Overview:

The famous Chesterton quote is wrong: belief in God makes a person more likely, empirically, to fall for fads and conspiracy theories.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Let’s get one thing straight: G.K. Chesterton never said this.

The full epigram, attributed to the 19th-century Catholic apologist, goes like this:

When a man ceases to believe in God, he doesn’t believe in nothing. He will believe in anything.

This is the “Beam me up, Scotty” of theology—a misquotation that’s repeated so often, it’s become more famous than the original. The Chesterton Society argues that it’s a paraphrase of several lines from his books, rather than a thing he said on a specific occasion.

Whoever said it, it’s a quote beloved by Christian apologists. They use it as a witty comeback to atheists and nonbelievers who lay claim to being the logical ones.

This argument, which goes under the heading of presuppositionalism, asserts that belief in God is at the root of all truth and reason. When you throw it overboard, it becomes impossible to be sure of anything, and you’ll fall for every passing fad, conspiracy theory or popular delusion.

However, this isn’t a strictly philosophical argument. It’s a prediction. If it’s true, believers should be less gullible than nonbelievers. How does this claim stack up against reality?

“Would you please consider taking Christian off your bio?”

Let’s start with QAnon. This far-right conspiracy theory, which rocketed to prominence during Donald Trump’s presidency, claims that there’s a secret worldwide cabal of Satan-worshipping, blood-drinking child traffickers. True believers look forward to an apocalyptic day called “The Storm”, when the military will take over the country and the evildoers will be rounded up and executed.

QAnon has roots in the anti-Semitic blood libels of the medieval era, but it’s proven to be an omnibus conspiracy theory. It’s absorbed and merged with other conspiratorial beliefs about the Kennedy assassination, UFOs, 9/11, COVID, vaccines, the flat earth, and sovereign-citizen ideology.

Needless to say, when Trump lost the 2020 election, it was a bitter blow to QAnon believers. They’ve occupied themselves ever since by coming up with more and more outlandish explanations for how this is all part of the plan.

Far from keeping them grounded, the faith of these believers has freed their imaginations to embrace the wildest, most bizarre conspiracy notions.

There’s another important fact about QAnon: it’s strongly associated with evangelical Christianity. A 2020 survey by Paul Djupe found that 50% of white evangelical Christians agreed with QAnon beliefs. Among those who believe in Christian nationalism, the correlation is even clearer.

QAnon and white evangelicalism are so tightly linked, many pastors have complained that conspiracy thinking is devouring their churches and drowning out their message:

A poll released this January [2021] from the Nashville-based Lifeway Research, a branch of the Southern Baptist Convention, indicated that 49% of Protestant pastors have often heard members of their congregation repeating conspiracy theories they have heard about national events.

…James Kendall, a senior pastor at Grace Community Church in Madera, California is one of many church leaders attempting to fight against the spread of conspiracy theories in congregations, and has noted the difficulties of competing with the online world for their attention. “I get an hour with people every week, versus the 167 hours that they have out on their own to do other things.”

QAnon’s Rise in Evangelical America.” Jenessa Henderson, Berkeley Political Review, 28 December 2021.

For several years now, Christian intellectuals have been lamenting how bad it makes the faith look that rank-and-file Christians are so eager to swallow conspiracy theories. For example, Ed Stetzer wrote in 2017 about QAnon precursors like Pizzagate:

And now I noticed that many of the same conservative Christians who shared about #pizzagate have been spreading the #SethRich conspiracy theory. And it’s time to call it out.

Simply put, the spreading of these conspiracies are hurting our witness and making Christians look, yet again, foolish.

Christians, Repent (Yes, Repent) of Spreading Conspiracy Theories and Fake News—It’s Bearing False Witness

But no one listened. By the time COVID struck, the problem had only gotten worse, as Stetzer bemoaned in 2020:

Sadly, Christians seem to be disproportionately fooled by conspiracy theories. I’ve also said before that when Christians spread lies, they need to repent of those lies. Sharing fake news makes us look foolish and harms our witness.

…If you still insist on spreading such misinformation, would you please consider taking Christian off your bio so the rest of us don’t have to share in the embarrassment?

On Christians Spreading Corona Conspiracies: Gullibility is not a Spiritual Gift

Far from keeping them grounded, the faith of these believers has freed their imaginations to embrace the wildest, most bizarre conspiracy notions. There couldn’t be a better example than QAnon of someone who’ll “believe in anything”. And it’s not coming from atheists and agnostics, but from the most devoted Christians.

The ultimate conspiracy theory

It’s not surprising that white evangelicalism and QAnon would go hand-in-hand, since they have common political goals. However, the connection goes deeper, according to research published in Current Biology in 2018.

Conspiracy thinking holds that the universe isn’t random, that secret forces are shaping everyone’s destiny. In this way, even sinister conspiracy theories can be comforting to people who don’t want to believe that no one is in charge and everything is subject to chance.

This is a similar mindset to creationism. Creationists also reject randomness as a causal explanation. They refuse to believe that blind nature could bring forth complexity without a plan or a planner.

Could it be that the two beliefs are linked by this common mindset? If you’re the sort of person who holds one, does the other look appealing as well?

The answer is yes. Drawing on large-scale surveys of the French population, the researchers found a “substantial correlation” between creationist belief and conspiracy thinking. This link held even when controlling for age, education, religious beliefs and political ideology:

Teleological thinking — the attribution of purpose and a final cause to natural events and entities — has long been identified as a cognitive hindrance to the acceptance of evolution, yet its association to beliefs other than creationism has not been investigated. Here, we show that conspiracism — the proneness to explain socio-historical events in terms of secret and malevolent conspiracies — is also associated to a teleological bias….

As a resilient ‘default’ component of early cognition, teleological thinking is thus associated with creationist as well as conspiracist beliefs, which both entail the distant and hidden involvement of a purposeful and final cause to explain complex worldly events.

“Creationism and conspiracism share a common teleological bias.” Pascal Wagner-Egger, Sylvain Delouvée, Nicolas Gauvrit and Sebastian Dieguez, Current Biology, vol. 28, issue 16

Some might say that this isn’t especially surprising. Nevertheless, it’s good to have confirmation. However, the next question suggests itself: why stop at creationism? Isn’t it likely that religion itself encourages conspiracy-type thinking?

After all, Western monotheism claims that a supreme power is secretly in control of all outcomes. What is this teleological mindset if not the ultimate conspiracy theory? If it seems plausible in its grandest possible form, smaller conspiracies should present no problem at all.

The problem with faith

Evidence like this falsifies the argument expressed by that Chesterton quote. In fact, the opposite is true. It’s not atheists who are pushing QAnon, vaccine denial, or flat-earthism. It’s religious believers, not nonbelievers, who are most likely to fall for conspiracy thinking in all its endless variations.

It’s obvious why this would be the case. The problem with religion—every kind of religion—is its claim that it’s good and virtuous to believe in things that can’t be proven. Once you let that principle in the door, you lose your ability to tell the difference between what’s true and what’s false.

When faith is your guiding light, every conclusion is just as good as every other conclusion. Any absence of evidence, or even contradictory evidence, can be waved away as (pick one) God testing your faith, or Satan or other dark powers trying to deceive you. In either case, the “correct” response is to double down and believe even more. There’s no built-in way to realize you’re wrong and change course.

When faith is your guiding light, every conclusion is just as good as every other conclusion.

Of course, not all religious people are conspiracy fanatics. That’s because they’re adept at compartmentalizing. They profess belief in an invisible benevolent power that rules the universe and answers prayers, but in their everyday lives, they rely on empiricism and critical thinking. And it’s good that they do. It shows that they know where the limits are.

Their less reputable brethren, who embrace every conspiracy theory under the sun, show what happens when belief in God overflows that tidy, well-defined compartment. The more a person believes in God, the more likely they are to believe everything else.

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...