The pandemic has provided “the perfect storm for conspiracy theories” around the world, theories which are now creeping into New Zealand, and into the lives of some Catholics in this country.
University of Auckland senior lecturer Dr Danny Osborne defined conspiracy theory as “a belief that large-scale and/or important events are secretly caused by powerful, but malevolent, people/groups”.
“Conspiracy theorists think that there must be a secret ‘deep state’ plot to control the public, with heaps of hidden actors lurking behind the corner. Or that Bill Gates has been planning this day for decades so that he can vaccinate the world. They sound very far-fetched ideas to most and, ironically, given that they are endorsed to satisfy epistemic needs, actually raise more questions than they answer,” he said.
Dr Osborne, a member of the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study (NZAVS) Central Management Team, stressed that the beliefs held by conspiracy theorists are more than mere differences of opinion.
“The pandemic provides the perfect storm for these conspiracy theories. Big events lead people to seek out big causes. Add to this the fact that people are stuck at home during lockdown with nothing better to do, some might go down the rabbit-hole of conspiracy theories. And social media definitely plays a role here,” he said.
Dr Osborne said the various algorithms in social media mean that, once one clicks on a bizarre theory, the more exposure one gets to “bizarre explanations”.
Faith and reason
Fr Merv Duffy, SM, dean and lecturer in theology at Te Kupenga – Catholic Theological College, said that Pope St John Paul II described faith and reason as the “two wings which the human spirit rises to, for the contemplation of truth”.
“I teach my students that they need both faithful acceptance and critical reflection to do theology. Faith should not stop them thinking, it should start them thinking,” he said.
At the moment, there are people on social media, and in some parishes, who claim that the Covid-19 pandemic is part of a great conspiracy to give repressive governments control over the lives of their citizens, and to attack religion.
“Like all good lies, this story has a surface plausibility. The origin of the virus is cloudy. Governments have exercised extraordinary social controls to contain the pandemic. Worship has been curtailed, along with other gatherings,” said Fr Duffy.
“The evil of the lie is that it makes us fearful of, and distrustful of, the very people who are best placed to help the world at this time. Scientists and governments are the ones with the knowledge and the resources to work against a global pandemic. They will not get everything right. They will make mistakes. They are working for the good of the nation, guided by the best information they have available,” he said.
Canadian theologian Dr Brett Salkeld, of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Regina (Saskatchewan), had been studying conspiracy theories after he noticed patterns of this kind of thinking growing more prominent after the Amazon synod in 2019.
“The most basic thing about conspiracy theory thinking is that it ends up being self-sealing and immune to counter evidence. Anything can be turned into evidence for the conspiracy theory, because anything that runs counter to the theory is read as evidence of a cover–up,” Dr Salkeld said.
He said that studies show almost anyone can be vulnerable to conspiracy theory thinking.
He said older people not equipped to handle the information glut that we now have, and heavy social media users, are particularly vulnerable.
“Finally, any group that feels persecuted is also highly susceptible,” he said. “I think this goes some way towards explaining the prominence of conspiracy theory thinking in Christian churches, for instance. We know that media and political parties have been dishonest and manipulative in their handling of abortion. This makes us more likely to suspect them of the kinds of things conspiracy theorists suggest.”
Catholic Enquiry Centre (NZ) pastoral director Fr Neil Vaney, SM, said this is a “tricky issue”.
“It has roots beyond the rational (fear, distrust, hatred, etc.) so it cannot be resolved by purely rational answers. I have not encountered it so much in New Zealand yet, but have come across it through contacts overseas. If the pandemic keeps on going, and we have fresh outbreaks, it is likely to become more prevalent here, as we seem to follow the USA,” Fr Vaney explained, adding that this likelihood is due to the impact of TV and social media.
He said the first thing he asks people is, “where is your hard data?”
“Nearly always, it is something they have heard from an acquaintance or picked up from the Internet or social media. Given the torrents of hatred and clear examples of fallacies that have been poured out by such means, it is valid to ask, ‘why should you believe this?’,” he said.
Fr Vaney said that figures often questioned by conspiracy theorists can be confirmed by checking with public authorities and records. But a vast majority of them (conspiracy theorists) have no idea how to go about doing this.
“Another critical point is that, even if public authority has been over–cautious and controlling, it is important to look at the alternatives. The evidence is overwhelming as to the harm that can come about when regulations are lifted too quickly – very close to home we have the case of Melbourne – do the conspiracy theorists believe that all the Australian media and authorities are lying?,” he said.
Dr Salkeld said that the one thing that conspiracy thinking thrives on is engagement.
“So, don’t give the thing air. Engage your friend or pastoral charge in other areas. Conspiracy theory thinking takes over people’s lives. Try to get people to branch out and talk about sports, or art, or gardening, or the grandkids – anything but things connected to the conspiracy,” he suggested.
Dr Salkeld said it would be good to inquire about their state of anxiety and their prayer life.
“People stuck in this way of thinking often lose time and energy for prayer, which makes them less able to keep their perspective,” he said.
Dr Salkeld also said that, in communicating with people who are mired in conspiracy theory, start with an issue that you both agree on.
“Encourage people to get off social media as much as possible. Even people who believe wholeheartedly in the stuff they’re reading know that they are less happy and less well–functioning when they spend all their time reading garbage on social media,” he said.
“Instead of arguing head–on about the details of the conspiracy, invite people to take a break from the sources they’re reading or watching, and reflect on how that affects their day–to–day life. Almost no–one believes that excessive social media is good for them,” he added.