Confronting the Rise in Conspiracy Thinking … With Wisdom Literature

Some believe that 'chemtrails' are making us ill and controlling us. Spoiler: they aren't.

Oh, dear. The fringes are coming together. As reported by the Washington Post, a new far-right movement seems to be brewing just under the radar, made up of “Armed groups, Trump supporters, anti-vaccine moms, government skeptics and conspiracy theorists.” The same people shouting “Stop the steal!” are now joining with the people co-opting pro-choice language with “My body, my choice! No vax!” and they’re all linking up with Q-Anon believers.

It’s the emergent properties of this new movement that are so troubling. The cross-pollination of marginal ideas produces something bigger and more complex than the simple sum of its parts. And, as the Post says, it’s a movement no longer limited to internet message boards and Facebook groups. They’re starting to turn up in person, sometimes in threatening ways. Add to that the jet fuel of social media and a political leader who’s always happy to light a match, and you have a recipe for, if not an explosion, then the political equivalent of a coal seam burning underground: long-lasting, difficult to extinguish, constantly undermining the foundations of everything on the surface.

Commentators often marvel at the daffiness of the ideas on display in these coalescing movements. How is it possible to believe that Donald Trump won the 2020 election, that vaccines will implant microchips giving Bill Gates mind control, that a secret pedophile ring is responsible for the deaths of untold thousands of children and undermining freedom around the globe?

I have no answer to that question, except to caution that it’s very much human nature to arrive at a conclusion first, and then look for evidence to support it later. What I can offer is a counter from a seemingly obscure source: wisdom literature.

At first blush, that might seem like only trading one form of irrationality for another. After all, wisdom literature is best known to modern readers through Hebrew scripture, including such works as Proverbs, Psalms, Ecclesiastes and Job. But the pursuit of wisdom in the ancient world was a cosmopolitan affair, spanning the culture of ancient Israel and its neighbors. Wisdom, as ancient people thought of it, was a very practical idea, and very secular in its way. As Dermot Cox puts it, one learned to think good in order to do good in order to be good, and live in a good world.

While the idea of wisdom found the form of its expression in the faith of the Israelites, it was never dependent on it. For one thing, wisdom was always too worldly, too tuned in to what could be gleaned from the neighbors. For another, it required no visions, no prophecy, no special revelation. Instead, wisdom was given by God through the created world, and could be discerned through careful consideration of the lessons of that world. In short, the pursuit of wisdom included taking in perspectives from other nations, reason, and natural observation.

That’s enough of a lesson in itself. The cure to foolishness has always been a broad mind, and surprisingly, scripture provides support for that idea.

But there are some central themes to wisdom literature that bear consideration as well. I want to mention three.

First, while foolishness might be the opposite of wisdom, in the end, “the great enemy of the good is not the bad, but the lie, the non-truth,” according to Cox. Followers of fringe ideas have no difficulty creating trouble on their own. But the real problem isn’t the fools, it’s the people who lie to them and manipulate them for their own cynical purposes. Think the originators of the Q Hoax, Trump, the vast right-wing propaganda machine.

Second, wisdom literature teaches the existential point that we are free to choose, and our choices largely determine outcomes. We have to choose responsibly, of course, but just as important, we have to recognize that there are no shortcuts to building a better world. Defeating the “woke” and Critical Race Theory will not bring peace and prosperity, and neither will exposing the pedophile conspiracy choking world government, nor will re-installing Trump as president, nor sending him off to prison forevermore. We are always faced with the responsibility to make choices, and the anxiety that goes along with it.

We have that anxiety because, last, not everything is under our control. Walter Brueggemann says it best: “In spite of our best planning, there is an inscrutable mystery about our experience which we cannot master or manipulate.” That includes the mystery of suffering, as Job discovered.

Adherents of conspiracy theories and other kinds of foolishness often ascribe far too much power and control to the leading figures of their narratives. It’s a primitive way of thinking: the power of the wrong-doer explains all my struggles and suffering, but if I can tap into the power of the savior, I too will have power and control over my situation. This seems uncomfortably close to many well-established religious frameworks—the cosmic battles between Satan and Jesus, for one—and indeed, for many believers, this is as far as faith goes. But there’s a false dichotomy between religion and reason that ought to be avoided here. For the wise, faith places upon them moral obligations: to think clearly and act responsibly. Conspiracy theories, by contrast, absolve their believers of responsibility, as I say. They also diminish the extent to which stuff just happens: we don’t get rich, we have to live with the frustration of being around people who profoundly disagree with us, we suffer, we die. Chemtrails and 5G can’t explain that.

Theology doesn’t necessarily get much further: God never does give Job a satisfactory explanation. But sometimes, the greatest wisdom isn’t a secret to overcoming the reality of our situation, but simply to find a way to accommodate the reality and adapt to it. Our lives are sweet and precious and all too short. We ought to enjoy them and work to make them a little better, rather than waste time blaming others for the state of them. That’s wisdom I wish some people could learn.