How a conspiracy theory becomes 'real'

Growing up, PhD student Sarah believed in the literal interpretation of the Bible. Born into a devout evangelical Christian community, she draws on her religious past to understand the visceral belief people acquire in conspiracy theories — from PizzaGate to the 'stolen' 2020 U.S. election.

PhD student draws on her evangelical experience to understand how practice leads to belief

The most active conspiracy theories in North America include the so-called ‘great replacement theory’ and Q-Anon. Media Studies PhD student ‘Sarah’ studies people's journeys into extreme viewpoints. She analyses online behaviour and digital content with an interest in material that combines evangelical Christian belief with far-right politics. (Shutterstock/HollyHarry)

Up into her early adulthood Sarah firmly believed in the literal interpretation of the Bible. Creationism and the coming rapture were viscerally real to her. 

"I believed that evolution was false, that Noah's Ark was a literal event. So I had a large amount of beliefs about the physical world that bled into my politics, and my reality fully," said Sarah. 

Note that "Sarah" is a pseudonym, as the focus of her research leaves her vulnerable to online harassment. 

She is pursuing a PhD in media studies and she tracks behaviour in online communities that support conspiracy theories including Q-Anon, Pizzagate and Donald Trump's 'stolen' U.S. election. 

"The point of my research is not to say these people are wrong and crazy. It's more to understand why they think the way that they do," said Sarah. 

She draws on her own experience in the evangelical community and she relates to the idea that practice within a group that endorses a certain belief, plays a powerful role in solidifying belief. 

"Worship experiences in churches are meant to cultivate a super emotional response where you feel convicted by the spirit of God... like a physical assertion that God is doing something," Sarah explained.

Listening to God

Stanford University anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann spent several years in evangelical communities, observing how day-to-day practice can attune members to 'hear' God's voice. 

"The more people spend time elaborating the ideas, the more they're supported by a small group of other people, the more vivid [those ideas] become, and the more real it becomes," said Luhrmann, author of When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God.

In researching her book, When God Talks Back, Tanya Luhrmann became fascinated by how far people in the evangelical community would go to make God feel present. 'People would sometimes put out a dinner plate for God or a cup of coffee.' (Submitted by Tanya Luhrmann)

She says that regular online practice within a belief community can have a similar effect when it comes to belief in conspiracy theories. 

"They feel they have a piece of evidence that really stands out to them," said Luhrmann. 

"[It] allows people to live in their own world and gives them practices so that the ideas within that world can start to feel more real."

Guests in this episode:

Tanya Luhrmann is a professor of anthropology at Stanford University. She's the author of When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, and How God Becomes Real: Kindling the Presence of Invisible Others. 

Jack Bratich is a professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University. He's the author of On Microfascism: Gender, War, Death and Conspiracy Panics: Political Rationality and Popular Culture.

Nils Ole Bubandt is a professor of anthropology at Aarhus University in Denmark. He's the author of The Empty Seashell: Witchcraft and Doubt on an Indonesian Island.

*This episode is part of our ongoing series, IDEAS from the Trenches, featuring innovative PhD research from across the country. It is produced by Nicola Luksic and Tom Howell.

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