Fake News and the Church
Over the last few months, “fake news”—fraudulent journalism passed off as factual—has become one of the hottest topics in cultural debate. Though deceptive news stories are certainly nothing new, their power to reach massive audiences (thanks to social media) has only grown over time. In an era dominated by confirmation biases, fake news can rapidly lead to misperceptions of reality.
In part, this is due to the fact that no one quite knows who to believe anymore: institutional trust has eroded dramatically. For example, a recent article in the Daily Mail argued that climate change data was systematically manipulated by scientists, and called their overarching conclusions into question. The backlash from scientists themselves was swift, but in the face of allegations challenging their own credibility to speak on the topic at all, any option for substantive debate was largely cut off. I consider myself a fairly careful reader, but in the face of a controversy like this I realized, to my chagrin, that I had no way of evaluating the claims being made. Even the presentation of neutral facts has become politically and socially charged.
For some observers, including Christian satire site The Babylon Bee, the irony of all this is simply too rich. After all, the 20th century witnessed the emergence of intellectual traditions (“critical theory”) that denied the ultimate comprehensibility of truth. The pursuit of knowledge, for thinkers working in this vein, must inevitably be contingent upon a set of culturally-contingent fundamental principles. A somewhat scaled back version of this point—namely, the incommensurability of ethical discussions across incompatible philosophical traditions—was integral to Thomistic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s Whose Justice? Which Rationality?
But ironically it was the existence of “fake news” about the September 11 terrorist attacks (“the government did it!”) that prompted prominent critical theorist Bruno Latour to reevaluate his own skepticism about empirical facts. “What has become of critique when a book that claims that no plane ever crashed into the Pentagon can be a bestseller?” Latour wrote in a late-career essay. At some point, Latour realized, the deconstruction of truth would fail to offer a satisfactory affirmative account of reality. Something more was needed: “The critic is not the one who debunks, but the one who assembles. The critic is not the one who lifts the rugs from under the feet of the naïve believers, but the one who offers the participants arenas in which to gather.” In other words, Latour grasped the need for meaningful frameworks within which truth could be pursued—institutional frameworks, like those whose credibility in mass culture has crumbled.
The existence of institutions that make non-socially contingent truth-claims is vital to any society. Science and religion are often viewed as oppositional, but in this they share a common purpose: both seek truths that aren’t limited to one particular social moment. For its part, theological “fake news” isn’t anything particularly unique—consider the proliferation of Rapture prophecies, fringe movements, and Gnostic texts that have swirled around the edges of Christianity since its earliest days. But against those forces, the historical tradition of the Church—and, in a more scaled-back sense, the existence of tradition(s) within denominations—offers a powerful counterweight to the temptation of universal subjectivity.
The Church is thus on the cusp of a unique cultural opportunity: more than ever, the world needs frameworks within which the complexities of existence can make sense. Credibility, more than mass appeal, is what matters now. Traditional churches’ efforts to preserve their institutional integrity as truth-seeking bodies might take a variety of forms—purging abusers from the rolls of clergy, pushing back against theologically-inflected “fake news” that subverts Scriptural ideas for short-term political ends, careful evaluation of alleged miracles, and so forth.
The cost of inaction—a surrender of the cultural field to mass skepticism about reality—is potentially very high. This is a cultural moment that cries out for authenticity, and the Church’s tradition can effectively provide that.