Two weeks ago, I escaped the UK’s pestilential winter and flew to Costa Rica. I am not entirely proud of this decision – I feel I somehow dodged the draft. On the other hand, it’s really lovely here and I’m supporting the economy, which has been badly hit by the tourism slump.
At one of the first places I stayed in, the proprietor surprised me by urging me to take off my mask. He was an Italian, who moved to Costa Rica a few years back to follow a more spiritual life. He himself refused to wear a mask. He told me he’d been physically ejected from one local supermarket, but had found another that would serve him senza maschera.
He thought the pandemic was a fraud, obviously, but that was just the tip of his conspiracy iceberg. He also believed that the world was controlled by the Illuminati, who were in turn controlled by demons. The Illuminati hand-picked the best and brightest children, then brain-washed them using Satanic rituals. The pandemic, needless to say, was All Part of the Plan.
It was very strange to talk to this likable, successful and apparently intelligent man, who shared many of my spiritual beliefs – in reincarnation, the non-existence of self and so on – but who also lived in a Gnostic universe where humanity is controlled by evil demons, and only a special few know the truth.
He was a classic example of a phenomenon I have been studying this year. In April, in the early stages of the global lockdown, I noticed leading figures in my culture (wellness / New Age spirituality) posting what I considered to be bizarre and dangerous conspiracy theories – the documentary ‘Plandemic’, for example, or a Pizzagate documentary called ‘Out of Shadows’, or an interview with David Icke where he suggested the pandemic was caused by 5G.
Trying to figure out this overlap of spirituality and conspiracy-thinking, I came across a term coined a decade ago by two anthropologists – David Voas and Charlotte Ward – who dubbed it ‘conspirituality.’ I used the term to describe what I saw happening in 2020, and my piece inspired a lot of responses, including a weekly podcast called Conspirituality.
Over the course of this year, the conspiracy theories have gotten darker and more violent. They’ve shifted from suspicions about vaccines – I don’t share these fears, but at least this is in the realm of the debatable – to the Qanon conspiracy theory. Qanon believers think that leading Democrats and Hollywood liberals are actually Satanic paedophiles, who will eventually be overthrown by that cosmic lightworker, Donald J. Trump. It’s a quasi-fascist theory – Trump the Avenging Angel will purge the land of the evil demons, and usher in a thousand-year Reich. Sorry, age of love.
This summer, Qanon spread from fringe websites like 8chan to the Instagram pages of wellness influencers. As Marianne Williamson wrote this month: ‘It’s very disheartening to see how many people with phrases like ‘spiritual coaching’ after their name seem to be completely taken in by the right-wing authoritarian Q phenomenon.’
What former president Obama calls “conspiracy culture” is no longer a kooky thing we can laugh at, like it was in the 1990s. It’s now, according to Obama, the ‘single biggest threat’ to democracy. He said in an interview with the Atlantic this month: “large swaths of the country genuinely believe that the Democratic Party is a front for a paedophile ring…If we do not have the capacity to distinguish what’s true from what’s false, then by definition the marketplace of ideas doesn’t work. And by definition our democracy doesn’t work. We are entering into an epistemological crisis.”
Conspiracy culture has created a situation where a large part of the American population thinks the election was stolen, the pandemic is a fraud, vaccines are an evil plot, and climate change is a hoax. America’s enemies could not ask for a better situation. And what’s really tragic, for me, is that my culture – wellness / spirituality – is part of the problem.
Why is ‘conspirituality’ flourishing, and what can we do about it? There are psychological, economic, technological and long-term historical reasons. Psychologically, people drawn to spirituality tend to have certain personality traits – we score high in traits like openness to unusual experiences and beliefs, intuition and absorption (i.e. the capacity to get very absorbed by an idea, story or image). We are also suspicious of authority, official narratives, and mainstream medicine.
These can be gifts. The capacity for ecstatic experiences and unusual thinking have inspired some of the great innovations in science, the arts and religion. However, the shadow-side of these positive traits is that we can get carried away by magical thinking. We may think ‘if it feels true it is’. We can get pulled into the narcissistic idea that we, the special ones, have figured out the secret truth.
As William James noted in The Varieties of Religious Experience, paranoid conspiracy theories are a kind of inverted mystical experience. In a positive mystical experience, you can feel everything is connected, the Universe is on your side, you are the Divine. In a paranoid mystical experience, you feel everything is connected, but it’s all connected against you – the Universe is controlled by a secret cabal and you are at its mercy. An ego-dissolving euphoric trip easily morphs into an ego-persecuted paranoid trip.
I also think there is an overlap between trauma, spiritual experiences, and susceptibility to paranoid conspiracies and cult-like thinking. In other words, ‘conspiracy culture’ is a mental health problem, with people projecting their inner wounds onto the world.
In addition, there are economic reasons why the wellness world has fallen for Qanon and other conspiracies. It is a hard grind, trying to make a living as a wellness influencer. Matthew Remski, one of the hosts of the Conspirituality podcast, puts it well: old-school religion was an opiate for capitalism, but New Age spirituality is neoliberalism itself. It’s lots of solitary individuals hustling to try and grow their platform and make a living. We’re part of what Hanzi Freinacht calls the ‘yoga precariat’ (a merging of ‘precarious’ and ‘proletariat’), and the lockdown hit our revenue – all those cancelled retreats and workshops.
When the economy was booming in the ‘90s and Noughties, New Age influencers sold the dream of instant magical abundance. That’s still a good sell. But in these darker times of high inequality and middle-class impoverishment, some influencers have found a new story to sell: ‘The evil Elite are controlling you. Rise up and resist.’
What some wellness influencers discovered, this year, was that if they shared conspiracy content and used conspiracy hashtags, they could massively increase their likes. They could reach all those people at home, alone, afraid and online. When you get a vast wave of positive feedback, you double-down. Some wellness influencers moved, in the course of a few weeks, from posting about abundance to posting about demonic celebrities stealing babies.
There are technological reasons for this rapid radicalization. People have called Qanon a cult, and in some ways it is. People disappear down a rabbit hole, become completely immersed in an alternate reality, and get cut off from friends and family (there’s a very sad Reddit page about Q-related relationship-breakdowns, called Qanon Casualties). But there is no authoritarian cult leader controlling them. Instead, they are radicalized by social media algorithms, which are programmed to keep you engaged. If you watch one conspiracy video, it will suggest more and more. So, in a way, the tech elite really are controlling you.
In the 1960s, consensus reality was managed by the terrestrial TV networks. Now, in the Internet age, there is no consensus reality, but rather multiple realities competing for our attention. It’s comparable to the info-anarchy that followed the invention of the printing press, in the 16th and 17th centuries. It took many decades, centuries even, for a new consensus reality to settle in.
Which brings us to the final reason conspiracy culture is flourishing: the old order is breaking down, and a new order has yet to settle. By the old order, I mean hydrocarbon capitalism, and many other aspects of the settled order, such as industrial farming, old media, gender identity, ethnic demographics, American hegemony, and perhaps even materialist physics. All of these established conventions are in flux, and for a while – perhaps decades – life is going to be turbulent. While life is so uncertain, people will cling to certain ideas for reassurance. We are already seeing a rise in occult thinking and charismatic politics comparable to what happened in Europe in the 1890s-1930s, when the ‘New Age’ first appeared.
We don’t yet know what we will believe on the other side of this. It may be that some beliefs now considered fringe become settled and established in the future. It may even be that some conspiracy theories turn out to be true – we still don’t know for sure if the COVID virus came from a market or a laboratory, for example.
In the meantime, what can we do about ‘conspiracy culture’ and the threat it poses to democracy?
Elites in politics and technology seem surprised by what has festered beneath their penthouse apartments. They have come back with knee-jerk responses – ban any pages that mention Qanon (even to criticize it), ban anti-vaccine groups, make a vaccine compulsory.
In my opinion, and I may be wrong, these kinds of heavy-handed responses can backfire. Look at David Icke: YouTube took down the viral interview he gave in April to London Real, but now Gaia TV has launched a major new TV series with him. Persecution only expands his platform.
Making a vaccine compulsory would be particularly wrong-headed. As far as I understand, around 60% of a population need to take a vaccine for it to control an illness. A majority of people are pro-vaccine and only around a fifth are steadfastly against all vaccination. But forcing skeptics to get vaccinated would only fan the flames of paranoia. Instead, focus on persuading the 40% or so who aren’t sure one way or the other.
Clearly there is a global problem with people’s ability to assess information online. Finland recently introduced critical thinking classes into schools, to help young people discern the probable truth online. Other countries have set up special teams to combat fake news – elf armies, as it were, to combat the troll armies employed by hostile countries’ secret services. One could follow Germany’s example and make social media companies liable for content on their sites, fining them if they don’t take down any content that is defamatory or violence-inducing within 24 hours.
In terms of ‘conspirituality’, we have to recognize that every culture has a shadow-side, and the pandemic has revealed the shadow side of New Age / wellness culture – its weak critical thinking, its susceptibility to pseudo-science and charismatic influencers, its narcissism and solipsism, its amoral commercialism, its weak grasp of politics and fondness for magical solutions to systemic problems.
There have been times this year when I have felt like rejecting the entire culture and becoming an out-and-out skeptic. And yet I know there is something important in spirituality – its emphasis on compassion, mindfulness, healing, its sense of connectedness to nature, its pluralism and respect for different traditions, its insistence on thinking for ourselves, its exploration of the dynamic, intelligence-filled nature of reality.
At its best, spirituality offers the hope that we can combine spiritual experiences, ethical practices, and the scientific method. That means finding a balance between science and soul, the rational and the ecstatic, Logos and Mythos.
The non-rational has come flooding out this year from the collective subconscious, like a bad trip. But a hyper-rational, soulless culture misses important stuff as well.
What has encouraged me this year is that many spiritual leaders have stood up against toxic conspiracy theories like Qanon. I hope we can own and heal the shadow of our culture with love, distinguishing between toxic ideas and those who are victimized by them.
Finally, spiritual culture puts a great emphasis on gnosis. I know the truth! I know the will of the Universe! I suggest we need more humility. We can learn to shrug and say, like Socrates, “I don’t know. I’m not sure.”
Being able to ride through deeply turbulent times without grasping after false certainties – now there’s a spiritual practice for 2020.
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Jules Evans is a philosopher and wisdom teacher, based at Queen Mary, University of London. He's the author of Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations (2012) and The Art of Losing Control (2017) and co-editor of Breaking Open: Finding a Way Through Spiritual Emergency.
If you are interested in hearing him speak more on this topic, he is hosting an online event, Conspirituality: what is it and what do we do about it?, on December 2. You can sign up for his weekly newsletter at philosophyforlife.org.