Fake news and conspiracy theories
John Weaver explores why disinformation exists and is believed - and how Christians can measure the truth
In my early years as a professional geologist and a Christian, I spent a great deal of time explaining to people who took a literal view of Genesis chapter 1 that the unequivocal discoveries of science pointed to a universe some 13-14 billion years old and planet Earth about 4.5 billion years old.
I was dismayed and puzzled by one defence of the literalist interpretation, which stated that scientists were deluded and were in a conspiracy of deception. Why scientists might do this was never articulated, and certainly was a claim that made no sense to anyone who was involved in scientific research, the premise of which was to discover truth.
Later in my life as a practical theologian I wrote a number of texts on the dialogue between science and faith to demonstrate the complementarity between these two ways of exploring the truth about creation.
As part of my research into the relationships of science and faith I became concerned about the burgeoning environmental crisis, the dangers of which have become ever clearer in the last 20 years.
The denials of the reality of climate change have also disappointed me and the suggestion that environmental scientists are seeking to mislead the world is also both puzzling and frightening. While the objections to the evolution of an old earth can be to some extent understood as an affirmation of the truth of scripture, the denial of climate change and our biblical mandate to care for creation cannot.
So why do people maintain these views in the face of scientific facts? It seems to me as a Christian that the reason is the age old sin of a desire for power and control – the very thing for which Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden. The demand for allegiance to a literal interpretation of Genesis 1-11 as a basis of faith can be part of an exertion of the power over and control of church members; and a denial of climate change as an excuse to continue with the exploitation of the planet as a means of increasing profits for large companies.
Does this help in our understanding of today’s ‘fake news’ and conspiracy theories?
In the UK many videos have been posted online which claim to show empty hospitals as evidence that the coronavirus pandemic has been exaggerated or even a complete fabrication. While these have provoked a strong reaction from healthcare officials, who have encouraged the public to heed government advice in the face of rapidly rising coronavirus infections, there are those who believing this particular conspiracy theory want to get on with selfishly living their lives as if there was no emergency.
In the United States the conspiracy theories have proved to be more disastrous and dangerous with the storming of the Capitol building in Washington DC, mostly based on Donald Trump’s claim that the election was ‘stolen’ with hundreds of thousands of ‘illegal votes’.
Disinformation and claims of ‘fake news’ have dominated the rhetoric of the White House in the last four years. There has been a consistent attack on the media as purveyors of lies rather than sources of truth, while the President’s representative Kellyanne Conway, during a ‘Meet the Press’ interview on January 22, 2017, used the phrase ‘alternative facts’ in defence of the White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer's false statement about the attendance numbers at Donald Trump's inauguration.
‘Alternative facts’ is a phrase that occurs in George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, where we find four ministries of the government of Oceania: The Ministry of Peace concerns itself with war, the Ministry of Truth with lies, the Ministry of Love with torture and the Ministry of Plenty with starvation. These deliberate ways of ‘doublethink’ are designed to exercise power and control over the masses.
At the beginning of 2021 The Guardian newspaper expressed the conviction that everyone deserves access to information that’s grounded in science and truth, and analysis rooted in authority and integrity.
So how do we as Christians respond to conspiracy theories, ‘fake news’, and a denial of scientific facts?
Our experience, what happens to us, has both inner and outer elements. Inner elements include thought, feeling, memory, attitudes, hopes, hang-ups, values. This is not objective, but is dangerously intimate and subjective. Our honesty and level of self-awareness will affect how we handle our own truth.
We see this in the film A Few Good Men (Columbia Pictures, 1992) with Tom Cruise as Lt. Daniel Kaffee; Jack Nicholson as Col. Nathan R. Jessep; and Demi Moore as Lt. Cdr. Joanne Galloway. Perception of and the interpretation/value of the truth is at the heart of the court case, which dominates the film. At the climax of the court scene where Jessep is caught in a lie he shouts out: "You can't handle the truth!"
The film explores how each of the characters represented in the film discover the truth about themselves and the truth by which they live. It revolves around Jessep’s comment/question about whether or not they, including Jessep himself, can handle the truth by which they seek to live.
This film triggers thoughts of Jesus on trial before Pilate, where we find that Jesus declares his purpose is to exemplify the truth, a statement that leaves Pilate musing, ‘What is truth?’ (John 18:37-38). In his commentary, The Message of John (IVP, 1993) Bruce Milne notes that in a world of illusion and unreality, Jesus offers the one true reality which is found in a relationship with God.
Milne then wonders if Pilate’s question indicated the wistful longing of a professional politician, steeped in the daily compromises, the prudential balancing of forces, the application of ruthless power, the half-light world of greys and polka dots where people grope wearily for truth and the soul withers and dies.
Jesus might well have said, ‘You can’t handle the truth.’ But for us truth is not in a book or a creed but in a person; Jesus who said “I am the way, and the truth and the life” (John 14:6) and “In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth” (John 18:37).
As Christians we measure the truth presented by politicians, scientists, economists, and medical personnel by what we learn in the life of Jesus. Do the views presented in the media accord with the Gospel of love, are they true, and do they build up the people of God’s world?
The call to us remains the same as it did in the days of Micah: What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)
Image | Markus Winkler | Unsplash
The Revd Dr John Weaver was President of the Baptist Union of Great Britain 2008-9, and served as Principal of South Wales Baptist College from 2001-2011. He is vice president of the John Ray Initiative (JRI), an educational charity focused on connecting environment, science and Christianity.
A version of this article first appeared on Good Faith Media, and is republished with permission.
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