Two weeks ago I described the master narrative that antivaccinationists have united around with the goal of destroying confidence in COVID-19 vaccination. Antivaccinationists with different background and motivations, from across the political spectrum, have aligned around three key messages, and are leveraging social media to spread FUD. The ability for these seemingly disparate groups to find common ground in rejecting public health advice amidst a pandemic is actually not that surprising when you take a closer look at their motivations and beliefs. David Gorski pointed out last week that all science denial, whether it comes from the “left” or the “right,” is at its core a conspiracy theory. Recognizing this makes it less surprising that some antivaccinationists have aligned with or embraced QAnon, which has become a “big tent” conspiracy where many seemingly-different perspectives have mixed and arguably metastasized during this public health crisis.
Steven Novella wrote recently that conspiracy thinking threatens science-based medicine. At this blog, the authors have been writing for years about how many of the health fads that have emerged from the political and cultural left (think Goop, the Food Babe, etc.) are grounded in science denial, and we have also written extensively about right-wing conspiracy theories and thinking as it applies to medicine, and in some cases overlaps with alternative medicine. The integration of the two communities, and the growing embrace of conspiracies by the left, has been called “conspirituality”. The confluence was described back in September by David Gorski. I first heard the term Conspirituality as the title of a podcast where the hosts study right-wing conspiracy thinking, COVID denial, Qanon, and the increasing convergence with the yoga/spiritualism/wellness community. It is that movement that I want to explore in today’s post.
While the term may have been coined by Canadian musicians, conspirituality was academically defined back in 2011 by Charlotte Ward and David Voas, writing in the Journal of Contemporary Religion. They described how two popular but seemingly very different perspectives had common roots, and in some circumstances, were merging into a new belief system. The first is the “New Age” wellness community, typically seen as left wing, predominantly female, with a deep embrace of “alternative” medicine and an emphasis on “holistic” ideas and different forms of spirituality. They may not be politically active. The second group were the conspiracy theorists, who traditionally are predominantly conservative, right-wing, and male. Ward and Voas noted that both the seemingly-optimistic liberal wellness/alternative community, and the more pessimistic and conservative conspiracy community, tended to agree that:
- A secret group covertly controls, or is trying to control, the political and social order.
- For the wellness community, this group may be Big Pharma, the FDA, conventional medicine, or anyone that dismisses or criticizes any “different ways of knowing”.
- For conspiracy theorists, this is the shadow government, New World Order, Illuminati, etc.
- Humanity is undergoing a “paradigm shift” in consciousness, or awareness.
- For the wellness community, this is usually described as an “awakening” or “enlightenment”, which may not be tied to any particular religion.
- For conspiracy theorists, this typically refers to realization of their truth of the matter, and ultimately, the rejection of “tyranny” (“Wake up sheeple!”).
Ward and Voas pointed out that the central principles of nearly every conspiracy theory dovetail quite nicely with alternative medicine views of health. Both communities share a distrust of science, expertise, and conventional medicine, except when it supports their own narrative:
- Nothing happens by accident (“your disease, your fault“).
- Nothing is as it seems (“your science can’t measure the effectiveness of my remedy”).
- Everything is connected (Think phrenology, reiki, acupunture, etc).
Though this paper was published in 2011, it accurately describes many of the themes we’ve seen grow and collide over the past decade: The growing acceptance of conspiracy ideation, the belief in a shadow government/New World Order, the growth of “Patriot movements” of armed and mainly white militia, and overarching satanic threats and panics. Add in the anti-vaccination sentiments that have always been strong in the alternative health community, and it is perhaps not surprising that the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated growth of QAnon. Because alternative medicine and the wellness community has little to offer in terms of COVID-19 treatments or prevention, it’s also not surprising that the same group was receptive to conspiracy ideas about the cause of the pandemic, and its possible treatments.
Conspiracy thinking is contagious
Since Ward and Voas published their paper, conspirituality has grown along with the growth of the wellness community and culture. A 2015 response to the paper by Asprem and Dryendal argued that conspirituality was neither novel nor a surprise, but rather a predictable outcome of 19th and 20th century occultism that spawned the New Age/wellness movement:
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 to be 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.
Reviewing the hundreds of posts on alternative medicine and wellness in the SBM archives, there are common traits across the believers of these disparate health practices. Some are at odds with mainstream medicine despite efforts to “integrate” them into routine practice. Because many have been rejected as ineffective or even quackery, promoters and supporters tend to be suspicious of “official” narratives and critical of “mainstream” medicine. For example, if you already believe that magic sugar pills (homeopathy) works despite the need to reject the foundational principles of chemistry, physics, and biology, it is perhaps not surprising that you may be more accepting of wild theories about vaccines, COVID-19 and the pandemic, or perhaps some of the bizarre QAnon conspiracy theories.
It may be that there has been a general rise in the acceptance of conspiracy ideas since the COVID-19 pandemic began in early 2020. The dramatic changes in how we live our lives, the uncertainty, and the genuine fear, may have led many to see this period, at least initially, as apocalyptic – exactly what some conspiracy theorists have been touting for years. For many, it has meant breaks in our knowledge and our expectations of what the future may look like. Perhaps this created a vulnerability in some that accelerated the embrace of conspiracy theories across different groups and communities.
The term “Pastel Qanon” was coined by Marc-André Argentino, a Canadian PhD student who has documented the growing use of Qanon messaging in the wellness community, which has accelerated during the pandemic. Argentino notes how social media influencers has taken Qanon content and applied a softer, less dark aesthetic to the same core messages. It may have started with antivaccine messaging and later the “save the children” campaign, who saw the movement as worthy of supporting, possibly without initially realizing that this was a QAnon content. He has called QAnon a public health threat, citing its rising popularity and the continued spreading of medical disinformation.
Embracing and rejecting conspirituality
The Conspirituality podcast has compiled a long list of wellness “influencers” that have “Redpilled” QAnon messaging and beliefs. Late last year some organizations and leaders in the wellness community, including alternative medicine providers, started to push back against the growing embrace of these ideas. Some began to explicitly warn against the dangers of QAnon and its companion conspiracy theories. The CBC quoted one yoga instructor:
“The colours might be pastel. The fonts are very specific. There’s maybe one post of someone doing yoga. Then the next day it’s their food. The next day, it’s a lifestyle shot,” she said.
“But on maybe the fourth day, there’s going to be a post that says, you know, very prettily “COVID is a hoax” and then a bunch of slides that keep giving misinformation and invite you to another link that then gives you more misinformation.”
“In the wellness community, there’s often a lot of magical thinking,” she said.
For example, she says people may turn to crystals or prayer as a Band-Aid solution for their life’s problems, without engaging with those problems on a deeper level.
“I think that some of the messaging in QAnon is appealing to magical thinking. People are afraid. Their instincts are telling them that there’s something else going on, but ‘I just don’t know what it is. I think I’m being lied to,'” she said.
“Someone is coming in and saying, ‘Actually, you are,’ and taking them down this rabbit hole.”
Much of the content remains subtle. Terms like “awakening” and “enlightenment” have been part of the yoga/wellness vocabulary for years, well before QAnon. It’s also possible that the dramatic changes to yoga and other fitness businesses, driven by COVID-19-related business restriction and closures, have led practitioners to push back against public health measures, finding common ground with conservatives with the same objectives. As I noted in a prior post, anti-vaccine ideology and conspiracy theories have thrived on social media, bringing influencers that share these ideas more web traffic and even revenue.
Some have questioned if the US election results would mean an end to QAnon and the growing embrace of conspiracy-type theories. If the past several weeks are any evidence, that seems a bit optimistic. Extremes in ideology, as defined by conspirituality, can intersect and in some cases, even converge. QAnon is ridiculous and absurd, but is growing in popularity. We need to take it, and the emergence of conspirituality, seriously.