I want to talk about trying to make sense when things are breaking down.
The last few weeks, we’ve seen some conspiracy theories blooming out of the anxiety of the lockdown.
Sports-presenter turned conspiracy-theorist David Icke took centre-stage in April, appearing in a video for London Real, in which he suggested COVID19 was caused by 5G (perhaps as part of the global plot run by a secret order of alien lizards, which Icke has consistently described). The video was watched millions of times on YouTube and on LondonLive before YouTube and Ofcom stepped in to get it taken down.
The same week, 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 in a 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 smallpox, was given his mission by Ram Dass’ guru, Neem Karoli 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).
Ecstatic globalism versus paranoid conspiracy
Let me add to this emerging discourse by suggesting that conspirituality theories are a form of mystical or ecstatic experience. I want to compare two forms of mystical experience.
The first is a sort of extroverted euphoric mystical experience: ‘Everything is connected. I am synchronicitously drawn to helpers and allies, the universe is carrying us forward to a wonderful climactic transformation (the Rapture, the Omega Point, the Paradigm Shift) , and we are the divine warriors of light appointed by God / the Universe to manifest this glorious new phase shift in human history.’
The second is a paranoid ‘bad’ trip version of the euphoric ‘good’ trip. ‘Everything is connected, there is a secret order being revealed to me, but I am not part of it. It is an evil demonic order, and it is trying to control me and everyone else. They have a Grand Plan and it is taking shape now. But perhaps I, and one or two others, can wake up to this Grand Plan, and expose it, and at least hide from it.’
The first trip is a euphoric ego-expansion (I am God! I am the Cosmic Universe evolving!) and the second is paranoid ego-persecution (The Universe is controlled by Evil Demons who are against me!)
In both, the individual awakens to this hidden reality. But in the first, they are a superpowered initiate in the hidden order and a catalyst for a Millennarian transformation, in the second they are a vulnerable and disempowered exposer of the powerful hidden order. (Millennarian, by the way, means that, like Robbie Williams, you believe in a coming Millennium, or Age of Love).
These are two sides of the same coin, two sides in the same game. Both are examples of mystical / schizotypal /magical / dream thinking. In both, the ego is part of a grand cosmic drama — in the first, they are the divine appointed catalyst for Phase Shift / humanity’s rebirth, in the second, they are the heroic exposer of the Hidden Order.
William James, father of American psychology, made this point in The Varieties of Religious Experience, where he writes that paranoia is a form of
diabolical mysticism, a sort of religious mysticism turned upside down. The same sense of the ineffable importance of the smallest events, the same text and words coming with new meanings, the same voices and visions and leadings and missions, the same controlling by extraneous powers; only this time the emotion is pessimistic: instead of consolations we have desolations; the meanings are dreadful; and the powers are enemies to life.
If we look at the history of the occult (I recommend Gary Lachmann’s Secret Teachers of the Western World as a popular intro), ever since the Reformation there have been secret orders of spiritual-political ecstatic globalists dedicated to a Millennarian project of global transformation. That’s what Renaissance magi were into, and Rosicrucians, and the Masons, and the Illuminati — the foot-soldiers of the Enlightenment were positive conspiracy theorists. So was HG Wells and his ‘Open Conspiracy’— he was supposedly a rationalist, but really he was preaching a sort of occult-scientific polyamorous universalist new religion. So were Theosophists like Annie Besant. So were New Age pioneers in the 1960s like Marilyn Ferguson (author of The Aquarian Conspiracy, one of the best-selling books of the 1980s) and Barbara Marx Hubbard, champion of a globalist evolutionary spirituality. You can probably think of people into this sort of scene today — spiritual-political ecstatic globalists waiting for a golden New Age of global justice, perennial philosophy and polyamorous love.
Globalist Millennarians tend to be quite optimistic (‘we are becoming Gods! We can live forever!’) and quite well-connected — they connect together with fellow globalist Millennarians through think tanks, associations, conferences, networks and festivals. Barbara Marx Hubbard, the indefatigable champion of ‘evolutionary spirituality’, is an example. She thought homo sapiens was about to ‘phase shift’ into homo universalis, on December 12 2012 to be precise, and she thought she and her friends were the divinely-appointed catalysts for this Millennarian transformation. She was extremely well connected and spread her ideas through all kinds of organisations and networks like the Committee for the Future and the Centre for Integral Wisdom. Indeed, networking was part of her spirituality (she called it ‘supra-sexing’.)
On the other hand, you have paranoid conspiracy thinkers who are anti-globalists, like Infowars’ Alex Jones or evangelical Lee Keith (his book cover is below), who may see ecstatic globalists as an evil and demonic hidden order pulling the strings of global events. Anti-globalist paranoid conspiracy thinkers trace the very networks that ecstatic networkers like Barbara Marx Hubbard work through. ‘See!’, they say. ‘They all know each other through these think-tanks and informal organisations.’
Where one group are ecstatic, optimistic, super-empowered, insider (and entitled) conspirators, the other are resentful, pessimistic, paranoid, disempowered conspirators. One group think they are an elite evolving into a new God-like species (see for example HG Wells’ ecstatic globalist conspiracy Men Like Gods), the other group thinks this secret elite alien species wants to become Gods and control everyone else (see for example Anthony Forwood’s paranoid conspiracy book They Would Be Gods).
Their thinking styles are in some ways quite similar — schizotypal, magical, prone to seeing secret influences, hidden connections, and Grand Plans. Above all, both over-estimate the competence of elites to control the world . They under-estimate the dumbness of elites and the chaotic cluster-f*ck of actual politics. Both think the elite are superhuman — either divinely-inspired or demonically-controlled.
I think it is possible to be prone to both these forms of magical thinking, to switch between ecstatic, optimistic Millennarianism and paranoid persecutory conspiracy thinking. From ‘everything is connected and I’m a central part of this wonderful cosmic transformation!’’ to ‘everything is connected and I’m at risk from this awful global plot!’ I think someone like Robert Anton Wilson, perhaps, was prone to both sorts of thinking.
The value of the two forms of conspirituality
Now we can dismiss this sort of thinking as simply bullshit religious enthusiasm. Both forms of it. And I feel a strong tendency at the moment to do that, to simply call bullshit on both ecstatic phase-shifters and paranoid conspiracy theorists, and instead try to be as rationalist, sober and un-enthusiastic as possible.
However, this is probably not a very helpful attitude. There is, in fact, a value to both these forms of mystical thinking.
The value in mystical globalism is it can lead to positive things — HG Wells’ ecstatic globalism helped to inspire forms of global governance like the UN Declaration of Human Rights, for example. You need a bit of cosmic optimism to try and get anything changed.
However, ecstatic globalism can lead to self-entitlement, to an inflated sense that you are the appointed vanguard of humanity, and that history and the Universe is definitely on your side. That’s dangerous. There can be a dangerous over-concentration of privilege and power, working mainly through informal or undemocratic channels.
The value of conspiracy thinking, meanwhile, can be that it holds power to account. Power can be over-concentrated — the World Health Organisation is excessively reliant on funding by Bill Gates, and the Gates Foundation should be more transparent and accountable, considering the massive influence it has over global public health.
Scientific authority can be awfully, horribly wrong sometimes — many ecstatic globalists in the 20th century really did support eugenics ( including HG Wells, Annie Besant, Julian Huxley, Alexis Carrel and Teillard de Chardin). They thought the world should be run by an elite of spiritually enlightened scientists who would decide who was enlightened and who was ‘unfit’ and therefore deserved to be sterilized, locked up, or exterminated. There was no secret conspiracy about this — they proudly declared their opinions. So you can see why paranoid anti-globalists might have their suspicions of secret eugenic plots today.
Balancing the Socratic and the Ecstatic
In general (and in conclusion), there is a value in non-rational forms of knowing, such as dreams, intuitions, inspiration and mystical experiences. These can be important sources of wisdom and healing. Many great scientific discoveries and cultural creations have come from ecstatic or schizotypal inspiration, from Newton’s discovery of gravity to Milton’s Paradise Lost.
I am prone to this sort of ‘benign schizotypy’ myself, and on the whole it enriches my life and work. There is a reason schizotypal thinking has survived for millennia — sometimes it is highly adaptive. It has played an important role in our cultural evolution.
However, it is crucial to balance the capacity for ecstatic / magical / mythical thinking with the capacity for critical thinking. That’s what I’ve tried to do in my books: balance the Socratic and the ecstatic, or the left and right brain, if you’re into that sort of thing.
Too much Socratic thinking without any ecstasy, and you end up with a rather dry and uninspiring worldview. Too much ecstasy without critical thinking, and you may be prone to unhealthy delusions, which you then spread, harming others. You may be so sure you’re right, so hyped in your heroic crusade, you may block things that are really helpful and spread things that are really harmful.
One should be free to believe whatever you want, but in this instance — a global pandemic in the internet age — our beliefs and behaviours profoundly impact others. We need to try and be extra careful in what we believe and what we share, so as to practice mental hygiene.
There is so much fake news out there — I was taken in yesterday by a story that the IMF had cancelled almost all its developing country debt. The story was on a website called IMF2020.org (since taken down). It looked totally reliable. And I so wanted it to be true! I so wanted to share some good news. But alas, it was fake.
We can do a basic test, equivalent to washing our hands.
1) What’s the source? Is it a reliable media organisation? Is it backed up by other reliable sources?
2) How likely is the fact? The less likely, the greater the burden of evidence.
3) Is there anything out there suggesting it’s fake? Rather than looking for evidence to support our beliefs, can we search for evidence against our beliefs?
4) Can we emotionally accept our belief might be wrong?
We can try to practice that sort of mental hygiene on ourselves, but how does one practice effective public communication to counter-act conspiracy thinking? It seems very hard. One’s instinct can be, like Skeptics and New Atheists, simply to call the other side names: ‘idiot, moron, woo-woo, bullshit’ and so on. That sort of shaming probably doesn’t work.
The introduction to the European Journal of Social Psychology’s special ‘conspiracy theory’ issue suggests conspiracy theories are emotionally grounded and socially supported— so an outsider calling you names won’t have much impact. Instead, like de-radicalization or de-culting programmes, perhaps it takes a trusted friend from inside your network to challenge the beliefs in a sympathetic and non-threatening way. That is slow work when one in five Brits say they might not take a COVID-19 vaccine, and even superpowers are trading rival theories as to how the virus emerged. Our herd immunity to bullshit may be breaking down.
For more resources on conspirituality: check out the great conspirituality podcast set up partly in response to this article. It’s been going almost a year and has a wealth of info and analysis.
This episode of the excellent ‘Qanon Anonymous’ podcast looks at the New Age to Qanon pipeline. It’s very good.
This is a piece I wrote on ‘Nazi hippies’ — when the New Age and far-right overlap.
And this is the piece I wrote on the ‘Qanon shaman’ who was the most visible member of the mob that stormed the Capitol building in DC in January 2021.
The book I edited, Breaking Open — Finding a Way Through Spiritual Emergency, explores 14 people’s account of their messy spiritual experiences and what helped them navigate through without giving way to paranoia, ego-inflation or apocalyptic conspiracies.