The Church’s Faithful Responses to Conspiracy Theories – The Modern Gnosticism

[1] Over 20 years ago I worked on Capitol Hill for a Member of Congress.  We would receive letters, phone calls, and emails about an assortment of issues.  And we were required to send a response to every correspondence we received.  Most of the time, those responses contained information or a constituent’s opinions about up-coming legislation.

[2] But there were other letters that gave us pause.  These were the ones that we read and said “What in the world?  I haven’t heard that one before.”  To this day, there are two favorite letters that I remember well.  The first one was from someone who was concerned about the Russian troops who were apparently training in the Allegheny mountains.  The second letter came from a constituent who was concerned about the forcefield that protects the nation; they worried it was turned off at night in order to save energy.  This person was arguing that the nation was left defenseless from attack and that we should keep the forcefield on throughout the night in spite of the cost. Both of these letter contained false premises.  Where these ideas even came from, I’ll never know.  But these people firmly believed what they wrote was pertinent – there was no shred of doubt in their mind evidenced by the numerous pages they sent. They had special information that they were sharing in order to protect the country from an enemy – or so they thought.

[3] But these people were sharing conspiracy theories.

[4] posted an article in August 2020 on conspiracy theories.  According to the poll, 61% of Americans believe some variation about the assassination of former president JFK other than the official story. And this is decades after the event.[1]

[5] The poll also showed that five years after the 9/11 attacks, one in three Americans believed that the US was either responsible for the attacks or had foreknowledge of them and did nothing.[2]

[6] posted an article in February 2021 that sited a report that claimed that 49% of Protestant pastors agreed with the statement, “I frequently hear members of my congregation repeating conspiracy theories they have heard about why something is happening in our country.”[3]

[7] Conspiracy theories are a major problem in the US and always have been.  They are as American as apple pie, present ever since Europeans landed here.  I highly recommend the book, The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory by Jesse Walker.  Walker traces the history of conspiracy theories throughout America’s past – even to a time in history before we were a country.  The very first conspiracies that were embraced here concerned Indigenous tribes and their supposed secret plans to kill colonizers.  Walker claims early, “In America, it is always a paranoid time.”[4] Walker fills 338 pages with story after story of conspiracy theories that have held the attention of various groups in this country, and from time to time, large swaths of the population.

[8] Walker states,

“Pundits tend to write off political paranoia as a feature of the fringe, a disorder that occasionally flares up until the sober center can put out the flames.  They’re wrong.  The fear of conspiracies has been a potent force across the political spectrum, from the colonial era to the present, in the establishment as well as at the extremes.  Conspiracy theories played major roles in conflicts from the Indian wars of the seventeenth century to the labor battles of the Gilded Age, from the Civil War to the Cold War, from the American Revolution to the War on Terror.  They have flourished not just in times of great division but in eras of relative comity.  They have been popular not just with dissenters and nonconformists but with individuals and institutions at the center of power.  They are not simply a colorful historical byway.  They are at the country’s core.”[5]

[9] Walker insists that conspiracy theories at their core “say something true about the anxieties and experiences of the people who believe them and repeat [them], even if [the conspiracies] say nothing true about the objects of the theory itself.”[6]

[10] In this sense, conspiracy theories hold much in common with both cults and Gnosticism.

[11] In her book Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism, Amanda Montell says of cultish language,

“Cultish language works to do three things: First, it makes people feel special and understood…this is called conversion…Then, a different set of language tactics get people to feel dependent on the leader, such that life outside the group doesn’t feel possible anymore…it’s called conditioning…And last, language convinces people to act in ways that are completely in conflict with their formal reality, ethics, and sense of self…this is called coercion.”[7]

[12[ Montell explores a whole range of cults from the extreme of religious death cults to more benign versions, hence the term “cultish.” For example workout studios and health clubs might have a cult-like following of people dedicated to working out in community.  She explains that many of the health clubs offer “personal transformation, belonging, and answers to big life questions like: Who am I in this increasingly isolated world?  How do I connect with people around me?  How do I find my most authentic self and take the steps to become that person?  In so many pockets of American culture, folks turn to workout studios for these answers.”[8]

[13] Whether we are talking about conspiracy theories, cults in the common sense of the word, or things that are “cultish” like workout studios, we are speaking of something similar to what Gnosticism has been offering for centuries – special knowledge for special people.

[14] World History Encyclopedia defines Gnosticism as “…the belief that human beings contain a piece of God (the highest good or a divine spark) within themselves, which has fallen from the immaterial world into the bodies of humans. All physical matter is subject to decay, rotting, and death. Those bodies and the material world, created by an inferior being, are therefore evil. Trapped in the material world, but ignorant of its status, the pieces of God require knowledge (gnosis) to inform them of their true status. That knowledge must come from outside the material world, and the agent who brings it is the savior or redeemer.”[9]

[15] Gnosticism is a heresy that dates, as such, back to the 2nd century.  In sum, early Gnostics believe that they held special secret knowledge that would bring them to salvation.  Modern conspiracies and cults are no different.  If you listen to people who follow conspiracies, they talk about hidden characters giving special knowledge to the true believers of the conspiracy.  QAnon has done this from the beginning.  Q is a hidden figure who drops hints and pieces of special information that only true believers can figure out.

[16] Conspiracies offer answers.  They offer concreteness.  They offer certain knowledge about who and what is right and good and who and what aren’t just wrong, but evil.  Considering how much uncertainty there is the world, this aspect makes conspiracies very appealing.  What they are really offering is a sense of control in the midst of chaos, a sense of knowing in a world that followers encounter as confusing.   Human beings have a desire and to some degree a need for order, a sense of control, and knowing.  Conspiracies, and Gnosticism especially, recognize this human need and fill this very human desire.

[17] Bill James is considered by many to be the father of advanced statistical analysis in baseball.  Many of the statistics and strategies that he developed in the 70’s and 80’s were not embraced by teams until 20 and 30 years later.  He explains why. “People horribly overestimate the extent to which they understand the world.  The world is billions of times more complicated than any of us understand, and because we are desperate to understand the world, we buy into explanations that give us the illusion of understanding.”[10] I think his explanation offers insight for understanding conspiracy theories:

[18] The world is very complicated. Conspiracy theories simplify the world into dualistic, simplistic thinking and values of right and wrong.  There are no gray areas or uncertainties with conspiracies.  No unknowns.  No complexities or perplexities.  There is no need for questions either.  The conspiracy knows – it offers a special knowledge to its adherents from a divine-like source who is seemingly all knowing.  Simply follow this path, and you will be blessed.  You’ll be special and have special understanding that non-believers won’t be able to comprehend or follow.  The conspiracy defines what truth is in order to give its adherents a sense of control over their world and their lives.  It offers its own language and makes one an insider – giving people something to belong to, or put another way, a sense of community.  In this sense, conspiracies act like cults, Gnostic cults.

[19] According to Walker in “The United States of Paranoia,” there are five primal myths at the core of all conspiracies which  see the world through the lens of who the true believers are, who the non-believers are (and hence those out to get the true believers), and who offers salvation to the true believers. To really understand conspiracies, it’s important to understand these five primal myths.

[20] First, there is the naming of a powerful enemy outside – someone who plots outside the community, to attack and destroy the community of true believers.  We’ve seen these arguments numerous times in our history – A recent example being the claims that the Chinese created COVID-19 in a secret lab.  During the Cold War, we were to watch out for the Russians or the communists.  During the Civil War, if you lived in the South, it was the Northerners.  If you lived in North, it was the Southerners.  Early in our nation’s history, it was the British and sometimes the French.  For people of European descent, it has often been Indigenous tribes.  Anyone who can be easily identified as an “Other” and an outsider from somewhere else works for this.

[21] Second, there is the enemy within.  These are conspiring villainous neighbors who cannot easily be distinguished from friends.  There is a significant breakdown of trust in communities that hold onto this primal myth because the enemy could be anyone – even your next-door neighbor waving every morning while walking the dog.  We’ve all heard of the concept of sleeping terrorist cells, hidden double agents, and more.  These are the conspiracy theories that name the enemy within.  “Trust no one” becomes the motto for conspiracies who utilize this primal myth.

[22] Third, there is the enemy above.  These are the people at the top of the social pyramid or power structure in a society.  Those in charge of society are secretly managing the rest of society, plotting to take the things we hold dear away from us!  Depending on ideology, the enemy above might be the Koch brothers or George Soros. The story is the same with conspiracies about them, just the names and organizations they supposedly fund change.  The story is always the same though – someone powerful is attempting destruction of our way of life.

[23] Fourth, there is the enemy below.  These are the people who are named as being at the bottom of society who might secretly be turning into an angry mob who threaten to overturn the established order.  These are people who the conspiracy group sees as having less value, the ones who are a threat to the established order.  Black Lives Matter protesters are often thrown into this category.

[24] Finally, there is the benevolent conspiracy.  These are not an enemy, but a secret force working behind the scenes to improve people’s lives and give them information to help them resist the enemy, whoever that enemy is named to be.  The benevolent conspiracy is secretly offering special information (gnosis) to the true believers for their benefit.  Q from the QAnon conspiracy is a prime example of this.

[25] While each of these primal myths works well on their own, their effectiveness grows exponentially when myths are combined.  If people are convinced they cannot trust either their friends inside the community or those outside the community, not the authorities who wield power or those who are oppressed by those authorities, then there is no person left for open and honest dialogue.  People are forced to rely only on those who agree with the conspiracy.

[26] While knowing all of this is helpful, the real question is what do we do?  How do we respond as faithful Christians, to conspiracy theories and modern forms of Gnosticism?  What is the role of the church in this?  This is a real challenge that we face in our congregations.  So many people have loved ones and friends, congregants and neighbors, and people who they care about who ascribe to conspiracy theories and the gnosis they offer true believers.  Avoiding these people, or cutting ties with them is not ideal, and in many cases, something we don’t really want to do.  How do we ethically deal with someone caught in a conspiracy theory?  How do we stay true to our faith, to Jesus, and the actual truth, and continue to be in relationship with people whose reality is far different than actual reality?

[27] While all of this may feel overwhelming, let me reassure you that there is hope.  I think there are a few things that we can and should do.

[28] First, acknowledge that someone you care about is in fact caught up in a conspiracy theory.   By acknowledging this, you are humanizing the situation.  When our focus is solely on what the truth is, we are tempted to dehumanize those that can’t see the truth.  When we humanize adherents of conspiracies, what we are doing is saying that it’s not about a person’s intelligence, a personality deficiency, or something else that they lack.  It moves from a fight about facts and truth, a fight about abstract ideas, a fight that only has winners and losers, to something more in line with our faith and more Christ-like in nature.

[29] In our Lutheran tradition, we often begin worship with confession and forgiveness.  In our confession, we acknowledge that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves.  Why would we think conspiracy theories are any different?  There are holes in people’s lives – places in their lives where they feel lost and out of control.  Conspiracies fill the void, make the person feel special, give them a community of other true believers, and form an identity.  Conspiracies offer people good things – but twist them in ways that become harmful.  Isn’t that what sin is?

[30] It helps us to remember that we are also caught by things too, held in bondage by them.  And we can’t free ourselves.  This allows us to start with grace and mercy with those caught in bondage to conspiracy theories.

[31] The point isn’t to debate the truthfulness of the conspiracy and prove it wrong, which someone who believes in the conspiracy may see as an attack on their very identity.  Instead, it is to reach and reconnect with a person with care at a human level.  To remind them of their humanity, to see the image of God in them, and to bring the Gospel to them so they can be freed.  The Gospel doesn’t hide in secret knowledge.  Jesus doesn’t set facts free.  He sets people free.  The Gospel frees us from things that bind us.  We are called to be Christ to others.  His truth is more than just what is right intellectually, but rather, also that we are to be in relationship with one another.  Because our relationships with others are reflections of our relationship with God.

[32] Second, when in a conversation with someone bound by a conspiracy, it is helpful to move the conversation away from the claims of the conspiracy.  It’s not about avoiding the conspiracy, its recognizing that as long as the conversation is about the conspiracy, the conspiracy will be in control of the conversation and determine what is talked about.  And you’ll lose every time because you are a non-believer and do not have the gnosis of the truth of the conspiracy.  Conspiracies rely on special knowledge and special access to the truth that requires true believers to have unquestioned loyalty.  There is no wiggle room.  There is no room for debate.  There is no examination of the facts.  You are either a believer or non-believer.

[33] Get to the core of why your loved one is attached to the conspiracy.  Does it offer concrete answers, a sense of identity, something else?  Once you understand what the person benefits from, you can talk about those things outside of the conspiracy.  Stories are helpful.  Stories often have emotional pull.  Emotional responses have a way of interrupting debates about abstract ideas that conspiracies rely on.  Stories that involve memories and experiences with the person are most effective.  Don’t debate ideas with the person because ideas can be defended and used in attacks.  Ideas can create an us and them.  Instead, relationships are rarely based on anything concrete – they are subjective.  They express care and concern for someone beyond what the person believes.  The focus of Jesus’ parable and the stories about him and his encounters are often really about relationships with God, with others, and with the community.

[34] Third, persistence is important.  This is not a one-time conversation.  We are investing in a relationship after all.  Don’t try to do too much in any one conversation.  Just enough to draw the person back to the valued relationship so they know that they know you are a person who they can trust, even if you aren’t a true believer.  The goal is to build trust.  With trust they will know that they can go to you when they have doubts and questions and you won’t jump on them, shame them, or convert them – all things that the conspiracy does to anyone who raises questions and doubts.

[35] Conspiracies operate on a deep level of trust with the true believers.  Remember that conspiracies are filling essential voids in their followers – voids that often touch on their very identity.  Followers have trust in their conspiracies, not because they are always true, but because they provide followers with identity and community.  This is why true believers can look past obvious and provable falsehoods.  The trust they have in the conspiracy over-compensates for any deficiencies. After all, there are, in their view, enemies trying to create and construct counter evidence to trick them.   Thus, the goal is to build trust with people so they can start to see that the conspiracies aren’t as trustworthy as they seem.

[36] Fourth, reach into the resources of faith.  Like the Gospel, faith doesn’t hide in secret, but rather lives openly.  Spend time in prayer, although this might mean changing how you pray.  Don’t only pray that God will change someone caught in a conspiracy and instead pray that God will change you to be exactly what the other person needs in the moment.  This is not easy.  So often we get caught up in wanting to be right and share the truth with people as if that will change them.  In a weird kind of way, the truth is secondary to the relationship and the sense of trust.  We must literally be changed, or transformed, to use a theological concept, in order to reach someone.  We must die to self – the desire to be right and believe that simply being right will convince anyone of anything.  St. Francis of Assisi prayed, “Lord, make me an channel of your peace.”  This shifts our focus from convincing to listening, from truth to trust, from ego driven to Christlikeness.

[37] Read Scripture.  We can learn from Scripture. The bible is full of stories about conspiracies.  The Apostles dealt with conspiracies.  Paul writes letters to his churches dealing with conspiracies.  In Romans 16:17-19, Paul addresses this directly with the church in Rome: “I urge you, brothers and sisters, to keep an eye on those who cause dissensions and offences, in opposition to the teaching that you have learned; avoid them. For such people do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the simple-minded. For while your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, I want you to be wise in what is good, and guileless in what is evil.”

[38] Likewise, the pastoral letters of 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus address false teachings, false teachers, and problems they create.  A sampling of passages include, 1 Timothy 1:3-7, 19-20, 3:9, 4:1-2, 15-16, 6:3-5, 10, 2 Timothy 1:13-14, 2:16-18, 23-26, 3:1-8, 12-14, 4:2-5, and Titus 1:11, 13-14, and 2:1.[i]

[39]  Part of the life of faith includes self-examination.  Consider what conspiracies you have bought into?  Take time to examine your beliefs.  What do these beliefs offer you?  It will help you to better understand someone who is caught in a conspiracy.  What are the things that you are caught in bondage to and need to be released from?  How do you feel about what these things offer you?  Can you relate to the person who is caught in bondage to a conspiracy?

[40]  Tap into your community of faith and beyond that community.  Conspiracies thrive on getting people separated from other parts of their life and the people that care about them and who they identify with.  There are too many stories readily available about parents, children, church members, co-workers, and more that people have lost relationship with because their loved one became caught in a conspiracy.  These are extremely heartbreaking stories.  Conspiracies do not just impact the people caught in them.  They impact all people who care about the people caught in a conspiracy too.  In many ways, these people are left wondering what happened, feeling helpless, and unsure if they can ever trust their loved one again.

[41] In every story that Jesus provides healing to someone or casts out a demon, it’s not just the person who is healed or set free.  Faith isn’t just an individual adventure.  It is communal as well.  Jesus doesn’t just fix a physical or mental state of an individual.  Jesus is also healing the broken relationships that resulted a person’s impairment.  When the woman who was suffering from hemorrhages for 12 years (Luke 8:43-48) and Jesus healed her, it wasn’t just a physical healing.  Because of her condition, she would have been an outcast in her community – ritually unclean, unable to participate in the life of the community, cut off from everyone.  When Jesus heals her, he is not just restoring her physically, but is also restoring relationships that had been broken, restoring a community that had suffered from this woman being ostracized, restoring her identity in the community and making the community whole again.  This is true of every healing miracle that Jesus performs.  The individuals who are healed aren’t the only beneficiaries of the healing, but also the families, friends, loved ones, and the community that the person had been a part of.  Jesus is in the business of restoration of relationships.  Conspiracy theorists are no different.

[42] Remember you are not the savior.  This is an important reminder because none of us can save someone else – that job is already taken by Jesus.  All we can do is what any of us are called to – to proclaim a Gospel that sets all of us free and to invite people into a new way of living and being.   And like all things Gospel, this is freeing for us.  We are called to love.  We are called to care. We are called to extend grace and mercy.  Those are things we can do because Jesus has done them to and for us first.

[43] I wish dealing with conspiracies was just a simple matter of offering the best arguments, showing true and accurate information and data, and convincing people to change their mind.  But conspiracy theories are much more complicated than these things.  Truth is essential.  But truth is more than just correct information or special knowledge.  Truth is about relationship and love.  Truth is about community and identity.  Truth is how we live out our call to proclaim the Gospel and invite people into its freeing nature.  Truth is what we are called to.  It is what discipleship is about.  And it guides how we act.  It certainly guides our dealings with people caught in conspiracies and Gnosticism.  Let us live by truth – by Jesus who is the truth.





[4] Walker, Jesse, The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory. HarperCollins, 2013. Pg. 8.

[5] Walker, 8-9.

[6] Walker, 15.

[7] Montell, Amanda, Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism. HarperCollins, 2021. Pg. 78.

[8] Montell, 215-6.



[i] Thanks to Thabiti Anyabwile, pastor of Anacostia River Church and author of several books, for compiling these citations 

Matthew Best

The Rev. Matthew Best serves as pastor of Christ Lutheran Church on Allison Hill in Harrisburg, PA as well as the Director of Health Ministries of the Christ Lutheran Church.  He resides in Carlisle, PA with his family and has a blog – – where he writes prayers, posts on theology and politics, and more.