Make love, not vaccines: why are New Age hippies so anti-vax?

Jules Evans
12 min readAug 26, 2021

In the autumn of 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, Dr Emily Grossman and her partner decided to move to Totnes, a small town in Devon that is popular with eco-hippies. Emily looked forward to escaping the Big Smoke and being surrounded by like-minded spiritual activists. A friend encouraged her to join some Totnes online chat groups. It was a rude awakening.

Dr Grossman says:

The groups turned out to be rife with people posting anti-vax, anti-mask or anti-lockdown content, or saying that Covid is no worse than flu.

When she went into town to get groceries, she came across groups of anti-vaxxers in the Town Square, calling people sheeple’ and trying to get them to stop wearing masks:

I was horrified to find that these people were protesting in the streets just five minutes from my new home, handing out flyers about the ‘Covid hoax’, refusing to wear masks in shops and spitting over the vulnerable.

The tide of disinformation even came through her door, when a local anti-vax newsletter, or ‘Truthpaper’, was pushed through her letter-box.

Emily is a science author and broadcaster with a double first from Cambridge and a PhD in molecular biology, but when she tried to defend the science behind vaccination, she was told she was ignorant, she was being paid by the government, she was a Nazi for trying to control others. She was even booted out of one group for ‘posting inappropriate information’. It’s been heart-breaking, she says. ‘I’ve lost friends over it.’

Previously, Totnes was famous for being a mellow, progressive place — the home of Transition Towns, Dartington Hall and Schumacher College. A graffitied sign as you enter the town says it’s twinned with Narnia. Now, it’s becoming famous for its anti-vax hippies, and the locals are getting annoyed. One resident, Paul Wesley, complained to a recent Totnes council meeting that the Town Market has become unsafe to visit:

At the market I was one of only three people wearing a mask. By mid-afternoon it was buzzing, with quite a large number of conspiracy nutcases and anti-vaccine cult followers and others. People won’t come in to town when there are so many anti-maskers or anti-vaxxers around. Totnes is being put on the map for very negative reasons.

Totnes already had low rates of vaccination compared to the national average — in the UK, 95% of five-year-olds have had the MMR vaccine, in Totnes its 78%. Lotus Tarn, a local resident, told the Guardian before the pandemic that she would never get her daughter vaccinated: ‘This isn’t hippy stuff, it’s the truth. The body can find its own solutions, its own intelligence, if we let it do that.’

Up the motorway in Glastonbury, it’s a similar story. Glastonbury is the centre of the British New Age scene, filled with shamans, psychics, energy healers, and even an ‘ethical taxidermist’. But of late, the shamanic drum beats a war tattoo against vaccines.

Bless ye bless ye thank you thank you each and every one of you who have been called to this sacred land, the precious heart of our beloved sangha, Pachamama, the heart chakra. We’re going to start with an honouring of the spirits before we process down the hill. Our brothers and sisters are walking for our freedom, our sovereignty, our right to live how we want. May the sun burn away the veil of illusion! Aho!

These are the words of a ‘shaman’ speaking at the ‘opening ceremony’ in a Glastonbury Freedom Rally, which took place in May this year. The worshippers beat their drums and invoked the spirits in their battle against the evils of modern medicine, before processing down the main street of Glastonbury, like medieval millenarians during the plague.

Dr William Bloom is co-director of the Foundation for Holistic Spirituality, and a veteran of the Glastonbury spiritual scene. He tells me:

The issue makes me slightly squirm, because it’s a tad embarrassing. It’s not just Glastonbury, it’s all the way through SBNR / New Age / holistic scene, which I’ve been deeply involved with for 50 years. A whole load of what I would term ‘my people’ have become very strident vaccine sceptics. I understand it at one level. Years ago, I was vaccine cautious with my children, careful to look at the evidence. But what’s happened during the COVID crisis is the debate between the two sides is not a comfortable, relaxed conversation. It’s full of emotional charge, aggression, hostility.

The local health-food store has become a battleground in this culture war. William says:

It’s filled with women and men, usually in quite flamboyant hippy clothes. They’re young, they’re quite vital, they’re not wearing masks, and they have this attitude of defiance and entitlement. What bothers me most about it is they are completely ignoring the fact that older and medically vulnerable people are threatened and frightened. But if I raise it with them, I’m a member of the Jewish Illuminati.

William is 72, but he says he didn’t post on social media when he got vaccinated: ‘I don’t think I could weather the personal abuse I’d receive from the spiritual community here.’

One Glastonbury hemp store has banned people from wearing masks inside. A local psychedelic therapist says they won’t accept vaccinated people into ceremonies. Administering a powerful psychoactive drug derived from a toad, without professional training? That’s fine. Gathering hundreds of people together for ‘freedom rallies’? Also fine because there are ‘sound healing gongs’ at the event. But letting the vaccinated among us? Too risky!

Naturally, some of the Glastonbury anti-vaxxers are now getting COVID, but they’re greeting it as a blessing. One anti-vax Tantric teacher recently posted that she was ‘honoured to be visited by Queen Corona’. She’s holding workshops on how to integrate the experience.

Welcome to the Stoned Age

Wherever New Age seekers congregate around the world, you can be sure it’s an anti-vax hotspot. In Ibiza, a friend messaged me this week to say she’d encountered a New Age ‘photon doctor’, who explained that vaccines were part of a global plot led by Bill Gates to kill off most of humanity. The vaccinated have already started dropping dead, the photon-healer explained. Soon airlines wouldn’t accept them on flights because they’ll spontaneously combust.

In Byron Bay, New Age capital of Australia, there has long been high levels of vaccine hesitancy or vaccine refusal. Dr Rachel Heap, a doctor working in a local hospital, says: ‘I’ve seen more vaccine-preventable diseases since working in the Northern Rivers than I saw in 10 years of working in remote Aboriginal communities. It’s become the norm to shun vaccines.’ When a photo of Dr Heap receiving the COVID vaccine went online, hippies circulated the rumour she’d dropped dead afterwards. As in Glastonbury, the New Age community in Byron Bay is now deeply divided over vaccines, masks and lockdowns. ‘Covid has ripped our rainbow flag in two’, writes local columnist Mandy Nolan.

In Sedona, the hippy capital of Arizona, some retreat centres have announced they won’t accept vaccinated guests. In Findhorn, the famous New Age commune in Scotland, the first two hours of a recent day-long strategy meeting were spent arguing about masks, without any resolution reached. In Costa Rica, I stayed at one New Age centre where the expat owner asked me to take off my mask upon checking in. He told me he’d been thrown out of local supermarkets for refusing to wear a mask, before going on a long explanation of the Illuminati’s global Satanic agenda.

What’s going on? New Age hippies are more likely than the general population to be anti-vaccine. This isn’t just anecdotal. An article published this year in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science looked at science skepticism in 24 countries. It found that, in western countries, the strongest predictor of science skepticism, including vaccine scepticism, was spirituality. Two of the authors of that study found a similar pattern in the Netherlands last year: ‘spirituality is found to most consistently predict vaccine skepticism and low general faith in science’.

The other religious group that scores high in science-scepticism and anti-vaccine sentiment is white evangelicals. That’s who New Age hippies increasingly remind me of, when I see them praying with their arms outstretched over Glastonbury, dispelling the forces of darkness.

It wasn’t meant to be like this. New Age spirituality emerged in the 19th century as a response to the challenge posed by science to traditional Christianity. New Age pioneers like William James, Aldous Huxley or Madame Blavatsky tried to create a new synthesis of science and spirituality. We prided ourselves on being more open-minded and empirical than the ignorant Christians we left behind. When did alternative medicine become alternative facts and a whole alternative universe?

There are some possible reasons why spiritual people should be inclined to be anti-vax, anti-mask, anti-lockdown and anti-public health.

Dr William Bloom suggests one factor could be high levels of trauma among spiritual seekers — deep wounds in part caused by authoritarian families or traditional religions, which get triggered by any suggestion you can’t do what you want. Dr Grossman speaks of her personal experience in such communities:

Alternative communities are about being, well, alternative. In other words, being able to make your own way in the world and break free from repressive narratives — abusive parents, religion, society, capitalist ideals, misogyny, slut shaming, body shaming, homophobia etc. That’s wonderful and freeing. And that’s why those communities particularly attract people who’ve had abuse or trauma, it’s very healing to find yourself in a community where societal norms are not being adhered to and you are accepted for who you are. But you only have to go a little further with that ideology for it to transmute into a feeling that all authority figures are out to get us and take away our freedom. Especially when those authority figures (in this case, the government) become conflated with trauma memories of the perpetrators who’ve genuinely done that to you — such as an abusive parent.

There is some evidence that people who have experienced childhood trauma are more likely to identify as ‘spiritual but not religious’. There’s also some evidence that people who have experienced trauma are likely to turn to spiritual practices and worldviews as a way of coping and recovering. That’s a good thing — but it makes some spiritual people prone to a spiky libertarianism if they feel judged, shamed or told what to do. In a triggered state, they divide people into Us versus Them, Light versus Darkness.

The spiritual (like the evangelical) have a tendency to see the world through a mythical-apocalyptic lens — which makes them prone to the occasional freakout, like during the Millennium Bug or the 2012 Harmonic Convergence. Myths are useful sometimes, but if you always see the complexity of modern life through a Lord-of-the-Rings lens, you might not be much help to your culture. It over-simplifies issues into Us versus Them, Light versus Darkness, rather than appreciating the messy trade-offs that modernity demands.

Spirituality, like the Romantic movement from which it emerged, has often put a great emphasis on intuition, authenticity and being true to one’s feelings. That can be healthy in a culture that often ignores the inner life. However, it can lead to an over-reliance on one’s personal intuition over scientific evidence, as this study found. ‘It just doesn’t feel right to me’, one spiritual anti-vaxxer told me in explaining her stance. ‘This is about feelings, not facts’, another anti-vaxxer told a friend of mine. Dr Grossman says:

I think that’s why New Age teachings and communities can be so dangerous. They teach us to follow our instincts and emotions in the absence of knowledge. We need to follow wisdom, not our feelings.

New Age seekers also tend to trust alternative sources of information to mainstream news. William Bloom says:

All the folk I know who are vaccine sceptics had already stopped reading mainstream newspapers or watching television news, prior to COVID. Four or five years ago, the kind of things they were saying is ‘that stuff brings me down’. That lack of seeking out new knowledge translated with COVID into ‘it’s all false’. They get their information instead from social networks.

One acquaintance of mine, a Glastonbury hippy who became a vocal anti-vaxxer in the last 12 months, says in an anti-vax video that he began to wake up when he stopped watching the news. Another Glastonbury hippy told a friend that, to raise their vibration, they should stop watching the news and stop drinking tap-water. The friend tells me: ‘I actually did stop brushing my teeth with fluoride for a while in the past…until two teeth fell out.’ Glastonbury has form on embracing fringe science — last year its council voted to ban the roll-out of 5G, led by an expert committee including a man who heals sad houses.

This trust in one’s own intuition can combine with narcissism, which some psychological studies have found to correlate with spirituality. One Glastonbury acquaintance received flak when he posted videos telling his handful of followers to ignore the vaccine and resist the ‘very low vibration of fear’ as we ‘enter the Age of Aquarius’. He reacted with a serene self-regard to the criticism. ‘I’m VERY awake, I see EXACTLY what’s going on. You will too sister…SOON. Blessings on your journey.’

Then there is the hyper-individualism of wellness and New Age spirituality. Sociologist Dr Jennifer Reich studied the anti-vaccine movement, and found it was often made up of wellness moms, who put their own judgements over the expertise of doctors and the wider health of the community. Wellness, Dr Reich noted, is usually about individual wellness, and very rarely about collective health. That’s why it’s quite common to hear spiritual hippies preaching ‘sovereignty’ — as Bali anti-vaxxer Sacha Stone puts it: ‘actualization of self is my mission. I sit on the throne of Self.’ Quite.

A penultimate reason New Age hippies are inclined to be anti-vax is their fetishization of ‘nature’ and suspicion of technology and modernity. The New Age emerged out of Romanticism, which made a god of Nature and a devil of modern civilization. This can lead to some strange distinctions. I met one anti-vax ‘psychedelic healer’ in Costa Rica, who thought vaccines were unnatural, while psilocybin and ayahuasca were utterly benevolent ‘spirit allies’. Even LSD and MDMA were spirit allies, in her book, despite being synthetic chemicals.

The New Age seeker can pride themselves on being natural, pure, strong and fit — and therefore more than a match for any virus. Nature-worship and pride in one’s vitality can blur into a sort of ableist, eugenic ‘survival of the fittest’ mentality.

One final possible reason New Agers are anti-vax, anti-mask and anti-lockdown is economic. The lockdowns hurt hippies’ business models, which rely on things like workshops, retreats, festivals and jet-setting. It makes economic sense to downplay the risks of COVID, even if it means putting your customers at risk of serious illness or death. You can also make money promoting alternative ‘cures’ for COVID, like resonating at a higher frequency, covering yourself in colloidal silver, or slapping your balls over a fire, like ‘certified healthnut’ Troy Case:

A friend in Glastonbury reminds me to have compassion for the anti-vax hippies. They are not necessarily rich, entitled Instayoga influencers. These are often people who are economically and emotionally insecure, part of the ‘astrology precariat’, and they now face being shut out of public spaces, restaurants, companies, schools, whole countries. Perhaps they felt shut out of traditional religions, and now some of their spiritual gathering-sites are turning them away too — Alternatives in London has just said its events will only be open to the vaccinated, prompting cries of ‘Nuremburg!’

My Glastonbury friend says: ‘The polarisation in the Glastonbury spiritual scene reflects a deeper polarisation in society. I already saw it happen with Brexit, which was quite popular here with the UKIP pagan / folk nationalist crowd. There’s a risk the unvaccinated become an underclass. That feeling of being cornered and despised leads to a reactive hostility and defensiveness.’

I don’t know how to heal this deep rift in spiritual culture. I have good friends whose spirituality has led them to choose not to be vaccinated. I don’t agree with their stance, but it hasn’t affected our friendship. Unlike Dr Grossman, I don’t see it as my vocation to challenge disinformation and defend vaccination. I’m too lazy. I don’t know how to persuade spiritual anti-vaxxers to get the jab. Embed it in a ceremony honouring Queen Corona? I suspect this vax war will simply die away — already, wellness influencers who went full conspiritualist in 2020 have quietly steered back into the mainstream.

There’s just a mismatch between New Age spirituality and the demands of the time. Spirituality has a lot going for it, but it’s hyper-individualistic, super-intuitive, and deeply suspicious of mainstream news and mainstream science. It was never going to do great in a public health crisis. What’s happened should make us humble and realistic about the deep imperfections in western spirituality. We like to pride ourselves that we are the wisest, the most conscious, the most empathic, the avant garde of evolution. At the moment, we’re like any other narrow-minded and bigoted religious sect.

You can watch my full interview with Dr William Bloom here.