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I Believe! … In QAnon? What nonbelievers don’t get about conspiracy beliefs

We need to stop asking them to justify their conclusions and try to understand why QAnon works for them.

FILE - In this May 14, 2020, file photo, a person carries a sign supporting QAnon during a protest rally in Olympia, Washington. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

(RNS) — What is the difference between being faithful and being faith-filled, and how might that difference be shaping politics and culture today?

Those questions matter more and more, as we learn more and more about the role of faith in the lives of QAnon followers and the place of QAnon in the lives of many people of faith.

A recent report by Public Religion Research Institute indicates that 15% of Americans fall into the category of “QAnon believers,” defined as anyone who agrees with any of three statements: “the levers of power in the U.S. are controlled by a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles”; “American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country”; and “there is a storm coming that will sweep away the elites and restore the rightful leaders.”

While 15% may not sound like a critical share of the population, given the nature of those claims and the fact that the recent presidential election was decided by a margin of about 4%, it’s a hugely concerning figure. QAnon believers are able to seriously change the future of the nation.


RELATED: Survey: White evangelicals, Hispanic Protestants, Mormons most likely to believe in QAnon


This is doubly true because QAnon believers are concentrated in one party: About 25% of Republicans are receptive to QAnon, while only14% of independents and 8% of Democrats are. When compared with the number needed to sway an election, though, we see that this is an issue for all of us, regardless of party.

Graphic courtesy of PRRI-IFYC

Graphic courtesy of PRRI-IFYC

This is about more than partisan politics. We need to look beyond the pollsters’ three statements if we want to better understand and address the popularity of these beliefs. We need to look toward religion and the nature of belief itself. 

The new data from PRRI’s report is very helpful in doing just that.

PRRI polling indicates that white evangelical Protestants, Hispanic Protestants (who are largely evangelical), and Mormons are more likely than other groups to agree with each of the tenets of the QAnon conspiracy movement mentioned above.

White and Hispanic evangelicals tend to agree with QAnon at 25%, LDS members at 18%.  But the numbers are relatively high for other groups as well, including Hispanic Catholics (16%), Black Protestants (15%), other Christians (14%), non-Christian religious (13%), white Catholic (11%), white mainline Protestant (10%).  

These conspiracy theories and the violent fantasies associated with correcting them, in other words, cut across political and denominational lines. As painful as it might be for some of us who are animated by faith, the data suggests that the issue is not simply about those who are faithful to a particular religious path, but about people who are “faith-filled” — animated and informed by belief that transcends the purely rational. This is not about who has the “right faith” or the “wrong faith.”

Nor is this an attack on the arational or the mystical elements of faith. Quite the opposite, in fact. We need to appreciate those elements for what they are, taking responsibility for their full potential, and more effectively addressing people with genuine respect for their faith, even when we have no regard for the conclusions to which that faith has led them.

In this Aug. 2, 2018, file photo, David Reinert holds a Q sign while waiting in line with others to enter a campaign rally with President Donald Trump in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. The far-right QAnon conspiracy theory forged in a dark corner of the internet has come into the mainstream political arena. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

In this Aug. 2, 2018, file photo, David Reinert holds a Q sign while waiting in line with others to enter a campaign rally with President Donald Trump in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. The far-right QAnon conspiracy theory forged in a dark corner of the internet has come into the mainstream political arena. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

To be a believer, in any classical sense, is to give oneself over, at least at times, to the notion that reality cannot be fully defined or appreciated in strictly rational ways. To be faith-filled is to be animated by beliefs that, though not provable, bring us and our world to what we believe will be a better place.

As discomforting as it may be, this is precisely what these QAnon believers are doing. The fact that they operate that way at church or in private belief makes it all the more “reasonable” that they will do so with QAnon.

For some, this is a good argument for the dangers of religious belief in general and for pushing for increased secularization. Not for me. 

As a believer, I appreciate the beauty and power of belief. I appreciate all of the ways that belief helps us to transcend the moment in which we find ourselves and reach for that which is better, higher, unreasonably aspirational, irrationally compassionate and loving beyond understanding.

I would hope that the non-faith-filled could also appreciate how faith fuels all those things, even if it is not their chosen path, if only because faith has done that for millions of people for thousands of years. To give up on that path because of the abuses committed in its name would be like giving up central heating and cooked food because furnaces and cooking fires sometimes burn down people’s homes.

More practically, secularization or rationality has little chance of correcting or convincing QAnon believers. Without embracing how faith works in the lives of the faith-filled, it will be virtually impossible to stop its abuse when it occurs. The beliefs of QAnon followers are decidedly irrational, and no rational arguments will address them.  It’s simply a case, as they say in Maine, of “you can’t get there from here.”  

A demonstrator holds a QAnon sign as he walks at a protest opposing Washington state’s stay-at-home order to slow the coronavirus outbreak April 19, 2020, in Olympia, Washington. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee had blasted then-President Donald Trump’s calls to “liberate” parts of the country from stay-at-home and other orders designed to combat the spread of the coronavirus. Inslee said Trump was fomenting a potentially deadly “insubordination” among his followers before the pandemic is contained. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

A demonstrator holds a QAnon sign as he walks at a protest opposing Washington state’s stay-at-home order to slow the coronavirus outbreak April 19, 2020, in Olympia, Washington. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

So, unless we are prepared to use physical force — and there are times when “calling the police or National Guard” are clearly called for — we have to meet the QAnon faith-filled where they are. We need to use faith-informed, if not faith-filled, arguments in order to do that.


RELATED: QAnon: The alternative religion that’s coming to your church


Just as rational questions invite rational answers, faith-filled beliefs invite faith-appreciating responses. As hard as it may be to practice what I am preaching here, our ability to do so may be the single most important tool we have to keep things safe and sane for both the rational and the spiritual in a world too often bitterly and dangerously divided between the religious and the secular.

Such an approach would start by affirming our appreciation of the positive power of faith and admit that there is more to life than what we can now rationally explain. We should act with genuine curiosity, asking QAnon believers what they think we least understand about their lives and views. We need to stop asking them to justify their conclusions and help us better understand the transcendent questions they feel their beliefs answer. 

If it helps, view it from the other end: Imagine what would happen if you explained to a nonbeliever that their questions about everything, from how the world came into existence to why children die of cancer, is “it’s all God’s will” and expected them to take comfort in your answer.

(Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)