'You feel enlightened': Religion expert explains how COVID conspiracies have flourished in churches

Conspiracy theories spread through religious communities quickly because it makes them feel "enlightened" and proves secular authorities are trying to deceive people, an expert says.

A south Auckland Councillor this week said he'd been inundated with messages from angry churchgoers, after he expressed support for prioritising a COVID-19 vaccine rollout in the area. 

"I've received a number of messages today with people saying the church should excommunicate me & calling me to repent for supporting a vaccine rollout," Efeso Collins tweeted on Sunday. "These are tough discussions to navigate so open & honest conversations are needed."

Many of Auckland's community cases have emerged in south Auckland, a region particularly at risk from uncontrolled spread of the virus according to experts, due to demographic factors. That's led to calls for the area to be first in line for the vaccines once the frontline border workers are done - including from Mayor Phil Goff and National Party leader Judith Collins. 

Efeso Collins told the New Zealand Herald he's been hearing conspiracy theories about vaccines and COVID-19 from churchgoers since the start of the pandemic, but they've recently taken a "sour turn", many coming from people attending "breakaway" Christian churches. 

"The thinking is the church should shut its door on me, that whole 'fraud, he doesn't belong here, he's not one of us'." 

It's not clear what conspiracies are spreading amongst south Auckland churches, but well-known false claims include that the vaccines contain microchips (they don't); that they can alter our DNA (they can't); and that they contain cells from aborted babies (untrue). A new one that emerged this week is that some of the vaccines are running software that can be updated remotely, perhaps via 5G mobile networks (also false). 

Religious historian Peter Lineham told The AM Show on Tuesday most churches would preach in favour of vaccination - including Pacific churches, which would feel an "obligation" to "deliver positive messages". 

"But I think a lot of the problem comes that conspiracy theories generate amongst people who don't have maybe the educational background or the cultural background that connects them to the scientific providers. I think that's where the problem comes - people who have got reason to be suspicious of the experts then start thinking, 'they're hoodwinking us, they're telling us something that isn't true'."

While it's not a bad thing to be suspicious of authority - after all, they do sometimes mislead us - Lineham says once a person has adopted a false conspiracy theory as the truth, it's difficult to dislodge with facts and evidence.

"What happens in religious communities is kind of a whispering game, where people pass information from one to another and suddenly there's a whole lot of people verifying something on no information at all. Once you've got that extra information, you feel 'enlightened' - you feel as though you see through the things that have been deceiving the world overall. 

"So with that sense of confidence, you now cannot hear corrective messages."

The only vaccine currently being used in New Zealand was developed by US pharma giant Pfizer and a German company called BioNTech. It has been rigorously tested - undergoing peer-reviewed trials involving tens of thousands of people - the data scrutinised by New Zealand's own Medsafe agency before giving it approval.

Real-world evidence collected since its rollout in a few countries overseas - notably Israel and the UK - suggests it is incredibly effective at reducing not just serious illness but also transmission. 

"It's quite interesting that people who believe in one conspiracy theory tend to gravitate towards a lot of other conspiracy theories," said Lineham.

"We know that people who reject the vaccine for various reasons will also be believers in a whole lot of other strange theories and notions about how the world works."

Lineham says he's no anti-vaxxer.

"I want that jab."