On July 20, 1969, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buz Aldrin made history. Along with Command Module Pilot Michael Collins, Armstrong and Aldrin flew on the Apollo 11 space mission to the moon. After a speech by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 telling the world that the United States was committed to travel to the moon by the end of the decade, NASA began an intensive mission to figure out how to make it happen. Countless hours and dollars went in to making the historic trip happen. In order to meet Kennedy’s goal of landing a crew on the moon, new equipment needed to be developed. The astronauts needed to be trained for unknown and perhaps very harsh conditions. Some of the spacecraft would fly with very little testing. On a leap and a prayer, and not without tragedy along the way (Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee all died in a fire during Apollo 1), the Apollo program took astronauts farther from earth than they had ever been. Jim Lovell, William Anders, and Frank Borman were the first humans to see the far side of the moon when they entered lunar orbit in December of 1968. When Armstrong placed his foot into the powdery lunar surface months later, he made history by saying, “that’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.” Despite the excitement and congratulations from all around the word, and despite photographs and moon rocks that were brought back from several manned missions to the moon, and despite the money, time, and effort that went into the Apollo program, and despite the blood, sweat, and tears that were spent on getting astronauts to the moon, there are still people who don’t believe that the moon landing took place. This is only one of many conspiracy theories believed by millions of people. Conspiracy theories might be fun to some people, and they might appear harmless, but they can cause pain and suffering to people and they are not consistent with healthy spirituality.
The moon landing was faked, Kennedy’s assassination was a cover up, the collapse of the World Trade Center was an inside job, and the existence of Bigfoot. These are some of the most commonly believed conspiracy theories in our country today. Have you heard of “Pizzagate”, the conspiracy theory that suggested the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington, D. C. was housing a child trafficking ring in its basement, even though the building has no basement? How about the cabal of “lizard people” with “reptilian DNA”? And what about the conspiracy theories that suggest the 2020 presidential election and the 2022 Arizona gubernatorial election were stolen? Those last two are conspiracy theories directly impacting our own state to this very day. While it probably is relatively harmless to believe in the existence of Bigfoot, the other conspiracy theories have actually quite literally cost people their lives. They simply are not true and promoting them causes harm and continued division.
Why do people believe in conspiracy theories? Well, our brains are complex. Our brains don’t like it when they don’t know what’s going on at all times. Often, a conspiracy theory exists because it makes sense of something that is otherwise senseless. Let’s think of the Arizona-based conspiracy theories. If someone lives in rural Arizona and everyone they know thinks like they do and insists they voted the same way, then how can the results of the election be anything different than what they expected it to be? This is something called confirmation bias. It is exacerbated by social media platforms, on which people are likely to befriend other like-minded individuals. If everyone I know and interact with voted the same way I did, then absolutely everyone must have voted the way I did! If the final results are different than I thought they would be, then obviously there’s a conspiracy to take my vote away! In the conspiracy theorist’s mind, that’s the only way to make sense of it. Even though if we look at the population of Arizona, we see that most of the people here live in Maricopa and Pima counties. Those two counties voted overwhelmingly “blue”. Even if every other person in the state voted “red”, then there is a large enough population in Maricopa and Pima counties to account for the “blue” majority. If I live in Yavapai County, I would be surrounded by “red” voters and could easily be blind to the total number of “blue” voters in the larger counties that are not near my home. Because of people believing that the election was stolen, the raid on the Capitol on January 6, 2021 ultimately cost nine people their lives. This includes the death of Ashli Babbit, one of the people who allegedly believed the election had been stolen. The Air Force veteran was shot in the chest while she was attempting to enter a barricaded area of the Capitol. While there is certainly no harm in peaceful protests, the violence that was a result of the conspiracy theory of a stolen election took a tremendous toll on the United States.
But are there other reasons to believe conspiracy theories? Yes. It helps us to feel in control of the information. When Kennedy was shot by Lee Harvey Oswald in 1963, the country was torn apart. Oswald was an ordinary guy. He was a former Marine who had lived in several countries including the Soviet Union and Mexico. On the morning of November 23, 1963, Oswald found himself on the sixth floor of the Dallas Book Depository in Dallas, Texas. He had seen a map of the president’s motorcade and knew that it would take a left turn from South Houston Street onto Elm Street directly in front of the depository. From the sixth floor, he would have an excellent view of the motorcade and an easy shot at the president and Texas Governor John Connally as they passed through Dealey Plaza. Oswald shot the president in the head and his bullets pierced Conally’s lung and rib. The shots killed the president and sent the governor to the operating room where he underwent five hours of surgery. After Oswald was apprehended, he was fatally shot by Jack Ruby, a nightclub owner who wanted to avenge the president’s murder. Ruby was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. He died in custody of a pulmonary embolism in Dallas in 1967. But many Americans couldn’t make sense of Kennedy’s assassination. How could one man take down the most powerful person in the world with three measly shots from a rifle? And why would Ruby shoot him? Theories began to swirl and some people concluded that the government was behind the assassination. The theories suggested that Ruby was in on it and he shot Oswald so that Oswald wouldn’t be able to talk. It made people feel better to think that their president was the victim of an inside job. One guy can’t take down the president of the United States. But certainly a corrupt government could do this! Conspiracy theories grew when Oliver Stone’s movie JFK was released in 1991. A still-grieving American public had fuel thrown of the fire of doubt. Kennedy, the beloved president, couldn’t have been shot by a lone gunman. Maybe there was a second gunman on the “grassy knoll!”
In reality, Kennedy’s death was tragic. It was also determined by multiple investigations that Oswald acted alone. We will never know exactly why he did it because he’s dead, too. But there isn’t anything to suggest it wasn’t Oswald who killed Kennedy and changed history forever. Had Kennedy not died, who knows what would have happened in Vietnam? Would Richard Nixon ever have resigned the presidency? Would Kennedy’s brother, Robert F. Kennedy, Malcom X, and Martin Luther King Jr. have eventually been assassinated as well? Sadly, we don’t know the answers to these questions and we never will. The assassination is a stain on the nation’s history. It is senseless and disheartening. Yet, it remains an assassination. Kennedy is dead, Bobby Kennedy is dead, Malcom X is dead, Martin Luther King Jr. is dead, Nixon did resign, and he has now died. We can’t change those things. Fabricating conspiracy theories might make some people feel like there was a justification for the bad things that have happened, but it really does not help us. Sometimes, bad, senseless things happen.
Why is it spiritually harmful? Because it assumes the worst in people. For a conspiracy to take place, a whole lot of people have to contribute to a whole lot of evil acts. While people certainly can carry out evil, most people are good. Assuming people are bad, like assuming doctors are only in their field for financial gain and not to help people, is harmful to their inherent goodness and their reputations. It also assumes that people are much better at cover-ups than they really are. Over 400,000 people and 20,000 industrial firms and universities worked on the Apollo program. For the moon landings to have been faked, each one of those people and organizations would have to be in on it and every single one of them would need to bring the secret with them to their graves. Think of how bad the average person is at keeping something quiet and then multiply that by 400,000. It’s essentially impossible. Finally, it is harmful to people who are still grieving. For people who lost loved ones on September 11, conspiracy theories minimize those deaths to some kind of ploy or game. It is hurtful and harmful to the people left behind.
Genesis teaches us that there is inherent goodness in every human person. Each of us is made in the image and likeness of a loving God. Certainly some people who are made in God’s image do not make good choices. Some even commit acts of evil. But most of us don’t. Most of us behave in good, healthy ways and do not cause harm to others. Believing in conspiracy theories implies that we don’t believe in the inherent goodness in most people. “Everyone is out to get us! Everyone is against me!” Most people are not out to get us. Most people are not against us. Some people are. Most people are not. If we believe in conspiracies, it is important for us to be critical about them. What would the motives be? What is the evidence to the contrary? Am I trying to justify some other belief I have by looking for a link that isn’t otherwise obvious? Am I making the conspiracy theory work to fit inside a box? Is this conspiracy theory harmful or hurtful to someone? Are there other more logical, more reasonable conclusions? Depending on our answers, we can avoid conspiracy theory thinking and avoid breaking relationships with the important people in our lives.