What is conspirituality?
Charlotte Ward and David Voas first coined the term “conspirituality” in 2011, to describe the merger of conspiracy theories and New Age spirituality. I like to put a hyphen between the con and spirituality because it is a con. Spirituality is conscripted into the service of gurus and influencers concerned only with their success in terms of numbers of followers, who can then be turned into paying customers. When these gurus start espousing conspiracy theories, their followers – if they’re not critical thinkers and misinformation resilient – tend to believe them, and so the theories proliferate. Fact or fiction, the more people share them, the more people believe them. It’s easy to share that meme or opinion because it seems okay on the surface, but not checking it carefully before sharing is dangerous, for us and for society.
Just look at Trump’s conspiracy theory about the 2020 election. The result is the destabilisation of American society and an assault on the Capitol building.
Conspirituality is ‘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.
The spiritual, new age, yoga and wellness industry is full of charlatans who will say almost anything if it will increase their social media following regardless of whether or not its true. If it gets lots of ‘Likes’, ‘Shares’, and comments, they’ll keep saying it. If we’ve come away from Buddhism holding the vague kinds of beliefs commonly professed by many of these gurus or influencers, we can easily be led into the rabbit hole of their sphere of influence. We may adopt a con-spirituality mentality and become part of groups that are every bit as much a cult, if not more so, than the Buddhist cults we left behind.
The problem with con-spirituality
Our devotion to Sogyal would have kept most of us away from the New Age and wellness movement’s lightweight spirituality, but I wonder how many of those who have left Rigpa might be turning to it now. Why is that a problem? Because listening to some people in that community might lead you to think that conspiracy theories are true, and if you embrace them as truth, you end up living in a world of your beliefs that bear little relationship to reality.
A viral outbreak of con-spirituality has arisen in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s based on a critique of modern technology, medicine, and governance. They claim such things as that the COVID-19 pandemic is a construct of the deep-state and a sign of end-times, often aligned with ideas emanating from the far-right, apocalyptic QAnon movement which frequently draws on Christian millenarianism.
Where spiritual people and groups’ questioning of modernity is critical, informed, non-violent, and employ ideas and practices whose validity is bolstered by genuine and fully understood science, that isn’t con-spirituality. People with conspiritual views ignore, denigrate or twist science and evidence and hold opinion and feelings to be the final arbiter of ‘truth’. (Do you recognise this kind of thinking from those in Rigpa who defended Sogyal’s abuse?) This kind of perspective and a lack of media literacy in regards to ascertaining what is true or false is what makes people easy prey for conspiracy theories.
Just as in any cult, adherents feel they are privy to the ‘real truth’ and thus more enlightened than mainstream society. Their form of spirituality is individualised, based on personal choice—often stating that truth can only be known by looking inside themselves—and commodified, which is why conspiritualists see coronavirus restrictions as a threat to their personal freedom. In actual fact they are not only a threat to the health of society, but also completely deluded; they’re fighting an enemy that simply doesn’t exist.
Though lip service may be given to the importance of love, genuine compassion seems to be lacking. Conspirituality movements are full of privileged white people whose philosophy doesn’t work well for those without the means to pay for and take time off their job for the latest sweat lodge or tantric sex weekend, not to mention having the means to purchase the expensive supplements peddled by the wellness influencers. Love is professed only in so far as it makes followers feel good and because talk of it boosts the influencers’ social media followers. As with Sogyal and Rigpa, when it comes down to it, money is their real motivator.
Contemporary spirituality places an emphasis on positive thinking for personal wellbeing and economic gains, and yet individuals cannot simply think themselves out of this COVID-19 crisis. This has resulted in mass spiritual bypassing, with more privileged individuals and groups — who are far less likely to be affected by the coronavirus — denying the reality of the suffering that the virus is inflicting on the less privileged and more vulnerable.https://www.abc.net.au/religion/covid-conspiracies-and-conspirituality/12760976
People drawn to conspiracy theories often share the same qualities we find in people drawn to spirituality. You may recognise some of the qualities that make one vulnerable to conspiracy theories in yourself, such as:
- An openness to unusual beliefs and experiences. If you’re very creative, with a capacity for original, innovative thinking, that openness could be harmless, but you may also be prone to beliefs that are unfounded in reality—especially if you misunderstand the indivisibility of form and emptiness and how that relates to every part of ourselves and our lives.
- 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.
These qualities are not problematic if measured with common sense and critical thinking, our decisions are evidence based rather than intuition based, and we have a nuanced—rather than black and white—view of the world. If we paint all pharma, all mainstream medicine, all government as bad and all alternative medicine and healing as good, then we’ll be easy prey for the con-spirituality gurus and their cults.
- Have a tendency for the narcissism seen in new age spirituality and conspiracy thinking. Both can be a form of Gnosticism, which is 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. (Recognise Rigpa culture here?)
The wellness and alternative spiritual crew have united over the past decade to expose the vested interests of the food, pharmaceutical and oil industries – for valid and worthy reasons. Drug companies have abused our health. The Gates Foundation should be more transparent and accountable, considering the massive influence it has over global public health. And the fight to expose truth has united this community.https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/sep/15/the-wellness-realm-has-fallen-into-conspiritualism-i-have-a-sense-why
Meanwhile, political trust is at an all-time low globally. Media and other moral structures that once held the status quo accountable have desiccated. It’s understandable that we be suspicious and questioning. I am on a number of issues. But as the world gets more complex and noisy, truth can easily become confused with “truthiness”.
Could your desire to expose the truth, the same desire that lead you to help expose Sogyal’s abuse and support his victims, lead you into the delusion of conspiracy theories?
‘Spiritual’ beliefs that make you vulnerable to conspiracy theories”1.
- Everything is connected;
- Nothing happens by accident;
- Nothing is as it seems.
Do any of these ring true to you? Aren’t they things we believed in Rigpa? Aren’t these the kinds of beliefs that became slogans used to explain away abuse? These are the core beliefs that have been misunderstood and misappropriated by conspiritualists. If you understand the dharma basis of these beliefs well—including what they don’t mean—are social-media literate, and use your critical-thinking faculties when engaging with con-spiritualists—meaning that you insist on actual proof from recognised trustworthy sources (like properly interpreted genuine science)—you won’t be at risk of falling for the con. However, if your understanding of their spiritual basis is vague, and you are too willing to ‘go with the flow’ and believe whatever someone says when they ‘sound’ reasonable—those skilled in cult induction techniques tell you what you want to hear—you’re at risk of falling into delusion in a big way.
How do we avoid being conned by con-spirituality movements?
People fall for conspiracy theories because they want certainty in an uncertain world. So accepting the limits of your certainty and becoming comfortable with the inevitable uncertainty of human existence will help inoculate you against falling for conspiracy theories. If we long for certainty and security, we’ll hold onto beliefs or hopes or ideologies that give us this certainty, even if they’re a false narrative.
In Buddhist terms, excessive attachment to views is a form of ego clinging, so knowing those teachings will help make you less inclined to become attached to a conspiracy, or any other, theory. Some solid Buddhist study—with genuinely qualified teachers—will help you realise that these beliefs, as they’re stated above, are gross oversimplifications. Apart from being a useful spiritual education, this will help you to avoid being conned by those with no clue to their real meaning. Alternatively, or simultaneously, dropping all ‘spiritual’ beliefs would also work as an inoculation against conspirituality. At the very least, you could develop a questioning attitude to such beliefs and to people who profess them.
In simple terms try to find a balance between being open to alternative experiences and beliefs, but not believing any old nonsense or falling into magical thinking—the belief that unrelated events are causally connected despite the absence of any plausible causal link between them.
And learn how to do genuine research:
We will indeed need to do our own research and demand more truth. But we will also need to defer to and respect science to do so. We need to understand that research done via YouTube is not “your own research”. It’s an algorithm at play that handcuffs us to our worst cognitive biases. We need to be sceptical – but for the sake of understanding, not to create more tribalism. I would argue that we also need, at a broader level, to instigate fake news resilience training, like Finland has. It works.https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/sep/15/the-wellness-realm-has-fallen-into-conspiritualism-i-have-a-sense-why
So along with our spiritual sensitivities, we need to value evidence from our shared physical reality. What seems to be true to us is not the same as what actually is true in reality. If we don’t look for external validation of our beliefs in the form of evidence, we risk becoming completely unhinged from reality, and there is no greater delusion than that.
For more on con-spirituality listen to the Conspirituality Podcast. This episode on why spiritual people are vulnerable to conspiracy theories is particularly relevant.