I first saw Plandemic in the wilds of Facebook. The short trailer of the upcoming film is now increasingly difficult to find as most platforms have removed it and a Google search returns only popular response articles and videos. But a month or so ago, a few friends had shared the viral video clip, and others had commented on the posts positively. Even if they weren’t entirely convinced by all the specific claims made by former medical researcher Judy Mikovits, they were supportive of her larger themes: the pandemic has been overblown, social distancing is ineffective at best and dangerous at worst, money grubbing pharmaceutical executives or authoritarian government leaders are lying to us.
Mikovits herself highlights her supposed maltreatment by a corrupt scientific community, the engineered nature of the novel coronavirus, and current flawed approaches to addressing it, all claims that have been debunked ad nauseum. In fact, Plandemic is a firehose of disjointed claims, many of which are blatantly illogical or unwarranted. It’s a good example of a “Gish gallop,” the debating technique of overwhelming one’s opponent with a barrage of arguments without regard to their strength or veracity.
Christians should repudiate conspiracy theories, not only because we are lovers of truth, but because they present strongly affective stories that compete with the gospel.Some of my more courageous Facebook friends tried to reason with Plandemic proponents, but arguing against such wild claims is difficult. All of your arguments play into the presuppositions that make its unsubstantiated claims possible. Death tolls? Exaggerated. Expert opinions? Biased. Reputable news sources? Fake.
This is exactly what makes debunking a conspiracy theory so difficult: if you’ve already decided that “mainstream” sources are suspect and sinister forces are collaborating to deceive the masses, there are few arguments that can convince you otherwise. A pandemic is also a breeding ground for conspiracy theories: we’re scared, uncertain, and desperate for something meaningful in the midst of senseless suffering. We have real psychological desires—the feeling of control, a guiding narrative that brings order out of chaos, the sense of certainty in our beliefs—that such theories provide. When the public health recommendations and scientific consensus on basic facts of the virus seem to be constantly changing, it’s more comforting to believe something immovable than to handle the complexity and contingency inherent in ever-changing human knowledge.
These psychological motivations are helpful explanations of the allure of conspiracy theories, but they also illuminate a more general truth about how we process new information. We are hardly the objective data machines we fancy ourselves. Humans not only receive new information with all kinds of value-laden filters; we also rely heavily on emotion to navigate the complexity of our world.
We assume that when confronted with new information, we first perceive it and then act on it. We read the article or watch the video and then process those ideas, accepting or rejecting them. On this account, the right response to conspiracy theories is to provide more and better information such as the videos and articles that meticulously respond to Plandemic with better data and reasoned arguments. This approach certainly has its place, but it is missing something much more foundational about the way we live in a world overloaded with complex information.
Rosalind Picard, a pioneer of “affective computing,” has explored ways computers could understand and respond to human emotion, but she has also studied how computers could use emotions to navigate complexity. Humans naturally do this: we are constantly bombarded with more information and decision-making opportunities than we could possibly process in a strictly logical way. We rely on affect—emotion or desire—in order to respond quickly to new information.
We “feel” our way around the world. Our fears, desires, values, and loyalties strongly direct our beliefs and decisions. And these affective forces are most effectively communicated in stories: a narrative about the way the world should be that operates underneath many of our more consciously held beliefs. Our fear of economic decline, our desire for autonomy and self-sufficiency, our loyalty to a political leader consistently downplaying the effects of the virus—these are all stronger motivations to accepting something like Plandemic than intellectual assent to its rather strange claims. It is comforting to believe that the pandemic is a hoax because it means we have nothing to be frightened about. It is comforting to believe that Dr. Fauci and others are lying to us, because it means their dark predictions hold no weight. Even if accepting these ideas means accepting Dr. Mikovits’ bizarre conspiracy claims, our affective pull towards them is stronger than our logical objections.
James K. A. Smith, in his book Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works, explains that we answer complex moral questions about our lives by relying on a particular construal of the world, a construal that is more strongly determined by our affective inclinations than by “information deposited in the intellect.” We approach the world with strongly emotional institutions about how things should work: who are my people, what is our ultimate good, what kind of world are we meant to live in? This means that living virtuous lives is not so much a matter of right knowledge about the world as it is about “training affect—training people to ‘see situations in the right way’” (36).
This is why Christians’ susceptibility to conspiracy theories is especially troubling. Ed Stetzer has repeatedly written about evangelical Christians’ disproportionate attraction to conspiracy theories, writing most recently that “it is time that the church recognizes the growing foothold conspiracy theories are gaining in our midst and what this means for our credibility and witness.” A recent Atlantic article detailing the rise and impact of QAnon highlighted several connections to Christians: the “pizzagate” shooter was described by his family and friends as a devout Christian, one of the QAnon-adjacent conspiracies mentioned is that George Soros is attacking evangelicals, and one interviewee describes his evangelical childhood immersed in end times prophecies as reminiscent of QAnon advocates. The author notes, “The language of evangelical Christianity has come to define the Q movement. QAnon marries an appetite for the conspiratorial with positive beliefs about a radically different and better future, one that is preordained.”
There are, ironically, many rabbit trails we could follow here. Some evangelical subcultures have fostered unhealthy and theologically vacuous end times obsessions. A culture war mentality has left many Christians overly suspicious of mainstream media and institutions, seeing persecution and harassment around every corner. A desire to justify political support of Donald Trump in the face of moral qualms makes conspiracy theories that vindicate his actions appealing.
Yet while these angles are important in their own right, they rarely leave us with a robust approach to responding to what makes conspiracy theories so appealing. There are abundant resources for responding to Plandemic: videos that respond point-by-point to its claims, articles debunking its central thesis, analyses of Dr. Mikovits and the filmmaker’s motivations. But very little of this information speaks to the real rationale behind its support: people want it to be true.
In the face of sometimes conflicting, ever-changing, and often uncertain information about COVID-19, there is comfort in the simplicity of a conspiracy theory’s narrative. Even the “official” advice has changed as we’ve gained new information about the virus. This uncertainty and variation is inherent in the scientific process, especially when that process is played out in the middle of a public health crisis. But it is also what makes people want something simpler and more certain so badly that they overlook logical and factual errors. It’s strangely comforting to think that physicians have been incentivized by Medicare to exaggerate the number of COVID-19 deaths, because that means the world hasn’t been fundamentally altered, it means there’s nothing to be afraid of, it means that the restrictions grating on my autonomy are unnecessary.
Like most conspiracy theories, Plandemic tugs our affective strings. Common fears and desires are used to build the narrative: Mikovits says at one point that “if we don’t stop this now, we can not only forget our republic and our freedom, but we can forget our humanity!” It uses striking images that capture our imagination more strongly than propositional arguments can: to bolster her claim that she was unjustly targeted by the scientific community, stock footage of a SWAT team entering a house plays while Mikovits speaks. The shadowy lighting and foreboding tones draw on our preexisting fear and present an answer that may be frightening (a massive government conspiracy) but that confirms an answer I desperately want: none of this is a very big deal.
Christians should repudiate conspiracy theories, not only because we are lovers of truth, but because they present strongly affective stories that compete with the gospel. Humans were created as lovers—we are pulled by our emotions into stories that captivate our imagination and motivate our work in the world—and this is neither regrettable nor changeable. As Smith argued, we need affective training. Our hearts, bodies, and minds need to desire the right things, so that when we are confronted with information that plays on alternate desires and fears we are not persuaded.
The Atlantic piece also noted that one of the reasons QAnon seemed to flourish among evangelical Christians was its “appetite for the conspiratorial with positive beliefs about a radically different and better future, one that is preordained.” This does sound remarkably like Christian belief. Our fallen world has been deeply corrupted, and there is a sort of conspiracy afoot that beckons towards a redeemed future. Perhaps many of the Christians drawn to conspiracy theories have been immersed in churches with only vestiges of our supernatural narrative remaining. If the faith is reduced to good morals and the American Dream, then it shouldn’t surprise us that people steeped in the rituals and language of supernatural longings would find the next best thing elsewhere.
There have been rightful calls for pastors to address conspiracy theories with their congregations and for Christians to meaningful engage with their brothers and sisters who promote such theories. Those friends of mine who waded deeply into Facebook comments threads with charts and data were not working in vain. And yet we as Christians have stronger resources for addressing the real allure of conspiracy theories.
We have a captivating story, rehearsed each Sunday, that is intended to capture our affections and inspire righteous action. We have answers to the deep fears and desires surfacing during a global crisis, not just answers to the latest fad conspiracy theory. Even as we respond to specific claims like those made in Plandemic, we need to consistently return to the emotions driving conspiracy theory acceptance and articulate a story that has enthralled, comforted, and motivated Christians for centuries.