Jules Evans, History of Emotions blog, on the overlap between conspiracy theories and spirituality. April, 2020.
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land…
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish?
-From The Wasteland by T.S. Elliott.
I want to talk about trying to make sense when things are breaking down.
This April we’ve seen some conspiracy theories blooming out of the dead land.
Sports-presenter turned conspiracy-theorist David Icke took centre-stage a week ago, appearing in a video for London Real, in which he claimed COVID19 was caused by 5G, as part of a global plot run by a secret order of alien lizards. The video was watched millions of times on YouTube and on LondonLive before YouTube and Ofcom stepped in to get it taken down.
Four days ago, a documentary appeared called Out of Shadows, recycling the 2016 ‘Pizzagate’ conspiracy theory that a secret order of Democrats and Hollywood celebrities run a paedophile ring centred on two Washington pizza restaurants. The documentary got two million views in a day.
We’ve also seen a conspiracy theory that COVID19 is part of a plot led by Bill Gates and the World Health Organisation to get the world to take his vaccine and implant his chip surveillance. Conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones of Infowars have claimed for over a decade that Gates’ huge funding for vaccines is actually a eugenicist plot to reduce the world’s population. This theory was taken up and enthusiastically spread this week by an anti-vaccine entrepreneur called Dr Shiva, who claims he invented email. A TV interview with him has been watched six million times this week.
Now in some ways this is predictable. The pandemic has led to a breakdown in knowledge and certainty. We don’t know much about the virus or the best way of dealing with it, but we know it’s killing a lot of us and we’re afraid. This is happening to the entire human race at the same time, and we’re all connected on the internet.
This is creating a unique opportunity for fringe beliefs and fringe thinkers to take centre stage. Some might be interesting — Universal Basic Income, say — but some really belong back on the fringe.
I have been disheartened to see leading influencers in my community — that’s to say, western spirituality — spreading the conspiracy theories I mention above. I want my community to be of service to humanity during this crisis, rather than actively spreading bad ideas (particularly anti-vaccine conspiracies — finding a vaccine seems our best hope for getting out of this without 1% of the population, 75 million people, dying of the virus).
It makes me question the worth of my culture. Is spirituality particularly prone to conspiracy thinking?
On the term ‘conspiracy theory’
As various New Age influencers have said this week, ‘conspiracy theory’ is a charged term. It can be a way of simply dismissing a topic without considering it.
Some things dismissed as ‘conspiracy theories’ might really have something behind them. UFOs and extra-terrestrials, for example, are dismissed as conspiracy theories, but to me it seems probable there is life on other planets and that some of it is more intelligent than us.
The idea there was a plot behind JFK’s assassination is another ‘conspiracy theory’ which I think may be more than a theory. Child abuse in the Catholic church is another scandal that could have been dismissed as a conspiracy theory when it really was a conspiracy — ie an epidemic of abuse covered up by the Vatican.
Still, one needs a powerful torch of critical discrimination in these murky and liminal swamp-lands. When you get to Pizzagate, we seem to be very much in the subconscious realm of archetypal, magical thinking — secret symbols and codes, hidden orders of powerful and evil perverts. We are in Dan Brown territory here.
The personality traits behind spirituality and conspiracy thinking
I wondered this week, why should there be an overlap between my community — western spirituality — and conspiracy theories?
My first thought was, there are certain personality traits that make one prone to being ‘spiritual but not religious’ — free thinking, distrust of authority and institutions, a tendency to unusual beliefs or experiences, a tendency to detect ‘hidden’ patterns and correspondences, and an attraction to alternative paradigms, particularly in alternative health — which would all make one more prone to conspiracy theories.
There seems to be some evidence for this. This 2018 study by Hart and Graether, from the Journal of Individual Differences, found, in two surveys of 1200 people, that the strongest predictor of conspiracy thinking was ‘schizotypy’, which is a personality trait that makes one prone to unusual beliefs and experiences, such as belief in telepathy, mind-control, spirit-channelling, hidden personal meanings in events etc. People who are ‘spiritual but not religious’ have been found to score more highly in schizoptypal personality traits than both the religious and the non-religious.
We have to be a little careful here, as there is a risk of tautology. The scientific definition of ‘schizotypal’ basically includes ‘having spiritual beliefs’, so it’s not surprising spiritual people ‘score highly in schizotypy’. So this paper is not really telling us anything other than the sort of people who have spiritual beliefs and experiences are often also into conspiracies. It doesn’t mean they’re wrong or mentally ill. But it may mean they don’t score highly in belief-testing and critical thinking.
This article found that being into ‘spirituality’ and alternative medicine correlated with being anti-vaccines, while this article found both anti-vaxx attitudes and pro-alternative medicine beliefs were connected to magical thinking. You can be pro-vaxx and into spiritual thinking as well, by the way — Larry Brilliant, the epidemiologist who helped eradicate polio, was given his mission by Ram Dass’ guru, Neem Karolio Baba, as he recounts here.
Finally, two important articles from religious studies. The first is a 2011 article by Ward and Voas from the Journal of Contemporary Religion (behind a paywall alas), on what they describe as the surprising new phenomenon of ‘conspirituality’ — the overlap between New Age spirituality and conspiracy thinking. They describe ‘conspirituality’ as
a rapidly growing web movement expressing an ideology fuelled by political disillusionment and the popularity of alternative worldviews. It has international celebrities, bestsellers, radio and TV stations. It offers a broad politico-spiritual philosophy based on two core convictions, the first traditional to conspiracy theory, the second rooted in the New Age: 1) a secret group covertly controls, or is trying to control, the political and social order, and 2) humanity is undergoing a ‘paradigm shift’ in consciousness. Proponents believe that the best strategy for dealing with the threat of a totalitarian ‘new world order’ is to act in accordance with an awakened ‘new paradigm’ worldview.
This 2015 article, by Egil Apsrem and Asbjorn Dyrendal, responds to Ward and Voas’ article by suggesting ‘conspirituality’ is not a new or surprising phenomenon, but instead emerges from the historical context of the 19th and 20th century ‘occult’. They write:
The cultic milieu is flooded with “all deviant belief systems” and their attendant practices. Moreover, the communication channels within the milieu tend to be as open and fluid as the content that flows through them. The resulting lack of an overarching institutionalized orthodoxy enables individuals to “travel rapidly through a variety of movements and beliefs”, thus bridging with ease what may appear on the surface as distinct discourses and practices. Political, spiritual, and (pseudo)scientific discourses all have a home here, and they easily mix. Joined by a common opposition to “Establishment” discourses rather than by positively shared doctrinal content, conspiracy theory affords a common language binding the discourses together.
In other words, the Occult is a Petri dish for the breeding of all sorts of mutant hybrid memes, some of them helpful, some of them toxic (depending on your worldview).