It’s been a heck of a month for conspiracy theories. My social media feeds have been inundated by warnings about impending COVID lockdowns and mandates, wild claims about 9/11, supposed revelations of alien corpses, and, after Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman (D) debuted a new mustache, a fresh round of speculation that he uses a body double to conceal ongoing health struggles.
Each outlandish story contributes to a broader ethos of conspiracism: a cynical and fearful mindset which frames everything around the assumption that the world is beset by a grand, secret evil and only a few know what’s “really” going on.
Neither conspiracist thinking nor belief in discrete conspiracy theories are anything new. But the social acceptability of such belief does seem to have grown in recent years. Some credit is due to the internet, of course, but I think there’s a much more fundamental source: human search for meaning within our place in history.
We’re living in a time when religion is in decline, social bonds are weakening, and the humanities are devalued. This leaves us with a dwindling canon of stories—shared histories, parables, myths, and folktales—that bind us together and inform a common moral vision. To cope, we’re retreating into ever-narrower interest groups, becoming more suspicious of one another, and searching for stories to make sense of evil, uncertainty, and suffering.
Conspiracism offers just such a story. Regardless of concrete evidence, conspiracy theories can cut through our sense of unease and ambiguity with a grandiose, black-and-white narrative. They flatter true believers that they’re in on a secret and can change the world.
In decades past, we dismissed anyone who indulged in theories about alien encounters, cryptids, or vast government conspiracies as a kook, and that social censure led most people to resist conspiracism’s appeal. But today, with prominent champions like former president Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr., this thinking has gone mainstream.
Conspiracism is often cast as an irrational, pseudo-religious mindset. It’s true that it can fill a hole left by religion and, as former CT contributing editor Ed Stetzer has said, function as a “train that runs on the tracks that religion has already put in place.” But conspiracy theories as we know them are also fundamentally modern constructs, built on rigid logic and a linear view of history that depends on a post-Enlightenment spiritual imagination and is influenced by thinkers like Karl Marx.
A quick sketch of this intellectual lineage should begin with the successes of the Scientific Revolution, which recommended reason as the key to all sorts of social and political mysteries, just as it had unlocked mysteries of the natural world.
Then, in the early 19th century, philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel proposed that history itself is a discernible process. Over generations, he said, society is progressing toward a utopian horizon, and humans can rationally perceive this pattern. After all, if we can map the courses of the planets and stars, why not the trajectories of nations?
It’s hard to overstate the influence of this idea, both for historians and would-be revolutionaries. Hegel is generally not considered an orthodox Christian, but he identified God as the author of history’s plot. Marx’s version, however, had no room for God at all.
Taking up Hegel’s challenge to uncover the patterns that shape history, Marx argued that class struggle was visible at every inflection point. Treat class struggle like a mathematical constant, he contended, and not only did history make sense, so did the future. Time could be mapped with the rational certainty with which Nicolaus Copernicus and Galileo Galilei had mapped the movements of the planets.
For Marx, though, it wasn’t enough to discern the pattern of history; he wanted to actively accelerate historical progress toward his vision of freedom. “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways,” Marx said. “The point is to change it.” That included the use of force, which he called the “midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one.”
This idea that humans can discern, then manipulate, the course of history—on our own, without God—has influenced Western political thinking ever since. Other ideologies have swapped race for class or enshrined different economic systems as the path to utopia, but have kept the underlying architecture of certainty, secret knowledge, and a consuming logic that can incorporate every fact or event it encounters.
Conspiracism uses this architecture too. It assumes that conspirators are covertly working to change the world—and that conspiracy theorists can uncover those plots and stop them with a plan of their own.
While conspiracy theories may appear absurd and superstitious, they’re actually a hyper-rationalist way of seeing the world, a demand for simple, causal explanations of encounters with evil and suffering. The conspiracist is hunting for a mathematical constant, something that can both account for the unseen forces that make life feel unstable and promise a utopian ending—even if it’s not Marx’s workers’ paradise.
Ironically, this includes those on the far right who are convinced that only Trump can solve our problems, and the new Christian nationalists awaiting a “Christian prince” to inaugurate a national “city of God.” In this sense, with their simplistic keys to history, ontological certainty, and iron logic, these elements of the modern American Right are every bit the “cultural Marxists” as those they struggle against. Only their premises are different.
And while this style of political ideology is a relatively recent phenomenon, the underlying desire to account for evil and suffering is not. It is the basic instinct of the Book of Job—but Job’s conception of history and humanity is very different from that of Marx and his unlikely heirs.
Job suffers not just uncertainty but tremendous loss. He insists on the injustice of his circumstances and demands his day in court before God, planning not only to defend himself but to put God in the dock for his alleged lack of concern for the suffering of the righteous:
When a scourge brings sudden death,
[God] mocks the despair of the innocent.
When a land falls into the hands of the wicked,
he blindfolds its judges.
If it is not he, then who is it? (Job 9:23–24)
Job’s friends are sure he’s wrong. Clearly, they say, he’s done something to bring this suffering upon himself, because he’s merely a man, and God is a righteous God.
And yet, after God shows up and confronts Job, rejecting his accusations, he doesn’t rebuke Job for speaking as he did. He rebukes Job’s friends for not speaking the truth “as my servant Job has” (42:8).
Somehow, in his outcry, Job has managed to reach for things too great for him to grasp (42:3)—and yet he also speaks the truth. Meanwhile, his friends, insisting on the rationality of the world, have made themselves liars. Their flattened conception of justice and simplistic assumption that they could discern what was happening made them wrong about Job—and wrong about God.
As scholar Stephen Mitchell explains in the introduction to his poetic translation of the book, in Jobs’ friends’ arguments, humanity becomes “‘that vermin, who laps up filth like water,’ and their god is revealed as a Stalinesque tyrant so pure that he ‘mistrusts his angels / and heaven stinks in his nose.’”
“Ultimately,” Mitchell continues, “the dialogue is not about theological positions but human reactions. Afraid of any real contact with Job and his grief, the friends stay locked inside their own minds. The same arguments are recycled again and again, with more and more stridency.”
At its end, the Book of Job preemptively rejects the Marxist impulse behind many modern political ideologies and conspiracy theories. Our attempts to reduce history into simple cause-and-effect stories all shatter before the whirlwind. The point isn’t that God is irrational or lacks a plan for history; it’s that we are limited in our capacity to make sense of what God is doing.
Job wanted to understand evil and suffering, and God revealed that he couldn’t even comprehend an ostrich or a wild donkey (39:13, 5). As the Catholic theologian G. K. Chesterton put it, “Instead of proving to Job that it is an explicable world, [God] insists that it is a much stranger world than Job ever thought it was.”
We aren’t left without consolation, though. We have Job himself as a model of righteousness amid unexplained evil. Job picked a fight with God and demanded God answer his cry for justice. And God, in loving condescension, answered him—by reducing Job to “dust and ashes” (42:6).
At the heart of this encounter is a remarkable grace. What Job longed for, and what his friends offered in their distorted vision of justice, was answers—the very thing God refuses to give. And yet Job seems satisfied, humbled by the gap between what God knows and what he can know. It is a satisfaction that “answers” could never have provided—one found only in the God of the whirlwind who showed a surprising grace when Job was drowning in his tears.
That grace still operates today, of course. While we crave ideologies and conspiracy theories that make sense of a dark world, God still shows up in bewildering ways. Encountering him, even when it lays us low, can satisfy us far more deeply than any well-told story about directing our own destiny.
Mike Cosper is the director of CT Media.