Culture At Large

What Osama conspiracy theorists don't understand about faith

Todd Hertz

Since President Barack Obama announced that Osama bin Laden was dead, Internet skepticism has been on a steady and troubling rise. So much so that the White House had consideredreleasing gory photos of bin Laden’s body before deciding yesterday against it.

It's just as well. I am convinced providing such evidence would have done no good. Conspiracy theories and doubt would linger. It’s an unsettling phenomenon that raises questions not only about the lack of trust in government, but also about the distinctions that must be made between irrational incredulity and a Christian belief that rests on faith rather than evidence. If I root my faith in emotional belief rather than cool-headed logic, how am I different from "birthers" and "deathers?"

Two recent articles written before last weekend’s Pakistan mission have provoked me to thought.

In the first, Discovery Channel’s Benjamin Radford addressed why “birther” conspiracy theories linger even after the release of President Obama’s birth certificate. Radford wrote: “Whether the claim is that the moon landings were faked, Hitler is still alive or that 9/11 was an inside job, conspiracy theories are inherently difficult or impossible to disprove, because the hardcore believers rationalize away any evidence that contradicts their beliefs.”

Any released photos of bin Laden will be denounced as fake or old or not conclusive. Rationalization is an efficient tool for those wishing to go against proof. And as Wayne Laugesen for The Colorado Springs Gazette wrote Tuesday, “We’re a culture with diminishing interest in the truth and a destructive obsession with sensational tall tales that defy the gravity of evidence, reason and proof.”

We don’t want truth. We want to be proven right.

This emotional desire was the focus of an April Mother Jones article entitled “The Science of Why We Don’t Believe in Science.” In it, Chris Mooney wrote:

Mooney goes on to explain that “motivated reasoning” is built on neuroscience that tells us reason is “suffused” with emotion. In other words, we cannot operate without emotion clouding our conclusions. “When we think we're reasoning, we may instead be rationalizing,” Mooney writes. “Or to use an analogy … We may think we're being scientists, but we're actually being lawyers. Our reasoning is a means to a predetermined end - winning our case - and is shot through with biases.”

Clearly, belief is a messy thing.

I am angered and baffled by people who would see Barack Obama’s birth certificate or hear a presidential report about a dead terrorist and still rationalize a way to believe what they choose. But how different am I if I push aside information that casts doubts on the spiritual beliefs I hold closely?

As a believer in Jesus Christ, the Bible and a supernatural reality which cannot be “proven,” I am challenged by these articles. Do I rationalize away those things that challenge my emotional convictions? How does faith differ from the sort of irrational belief in conspiracy we are currently witnessing in the case of Osama bin Laden’s death?

My answer comes from the story of Thomas, maybe the world’s first conspiracy theorist. “Unless I see, I am not buying it,” he said. And then he saw. There was no rationalizing. Jesus said, “Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” And Thomas did.

The story doesn’t end there. Jesus tells Thomas, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:29)

Faith is not seeing proof and acknowledging its truth. Instead, faith “is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see,” (Hebrews 11:1). And as we “test everything” (1 Thessalonians 5:21) with prayerful consideration, we trust in spiritual discernment that’s far bigger than human reasoning.

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Faith, News & Politics, Social Trends, North America