Phineas Taylor Barnum, “P.T.,” for short, may have underestimated the birthrate of suckers. And among them are many who have been born twice.
False information accepted and advanced as truth has been around for as long as humanity. However, the recent and enormous increase in the sources for dispensing such information is staggering.
Charlatan preachers who once dispensed bad theology beneath tents moved to the airwaves. Hollow political promises are now spread on Twitter rather than atop a stump. Over-hyped products are pushed on infomercials and through annoying (but obviously effective) popup ads rather than by snake oil barkers on a wagon.
Social media is a constant swirl of misinformation that is liked, shared, retweeted and repeated without regard for its source or truthfulness.
One can rightly blame those who produce and push false information for their own advantage, but here’s one sure truth: False/misleading information is only as effective as it is believed and shared.
And many Christians seem eager to do both with little or no critical analysis and careful verification by reliable sources that lead to effective discernment of truth.
It is easier to copy and paste, or assume and accept what someone offers as truth, even “biblical” truth, than to actually discern the truth if it requires a little patience and homework.
Often what is embraced and shared as truth has no basis in reality, but simply sounds good and fits neatly with one’s preconceived notions. That is, it accomplishes one’s purpose or reinforces one’s preferred viewpoint.
The acceptance and spreading of misinformation as truth can result from mental and spiritual laziness. Martin Luther King Jr. said it well: “Nothing pains some people more than having to think.”
Gullibility is difficult to address without coming across as calling people stupid. But let’s face it: naïveté is rampant among American evangelicals.
And while gullibility may not be a familiar theme of sin-focused sermonizing, its result is carved in stone: Thou shall not bear false witness.
It is important to be cautious when accepting and especially sharing that which is purported to be true. Being duped, and then passing along that deception is never helpful to oneself or to others.
While gullibility is not the sole property of Christians or one segment of the Church, parroting of false information is certainly an issue of concern for people who claim a strong commitment to truth.
This matter deserves our attention, and it helps to begin by tracing back to the roots.
I’d suggest that those most susceptible to embracing and advancing unanalyzed misinformation are driven more by fear than compassion. “Truth” becomes what makes one feel more secure.
Another factor may well be how comfortable one is living with mystery.
The desire for certainty — often in the form of black-and-white answers to life’s complexities — can cause blind allegiance to autocratic, authoritarian personalities of a religious and/or political bent — who make their livings off of uncritical thinkers.
So how do we fill the gullibility gap? How do we become better known as seekers rather than suckers?
First, we must affirm Jesus’ clear proclamation that truth, not comfort, sets us free.
Just because we like how something sounds — or someone ties a biblical reference to it or speaks it in an authoritative voice — doesn’t make it true. Truth is not determined by what we want it to be.
Second, we must take the time and energy to analyze that which often masquerades as truth before embracing and sharing it as such. Should we be suspicious? Skeptical?
Yes! Yes! We need to be cautious, critical, thoughtful —while remaining kind.
Jesus put it this way: “…be wise (shrewd) as serpents and gentle as doves.” (Matthew 10-16 NASB)
Otherwise, those who claim an allegiance to ultimate truth become, even unknowingly, bearers of false witness. And that’s not the kind of witness to which we are called.