Christians and the Virtual Rumor Mill October 21, 2009

Christians and the Virtual Rumor Mill

Robert Marus & Ken Camp of the Associated Baptist Press ask a very interesting question in a recent article:

“What does virtual rumor-mongering say about Christians?”

It seems Christians are prone to sending out those wacky emails that say ridiculous, untrue things.

Madalyn Murray O’Hair is trying to ban religious programming on television. (She was killed over a decade ago and never tried to ban such programming during her lifetime.)

Barack Obama is a Muslim. (No, he’s not.)

Al Gore once said his favorite Bible verse was John 16:3, not John 3:16, indicating he wasn’t *really* a Christian. (Actually, that gaffe was made by George H. W. Bush.)

But is this rumor-spreading typical of Christians or the general culture?

So, why are Christians so willing to believe unsubstantiated rumors? And more troubling, why are Christians, who should hold the highest standards of truth-telling, so eager to spread such rumors — and even downright libels?

Christians are not necessarily any more gullible than the population at large — and there’s the rub, said Bill Tillman, a Christian-ethics professor at Hardin-Simmons University’s Logsdon Seminary, a Texas Baptist school.

“Their gullibility seems to follow the culture’s levels and channels of gullibility,” Tillman said. “That similarity should give Christians pause to think: If I am no different than the surrounding culture on the treatment of e-mails and communication they carry, with what else am I no different?…”

One thing’s for certain: the more Christians spread those easily-debunked lies, the less seriously we have to take their other claims of truth.

So is this a “Christian” phenomenon of sorts? No, I think it’s even broader than that.

The article never claims it, but it seems obvious to me:

Religious people in general are more likely to believe in unsubstantiated rumors. If someone they trust sends/tells them something, they’re less likely to challenge the claim.

I know I’m making a blanket statement — it doesn’t apply to every religious person, of course — but would anyone like to play devil’s advocate?

Most religions are a series of fake claims, one after another, spread over generations. Is it any surprise that such misguided statements get spread even in modern times?

I have no evidence to back this up, but I’d bet good money that atheists are less likely than the general population to send those false chain letters to other. We’re more skeptical of what we see and read.

But maybe I’m wrong. Are there any false rumors that atheists perpetuate?

(Thanks to Hugh for the link!)

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  • I constantly send back “Replies to all” at the office with snopes articles refuting the stupid crap emails I get.

  • ethanol

    Hemant Mehta says:

    Barack Obama is a Muslim

    Look! even atheists cant help but admit that OBAMA IS A SECRET ISLAMIC COMMIE-NAZIE

    on a more serious note, I do think all cultures have channels of gullibility, certain messages which, while unlikely, we accept without question. It would do us good to determine what those channels are in atheist culture.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    … once said his favorite Bible verse was John 16:3, not John 3:16, indicating he wasn’t *really* a Christian.

    John 16:3 “And these things will they do unto you, because they have not known the Father, nor me.”

    What? You can’t be a *real* Christian if some other Bible verse is your favourite? My favourite is Matthew 6:5-6 (but then I’m certainly not a real Christian).

  • Matt B

    I’m not so sure that we atheists are generally “more skeptical of what we see and read.” More skeptical of religion and the supernatural, certainly. But I know some fellow atheists who believe some pretty wacky things – 9/11 conspiracy theories for instance. Then there’s Bill Maher with his ridiculous anti-vaccination beliefs.

  • Polly

    My mother is always talking about the gay agenda and how they are writing textbooks for toddlers to “indoctrinate” them with homosexuality. Are these textbooks for real or another fundie myth?

    And a minor quibble:

    One thing’s for certain: the more Christians spread those easily-debunked lies, the less seriously we have to take their other claims of truth.

    This isn’t any more logical than stating that because the local library carries books on Scientology, you shouldn’t trust any of the other books. Gullible people don’t filter. Some of the arguments lodged in their heads might be worth arguing with – to the extent that any apologetics aren’t TOTAL crap, that is.

  • Atheists send false claims around the Internet too. And while we generally own up to being mistaken when the error is pointed out to us, some are very persistant; like this supposed quote from Ferdinand Magellan: “The Church says that the Earth is flat, but I know that it is round. For I have seen the shadow of the earth on the moon and I have more faith in the Shadow than in the Church.” This is something that was first attributed to Magellan by Robert G. Ingersoll in 1873 and is still repeated on many atheist websites.

    If you know anything about history, red flags should go up the minute you read it. Think about it. At a time when the Spanish Inquisition is at the height of its power, an employee of the crown allows himself to be recorded saying something that would get him lit up on a stake faster than charcoal lighter fluid? The church also wasn’t claiming the Earth was flat at this time either. Anyway, no reference to this quote can be found earlier than Ingersoll’s.

    Atheists are vulnerable to confirmation bias too. We sometimes give a free pass to claims that fit our preconceptions just like everyone else. It behooves us to remember that all assertions need to be examined with a critical eye.

  • “Religious people in general are more likely to believe in unsubstantiated rumors. If someone they trust sends/tells them something, they’re less likely to challenge the claim.”

    I agree because I have to admit that as a recovering Roman Catholic / Christian one of the things I’ve had to go through was deprogramming myself of just thinking something was true because it sounded true, agreed with what I “felt” was true, was stated authoritatively, came from a “reliable” source, etc. Once I realized I was an atheist, the “magical”, “gullible” thinking did not go away overnight. I had to work on it. After all, I had spent a good deal of my life deferring to other people to tell me what the “truth” was and who conditioned me not to question the “facts” presented to me.

  • Colin

    I had heard about the John 16:3 quote before in reference to Democratic politicians, but always figured it was pure libel (or would that be slander… I’ll go with the second one).

    According to Snopes, good ole’ HW did make this mistake. I wouldn’t normally think that Cal Thomas would be one to defame Republican politicians. But, given that the Religious Right wasn’t exactly thrilled with HW, the quote does play into the Religious Right’s expectations a little too perfectly. HW tries to feign religiosity, but gets it horribly wrong. I’m a bit skeptical that it actually happened that way, but without further evidence, I’ll tentatively take Cal Thomas at his word.

    Notice how the misquote is also custom-built for the average Christian to fact-check themselves. Most Christians probably couldn’t quote more than 10 bible verses, but this one is in everyone’s repertoire.

    It’s just a little too perfect.

  • Not to be glib about it, but if Christians were more credulous about people’s claims they wouldn’t be Christians in the first place.

  • Bradley

    Sad, commentary on Christians. We really should be different or… we’re not different. It’s our faults and lack of being any different that lead you to believe there is nothing to Christianity. And sadly, there is nothing to many people’s faith. I don’t forward ANY “forward this or else…” or “forward this and get..” emails by the way. 🙂

  • J. Allen

    Whenever you have faith, you need to reassure that faith and so you will constantly be hoodwinked by self-confirmation bias.

    What seems in your favor you will trumpet blindly, and you won’t see anything else.

    This works for faith in a god, a political matter, or a sports team.

  • Warren Falk

    I know atheists that are 9/11 truthers.

    I know atheists that are anti-vaxers.

    It seems there are plenty of self-called skeptics that are conspiracy theorists, unfortunately.

    It is possible to take skepticism to this extreme where it ceases to be skepticism, where instead of doubting every popular belief, you begin blindly accepting any belief that’s unpopular.

    Anyway, it is seriously hard to think anyone can be surprised to find that organizations which require credulity will be necessarily filled with the credulous.

  • I’m probably just as guilty of this as anyone else, but I’m also usually the one who ‘replies to all’ with liks to sites like Snopes. I don’t understand why people don’t take a moment to google before forwarding this crap.

    I’ve noticed that the vast majority of e-mails and messages in the ‘OMG-read-this-now-or-facebook/gmail/hotmail/myspace-is-going-to-delete-your-account-and-kill-this-kitten’ are sent to me by my religious friends.

  • I think it’s a lack of education. And sadly, many who lack knowledge or the desire to obtain knowledge tend to religious. This isn’t true of all religious people, but I’d say a vast majority.

  • Anonymouse

    Re: Bill Maher and vaccinations-

    From every show that I have seen that he has mentioned it, it was specifically the H1N1 Flu vaccine that he was against, not all vaccines.
    I could be wrong, but from what I personally have seen (and I watched his show regularly this season) it was only the Swine Flue vaccine he was talking about.

    I don’t think he’s that crazy for saying that it should be discussed! Hasn’t anyone ever heard of a drug recall?

  • Shawn

    But maybe I’m wrong. Are there any false rumors that atheists perpetuate?



    kidding, kidding 🙂

  • It is interesting that Christianity itself (as probably every religion) was started by essentially a rumor mill that eventually got enough “buy-in”.

    “Hey, I heard of this guy that rose from the dead…”

  • People tend to be less skeptical about things that come from people they trust, and repeat (or forward) them without checking. And most people seem to trust anything that they read that doesn’t contradict something they already believe.

    Those of us who have built habits of skepticism (and checking Snopes) seem to be in the minority. But even those of us with such habits occasionally forward things that turn out not to be true, e.g., when the rebuttal evidence isn’t yet available.

    One of the points of my SkeptiCamp Phoenix presentation was that sources that repeatedly forward things like urban legend emails are, at least, providing the recipients with useful evidence about their reliability and biases.

  • muggle

    Face it, this fact may suck, but it’s in human nature to gossip. We have a huge business centered around it also called the news. Blogs exist because we like to talk and judge one another. Yes, judge. Don’t be ashamed of that word. It’s the Christians who claim not to do it.

    That said: Of course, the skeptics are more, well, skeptical and more apt to go say what if something sounds way off base and then demand proof if the explanation didn’t clear all that up.

    But that said: we too are only human.

    Sometimes, that sucks! 🙂 Sorry.

  • Mary

    Perhaps a slight change in the wording of your statement would be true as well: “Religious people in general are more likely to believe in unsubstantiated rumors, especially when those rumors are in line with their world view.”

    The way I see it, Christians will jump the gun and forward messages about fake viruses, fake amber alerts, fake crimes, etc., because they believe that there are tons of EVIL people out there who might hurt you at any moment. It is a touch of paranoia and fear because of everything they are taught about “the world.” When they pass on the message, they feel like they did a good deed. And of course they are likely to pass on a fake fact about someone they disagree with politically or religiously – simply because it supports their view. And since their view is “true,” maybe it doesn’t matter if the fact is true or not?

  • Richard Wade

    I know one atheist who believes fantastic claims, conspiracies, etc. The rest of the group just role their eyes. People generally don’t bring or send their rumors to me because they know the first thing out of my mouth will be, “Wait a minute, how do you know this?” Even if it sounds plausible and I’d like it to be true, that’s my first reaction. I was always a little more like that, but over the years, I’ve trained myself to be more skeptical.

    I did get suckered into the belief that Saddam Hussein was hiding WMD in Iraq. I’m still privately embarrassed by that.


    Sad, commentary on Christians. We really should be different or… we’re not different. It’s our faults and lack of being any different that lead you to believe there is nothing to Christianity.

    We all have our skepticism and our gullibility. If those traits could be quantified, maybe atheists would average a little less gullible than Christians, but I think that individuals vary in the amounts of those traits much more so than groups.

    But be clear, the fact that Christians lack being any different is not what makes me skeptical about their religion. It’s their lack of evidence.

    Being skeptical led to my being an atheist. Not the other way around.

  • Anticontrame

    If there’s one thing the internet atheists have taught me, it’s that not all atheists are skeptics. Sure, most members of the skeptical community tend to call themselves atheists or agnostics, but it seems a good chunk of the atheist community holds positions as a result of ideology as much as critical thinking.

  • CatBallou

    Frankly, I’m irritated by the notion that Christians should hold “the highest standards of truth-telling.” Really? Christians are or should be more honest than Jews, Muslims, Hindus, etc.? Is there a religion out there that doesn’t officially endorse honesty?
    Or maybe he’s not actually comparing Christians to other people, but just saying that there is a scale of honesty, and Christians should be aiming for the high end. Either way, it smacks of elitism.
    I do suspect that “believers” tend to be more gullible, but it’s certainly not just religious people. I knew a woman who went from fundamentalist to atheist, but she replaced religion with astrology, homeopathy, auras, and supernaturalism in general. Clearly she just wanted to believe.

  • Revyloution

    I’ve been a very skeptical person as long as I can remember. I can’t think of a single position I hold on any subject that I wont admit to the probability that I’m wrong. So naturally, Im a life long atheist. I think hard skepticism leads to atheism, but atheism doesnt necessarily lead to skepticism. That said, I think that the religious should be easier to fool with rumor than the non religious.

    But I could be wrong. I’d love to see a study done on it.

    The question I have today is:
    Why do atheists put so much faith in Snopes? Don’t get me wrong, I check there with any questionable forwarded email that I receive. Who fact checks Snopes? Who watches the Watchmen? To date, I have never seen a redaction or correction to any Snopes article. Are they perfect in their research? Or do they cover up their own errors in fact checking?

  • I don’t think atheists are free of this stuff. I have atheist relatives who constantly send me email forwards that a quick check on Snopes would tell them are false.

    But it wouldn’t surprise me to find this behavior less common among atheists… or at least, among atheists who are actively involved in the atheist community. It’s a community that prizes critical thinking skills, and is good (if sometimes harsh and snarky) at teaching these skills to one another.

    And of course, one of the main things about religion is that it not only accepts uncritical thinking and prioritizing intuition and authority over reason and evidence… it actively encourages these things as positive virtues. So it wouldn’t surprise me if that slopped over into other areas of life.

  • Kris

    There are all kinds of atheists. I personally tend to identify with skeptics, even deists or skeptical believers, more than atheists in general. There are lots of reasons not to believe in a deity (“suffering” seems to be a common one), and not all of them are rational.

    I think the issue in such chain letters is more that the people who propagate them don’t especially care about the truth, they care more about the intrigue. When I get those kinds of letters, I have a tendency to reply with a (fairly kind) explanation of why it is implausible, or with more reliably sourced facts. I stop receiving them after one or two of these rebuttals, but they don’t stop sending them to others, and they don’t respond to my criticism. I suppose it is rather like a religion in and of itself.

  • Miko

    It is possible to take skepticism to this extreme where it ceases to be skepticism, where instead of doubting every popular belief, you begin blindly accepting any belief that’s unpopular.

    Extreme skepticism is based on the claim “Nothing can be known, not even this.” Blind acceptance of the unpopular is not skepticism and certainly not extreme skepticism.

  • The Other Tom


    My mother is always talking about the gay agenda and how they are writing textbooks for toddlers to “indoctrinate” them with homosexuality. Are these textbooks for real or another fundie myth?

    Myth. As director of the Radical Homosexual Agenda, I can tell you definitively that the committee hasn’t gotten around to childrens’ textbooks yet, they’re too busy arguing over whether we want pink triangle lanes at the supermarket or pink triangle parking spots at Nieman Marcus first.

  • CB

    I agree with Anticontrame…not all atheists are skeptics. The habit of thinking critically has to be cultivated continuously, even among the irreligious. We all have our biases, and if we’re not careful they can pull us into believing the most arrant nonsense. While I happen to believe that atheism is the most logical way of looking at the world, it’s no guarantee against gullibility.

  • Hemant,

    I know what you are saying with the blanket statement, but I think it’s just a coincidence. It’s more of a trust issue than anything. I think the idea of spreading rumors has encompassed more of the general populace with the internet than ever before.

    Although, before the internet, my mother was very religious and spent a lot of her time chasing rumors and repeating them as often as she could.

  • The Other Tom

    I have several family members who have, over time, been in the habit of sending around forwarded chain letters and hysteria articles in email. Usually right wing BS. It’s invariably from my most religious relatives, never from my atheist relatives.

    I don’t ask them not to do it. Sometimes I have employed email filters to select and delete any email that has more than three levels of forwarding in it. The most effective method I’ve employed, however, is to select a few that are real doozys and fact check them, and send around my resulting analysis in a “reply all”. Sometimes I don’t even have to look up anything on snopes – I can just look at the email and point out the obvious flaws. (“The chemical that you’re claiming is a powdery white substance in my vegetables is actually a gas, so it’s obviously not what you’re saying it is, and if it was there you’d smell it, so it’s obviously not there either.” or perhaps “The food that you’re telling me is highly toxic and I shouldn’t eat any of is the same food I used to feed my pet rabbit half his own body weight of three times a week. He was fine. The food is harmless.”) After I sent around a few of these refutations, they’d stop sending me the chain emails.

    Of course, I don’t think they’ve stopped sending chain emails and right wing nonsense. They’ve just stoppped sending them to me, which demonstrates that they’re not so much interested in being correct and rational as they are in not being embarrassed for forwarding around a pack of lies and getting caught.

    I won’t claim that I’m not also subject to more easily believing things that fit with my pre-conceived notions, but I at least make some effort to only pass on things (on my facebook page, not email) that aren’t obviously wrong and come from a legitimate source (and yes, I’ll reject things that seem true if I think the source is questionable), and I’ll admit my errors.

  • pete

    I think all sorts of folks can have this problem of rumor mongering.

    But one i have a pet hate for that usually comes from the faithfuls side,is that non believers simply dont believe because they love being bad/evil so much! and are just trying to escape god

  • twirlgrl

    This month’s Skeptic magazine had an excellent article regarding the recent and steady increase in both atheism and intelligence. The factor pointed to as an impetus to these changes was the ability to reason hypothetically which began increasing with the recent dawn of public education.

    It made a lot of sense to me. Based on my own perspective there does seem to be a generational shift toward rationality. Most older people I know do not question their faith. People I know one generation before me are a little less literal in their interpretations and a little more relaxed in following the rules. My contemporaries are largely atheist, agnostic, deist or “spiritual”. Additionally, the most educated in the whole of my circle are largely non-religious. Obviously, there are exceptions but I believe the point still holds. It seems that this may figure into the equation.

    I also believe that we need to share information or “gossip” on an evolutionary level. This type of rapid, though unverified communication can benefit one’s group or society when information needs to be disseminated quickly. Unfortunately, many forget the step where tentative belief is investigated for veracity before moving to accepting it as fact. The issue then becomes one of problem solving vs. blame placing.

    We also need to be able to take some things at face value. There is not time to investigate EVERY claim one is told so we learn to readily accept information from sources previously shown to be reliable.

    My motto: trust – but verify.

  • Joffan

    To find false rumours that only atheists perpetuate, you would need to find a plausible falsehood that showed atheism in a good light or its opponents in a bad light. The fake Magellan quote would be a good example.

    Otherwise, in the world at large, there will be atheists who (because of their other allegiances or preferences) are prone to believing rumours that tend to reinforce those preferences – which can also take on a quasi-religious nature.

  • ErinM

    In my experience, when atheists get sucked into a crazy conspiracy theory or other fringe lunacy, it’s usually an idea that casts The Establishment as the villain — the government, big medicine, industry, etc. “Don’t trust The Man” being the basic concept underlying all of them.

    Given what some atheists have gone through with their families and church communities, an overzealous mistrust of authority is understandable. Not excused, but understandable.

  • There is a faith community that is unabashedly skeptical and unparalleled when it comes to critical thinking – the Jews. It’s no accident that so many Jews end up in law, education, and medicine. They question everything. My local library even has a book called “The Jewish Book of Why.” Sorry atheists, but the Children of Israel have you beat.

  • CybrgnX

    Sorry but you are mistaken ALL PEOPLE believe unsubstantiated BS.
    The religious start off that way believing there is a g0d who cares. Atheist are just as bad because they believe there is no g0d -whether it cares or not. Wives believe their husbands/kids love them and vis-i-versa.
    It just that atheist/skeptics can GENERALLY be shown where they are wrong – the religious can’t be shown anything.

  • Anticontrame

    What ErinM said reminded me: There are atheistic equivalents to these virtual rumors. It’s not hard to come across folks erroneously claiming various historical figures for atheism, like Newton or certain founding fathers. There are also false facts being spread around, like that atheist/theist prison inmate ratio you see everywhere.

    Confirmation bias gets everyone, sooner or later.

  • llewelly

    Madalyn Murray O’Hair is trying to ban religious programming on television. (She was killed murdered over a decade ago and never tried to ban such programming during her lifetime.)

    Fixed it for you.

  • Staceyjw

    I wonder why all the letters I get forwarded are 99%:
    1) Extreme right wing nonsense- “socialist plots” to ruin america,anti-Omama/health care, immigrant bashing, etc.
    2)Religious/ God/ Faith BS- usually a “heartwarming” story of faith, or something related to politics, patriotism, or the “religious foundation of the US”
    3) False safety tips

    All have obvious lies; some can be dispelled with one click, others are more complicated webs of inaccurate stata/ data and prejudice, hatred for others.I think its important to reply to all and show the lies and shine a light on stereotyped hatred.
    I don’t even know any extreme right wingers/fundies- normal people forward this stuff, I don’t even think they read through it first! Mostly web newbies or old people without lots of cyber experience- regardless of religion!

    My dad is #1, and not religious, right wing, or hateful (he’s a Maddow fan) But he’s 70, retired, and his friends from work send him this crap, and he just forwards it on. He seems to like my relies though 🙂

    I always reply to everyone that also received the email- with either a one sentence explanation and link (Snopes usually), or a longer rant. The rant usually gets sent when I get some insane racisit, hateful shit, that is all about some stereotype, plus incorrect info.

    I try not to spread bs, and think through what I hear, but I am probably biased against religion.


  • stoat100

    I think it’s an American thing. Sure, maybe religious people tend to be more gullible and less educated, but the US religious right xians are… special.

    From what I gather from the Rapture Ready forums these people do not live evidence-based lives. They cannot, and do not, distinguish between reality and what they are told by other fundies.

    See also climate change denial, YEC, antivax, birthers, teabaggers (snigger!), alt-med etc ad nauseum

  • I agree with your basic premise except for one minor correction

    Religious people in general are more likely to believe in unsubstantiated rumors. If someone they trust sends/tells them something, they’re less likely to challenge the claim.

    Or maybe put differently

    People in general believe unsubstantiated rumors if it confirms a previously held belief or prejudice and therefore are less likely to challenge the claim

    There that’s better, your previous statement was far too much in the “my shit don’t stink” category.

    … yeah, what Joffan said

  • Friendly, I think this particular post is borderline problematic because even though I know what you’re saying. It sounds like you’re saying it’s a Christian problem. So here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to see this as like an emotional statement that was not turned into a well honed homing missile.

    I’m as atheist and as likely to say things the way you said it too. Stupid emails related to God statements are really annoying. But we’ve got to leave room for our allies which are Christians that treat their faith personally and actually don’t mind discordant perspectives. I know they seem rare because we’re more likely to run into the other kinds. In my view, atheists are fighting a battle to be wrong our own way. I’m an atheist but I’m not all atheists and my mistakes might appear like atheist mistakes but they are mine as an individual. In such a way, so are the people with the retarded conspiracies responsible for their own actions.

    We can’t stop men from being men but we can treat women better. In the same way we might never be able to stop Christians from believing in crap but we might be able to influence what is an acceptable form of communication.

    Keep up the thoughtful posts. I’m just chiming in because I discuss stuff.

    P.S. Most of the spam comments I get are from Russia, but it’s probably the fault of a handful of Russians if any. You know what I mean?

  • Joffan

    Thanks Skeptigator.

    Since this thread is scrolled down, I’ll perhaps avoid the charge of threadjacking now if I give a specific example of credulous behaviour on a subject that often involves strong opinions: nuclear power.

    I am an ardent admirer of Ebonmuse at Daylight Atheism, but in July on his article The Science Gap he posted a comment, linked to a newspaper article, alleging that nuclear workers are twice as likely to get cancer. It doesn’t take much skepticism to know that this must be wrong – doubled cancer rates are not a matter of subtle statisitical interpretation, they would have been blatantly obvious. And in fact it was a media misinterpretation (double rate!!) of a misleading anti-nuclear report (a 1% increase dressed up as 42%) cherry-picking an inconclusive medical study (poor to no statistical significance). But there was the ready belief and willingness to repeat, all the same, from someone who I’d say was more skeptical than most.

    This is not really to pick on anyone in particular (sorry Adam) – I’m sure all of us would rather be right than wrong on previously stated opinions – but simply to illustrate how easy it is to get drawn into that.

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