) of a certain health drink / supplement which he claimed was more effective than any MD. I had a (in)famous BYU physics professor that believes that 9/11 was an inside job, and I know a large number of students believed him. I view second coming preppers as a sub category of conspiracy theorists, and they are pretty common in and outside the church where I live in Arizona.
I’m not a fan of conspiracy theories and I try to remember Occam’s razor, often when it comes to human behavior the simple explanation is the best explanation. It’s simply too difficult to keep hundred or thousands of people quiet if 9/11 were an inside job for example. Or if millions of doctors were greedy capitalists instead of wanting us to be healthy we’d hold doctors in the same esteem as bankers or lawyers.
Apostle Ezra Taft Benson would later become President of the LDS Church strongly opposed the Civil Rights movement. He published a book titled Civil Rights: Tool of Communist Deception, which was based on his September 29, 1967 General Conference talk.
“There is no doubt that the the so-called civil rights movement as it exists today is used as a Communist program for revolution in America just as agrarian reform was used by the Communists to take over China and Cuba. This shocking statement can be confirmed by an objective study of Communist literature and activities and by knowledgeable Negroes and others who have worked within the Communist movement.”
While I am not one who gets caught up in conspiracy theories, the distrust of the government is understandable. The church, and its members, experienced both an extermination order and disenfranchisement at the hands of the government. When I was approached by gay friends during Prop 8, they often wondered why the church was so scared of gay marriage. They often argued that there was no way the government would force churches to accept gay marriage. I would explain that, at least in Mormon history, that was not the case. The Church and its members lost their constitutional rights over their view of marriage. I also noted the irony that the Church’s fear of gay marriage came from its own defense of non-traditional marriage. That said, it made a lot more sense to my friends why the fear was there,. In the Church’s case, the government failed to protect its rights.
“In the Church’s case, the government failed to protect its rights.” Or rose to protect the rights of women and to prevent polygamous marriages that treat women like harems. But yes, anyone who thinks they are under God’s protection and that the government is trying to intervene in their religious practices is going to feel that way. I just think this is a case where the government got it righter than the Church in opposing polygamy.
This discussion reminds me of my father. When I was growing up, he believed strongly in logic, science and rational thought, and his testimony was founded in reason. He passed a lot of this on to me, as well as a sense of wonder about the workings of the universe, and the possibility that some divine blueprint was behind it. As he aged though, he adopted a worldview consistent with someone who watches at least 4 hours of Fox News every day. He also spent lots of time going down rabbit holes of various right-wing conspiracy theories, and would talk about them at length with anyone willing to listen, which often included him mumbling “well, these are the latter days foretold by the scriptures/prophets…”. I mostly rolled my eyes at such diatribes, but inside I was also sad that he had taken such a turn from who he was when I was a kid. But even in the last years of his life, he served a part-time mission from home and made a 2-hour trip to the temple every week for back-to-back endowment sessions.
I think it’s possible that there may be an aging brain component to belief in conspiracy theories. Most people I know who lend credence to such ideas are boomers and older. These are also the generations that spent their formative years in the Church under leaders like Benson, Lee, McConkie, Packer and other hardliners who were not moderate in their views (my dad had a first edition copy of Mormon Doctrine, which he treasured and continued to study in his last years). Older people, I’ve observed, also tend to be less capable at critical thinking–I’m not sure if it’s because as “digital immigrants” they weren’t taught it growing up or if it is due to natural decay of brain function, or some other reason.
Also, if a person has a deep-seated lifelong literal belief in many LDS truth claims (especially the more outlandish ones), it’s not much of a stretch for him to start believing in conspiracies. For better or worse, this church was founded by a teenage treasure hunting folk magic enthusiast.
George Albert Smith was president of the church when I was born. McKay was president during much of my youth. I don’t feel prone to lean into conspiracy theories (that I know of), and it seems likely that the dynamic is present in all age groups, maybe more so as one gets older. It is certainly present in all age groups, however. In fact, Janna Riess’s *The Next Mormons* makes that quite clear, doesn’t it? If one adapts to information, science and knowledge or not seems to be the crux of it. I see a range of willingness to adapt and change inside of the church and outside of it.
Of course there are conspiracy theorists inside the church with a whole range of ages and of theories. I try to study and learn as much as I can and to be open minded and thorough in my approach to knowledge and belief. The church leaders and teachings often seem to discourage and to encourage both open mindedness and being thorough. It just depends on who’s talking and when.
Jack Hughes, You wrote about the “generations that spent their formative years in the Church under leaders like Benson, Lee, McConkie, Packer and other hardliners.” I know men of that generation. Some became “Brethrenites.” They latched on to the Correlation program, Church Handbook of Instructions, etc. Loyalty to the Brethren became a litmus test by which they judged others. They were sometimes quick to openly denounce others whose talks or Sunday School comments seemed to stray from their understanding of orthodoxy. These men are a dying breed. I cannot foresee Millennials and more recent generations following their footsteps.
Secret Combinations are real. We’ve been warned; not only in the Book of Mormon, but in the preface to the Word of Wisdom, the PoGP, and other locations throughout the scriptures. They’re as old as Cain, and as current as the Chinese propaganda machine. They exist in all major political parties and industries. Those who live close to the Spirit can enjoy the Gift of Discernment and identify some of the conspiracies that exist.
wreddyornot: “The church leaders and teachings often seem to discourage and to encourage both open mindedness and being thorough” Yes, those with an authoritarian bent seem inclined to do this, at least to discourage learning more about a topic than they know, and those with serious Dunning Kreuger effect coincidentally tend to be the most authoritarian. I remember being very disillusioned as a college student when I learned that most of the Religion classes at BYU weren’t recognized by other schools if I were to transfer. That’s probably something that has gotten worse over time, not better. The mandatory class on Eternal Families is probably the worst thing I’ve ever heard of, for example. The bad idea generator was on overdrive the day that was conceived. CES is not scholarly, and most of the professors in that department don’t have anything even remotely resembling theological training or degrees, but we like to boast that our way is somehow better. Right.
Yes, some of that generation “became ‘Brethrenites'” Many did not. It would seem that most of those who did not also did not “rise” in the hierarchy of the Church. A good number of us also rejected the conspiracy theories of Benson and Cleon Skousen and are constitutionally inclined to reject anything that smacks of a conspiracy theory.
There are still plenty in younger generations of the extreme “right” and extreme “left” in or out of the LDS Church who subscribe to conspiracy theories. In the Church they seem to be less visible for lack of the overt support of leaders like Benson. On the other hand, RMN’s “victory for Satan” speech implicitly asserts a conspiracy among Satan, Hinckley and Monson. So I wonder. Maybe we do have conspiracy leadership to inspire the young’uns, though this time around it would seem the majority of them won’t ultimately buy it.
My default reaction to any conspiracy theory, be it anti-vaxxers, moon landing, flat earth, etc., is an exaggerated eye roll. But I do not disagree with The Other Clark’s statement that “secret combinations are real.” I think the key is making sure we are not part of one by advancing outlandish, self-serving theories with no credible factual support, as I see many conspiracy theorists doing today. The proper approach, in my opinion, is to apply a healthy dose of skepticism to conventional wisdom, even when it is spouted by our favored political party or confirms our own bias. Most “secret combinations” will struggle to survive under those conditions.
Of course conspiracies (secret combinations?) occur. One example of “being [more] thorough” that I like though is the relatively recent “Saints” books. I appreciate them because they have the “Note on Sources,” “Sources Cited,” and “Acknowledgements”. From the “Notes on Sources,” in “Saints . . . 2” we read, in part, “Readers should not assume [despite great documentation and writers, etc.] that the narrative presented here is perfect or complete. The records of the past, and our ability to interpret them in the present, are limited.” It goes on and on, mentioning ” . . .gaps, ambiguities, and biases. . . “, etc. That type of disclosure and admission seems to me a far better position than the one Angela mentions as being in place in her experiences with CES and in religion classes at BYU.
Such careful research and disclosures do not stop me or anyone from looking further into other perspectives and sources. If a person, for instance, goes to the r/mormon reddit site and searches for the *Saints* books, there will be different takes, with and without citations, etc. We, I believe, must be, in the very least, spiritual, open minded, and evolutionary.
The term ‘secret combinations’ is overburdened with presumed meaning. The phrase implies cloaked cabals meeting in such clandestine gatherings that even the attendees don’t know one another–they just share the same evil designs on world domination. It has the odd and contradictory characteristic of being both really cynical about human nature and wildly optimistic about the ability of humans to coordinate and control huge masses of people. Reality, as always, is far more banal.
As a mathematical equation, isn’t there an inverse relationship between the number of people required to make a conspiracy work and the likelihood that it could actually exist?
Without arguing whether members of the Church are in fact more prone to conspiracy theories, I think at least part of the observation or assumption that they are can be attributed to biases of the observer. The Church is relatively homogenous in some ways, but it can also expose certain members to a greater degree of diversity than they would otherwise be exposed to, particularly when it comes to education and economic status. Someone who reads this blog, for example, might have a higher level of education and work in a professional environment, which can lead to the probably false assumption that people who aren’t members of the Church are generally like their professional peers, while the people they observe at Church on Sunday are different because they are LDS.
My point is that someone who believes that Latter-day Saints are more prone to believe in conspiracy theories may simply be observing that people without a college degree are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories, and Church is the only place they regularly interact with people without a college degree. I don’t have data to back that up, but having lived in many different wards with different average educational levels, I can pretty firmly say that one’s observation of members of the Church can be skewed based on their ward and their other social circles.
In high school a friend in my YW group invited me to a special afternoon at her home. As her parents never let her have friends over and she spent a lot of time at my house instead I was eager to go. The special afternoon turned out to be a film and presentation by the John Birch Society that her parents belonged to. The whole thing seemed pretty silly to me because the conspiracy theories they discussed were totally outrageous. It was a shock for me to find out that grown adults actually believed such ludicrous things. When the presentation was over I raised my hand to ask some questions of the speakers about what they’d said and also about the film. They outright refused to answer any questions because they’d given us all of the information that there was and that was that. My impression was that they hadn’t felt any need to explain what they’d presented or else they were afraid of anyone asking difficult questions of them. I was supposed to accept that as a suitable answer! After this my friend’s parents handed out membership applications for everyone that was there as a guest to fill out so that they could join a junior version of the JBS. I politely refused, and a couple of other kids did too. At church the next day this friend’s mom bore her testimony that certain youth in the ward were on the pathway to hell because they were questioning authority and were in grave danger of becoming Communists-all while giving my two friends and me the evil eye. My dad caught the evil eye bit and we had an enlightening visit after church about my experience with the JBS the day before and why some people in and out of church believe in conspiracy theories. My next experience was taking a Book of Mormon class my first year at BYU from Cleon Skousen. To that point all that I knew of him was that he was considered to be an authority on the Book of Mormon and was a “very important person” in the church. Imagine my shock and surprise to find out that the BoM wasn’t another testament of Christ (according to Skousen) but rather it was one story of secret combinations and the Gadianton Robbers after another. My favorite cousin was in the class with me and we’d discuss all of the wacky theories that Skousen was preaching after class was over. We’d read the same scriptures that he’d waxed eloquent on in class and neither of us could see any mention of Gadiantons or secret combinations. Just like the JBS representatives in my earlier experience Skousen refused to take any questions at all. He was the supreme authority period. This made no sense to us but others in our class lived for every word that came from his mouth. Since that time I’ve dealt with several individuals who are usually TBM’s and who are really into the conspiracy theories of the day. What I’ve noticed about these people is that they
1) Have few if any other interests in their lives.
2) They don’t trust real experts because these
experts a) have hidden agendas, b) are
secularly trained and therefore are
influenced by Satan, c)they are full of pride
and are out to deceive us, etc.
3. Take pride in knowing things that others
don’t (We have the truth. You don’t.)
4. Often have a persecution complex (a
problem that I see especially with older
members as in “Remember Nauvoo”, etc.
5. Become hyper-sensitive when their facts
6. They believe the “experts” implicitly and never question them.
7. Are not satisfied with giving the Lord 100%. They want to give Him 1000% and thereby go overboard
Number 6 is a big reason why I feel that the conspiracy theory situation attracts members of the church. We’ve been taught that we shouldn’t question our leaders because they have all of the answers. Number 4 feeds into our church’s narrative about being misunderstood and persecuted. How we deal with this type of mindset inside and outside of the church will be a very big challenge to deal with and to which I have no ready answers at this point in time.
Do you encounter conspiracy theorists among Church members? What theories do they seem to believe?
Let me count the ways:
– moon landing was faked
– climate change is myth created by people in order to get government research grants
– both the Clintons and the Bushes were in league to create a New World Order, whatever that means
– Trump is a decent guy portrayed in a bad light by fake news media
– anything about the Gay agenda
– Constitution will be hanging be a thread
– Dems will stop gun sales. (My neighbor bought several thousand dollars worth of guns prior to the 2016 election, thinking that Hillary would win and that he would be able to sell them for double in between the election and her inauguration as people stocked up on guns. Lol)
I better stop there.
Do you believe conspiracy theories?
If I do believe any conspiracy theories, I’m not aware of what they are, except for one: I am a bona fide spherical-earther.
I know it’s somewhat frowned upon to link to other articles, but I think it would nearly be a disservice not to at least mention Jonathan Max Wilson’s “Apostasy as Conspiracy Theory” blog post at his Sixteen Small Stones blog. For me it was just short of life-changing. In essence, it’s simply about the limits (or lack thereof) of logic and how it’s nearly impossible to compartmentalize logic, reason, faith, and spirituality. He’s honest enough to admit many of his arguments can be leveled back at active members, but the arguments do go both ways.
I do encounter conspiracy theorists and theories among members. Most of them have been listed. I’m hesitant to list some of the ones that haven’t. I think conspiracies are a mixed bag. I do believe in the reality of secret combinations but think the level varies. Once on the other side I think it may be revealed that some of the ones we rolled our eyes at had a fairly big anchor in reality, while others that seemed more likely may have had no basis in reality. I don’t know that they’re more prevalent among LDS. They’re just framed differently.
My Dad and his friend interviewed a lot of people over the years, many of which were conspiracy theorists backed with fairly decent credentials. A lot of their research never made it to the airwaves, but it had an effect on my dad and his friend. My Dad did his best to keep his BS detector calibrated, but it was really hard to dismiss certain things. My dad’s friend, who was inactive, spent more than one sleepless night repeatedly vomiting in the bathroom from some of the things they learned and what it did to him. My dad never did. I think my dad ultimately attributed this to his faith in his belief that good eventually will triumph.
There has been one thought on conspiracy theories that has been rolling around in my head for a couple of years. If I wanted to get away with something outrageous, heinous, nearly unbelievable, and fairly large enough in scope to actually give off a vibe of utter ridiculousness and evoke laughter and eye-rolls at the possibility, would I devote all my time to meticulously planning my next move in a smoke-filled room on some lower level, or would I go about it nonchalantly while devoting most of my energy to perpetuating the ridicule, laughter, and eye-rolls that such a thing is even possible? I think I’d do the latter. It does make me wonder what could be perpetuated when everyone dismisses the idea that it could be perpetuated.
I would bet that believing in conspiracy theories is also correlated with susceptibility to multilevel marketing (pyramid) schemes. I don’t know the ultimate causal factor but Mormons are definitely susceptible to both.
In fairness to ETB, whose extreme political views I was aware of when I joined the Church in 1974, he gave up flogging his political views when he became President of the Church in 1985. In the years before he became incapacitated as Church President, he emphasized the BOM, and pleading with disaffected Church members to return to the fold.
Why did he avoid politics in his tenure as Church President? Hard to pry reasons out of a famously close-mouthed group of leaders, but I am assuming that he was warned by fellow Apostles to stay away from political issues, and that there was also a realization that as Church President, he needed to stay away from politics.
J. Reuben Clark, HBL, and JFS, all strong conservatives politically, were very hostile to ETB’s political forays, even though
DOMcK gave him pretty free rein. SWK summoned ETB to a meeting in 1981 and forcefully rebuked him for his notorious BYU speech about how Prophets should not limit themselves in addressing political issues.
And Cleon Skousen and his Freeman Institute were eventually exiled from BYU, having proved too fringy for BYU to tolerate. I also love the crack attributed to GBH about how he wished that the CES would someday join the Church.
Church leadership are happy to be regarded as conservative, but don’t want to be seen as fringy. They want to be taken seriously and viewed as credible. A good example is Church leaders warning Bo Gritz about his membership if he did not cease and desist his crackpot ways. I also think it is worth noting that no political lightning rods have been called to the Q12 since ETB’s day.
The problem in my opinion is that the conspiracists in the Church don’t take the hint. A fanatic convinces himself that the leaders really in fact do support their agenda, but can’t say so publicly.
About fanaticism in general, Winston Churchill’s quote applies: A fanatic won’t change his mind, and won’t change the subject. I am distressed to see good people, good friends and devoted Church members, posting things on FB claiming that that the Covid -19 problem is a made-up conspiracy.
But, just to be contrarian, I would also like to someday see a post on W and T, which is committed to diversity of thought, about so-called leaders of “enlightened thought” and how their condescension and put-downs about “educated” vs. “uneducated” members and views contribute to the whole problem. Crackpot conspiracy theories flourish among people who realized they are looked down upon by the cognoscenti.
I echo PLM’s first post. I’ve heard it all.I’ve lost two friends to this nonsense. There is no talking sense to these people. What hurts me is that the George Soros nonsense is rooted in Jewish conspiracy theory that goes back ages and LDS people have no idea of that and what they’re falling for and contributing to. I see conspiracy theory has evidence of mens hearts failing them. You can’t believe in conspiracy theory without thinking the worst of your fellow man. There is nothing Christlike about it. It’s hateful to think most people are so evil that they would purposefully try to bring our country down, hurt or kill fellow Americans. Dr. Fauci ,for instance. As if they know him when they’ve never even heard of him until now. As if this man has been waiting 60 years for the moment he could hurt people. It’s bizarre to think like that. If you have a Christlike heart, unless someone explicitly shows you who they are, like Donald Trump, why would you not assume the best of them?? These conspiracies set up an “us vs. them” mentality that is as opposite the Gospel as can be.
It’s my opinion that the members who are told by Christ to depart at His Second Coming are told that because their hearts aren’t right. They did all the right things but they did not love one another . They missed the mark and they need to depart and course correct.
Most people, nonmembers, are decent human beings who mean well. When they support something misguided, it’s because they have a different perspective. The Lord will make it clear to them one day. We are to love them as we love ourselves.
Conspiracies don’t allow for that.
I wish Pres. Nelson or some GA would call these things out for what they are. Dangerous and hateful. There have always been conspiracies since the beginning of time. It’s called crime. We know some of it, like the mafia, and others we don’t. And it’s always a liberal who is trying to get world dominion. It’s never a conservative. It’s hateful.
P.S. I don’t know why the apostles point directly to certain things and call them wrong but are silent when it comes to conspiracies . Pres . Nelson has said that Truth is under attack. But he won’t clarify it by saying Trump or the fake news. He just says it’s under attack, learn how to get revelation so you’ll know as he does, I take it. Well, unless this is how the wheat separates from the tares, or one way we are being judged, I don’t know why he wouldn’t make it perfectly clear so all members are on the same page. Maybe he thinks if he ignores it, everyone else will know to ignore it as well. Well, no , unfortunately they don’t and it causes problems. It’s a shame. That LDS people engage in hateful theories is just shameful.
P.P.S. I should clarify that I don’t believe it’s all mens hearts failing them . As people age, brain changes can make people think strange things. All the more reason for the prophet to come out and make it clear to them.
My TBM family is awash in conspiracy theories. Chem trails…just sayin’
Tiwan, I also think it is worth noting that no political lightning rods have been called to the Q12 since ETB’s day. If I undersatand you correctly. I believe the leadership treatment of women and gays is because of their politics, and doing so much damage. Certainly nothing to do with the Gospel of Christ.
The federal gov at the moment saying the viris comes from a laboratiry in China, which all the experts in Australia say is untrue. Conspiratory theory?
Trump originally said the virus was a democrat hoax. Conspiracy theory?
Fake News is in itsself a conspiracy, and makes the truth less credible.
Someone above mentioned MLM suceptibility indicating a gullibility, that applies to conspiracy theories. American culture somehow also seems to contribute. Most conspiracy theories seem to originate in USA.
I expect the deaths from the virus, because of the disasterous federal leadership, to go into 100s of thousands by november. This should require some one else to blame, and some more conspiracy theories from the administration and supporters.
I know it’s somewhat frowned upon to link to other articles…
The admins may chime in, but I think the spam filter occasionally sees links and suppresses the comment in an effort to automatically block spam and phishing and whatever, but I don’t think there’s any intentional desire to stop links in legitimate comments. Unless that is what They want us to think….
Most conspiracy theories don’t stand up to critical thinking. The Church is notoriously poor at teaching critical thinking skills to it’s youth (though it might be better nowadays than it was in my day, when the internet was just getting started). It comes from demanding total faith and obedience in things that can’t be proven objectively, restricting information to only “approved” sources, and stamping out “questioning” attitudes. I don’t think that is a conspiracy in itself, but rather the result of unintended consequences. Regardless, the Church is paying for those mistakes in a big way.
As Dr. Henry Eyring used to say, “you don’t have to believe in anything that isn’t true.”
mez, I appreciate you pointing out the numerous conspiracies (not often enough identified as such) that circulate in church culture. For every former member, certain issues just can’t be overcome or dismissed. My issue was race and the priesthood. The entire history of Mormons and African Americans is sordid and indefensible, in my opinion. What made it so much worse for me was that the apostles, per your call out above, made no effort to curtail blatantly racist ideas like skin color being based on a failure to act vigilantly in the pre-earth life. Like you, I am still puzzled by that. The audacity required to hold a celebration of the end of institutionalized racism is astounding. Someone with brass cojones and little self awareness had to come up with that idea.
One of the defining features of a conspiracy theory is that there is no evidence to support it. In the minds of adherents, the lack of evidence sometimes strengthens their belief in the conspiracy (they are so clever and powerful that they suppress all the evidence!).
Mainstream Mormons believe lots of things with no evidence (you can make your own list). So, in a sense, Mormons are trained to buy in to conspiracy theories. The training starts in Primary and never lets up. A big part of a Mormon faith transition is a personal commitment to not accepting ideas or beliefs for which there is no persuasive evidence. That doesn’t sound like a big deal, but for trained Mormons that is a very big step.
Brian G: You might be onto something about the MLMs. After all, Essential Oils are touted as better than medicine, knowledge that is seen as “elite” by its believers, but not widely accepted by the usual medical sources (say, doctors).
Rockwell is correct that we are fine with links to other sources, but our filter will usually flag more than two links as Spam. However, our filter is a fickle mistress anyway, and things go to Pending for reasons we are unable to ascertain, so link away!
A few conspiracy theories I’ve heard over the years (the Skousen reference reminded me because there’s someone who is more tin foil hat than man) are the ways some members who don’t accept evolution will attempt to explain it away. One I’ve heard is that the earth is young, but dinosaur bones are because our earth was patched together from other planets. So, I guess that conspiracy is God doing something to fool scientists? Or something like that. But even in General Conference in 2016, E. Nelson (or maybe it was Ballard) mocked the Big Bang Theory which was utterly shocking.
I’ve heard a few Church members say things that I found very alarming that were political conspiracies, people I otherwise really like but just can’t imagine why they would believe these things. A close friend said, “Oh, I believe the Clintons had people killed. Yes, I totally believe that. There are too many coincidences.” I didn’t know this next person, but a friend of a friend on Facebook tried to educate me with a comment screaming at me to “Wake up!” because she knew for a fact that the Clintons had both run a child sex slavery ring for decades, and it was well documented, and why didn’t we all see that?!
Angela, the dinosaur bone “conspiracy” is based directly on teachings of Joseph Fielding Smith:
“NO DEATH ON EARTH BEFORE FALL. The Lord pronounced the earth good when it was finished. Everything upon its face was called good. There was no death in the earth before the fall of Adam. I do not care what the scientists say in regard to dinosaurs and other creatures upon the earth millions of years ago, that lived and died and fought and struggled for existence. When the earth was created and was declared good, peace was upon its face among all its creatures. Strife and wickedness were not found here, neither was there any corruption.” Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, Vol I, page 108
Too bad “Doctrines of Salvation” is so grossly mistitled. I’d prefer “Opinions of Doctrine” 🙂
Excellent post. I’m honestly stunned at all the conspiracy theories that pop up in my Facebook feed from fellow members of the church. This Plandemic thing with Dr. Mikovits is a case in point. It doesn’t matter what you think about vaccines, Trump, Fauci, etc., the video develops an elaborate conspiracy based on the most tenuous evidence, and some of that evidence can be proven demonstrably false with a quick internet search (though, if you believe the video that the conspiracy goes all the way back to John D. Rockefeller, maybe you believe it has the power to control what you can find on the internet too).
Btw, I totally believe in conspiracies, but they’re much less exciting that the ones that create near-cults. Political parties conspire all the time to move their agendas forward without them being identified — it’s been this way from the the time of Thomas Jefferson (who was remarkably good at it). Johnson and Johnson covered up a lot of data in order to maintain that Tylenol was completely safe. Tobacco companies definitely conspired to cover up the addictive quality of their product, while simultaneously making it as addictive as they could (before that, they covered up how unhealthy smoking was). AND, I’m convinced there’s a conspiracy on gas prices in San Diego county, since we pay much more for gas than the rest of the state, which makes no sense. Even now we’re paying $3.o8/gallon. Explain that without a conspiracy!
“ My Dad and his friend interviewed a lot of people over the years, many of which were conspiracy theorists backed with fairly decent credentials. A lot of their research never made it to the airwaves, but it had an effect on my dad and his friend. My Dad did his best to keep his BS detector calibrated, but it was really hard to dismiss certain things. My dad’s friend, who was inactive, spent more than one sleepless night repeatedly vomiting in the bathroom from some of the things they learned and what it did to him. My dad never did. I think my dad ultimately attributed this to his faith in his belief that good eventually will triumph.”
This is intriguing. Left me with more questions than answers: who, what, why, where, when?
Care to elaborate?
I feel like I’ve hijacked so many OPs lately that I’m hesitant to say too much. Plus, I was a tad on the younger side, so for much of it I didn’t care, didn’t understand, or had better things to do. Most of my interest came after the fact. Basically, my dad was in radio for a few decades, and for some of those years did a show that would fall somewhere in between CoasttoCoast AM and maybe something like Dateline in terms of content. Much of what they discussed has already been mentioned in some form in other comments. Child trafficking (at all levels and without consideration of political party) , spy programs, worldwide manipulation, and yes, occasionally UFO related stuff were frequent topics. I never did know what couple of things induced physical sickness in my dad’s friend. I’ll have to ask him next time we talk.
In retrospect though, one of the recurring things that did catch my attention was the fact that many of these researchers started out like any other qualified and aspiring journalists, and checked all the boxes that make a great journalist great. And yet, some of these paths they went down in terms of content more or less ruined the promising careers they had, and still they pursued it because they thought it was right, despite any ridicule or worse to come their way. I guess what I’m asking is at what point do we need to stop dismissing the conspiracy theory and take another look at the conspiracy theorist? Would it take a mainstream journalist to make an unveiled conspiracy theory a shown reality, or would such an action no longer make them a valid journalist if the theory still gets (mistakenly?) dismissed by the public? I think these are valid questions.
Bringing it somewhat back around, even among members of the Church that occasionally bring up one or two seemingly wacko ideas, if they have every other part of their lives in order in every way, shape, and form, at some point you have to at least entertain the idea that maybe–just maybe–they have gained valid knowledge you haven’t, and that you have at least somewhat of an obligation to find out for yourself, even–or especially– if the conclusion is still that they are indeed wrong in this instance. As I get older, I find myself a little slower to both accept and reject ideas I come into contact with and at the very least allow these ideas some ponder time. I’ve found no real drawbacks, but a welcome benefit is I do develop more sympathy for others in the process, regardless of my conclusions.
I think this comment thread linking MLM schemes to conspiracy addicts is on to something. Gullibility, which is preyed upon by MLM, has always been a hallmark of true believers. (See Eric Hoffer’s “The True Believer.”) In the environment of Wheat and Tares, we focus on Mormon gullibility, but this is a common human condition.
The most basic human need is to be able to blame “The Other”, and fall for crackpot theories:
1. The widely held view in the PRC that the West is actively plotting to hold back China’s “peaceful rise.” (Peaceful rise, my foot; this is the government that has turned Xinjiang into a concentration camp, works to exterminate Tibetan culture, threatens Taiwan’s existence, and is promoting the claim that the US Army deliberately planted the Corona virus in China.)
2. The widely-held view in the Middle East that the 9/11 attacks were engineered by the US.
3. The widespread resurgence of anti-Jewish violence in Europe among both right-wing and left-wing populists: the Jews are to blame! My own dear grandfather held very deep anti-Jewish prejudices common to Catholicism in the early 1900s. Holocaust deniers are another variation of this illness.
4. In a Mormon context, the embarrassing fixation on JBS fringe theories in the 1950-1980s, which has previously been raised in this comment thread. The more recent embarrassing takeover of Utah Republicans by Trump apologists. The reputation of Utah as a hotbed of fraudulent schemes, because Brother X is a good Church member, and he wouldn’t give me bad advice. The Rust Rare Coins ponzi scheme that was busted a couple of years ago was built partly on Church connections reinforced during interactions in the temple.
Facts don’t matter, because the need for an enemy to blame is so strong. This is reinforced on the need by a true believer for a temporal Savior who will fix all our problems. I remember friends in the 1980s who were members of the Amway Church and tried to convert us.
From A. E. Housman:
To think that two and two are four,
And neither five nor three,
The heart of man has long been sore,
And like ‘tis long to be.
When it comes to conspiracy theories, I separate between what I call conspiracy-lite (i.e., the Federal Reserve isn’t audited) and hard conspiracism (9/11 was an inside job). The conspiracy-lite folks I can talk to, but the hard conspiracists are often too far gone and I avoid conversation. I too have noticed a relation between MLMers and belief in conspiracy theories (conspiracy theories seem to be popular among libertarians as well). Cleon Skousen and Ezra Taft Benson injected Mormonism with conspiracy believing tendencies, more on the lite side, but there are those who have turned to hard conspiracism (i.e. Joel Skousen, related to Cleon but not sure how). Many of my family members are conspiracists. My brother is a hard conspiracist who has fallen repeatedly over the decades for MLMs and get-rich-quick schemes. Another brother of mine believes the earth is flat (but he has serious mental problems as well (he has lived as a recluse for over 30 years)).
My sister’s husband is also a hard conspiracist (as was his late father) and has been involved in get-rich-quick schemes in the past. Both are also self-identifying libertarians.
Conspiracy theory has deeply affected the narrative among my family members, and has had a profound impact on me. I have a PhD and a strong academic background. Honestly part of my life’s mission is to debunk and slay these things. Living in the age of Trump has been particularly hard for me. I feel like conspiracy theories used to be underground and only crazies believed them. Now they are dangerously becoming more part of mainstream culture. I fear these theories and the people who believe them will tear the US apart. They are already beginning to with COVID-19. We need effective ways to shut them down without giving them a pretext to cry that their speech is being suppressed. I strongly support private organizations deplatforming these clowns. Facebook, Twitter, and others need a stronger hand in overcoming these infestuous ideas.
“Facebook, Twitter, and others need a stronger hand in overcoming these infestuous ideas.” Well, good luck with that! All their incentives are to disavow themselves of responsibility to police content, and to instead let their algorithms (which are designed to keep eyeballs on the screen to view more ads) do the thinking for us all. Adam Conover did a pretty good analysis of this problem, showing as an example that if you watch a YouTube link explaining why vaccines are necessary for public health, YouTube will next serve you up anti-vaxer videos, one after another, to keep you watching. In essence, it functions to dumb down the person who was just interested in the topic by presenting “related” topics. (In the same way, if you are searching for information on the Church, it will quickly switch to showing you anti-Mormon materials as “related content.”)
I normally don’t stay up this late, but am recovering from a tooth extraction and sleep is hard for a few days. It seems that the latest comments show I am among a bunch of night owls.
John W’s comment that conspiracy theories are dangerously becoming part of “mainstream” culture: very good point!
Why? I have a few ideas, mostly having to do with an age of information overload, which causes people to selectively ignore facts and opinions that they don’t like, and our relentless drive toward sensationalism, which is driven by news media’s constant, profit-driven promotion of “disaster is near” stories. I just saw a “news story” that breathlessly announced that the earth is much nearer a black hole than previously thought.
But my opinions are certainly not well formed, and the “Why” is a genuine question. I would love to hear people weigh in on this. Thanks to all!
I may be trying to start a conspiracy theory?
Why did Pres Nelson make his statement, at this time and why at all?
He says he is thankfull for the leaders who have kept us safe. Not the ones rushing to get the economy going again.
He also said the church would be very cautious about returning to normal.
Was he warning us that it is too soon for America to open up?
If that was his message it was too subtle, no one on my facebook got it. They are all just gushing about how much they love him.
Okay, here is another one…
The Pace memorandum was a 1990 memorandum written by Glenn L. Pace, a general authority in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), describing to a committee of the church the complaints of sixty members of the church that claimed they had been subjected to satanic ritual abuse (SRA) by family members and other members of the church.
Who wants to weigh in on this one?
The satanic ritual abuse allegations, like some other conspiracy theories, were not uniquely LDS, though Pace put an LDS spin on them. They were a subset of the general hysteria that swept the nation in the 80s-90s about “recovered” memories of sexual abuse. That whole “therapeutic” theory was built on a false understanding of memory (see Elizabeth Loftus’ research) and on the trusted therapists’ effectively creating/implanting false memories. The theory lingers in American pop-culture, but seems to have largely, not entirely, disappeared from trained and reputable therapeutic circles.
If you don’t believe in conspiracy, you have your head in the sand.
“I testify that wickedness is rapidly expanding in every segment of our society. It is more highly organized, more cleverly disguised, and more powerfully promoted than ever before. Secret combinations lusting for power, gain, and glory are flourishing. A secret combination that seeks to overthrow the freedom of all lands, nations, and countries is increasing its evil influence and control over America and the entire world.” – Ezra Taft Benson, “I Testify”, General Conference, October 1988
25 For it cometh to pass that whoso buildeth [this secret combination](i.e. conspiracy) up seeketh to overthrow the freedom of all lands, nations, and countries; and it bringeth to pass the destruction of all people, for it is built up by the devil, who is the father of all lies; even that same liar who beguiled our first parents, yea, even that same liar who hath caused man to commit murder from the beginning; who hath hardened the hearts of men that they have murdered the prophets, and stoned them, and cast them out from the beginning.
“There is no ‘conspiracy theory’ in the Book of Mormon. It is a conspiracy fact.” – Ezra Taft Benson
Given the current state of things, please tell me how close are we to the fulfillment of the Lord’s prophecy to the Gentile nation?: (3 Nephi 16:10)
10 And thus commandeth the Father that I should say unto you: At that day when the Gentiles shall sin against my gospel, and shall reject the fulness of my gospel, and shall be lifted up in the pride of their hearts above all nations, and above all the people of the whole earth, and shall be filled with all manner of lyings, and of deceits, and of mischiefs, and all manner of hypocrisy, and murders, and priestcrafts, and whoredoms, and of secret abominations; and if they shall do all those things, and shall reject the fulness of my gospel, behold, saith the Father, I will bring the fulness of my gospel from among them.
Secret combinations are exactly that, secret. They aren’t out blowing a horn, announcing to the world their plans. Things are going to be messy and confusing. Every single one of the points highlighted by the Lord is in effect today: lyings, deceits, mischiefs, hypocrisy, murders, priestcrafts, whoredoms, and secret combinations.
There are some ideas and concepts where I do not see eye to eye with church leaders. But I do believe Presiden Nelson when he said, “Around 41 b.c., many Nephites joined the Church, and the Church prospered. But secret combinations also began to grow, and many of their cunning leaders hid among the people and were difficult to detect. As the people became more and more prideful, many of the Nephites made “a mock of that which was sacred, denying the spirit of prophecy and of revelation. Those same threats are among us today. The somber reality is that there are “servants of Satan” embedded throughout society. So be very careful about whose counsel you follow.”
Interesting comments. Looks like the liberal hoards within the church are out in droves telling us to beware of “hardliners” like president Benson and Elder Packer. Why is that? Because they spoke of conspiracies? Maybe? Because they told us the Book of Mormon wasn’t a conspiracy but it was a “conspiracy fact.” What is a secret combination if not a conspiracy? What is the connection between the politicians and the gadiantons if not conspiracy? Those in power, secretly combining (conspiring) with paid henchmen to do their dirty work and maintain their control over the people while they tell them all the lies they can. The sheep follow them and the true believers realize the truth and seek deliverance. Yet here we are in our Mormon circles being told it’s all fake, don’t believe it. Don’t listen to the conspiracy theorists! In other words, ignore the prophets, ignore the Book of Mormon. Put on your masks and listen to CNN.
It would be nice to see a follow up post beginning with something besides the most wild of conspiracies such as flat earth, moon landings and time travel. How about we begin with things more believable such as how the media lies to us and how so many follow along without questioning. Rather than spending half your blog disparaging our revered yet dead conservative LDS leaders, perhaps we could examine what they said?
Is corruption in government a conspiracy?
Fast and Furious proved to be true.
The Steele Dossier proved to be false.
Is Jeffery Epstein a conspiracy?
The Great Reset.
So many more… I’m running out of them all as they’ve all come true.
Who determines what a conspiracy is? According to the mainstream media a conspiracy is anything that disagrees with their narrative. This being the case, the majority of the country are now conspiracy theorists. Unless you truly believe Epstein killed himself, all should join this patriotic group.
The Book of Mormon screams of conspiracies. We have been warned the constitution and the freedoms it guarantees will be threatened and patriotic Americans will rise to save it. We have been told the constitution would not be saved in Washington. If this isn’t telling us conspiracies are real and they would be coming what does it say? Even the very elect would be deceived. The division of the wheat and the tares, but which is which and what would divide them? Some of these responses here suggest we trust the media more than our own leaders. The 10 virgins was about the active members, search and pray, fill your lamps with oil.
John W tells us he “strongly supports” censorship of any ideas he disagrees with. A perfect example of a member who disagrees with freedom of speech. What other rights would John W tear away from the citizens of this country? How about the right to bear arms, the right to peaceful assembly, the right to believe whatever we want (that’s called freedom of religion).
While it’s nice to hear such honesty coming from members of the church. It’s chilling to see such blatant disregard for our constitutional rights.