I’ve been interviewed by many journalists in 2020 about the pandemic, and the question they kept asking me was some version of “What exactly is going on here?”
They weren’t ignorant of COVID-19. Rather, they were trying to make sense of a strange fellowship they were witnessing amid this public health crisis. Listening to these journalists, beards scratch on the telephone, voices hesitate, liaisons are painfully announced in a kind of incredulity. They were witnessing a phenomenon of which they had no word.
They saw right-wing libertarians protest alongside yoga studio owners, who themselves shared the chants for more “freedom.” The denunciation of public health measures and the fear of so-called “rushed” vaccines came from the two Trumpists of MAGA and wellness influencers. And came Pastel QAnonwhere the grand conspiracy theory involving Satanism, child sex trafficking and cannibalism spread across Instagram in the soft, reassuring tones of femininity.
These strange bedfellows were using the pandemic to celebrate their union, but this marriage between “the female-dominated New Age” and “the male-dominated realm of conspiracy theory” had been described as far back as 2011.
It’s called conspiracy, and anyone interested in today’s science denial movement should familiarize themselves with this amalgamation of spiritual prophecy and distrust of traditional power structures.
The dawn of the Age of Aquarius
I find it hard to think of a TV show that has presented grand conspiracy theories more successfully than X fileswhose original run ran from 1993 to 2002. But its forgotten sister show, Millenniumis an interesting case study here, focusing on end-time prophecy, cults, and spiritual warfare.
Millennium was the story of a criminal profiler, played gravely and wearily by Lance Henriksen, as he leaves the FBI to join a private circle of investigators, the Millennium Group. Except that in the show’s second season, this group of ex-cops was revealed to be a doomsday cult in the midst of an internal split on the eve of the new millennium. The show tackled stories whose spiritual themes will sound familiar to anyone who has consumed conspiritualist content during the pandemic: the battle between good and evil; visions of angels and demons; even a biological weapon for which there is a secret vaccine that will ensure the survival of the Millennium Group. If we merge these intrigues with the government cover-ups of X filesyou get something close to conspiracy.
This word, “conspirituality”, was formally defined in an article published in 2011 in the Journal of Contemporary Religion and written by Charlotte Ward, independent researcher on alternative spirituality, and David Voas, demographer and sociologist of religion. Their account of this “hybrid belief system”, as they put it, sheds much-needed light on what we are witnessing today.
Because as different as New Age spirituality and grand conspiracy theories may seem, they adhere to the same core beliefs: nothing happens by accident, nothing is what it seems, and everything is connected. There is little room for chance in these communities; everything is useful and directed. Conspiritualists believe that a secret group secretly controls, or attempts to control, the social and political order, but our collective liberation from this cabal will be won when we go through a shift in consciousness, a kind of spiritual awakening. Think of Fox Mulder singing The 5e “Aquarius:” from Dimension
No more lies or derisions […]
Mystical Crystal Revelation […]
It is the dawn of the Age of Aquarius.
I contacted Julian Walker, the co-host of the Conspirituality podcast who has followed and commented on this emerging movement, and asked him exactly what conspiritualists mean when they speak of a “change of consciousness”. His response began with religious traditions—the prophesied return of Jesus Christ to the Christian faith, as well as similar themes in other religions where the world will be remade according to ancient scriptures—before moving on to past decades. “For New Agers,” he wrote to me, “this is then mixed in with a mishmash of religious and sci-fi references.” Ghosts, angels and aliens deliver urgent messages about the near future, perhaps the year 2000, or the end of 2012 of the Mayan calendar, or even, yes, the dawn of the Age of Aquarius. Only then will our savior return and all our problems will be magically solved.
It sure is tempting. Given our chronic anxieties and societal woes, from poverty to work-life imbalances, from an ongoing pandemic to political corruption, the idea that all of these ills will soon be wiped from the picture of a one shot can give people hope, especially if those people are susceptible to the conspiritualist mindset. Who are they, according to Walker? “People who search for meaning and purpose, and who pride themselves on thinking for themselves and being skeptical of ‘mainstream narratives’.” Our brains are all wired to see patterns even where there are none. This propensity can fuel the hunt for anomalies. How then can these anomalies be explained? Conspiracy theories, of course. “We also know from the data that circumstantial details play an important role in terms of entry into beliefs and sectarian groups. Recent loss of work, relationships, loved ones, or status may also play a role.
The conspiracy puts its followers at the center of a fantastical story. As Walker himself said so when he and his co-hosts began discussing the rise of conspiracy influence during the COVID-19 pandemic, “it’s like a hero searching for a narrative.” And this complex but attractive narrative is built by very charismatic influencers.
Ground zero: Austin, Texas
If you’re still unsure how the conspiracy plays out in the real world, here’s a quintessential example.
Dr. Christiane Northrup, an OB/GYN who has become known as a fierce voice for women’s health, now spends her days weaving a Dungeons and Dragons-style narrative about his warriors of radical light defeating the forces of darkness. The spirituality half of the conspiracy is fulfilled by Dr. Northrup’s stories of the Indigo Children and a mystical force called Providence that will save us all. The conspiracy stems in part from his claims that COVID-19 vaccines will secretly make people who receive them the property of pharmaceutical companies and that TV news contains a flicker intended to hypnotize their audiences.
Therefore, like a true conspiritualist, she believes that dark forces are manipulating humanity through governments, corporations, and the media, but that a new spiritual era will grant her followers victory over these influences. conspirators. This is X files meets Millennium. It’s as if the harshness of believing in endless conspiracies invites some kind of hope – faith, even – that something beyond corruptible systems can come forward as cavalry and save the day.
I asked Julian Walker which conspiracy theorists he was watching.
There’s Aubrey Marcus, the founder of the supplement company Onnit, who warned that vaccine passports are a potential gateway to a dystopian future and who produced the short movie A gathering of the tribe, which posits that some special people (maybe even you!) are sleeper agents of a mysterious tribe of ancient sages on a secret mission to improve the Earth.
There’s Mikki Willis, the plot director Plandemic films, which yearns for a great worldwide revival, which will aptly be the subtitle of the third film in his series.
And there is, of course, JP Sears, the Clown Prince of Wellness, whose sarcastic jokes about the media and doctors, full of conspiratorial ideas sold as humor, are followed by sales pitches of supplements and displays of armed masculinity. Many of these conspiritualists and the freedom-loving opposites who revolve around them moved to Austin, Texas, where a “freedom-oriented community living situation” involving a highly secure building complex was at one point in discussion, according to Walker. It remains to be seen what will come out of it.
Conspiracy is a feeling
Conspiracy is not just a social phenomenon or a kind of religion on the Internet. It has the potential to erode trust in science. Since scientific discoveries come from public and private institutions and are relayed to the masses through mainstream media sources, conspiritualists can easily dismiss them as part of a conspiratorial web. This is why so many influencers in this space have downplayed the impact of COVID-19, many even calling the pandemic a planned exercise in population control, and why conspiritualists are generally opposed to vaccines. For them, the army of light is not the public health officials, medical professionals, vaccine scientists and frontline workers trying to defeat an evil virus; the good guys are more people like them who deny the reality of the pandemic. Biomedical scientists, politicians and journalists are the sinister forces that Holocaust deniers must overcome.
The most reproduced discovery in the literature on conspiratorial ideas is that the more someone believes in one conspiracy theory, the more likely they are to believe in other conspiracy theories. The true explanation of an event, such as 9/11 or the Holocaust, is repudiated and a multitude of alternative explanations, all contradictory, are adopted. The conspiracy goes even further in this irrationality. It’s an octopus with endless tentacles, seizing on all sorts of pseudoscience, religious beliefs, conspiracy theories and spiritual wishes. Supplements coexist with semi-automatic weapons. Organic food is served to libertarians waving flags. The microbiome hype is being sold to antivaxxers. It’s a strange alternate reality in which intuition, faith, and fierce individualism guide our thoughts.
The conspiracy is going nowhere. As Ward and Voas pointed out in their seminal paper, “Costs are minimal and entertainment value is high because the possibilities of the web are maximized.” The conspiracy exists because, for many, it feels good.
Those of us who champion science and value it as a force for good in our societies need to take notice and respond.
Take home message:
– Conspiracy is a hybrid belief system in which followers believe in grand conspiracies involving governments, corporations and the media, and that salvation will come in the form of spiritual awakening
– Conspiracy influencers include Dr Christiane Northrup, Aubrey Marcus, Mikki Willis and JP Sears
– The conspiracy is associated with scientific denial on certain topics, including the COVID-19 pandemic and COVID-19 vaccines