The publication mistakes an ancient set of beliefs for something new
Earlier this week, Vox published a puzzling article entitled “Is a new kind of religion forming on the internet?”. In the piece, writer Rebecca Jennings posits that a new sort of religion was brewing on the Internet with the aid of social media algorithms.
‘Call it the religion of ‘just asking questions,’ Jennings writes. ‘Or the religion of ‘doing your own research.’’
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She goes on to describe a nebula of interrelated beliefs that borrow from non-Western and Christian spirituality alike: manifestation, holistic medicine, the prosperity gospel-inspired optimism of multi-level marketing schemes, a fear of the demonic, and scepticism around Covid-19 vaccines.
Jennings cites “the QAnon-related coup on January 6th” as a real-world impact of what she believes is a nascent New Religious Movement — internet spirituality, in her words.
If what Jennings is describing sounds familiar to you, it’s because it is. It’s Western esotericism — an anti-rationalist philosophy that has been a staple of Western culture since the late 1800s . And if you’d like to split hairs and use the more contemporary catch-all term “New Age spirituality,” its current manifestation hit the American and UK mainstream in the late 1960s. We’re hardly dealing with new material here, even if they have been applied to current events.
I’ll give the writer this: the Internet has had an impact on the spread of people exposed to Western esotericism. But it’s bizarre to assert that it’s a new religion that’s formed by way of the Internet.
It makes one wonder: why would Vox feel the need to assert that social media algorithms invented something with a centuries-old history? The answer may have a political dimension to it.
Until now, a certain set of American, typically coastal, college-educated, and always upper middle class or upper-class, liberals have believed that New Age beliefs (though often by another name) belongs to them. Astrology, crystals, manifestation, holistic medicine, among many other ideas, have, since the early 2010s, been the preserve of the spiritual and contemporary Left. Use herbs to decolonise medicine; Astrology-sceptics have a narrow, Western-centric view of science; we are the granddaughters of the witches you couldn’t burn. You’ve heard it all before.
But now a more visible connection appears to be forming between these ostensibly liberal beliefs and the Right. But it’s a connection that’s always been there.
As this Quartz article notes, compare a QAnon Facebook group or an Infowars supplement-shiller with, say, Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop, or the offerings of spas like Esalen or Canyon Ranch. You might be surprised to find that they aren’t all that different.
Now that the Left has realised this connection — that the only difference between Goop and Infowars is its branding — they’re scrambling to come up with an explanation.
‘No’, they say, ‘this is different; it’s the product of algorithms and the way information spreads online; it’s potentially dangerous; it’s a would-be religion, and shouldn’t we be careful, after QAnon?’
But if these beliefs are a religion, then that religion has existed for a long time, and the Left has long been a part of it.
Whether you’re a vaccine-sceptic TikToker, a Vox-approved witch, or a QAnon shaman chanting the affirmation, these are branches of an esotericism that is nothing new.