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How Health Scams and Conspiracism Create “Conspirituality”

Book cover by Hachette Book Group, Inc. / Spectrum

When the pandemic hit, the wellness world retreated into the internet. It was already there, of course, in the countless Lululemon-sporting YouTube yoga influencers, the numerous self-empowerment podcasters, and the endless Instagram accounts hawking supplements, vitamins, and healing crystals. However, in the spring of 2020, those online spaces were suddenly brimming with new faces, voices, and content, and they had an audience of millions who were trapped at home with new anxieties about health and nothing else to do.

For many, these online encounters were a respite from the outside world. They promised inner peace, a healthy body, and a supportive community during a time when reality presented only the opposite. In my own home, Yoga With Adriene hummed healing phrases like “rest your heart” and “relax the weight of your body.” I watched my social media feeds fill with young women extolling the empowering virtues of Chloe Ting's ab workouts and sent virtual high fives to fellow Peloton riders as we pedaled our way to shared endorphin rushes. My family spent Sabbath afternoons outdoors, finding tranquility in nature and each other’s company. The wellness world offered its healing touch in my life during a time of uncertainty.

However, this natural, alternative refuge turned out to be a dry forest. The pandemic sparked change. For all the virtues that the wellness world extolled, it harbored the kindling of conspiracy and fear. The deeply individualist culture, when combined with the embers of fascism, capitalist schemes, and distrust of global political entities, added to the fuel. Magnified in online spaces by charismatic influencers and global politics, this toxic blend became a conflagration. Out of the flames emerged a dangerous online religion: conspirituality.

The term conspirituality was first defined in 2011 by sociologists Charlotte Ward and David Voas in their paper “The Emergence of Conspirituality.” They describe it as a movement that synthesizes “the female-dominated New Age (with its positive focus on self) and the male-dominated realm of conspiracy theory (with its negative focus on global politics).” Two seemingly disparate groups of people—“leftist” spiritual wellness consumers and “far-right” conspiracy theorists—were banded together against the “threat of a totalitarian ‘new world order,’” fearful of the ultimate end of globalization. As Eva Wiseman discusses in her article for the Guardian, the effects of this unlikely marriage ranged from online disinformation and hate-spreading to public disruptions and violence.

This convergence and its resulting cultural impact are the focus of Conspirituality: How New Age Conspiracy Theories Became a Health Threat (2023), a book by seasoned wellness-world researchers Derek Beres, Matthew Remski, and Julian Walker. Utilizing their personal experiences with alt-health cures, spiritual cults, and the yoga/wellness industries, the three friends track the mutation and spread of new age health practices and online conspiracy trends during the COVID-19 pandemic. The book presents findings from their research, along with information from their podcast, “Conspirituality,” where they have interviewed dozens of historians, philosophers, medical professionals, and activists.

The book takes a deep dive into the formation of conspirituality, revealing its eager advocacy for a deeply natural, return-to-the-roots way of living that exalts physical and mental purity above all. Charming figureheads intuit prophetic wisdom from alien creatures, divine inner beings, and mysterious alter egos. Other influencers, from Oprah to Robert F. Kennedy Jr., pull countless people into a framework where their mental and spiritual state have ultimate power over reality, serving to harm or to heal. A deeply online culture, the movement’s cult-like mindset mingles with conspiracies and fears about a deeply corrupted world. Conspirituality, in the words of the authors, is a “powerful and intoxicating socioreligious movement that can ruin families, disrupt public health measures, and encourage civil unrest.”

The authors’ main message centers on conspirituality’s Icarus-like flight at the height of the pandemic. Disinformation in online wellness spaces spread like a wildfire, only fueled by cryptic messages from public health departments. Isolated conspiritualists were fed stories about the horrors of vaccination and the “trivial” effects of the virus, taught to rely on supplements, sham medicine, and the power of the mind for healing. For some, these messages overlapped with QAnon conspiracy theories, spreading panic and righteous anger. The result was an often devastating spread of the virus and information about it, along with the division of families and friends.

As a student at Andrews University during the pandemic, I completed my freshman year at home. Long hours scrolling through online spaces exposed me to a vast range of theories and fears thrown into the void of uncertainty that the virus created. The extremist viewpoints that Conspirituality brings to light, although deeply troubling, were not unfamiliar to me. My bigger question was why. Why were these beliefs so appealing to people when they caused such obvious harm? Why did conspirituality resonate with people who had such vastly different backgrounds?

The authors answer these queries with a broad statement on marginal spiritual communities and conspiracism as a whole. They note that people are drawn to these spaces because “1) they are attracted to the idea of knowing something necessary for survival, 2) that no one else knows, and 3) that they can share with other kindred spirits.” Later, the authors explain, “The deeper hook of today’s conspirituality narrative is that a believer can participate in it.” In a time when it was all too easy to feel like an isolated, helpless outsider, conspirituality offered the opportunity to make a difference in a place where you belonged.

The reasons why weren't so foreign after all. In fact, having lived for two decades in the Seventh-day Adventist church, the reasoning was even familiar. I grew up with a promise that belief in Jesus’ sacrifice and second coming would be key to my survival. I was told that this message was unknown in many parts of the world and that it was my prerogative to share it so that others could be saved. Adventism provides a tangible, interactive answer to the world’s uncertainties. During the pandemic, while many people retreated into conspirituality’s self-affirming promises, a whole other population fell back into Adventism’s familiar comfort—and not for dissimilar reasons.

“Spirituality—at any level of integrity—speaks to deep human needs for meaning, purpose, and community,” the authors emphasize. “When people gather in these orbits, they bond through emotive rituals that create flow states and give access to neuroplastic changes in habits, beliefs, and priorities. The process can be beautiful and beneficial. But it can also amplify vulnerabilities and exploit good intentions.” While spirituality can be informed by research, honesty, and respect, these things quickly become distorted in the face of disinformation, ignorance, and fear.

Beyond the reasons why people believe in them, the fringes of Adventism and conspirituality have similar methods and messages. Like conspirituality, Adventism makes use of disaster spirituality and end-times messaging, prioritizes a unique health message, plays into purity culture, and has its fair share of charismatic leaders, some of whom take things to the negative extremes. During the pandemic, local churches showed varied responses to public health measures, and as a whole, they have shown a penchant for conspiracy. For example, in 2021, Spectrum reported on the actions of Adventists who appealed to the church to reject vaccinations and provide religious exemptions to vaccine mandates. “Rather than arguing from real data and carefully thought-out theology, they rely on conspiracies and slippery slopes,” the article noted. While the vast majority of their core beliefs remain disparate, it is significant that many of the excesses involved in Adventism and conspirituality are similar. Together, they target the human need to belong, to be valued, and to be saved from evil.

This desire for connection is key to conspirituality’s influence and success. “If there’s some universal source of pain that conspirituality pretends to soothe, it is loneliness,” the authors note. “That loneliness can curdle into isolation, and slowly deprive a person of the ability to trust in medicine, governments, the democratic process, and fellow citizens.” The pandemic revealed just how much humans rely on each other for support, guidance, and growth, and just how damaging it can be when that is taken away.

Just like conspirituality, Adventism answers this loneliness through the formation of a unique community. In many ways, I believe that the aforementioned parallels make Adventists uniquely equipped to engage with conspiritualists. We possess a level of understanding that not many others have. However, this understanding also means that Adventists are vulnerable to the same self-affirming, inflexible vulnerabilities that many conspiritualists hold. An understanding of those extremes reaffirms the need for Adventists to stay empathetic, epistemically open, and informed. 

Conspirituality closes on a note of compassion and trust, attempting to counter some of the divisiveness and extremity that its subject poses. The final section of the book is dedicated to three stories from their listeners, all of whom have struggled with a division in their family due to conspirituality. Instead of an indictment, however, each message ultimately upholds the importance of showing love. “No matter what a person believes, the wisdom goes, nor how harmful it might be to them, the best thing you can do is to love them in a way that an influencer or cult leader never could,” the authors share. “To love them without expectation or false promises.”

This was yet another familiar message. Core to Adventist belief is a biblical imperative about love. God’s love, yes, but also the love that we should extend to others. While there is no easy answer to the difficulties that conspirituality poses, the authors affirm, “A crisis in trust can indeed be answered through the hard work of practicing trust, one relationship at a time." Instead of withdrawing into online spaces, conspirituality can be unveiled and diminished through an expansion of empathy, a commitment to trust, and employment of evidence-based critical thought. As Adventists, we can be the ones to advocate for a respectful, honest, and research-informed spirituality. In doing so, we can provide a healing touch to the pain and loneliness in the world and begin to mend what conspirituality has broken.

 


Isabella Koh is Spectrum's managing digital editor. She is a recent graduate of Andrews University with a BA in English literature and minor in chemistry. She has a passion for storytelling and plans to continue developing her writing career in the future.

Title image by Hachette Book Group, Inc. / Spectrum

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