My favorite show back in high school was the X-Files. I couldn’t wait, every week, to see what new weird mystery Agents Mulder and Scully would investigate. One of the big reasons The X-Files is still considered a landmark tv show is that it was one of the first shows to do an ongoing storyline. Sure, most episodes were ‘monster of the week’, stand-alone mysteries. But about a third of the episodes each season told the ongoing story of Fox Mulder’s investigation of a government conspiracy to hide the existence of aliens from the US population.
Mulder’s conviction was embodied in an iconic poster he hung in his basement office, a grainy picture of a UFO with the words “I WANT TO BELIEVE”. No one believed Mulder… but he believed. He wanted to believe so badly that he dedicated his whole life to pursuing the truth.
I can’t help but wonder if Fox Mulder was inspired in part by a landmark study of social psychology published in 1956. A small UFO cult in the Chicago area was founded by a housewife named Dorothy Martin. She used some ideas from Scientology and other pseudoscientific parapsychology to predict that the world was going to end in a great flood on December 21, 1954. Fortunately, Martin and her followers would be rescued by a UFO on December 20th.
The people who followed Martin took this very seriously – they gave away their possessions, said goodbye to their families, etc.
What made this study so interesting was that Dr Festinger, the author of the study, and his peers managed to infiltrate the group. They were able to study what happens when people who buy into a conspiracy theory see hard evidence that their beliefs are false. Because, as you might know, the world was not, in fact, destroyed by a flood in 1954. And, as you might have guessed, Martin and her followers were not spirited away by a UFO either.
What do you think happened next? If you think Martin’s followers abandoned her, you’d be wrong. The vast majority of them stayed, continuing to follow. (Martin told them God had been so impressed with their faithfulness he decided to spare them, and not send the UFO.)
Martin’s followers, like Fox Mulder, wanted to believe. They wanted to believe so badly that, even when the prophecy was proved to be false, they didn’t abandon their beliefs.
Sounds crazy, doesn’t it?
Except… we live in the new age of conspiracy theories today. From Pizzagate to denying climate change to flat earthers to a cabal of elites running a global child trafficking enterprise, we can’t turn around today without finding conspiracy theories. And maybe most troubling of all is that Christians are more likely than any other group to believe and share conspiracy theories.
That ought to disturb us (after all, Jesus called himself the way, the TRUTH and the life).
Let’s talk about truth. As we approach the election, as we’re inundated more and more by lies and half truths and distorted perspectives, how do we maintain a priority on truthfulness?