In October, Louisville Community Acupuncture in Kentucky published a statement on its website that they “never imagined we’d have to write.”
Titled Conspirituality: Wellness meets Conspiracy Theory, it announced that the acupuncture business stood in solidarity with parts of the yoga community that were rejecting conspiracy theories, like QAnon, misinformation about COVID-19, and anti-vax ideologies. These conspiracy theories are currently “tearing through the wellness world,” they wrote.
Earlier this year, Politico called 2020 the “Golden Age of Conspiracy Theories.” Polling from March found that around 30 percent of Americans believe in a COVID-19 conspiracy theory. A quarter of people who know about QAnon believe there is some truth to it, and during the U.S. presidential election, 1 in 20 tweets about the election came from a QAnon account.
But “one community in particular has found itself prey,” wrote WNYC’s On the Media. “The yoga, wellness, and spirituality world, where skepticism about vaccines has intersected with the rapid spread of disinformation online to create a toxic stew known as ‘conspirituality.'"
As one yoga teacher told The Sydney Morning Herald, “Beautiful, caring people were suddenly saying that COVID isn’t real." Online, where wellness and spiritual influencers have large captive audiences, the past months have shown they are using their platforms to share about the "deep state," not just their lifestyles.
The term “Conspirituality,” a mash-up of the words conspiracy theory and spirituality, was first proposed in 2011 by anthropologists Charlotte Ward and David Voas, who noticed that sometimes, those with spiritual or alternative beliefs are especially prone to conspiracy-like thinking. The concept has only become more relevant since; there's now even a podcast documenting this phenomenon, called Conspirituality.
What we mean by "spiritual or alternative beliefs" here involves different but intersecting modern movements, from New Age-y ideas about spiritual energy to psychonauts, certain yoga communities, "natural parenting," and parts of wellness culture—a secular practice that nevertheless dabbles in things like crystals, Reiki, and alternative medicine.
Jules Evans, a philosopher and research fellow at the Center for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary, University of London, wrote in April that in some ways, the current rise in conspiracy thinking is predictable. “The pandemic has led to a breakdown in knowledge and certainty,” he wrote.
But what about the vulnerability of the wellness and New Age communities? Was that predictable too?
According to Evans, we can attempt to understand “conspirituality” through the underlying personality traits and ways of thinking that conspiracy theorists and those engaging in various kinds of alternative, or spiritual beliefs have in common—as well as the political, environmental, and technological contexts that breed this sort of convergence.
Once we're aware of these crossovers, perhaps people who are interested in spirituality will be better able to resist conspiracy theories. Evans advocates for a kind of critical spirituality or wellness, in which people can access the beneficial sides of spirituality or wellness, minus Pizzagate or the perils of 5G. This practice might involve checking sources, confronting confirmation biases, and critically reflecting on our own beliefs and experiences. To achieve this though, we have to first grapple with conspirituality.
Evans doesn’t approach this topic from the perspective of a debunker or a condescending outsider. He's a proponent of Western spirituality himself, but that’s why he’s been so troubled to see leaders within his own community falling prey to conspiratorial thinking.
VICE World News spoke with Evans about the history and legacy of conspirituality, and the various influences that lead a spiritual person down the path of conspiracy thinking.
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
VICE World News: Can you define what conspirituality is? My colleague Anna Merlan recently wrote about what she called the "conspiracy singularity," which is that people don't just believe in one conspiracy theory anymore, but all these different conspiracy theories are converging together. Conspirituality seems to be taking the singularity one step further and saying that, like a black hole, conspiracy theories are starting to attract and consume other domains—like spirituality or wellness.
Jules Evans: In terms of conspiracy theories I mean theories of hidden influence and nefarious plots controlling political events nationally and globally. And really, I mean incredible theories—theories that to my judgment, seem wildly improbable. As opposed to just conspiracy, because there are genuine conspiracies as well.
By spirituality, I mean Western spirituality, New Age spirituality, sometimes it's called conscious culture, it also overlaps somewhat with the occult.
Conspirituality is in fact the overlap of the two. It's asking why conspiracy theories seem to be very popular among people in New Age and spiritual cultures.
Do you include wellness culture in your definition of spirituality? A person who is, for example, very into homoeopathy, or the keto diet, or alkaline water?
Yeah, I think so. When I first wrote about this, I was referring particularly to alternative spirituality. Then, it became clear to me this year that Americans were talking more about wellness. And that wellness is a much bigger demographic than spirituality. Spirituality includes people who are interested in alternative beliefs and alternative metaphysics, like maybe they believe in god or spirits or energy.
Then there's a much larger group that's into different alternative practices for their own well-being. They might not necessarily have unusual or non-materialist metaphysics. Wellness is a useful term for them. I think we've also seen conspiracy theories spreading in the world of wellness as well.
Wellness culture is certainly something that's been recently on the rise in the U.S. and conspirituality, as you said, is a term from the last ten years. But you’ve talked about how this overlap in conspiracy theory thinking and New Age thinking has striking precedents in history. What are some times in the past this convergence happened before, and what can we learn from the historical contexts in which it occurred?
There are certain moments in history when the collapse of the ruling narrative leads to a period of instability in what is believable and credible; when there's a collapse in the monopoly of meaning and lots of rival meanings and theories appear.
You could describe the Reformation like that, for example. You had a new technology which enabled a breakdown of a monopoly in information. Suddenly people could print their own Bibles, read it, understand it, and come out with their own theories.
The result is that you had all kinds of different ecstatic and apocalyptic political movements rise up during the Reformation. In some ways you can compare that to the last few years, when we’ve also seen the rise of weird cultish and apocalyptic politics, and ecstatic political religious movements on the right and left.
That's led to people who've been very uncertain and afraid and are looking for alternative kinds of belief systems to hang onto. A lot of the time, these new belief systems will include magical thinking because people are more prone to magical thinking in stressful times.
Part of the reason that people are taken aback by conspirituality is that there's an assumption that spiritual or New Age-y beliefs are solely held by people on the left. There's some historical precedents that contradict that assumption too, right?
I wrote a piece about Nazi hippies responding to the fact that people were surprised that spiritual hippie types were getting into a far right conspiracy theory, like QAnon. That really flummoxed some people because they thought of spiritual hippies as progressive liberals, not at all close ideologically to far right conspiracy theories. But what I pointed out was that we shouldn't be surprised by that overlap.
In the past, we've seen a similar overlap of people both drawn to alternative spiritual beliefs and alternative medicine, getting into radical politics of the left and right.
And that's because of what some academics call the occulture. The occulture is like a subculture where alternative forbidden beliefs grow. You can think of the occulture as a kind of Chinese wet market: It is a condition where all kinds of beliefs can ferment and they often mix with each other in weird and unpredictable ways—just like a virus in a wet market can jump from one species to another.
Likewise, in the occulture, in that kind of occult subculture, ideas can mix together.
In the 1920s and 1930s in Germany, for example,occult beliefs and spiritual beliefs were very popular and sometimes they would infuse with fascist beliefs.
In Weimar Germany, certain leading figures in the Nazi movement were also into alternative spirituality. Like [Heinrich] Himmler, who was the head of the SS, was a big fan of yoga. He tried to get all his SS officers to practice yoga, carried the Bhagavad Gita everywhere, and sent off expeditions to Tibet to talk to the Dalai Lama.
Rudolf Hess, the deputy Führer, was very into [Rudolph] Steiner's theories on biodynamic agriculture and even got inmates at concentration camps to work on his alternative medicine plants. He was also anti-vaccine. So, not all Nazis were into the occult, but some were.
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The point I am making is not that if you're into the New Age, you're essentially fascist. Some people have made that argument, like Theodor Adorno, of the Frankfurt School. He wrote a book about the occult, basically saying, we shouldn't be surprised that the Nazis were into the occult because irrationalism naturally leads to fascism.
That's not true and it's not fair. There are lots of very liberal people who are into the occult or into parapsychology. But it is weird and noticeable that the Nazis were very into it. They started something called the Pendulum Institute which used kind of dowsing techniques [a kind of water divination] to try and locate the position of Allied ships. They supported one of the first parapsychology institutes.
And of course Hitler was a kind of guru for the nation in Nazi ideology. He had channeled the spirit of the German people, he would cleanse the land of its demonic enemies, and usher in a new age of love.
That is a little bit comparable to the role that Trump seems to play for QAnon. He is this enlightened, multidimensional worker who will cleanse the land of the demonic liberals. There's a similar kind of apocalyptic conspiracy culture where your enemies aren't just people with different political views to you, but they are demonic.
You see that sometimes in QAnon or [U.K. conspiracy theorist and Holocaust denier] David Icke's conspiracy theories: that the evil people controlling the world aren't just bad, they're like a different species.
These are some of the political and contextual factors that might drive spirituality and conspiracies together. What individual personality traits might make somebody susceptible to conspirituality?
There have been some papers that have looked at personality traits which people are drawn to spirituality have, and also people who are drawn to conspiracy theories.
One, for example, is called schizotypal thinking or schizotypy. That sounds bad, but it's really defined as just an openness to unusual beliefs and unusual experiences. It can be benign. If you're very creative, for example, if you have a capacity for original, innovative thinking, that could be benign schizotypy. But it can also mean you're prone to beliefs that are bit off the chart. So that's one thing. A tendency to unusual beliefs or experiences, which, of course, is quite subjective.
People drawn to New Age spirituality and conspiracy thinking will also be prone to very independent thinking, suspicious of authority, suspicious of official narratives, suspicious of mainstream medicine, big pharma, and much more drawn to alternative medicine and alternative healing practices.
There's some evidence as well that there can be a tendency for narcissism in both new age spirituality and conspiracy thinking. Both can be a form of Gnosticism, which is a two-millennia old religious movement based on the idea that you are part of the special elite that has seen through the illusion of ordinary reality and accessed secret truths.
Sometimes with that kind of Gnostic idea comes an elitism and spiritual pride. We are the special ones, we understand—but it also sometimes comes with a rather dark, paranoid view of reality. Like that the illusion of ordinary reality is actually controlled by nefarious forces. That's very much relevant to the conspiracy thinking mentality.
That bit about narcissism is in line with a new paper in the European Journal of Social Psychology, which found that spiritual training doesn't always reduce self-enhancement, but instead can boost people's feelings of superiority.
Yeah. I've been looking at that very much this year. I suppose I've been exploring, in general, like the shadow side of New Age spirituality—which is very much my culture. Not to debunk it, but just to point it out.
I think a tendency to spiritual elitism can be part of that. Like: The ignorant masses don't get it. But we, the special ones, the yoga practicing, crystal cleansing, special ones, we understand the truth. We are resonating at a higher consciousness.
Back to wellness, I'm curious if you think that an interest in wellness might set a person on a path to believing in conspiracy theories in a causal way. If you enter these modes of thinking from the wellness side, Is there a way that you're set on a slippery path to be more vulnerable to conspiracy theories?
I don’t know. It depends.
There's one thing I've noticed about wellness and spirituality, and it's something Matthew Remski, one of the hosts of the Conspirituality podcast, phrased quite well. He said that old school religion was the opiate of the masses—it was kind of a painkiller for capitalism. Wellness and spirituality is really the embodiment of neo-liberalism itself.
In other words, it's a very decentralized marketplace where influencers are hustling for attention and money. That means that a lot of it is down to their personal charisma and their looks and their hustle on social media. Within that dynamic, if you can promise some kind of miracle cure, of course, you're going to get a lot of attention.
This is not anything new. The American cult of wellness is at least one hundred years old. These were things like Christian Science, the Mind Cure, or even something like Seventh Day Adventists. These were weird forms of Christianity that were all about physical health, and that made a religion of physical health.
Maybe this comes from the fact that America doesn't have an established religion so it's always had this real competing marketplace of spiritual and health cures.
I think it comes down to certain aspects American culture: The cult of health and wellness, the lack of established religion, and the kind of free market of wellness influencers. In that very deregulated market, if you're beautiful and you've got a big social media following, that will get you a lot further than even a medical certificate and proper training.
What you're saying reminds me of James Madison University professor of religion Alan Levinovitz, and his book Natural: How Faith in Nature's Goodness Leads to Harmful Fads, Unjust Laws, and Flawed Science. It’s all about how we’ve divinized the concept of nature. When people talk about how something is “clean” or “natural,” these are very loaded terms now. It's sort of like our new secular religion.
And this idea goes back probably 200 years, it's part of Romanticism. The poet T. E. Hulme called Romanticism "spilt religion." There was very much the cult of nature in that, and the cult of the natural.
That kind of Romantic culture spread into Germany. Then there was this nature hippie movement called the Wandervogel movement. Some of them moved to California and they opened like the first whole food stores. This European Romanticism became part of American wellness as well.
You've suggested that we need to adopt a form of critical spirituality or critical wellness. Why keep spirituality or wellness around at all? What is the value in having these, as you've called them, "non-rational forms of knowing?" Why are these practices beneficial, and why should we fight for them, without veering into all the conspiracy theory stuff?
I personally find rational, secular, materialist culture overly flat and lacking in depth and transcendence. If you're a complete materialist, I don't have any problem with that and i'm not going to try and convert you. But it's difficult for me to find a sense of meaning in that worldview.
What happened in the Enlightenment was we switched from what you could call a polyphasic world view to a monophasic world view. Polyphasic means multiple different forms of consciousness were seen as valid and useful, like dreams, imagination, revelries, trance states, ecstatic states. In a monophasic world view, only analytical, instrumental rationality was seen as reliable. Also, only what you can quantify is reliable and other forms of knowing were seen as delusional and as a threat to reason. Think about the painting of Goya titled The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.
I think that was an impoverishment of human experience. It was an unhealthy narrowing of what is seen as normal. It pathologized a lot of the spectrum of consciousness, said it is threatening and not to be relied on. And so humans ended up living in a very narrow bandwidth of consciousness.
That's why I'm drawn to both religions and spirituality. I suppose what I like about spirituality, going all the way back to mesmerism in the 18th century, psychical research in the 19th century, or people like Aldous Huxley or Stan Grof is the attempt to construct a dialog between empirical research and religious or alternative experiences.
I've always been interested in that attempt to find a truce or marriage between the scientific method and, let's say, spiritual experiences. There are lots of things that have been explored in spirituality that are now becoming mainstream science, like the importance of the mind-body connection, the power of placebo, the power of hypnotherapy, the power of ecstatic experiences to heal people, or the power of things like psychedelic therapy. Over the last 20 years, there's also now a huge body of research into contemplative practices and the ways that they can be life enhancing.
So a lot of these practices which were pretty fringe 30 years ago, are now becoming more mainstream and there's a lot more funding going into researching them. I see a lot of value in it.
How can we kind of expect a critical approach to catch on if it demands you to remove the certainty and magical thinking from spirituality? Won't a critical wellness, devoid of conspiracy-like thinking, always be in second place to the people and practices that promise to revolutionize your life or clue you in to the secret machinations of the world around us?
I'm trying to find a balance between enchantment and open to alternative experiences and beliefs, but not believing any old nonsense.
Saint Paul said "We see through a glass darkly," meaning we have to accept the limits of our certainty. To wish for too much certainty, either from the scientific method or from [spiritual] experiences is a form of spiritual materialism. It's a kind of clinging to views.
I think the Buddha is quite interesting on that—on the danger of excessive attachment to views as a form of ego clinging. Like, this definitely means I'm going to heaven. Or, this definitely means that my next work project is going to work.
It's about accepting the limit of what we can know for certain. How mainstream is this attitude likely to be? Not very mainstream. It's pretty constant in human history that most people, including me, long for certainty and long for security. They're going to keep looking to hold onto certain beliefs or hopes or ideologies.
I guess what gives me hope this year is the amount of people in wellness and spirituality who tried to stand up against conspiracy culture, to stand up against QAnon, stand up for evidence based medicine, and stand up against toxic influencers.
The Internet is difficult in a way, and it leads to a kind of a complete decentralization of authority, but it also leads to greater transparency. The Internet can be the friend of critical spirituality.
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