Conspiracy theories are something of a hobby for me - I find them quite fascinating. Sometimes, they’re rather plausible or even come true, but most fail for one reason or another, usually because they require way too many people to keep the secret. If a conspiracy theory requires hundreds or even thousands of people to keep their mouth shut, it’s usually nonsense. Intriguing nonsense, but nonsense.
Why? Every additional person is a possible leak in a cabal that needs to be airtight. A little math will show that this can get out of hand very quickly. If you have 95% confidence in five people (an extremely generous situation), the probability they will all keep the secret is .95^5, or about 73%. That’s nearly a 3-in-4 chance. But suppose you bring on an additional five - now it’s about 60%. A hundred total? 0.6% - only about one chance in two hundred that it won’t collapse.
This is why organizations that rely on secrecy have strict need-to-know policies, including the ‘elimination of loose ends’ in more nefarious cases. It’s also why many choose to rely more on a combination of high-level computer encryption and pumping out so much false information that your foes can’t tell what the real secrets are - actually trusting humans to keep the secret is a losing strategy.
What does this have to do with religion? Everything!
Religion is in part a human and historical phenomenon. It depends on claims and teachings made by actual people in actual times and actual places. Undoubtedly, not all of them are telling the truth, and we can assess their credibility through the lens of how successful they would be as a conspiracy.
On one extreme, consider a religion like Islam, where only one person claims to have received a supernatural revelation and there are no real witnesses or miracles. If Muhammad was lying about Gabriel and the Qu’ran, nobody could betray that secret, so judging Islam’s veracity requires looking elsewhere (and there is plenty of elsewhere to look).
Contrast this with a curiously similar religion, Mormonism, in which the founding prophet invited eleven people to witness the golden plates upon which the Book of Mormon had been inscribed. Several of those witnesses later broke with Smith, were excommunicated, or even started their own sects. Oops!
So let’s apply this analysis to the central historical claim of Christianity: that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead. Besides the Eleven, there were the women at the tomb, Paul (via his vision), and an unknowable number of other disciples who witnessed the risen Lord one way or another. If the Resurrection was an elaborate hoax, it was too elaborate to hold up, especially in the face of persecution, torture, and the threat of brutal execution. One cult leader might give up everything to maintain a lie (many have), but with so many conspirators, it’d be implausible for nobody to break.
Conclusion: Jesus really did rise from the dead.
Some try to explain this away by claiming that the whole affair was invented by a later generation, some even as late as the fourth century. In any event, we have loads of documents and artifacts testifying to the existence of a sizable Christian community early enough that the wholesale invention of this story would require tens of thousands of people to accept obvious lies - especially since early Christian leaders claimed lines of descent which could easily be checked. This is an even more implausible conspiracy theory than arguing that Christ's original following fabricated the Resurrection.
You'll hear this argument for the Resurrection (often in much more detail and sophistication) from any Christian community worthy of the title, and it’s pretty sound from a historical perspective: the only real alternatives to the Resurrection involve way too many people accepting and concealing obvious deceptions to be plausible, even without the environment of persecution and rival sectarianism.
But let’s not stop here, as most Christian communities do. We can also apply this analysis to the foundational historical claims of particular groups of Christians.
What’s the narrative given by the Apostolic churches, like the Catholic and Orthodox? Jesus gave us the truth, it was handed down, and our community has faithfully kept and developed that tradition. Other claimants to the Apostolic Tradition can be explained by gradual divergence in development leading to divisions. No great deception is required, so conspiratorial analysis doesn't apply... directly.
But let’s look at the communities that emerged, directly or indirectly (or very, very indirectly) from the Protestant Reformation. They generally agree that Jesus gave us the truth (duh), but they require that at some point the ancient community corrupted this truth and a correction was necessary - possibly many distinct corrections until they finally got it right.
The crux of this narrative is a corruption of the original truth. How serious this corruption is varies from storyteller to storyteller, but there are two basic ways it could happen: organically or inorganically, i.e., by gradual divergence among the faithful or by the imposition of false doctrine. Arguably, you could also have a blend, but I believe that case is adequately addressed by examining each in isolation.
Let’s explore the first option: gradual divergence over time.
Can such a process occur? To a degree, yes. A very limited form of this idea is described above as how the ancient churches explain their differences with other ancient churches: we’ve both developed the Tradition, but they did it wrong and have erred somewhat.
But note the constraints on the argument: these communities disagree mostly on definitions, framing, and esotera. Many past differences were later recognized as no impediment to union and persist within the unity of the Catholic Church via the Eastern Catholic Churches. Even more major differences in Christology have been overcome: the once widespread Nestorian communities who formerly split Christ’s person in two are now mostly Chaldean Catholics.
This presents a problem for the organic corruption theory. If corruption arose among the ancient communities, the falsehoods should have differed from place to place. If a new system of salvation creeped in, it shouldn’t be essentially the same from Ireland to India. If a false notion of spiritual authority formed, it shouldn’t be recognizable from Armenia to Abyssinia.
As the third century writer Tertullian explained, “is it likely that so many churches, and they so great, should have gone astray into one and the same faith? No casualty distributed among many men issues in one and the same result. Error of doctrine in the churches must necessarily have produced various issues. When, however, that which is deposited among many is found to be one and the same, it is not the result of error, but of tradition.”
Why do Tertullian and I come to this conclusion? Well, suppose there are only two major groups of Christians, facing only two questions, each of which only has two answers. What are the odds that both independently end up with the same, totally wrong answers?
For a given group, that's a 50% of ending up on the wrong side of a question, so being wrong on both is 50% of 50%, 25%. The odds that both do this the same is 25% of 25%, a whopping 1-in-16 (6.25%) chance. Those aren't good odds of even such a simple scenario occurring naturally.
If we use larger numbers to represent something closer to the historical reality, we get statistical impossibilities. Three groups/questions/answers goes to 0.005%, four goes to 0.000000023%, and anything higher will make your calculator cry without having even approached the true complexity of the problem. The Tradition common to the Apostolic communities simply cannot have arisen by organic but vast divergence from an alternate primitive Christianity.
The gradual corruption theory fails for another reason: these questions are foundational and binary from a Reformation perspective. You can get fancy and nuanced and mess up within the doctrines of Faith Alone or Scripture Alone, but you can’t just drift out of them - it’s either Alone or it’s not. It’s not a slide; it’s a leap. That doesn't just happen by accident, especially on such a vast scale.
So our corruption must have been intentional and coordinated, right? You’ll find no shortage of these theories on the internet, often revolving around the Roman Emperor Constantine or someone similar. But this runs into all the problems I discussed regarding Jesus mythicism, only ramped up to eleven.
If you’re unfamiliar with Christian history, you might be forgiven for thinking today’s knock-down fights over doctrine are a bizarre exception. Yes, most Christians historically were on the same page most of the time. But when there was a fight, there was a fight.
Cities burned from riots over whether there should be an iota in homo(i)ousios. Egyptian Christians welcomed Islamic invaders as liberators rather than be ruled by Christians who believed Christ had two united natures instead of one unmixed nature. Even before the Roman edict of toleration, a huge portion of Christian documents were arguments against sects that challenged mainline orthodoxy. Our modern spirit of tolerance and indifferentism was foreign to the Christians of antiquity.
So, suppose you need to impose a fundamentally corrupted version of Christianity upon these people. We’re not talking about getting hundreds of thousands of submissive marks to shut up and yourself covering up fringe dissenters. We’re talking about imposing radical differences on hundreds of thousands who flip out over fine nuances. We wouldn’t be calculating the chance that a loyal handful might break from a scheme, but the chance that known civilization will survive the madness you're about to unleash upon it.
This is the maddest of conspiracy theories. It requires mind-boggling numbers of zealots to participate in a logistically impossible scheme (remember: this must include India, Ethiopia, Mesopotamia, etc.) for no plausible reason. In many cases, theories require the forging of hundreds of documents predating the conspiracy and the suppression of every authentic document produced by the lost religion.
Moreover, it requires all of this trauma to happen without a shred of evidence that it happened. Yikes.
Like denying the Resurrection, historical narratives that require the essential corruption of the original Christian faith simply don’t hold water. They can only be justified by absolute certainty that the alternative, whether it be the risen Lord or his Tradition, is incorrect. But what gives us that certainty? A personal interpretation of a tough Bible passage? An unexamined caricature of the Tradition? A funny internal feeling about truth? Fear of the disruption it might cause?
When assessing historical events, we have to consider the evidence. If you find that your spirituality requires too many people to know too much without actual evidence of such a scheme, that is itself evidence that you should re-examine your beliefs and embrace a community whose historical narrative actually matches human history.