I was 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 were not clueless about COVID-19. Rather, they were trying to make sense of a strange fraternization they were witnessing in the middle of this public health crisis. Listening to these journalists, beards were being scratched over the phone, voices were hesitant, connections were painfully being enunciated in a sort of disbelief. They were witnessing a phenomenon for which they didn’t have a word.
They were seeing right-wing libertarians protesting alongside yoga studio owners, who themselves were sharing in the chants for more “freedom.” The denunciation of public health measures and the fear of so-called “rushed” vaccines were coming from both MAGA Trumpists and wellness influencers. Then came Pastel QAnon, in which the grand conspiracy theory involving Satanism, child sex trafficking, and cannibalism was spreading on 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 early as 2011.
It’s called conspirituality, and anyone interested in the current science denial movement should familiarize themselves with this amalgam of spiritual prophesying and distrust of traditional power structures.
The dawning of the Age of Aquarius
I find it hard to think of a television show that more successfully showcased grand conspiracy theories than The X-Files, whose original run spanned the years 1993 to 2002. But its forgotten sister show, Millennium, is an interesting case study here, focusing on end-time prophecies, cults, and spiritual warfare.
Millennium was the story of a criminal profiler, played with gravitas and weariness by Lance Henriksen, as he leaves the FBI behind 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 an apocalyptic sect in the midst of an internal schism on the eve of the new millennium. The show took on 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 bioweapon for which a secret vaccine exists that will ensure the survival of the Millennium Group. If we merge these storylines with the government coverups of The X-Files, we get something that approximates conspirituality.
That word, “conspirituality,” was formally defined in a paper published in 2011 in the Journal of Contemporary Religion and authored by Charlotte Ward, an independent researcher on alternative spirituality, and David Voas, a demographer and sociologist of religion. Their account of this “hybrid system of beliefs,” as they put it, sheds much needed light on what we are witnessing today.
For as different as New Age spirituality and grand conspiracy theories may look, they adhere to the same core beliefs: nothing happens by accident, nothing is as it seems, and everything is connected. There is little room for randomness in these communities; everything is purposeful and directed. Conspiritualists believe that a secret group covertly controls, or is attempting to control, the social and political order, but our collective freedom from this cabal will be won when we go through a shift in consciousness, a kind of spiritual awakening. Think Fox Mulder singing The 5th Dimension’s “Aquarius:”
No more falsehoods or derisions […]
Mystic crystal revelation […]
This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.
I reached out to Julian Walker, the co-host of the Conspirituality podcast which has been tracking and commenting on this emerging movement, and asked him exactly what do conspiritualists mean when they talk of “a shift in consciousness.” His answer began with religious traditions—the prophesized return of Jesus Christ in Christian faith, as well as similar themes in other religions where the world will be remade according to ancient scripture—before moving on to the past decades. “For New Agers,” he wrote to me, “this is then mixed together with a hodgepodge of religious and science fiction references.” Ghosts, angels and aliens deliver urgent messages about the near future, perhaps the year 2000, or the 2012 end of the Mayan calendar, or even, yes, the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. Only then will our saviour return and all of our problems will be magically resolved.
It sure is tempting. Given our chronic anxieties and our societal woes, from poverty to work-life imbalances, from an on-going pandemic to political corruption, the idea that all of these ills will soon be wiped off the board in one fell swoop can give people hope, especially if these people are susceptible to the conspiritualist mindset. Who are they, according to Walker? “People seeking meaning and purpose, and who take pride in thinking for themselves and in being skeptical about ‘mainstream narratives.’” Our brains are all wired to see patterns even where there are none. This proclivity can fuel anomaly hunting. How then to explain these anomalies? Conspiracy theories, of course. “We also know from the data that circumstantial details play a significant role in terms of getting into cultish beliefs and groups. Recent loss of work, relationships, loved ones, or status can all play a role, too.”
Conspirituality puts its followers at the centre of a fantastical story. As Walker himself put it when he and his co-hosts started to discuss the rise in influence of conspirituality during the COVID-19 pandemic, “it’s like a hero looking for a narrative.” And this complex yet appealing narrative is being constructed by some very charismatic influencers.
Ground zero: Austin, Texas
If you are still unclear as to how conspirituality plays out in the real world, here is a quintessential example.
Dr. Christiane Northrup, an OB/GYN who came to prominence as a fierce voice for women’s health, is now spending her days weaving a Dungeons-and-Dragons-style narrative about her Warriors of the Radical Light defeating the forces of darkness. The spirituality half of conspirituality is fulfilled by Dr. Northrup’s tales of Indigo children and of a mystical force called Providence that will rescue us all. The conspiracy half comes from her claims that the COVID-19 vaccines will secretly make the people receiving them the property of pharmaceutical companies and that television news broadcasts contain a flicker meant to hypnotize their audience.
Hence, in true conspiritualist fashion, she believes that dark forces are manipulating humanity through governments, corporations, and the media, but that a new spiritual age will grant her followers victory over these conspiratorial influences. It’s The X-Files meets Millennium. It’s like the dourness of believing in endless conspiracies invites some kind of hope—faith, even—that something that transcends corruptible systems can be manifested like a cavalry and save the day.
I asked Julian Walker which conspiritualists he keeps an eye on.
There’s Aubrey Marcus, the founder of supplement company Onnit, who has warned about vaccine passports being a potential gateway to a dystopian future and who produced the short film A Gathering of the Tribe, which posits that some special people (perhaps even you!) are sleeper agents of a mysterious tribe of ancient wise beings on a secret mission to improve the Earth.
There’s Mikki Willis, the director of the conspiratorial Plandemic movies, who is yearning for a global Great Awakening, which appropriately enough will be the subtitle of the third movie in his series.
And there is, of course, JP Sears, the clown prince of wellness, whose sarcastic quips about the media and doctors, full of conspiratorial ideas sold as humour, are followed by sales pitches for supplements and displays of gun-toting masculinity. Many of these conspiritualists and the freedom-loving contrarians who orbit around them have moved to Austin, Texas, where a “freedom-focused communal living situation” involving a heavily-secured housing complex was at one point being discussed, according to Walker. What will emerge from it remains to be seen.
Conspirituality is a feeling
Conspirituality is not just a social phenomenon or an Internet religion of sorts. It has the potential to erode trust in science. Since scientific findings come out of public and private institutions and are relayed to the masses via mainstream media sources, conspiritualists can dismiss them easily as being part of a web of conspiracies. This is why so many influencers in this space have minimized the impact of COVID-19, with many even calling the pandemic a planned exercise in population control, and why conspiritualists are generally opposed to the vaccines. To them, the army of light is not the public health officials, healthcare professionals, vaccine scientists, and frontline workers trying to defeat an evil virus; rather, the good guys are people like them who deny the reality of the pandemic. Biomedical scientists, politicians, and journalists are the sinister forces the deniers must defeat.
The most reproduced finding in the literature on conspiracy ideation is that the more someone believes in a conspiracy theory, the more likely they are to believe in other conspiracy theories. The true explanation for an event, like 9/11 or the Holocaust, are repudiated and a slew of alternative explanations, all contradicting each other, are embraced. Conspirituality takes this irrationality even further. It is an octopus with endless tentacles, grabbing hold of all sorts of pseudosciences, religious beliefs, conspiracy theories, and spiritual wishes. Supplements coexist with semi-automatic weapons. Organic food is served to flag-waving libertarians. Microbiome hype is sold to antivaxxers. It is a strange, alternate reality in which intuition, faith, and fierce individualism guide one’s thoughts.
Conspirituality is not going anywhere. As Ward and Voas pointed out in their seminal paper, “costs are minimal and the entertainment value is high, as the possibilities of the web are maximised.” Conspirituality exists because, to many, it feels good.
Those of us who defend science and value it as a force for good in our societies must take notice and push back.
- Conspirituality is a hybrid system of beliefs in which followers believe in grand conspiracies involving governments, corporations, and the media, and that salvation will manifest itself in the form of a spiritual awakening
- Conspirituality influencers include Dr. Christiane Northrup, Aubrey Marcus, Mikki Willis, and JP Sears
- Conspirituality is associated with science denial on certain topics, notably the COVID-19 pandemic and the COVID-19 vaccines