The pandemic has provided fertile conditions for conspiracy theories and conspirituality in Australia – ABC News

The perpetuation of and interest in conspiracies has proliferated during the COVID-19 pandemic. Conspiracy theories often blend historical, religious, and scientific ideas by way of challenging official explanations of events and data provided by authorities, academics, and mainstream media. They then create alternate narratives based on distortions and widely circulate them predominantly, these days, through social media.

Charlotte Ward and David Voas first coined the term conspirituality in 2011, to describe the merger of conspiracy theories and New Age spirituality. They argued that these conspiritualist movements are united by a politico-spiritual philosophy, which posits that a group of elites has covert control of society and then calls for a paradigm shift in consciousness that harnesses cosmic forces to emancipate society from the grip of those elites.

It seems to us that Ward and Voass insights remain highly applicable to the current viral outbreak of what we call (con)spirituality, which has arisen in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and is focussed on a critique of modern technology, medicine, and governance. We chose to bracket the con because many spiritual people and groups questioning of modernity is critical, informed, and non-violent, particularly where they are working toward more holistic and sustainable ways of living and healing, and employing ideas and practices whose validity is bolstered by science. Concurrently, there are rising numbers of people with conspiritual views who are claiming 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.

Adherents to QAnon argue that COVID-19 isnt real, and instead was created by deep-state government officials and elites. The movement focuses on a Great Awakening, whereby people will be able to discover this hidden truth. As Adrienne LaFrance highlights, QAnon is a movement united in mass rejection of reason, objectivity, and other Enlightenment values and propelled by paranoia populism [and] religious faith. Facebook hosts thousands of QAnon groups with millions of members, and QAnon itself has been identified as a domestic terror threat by the FBI.

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What QAnon and conspiritualists share with many other religious extremist movements are their exclusive religious and spiritual narratives which depict adherents as privy to the real truth and thus more enlightened than mainstream society. They tend to see themselves as persecuted and believe that they will ultimately be vindicated. Contemporary spirituality is individualised, based on personal choice, and commodified, which is why conspiritualists are particularly irate about coronavirus restrictions that threaten their personal freedom. At the same time, these individuals have formed conspiritual social movements what Nancy Ammerman calls spiritual tribes which are deeply social with distinct and exclusive beliefs, language, and codes, calling for societal transformation.

An under-explored aspect of conspirituality is the white privilege that persists within these movements and their connection with spiritual frameworks of abundance. The coronavirus lockdowns have not only inhibited personal freedoms but have also had significant economic costs to peoples livelihoods and lifestyles. 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.

In the latest census, 30 per cent of Australians stated they had No Religion. A nationally representative 2018 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes found that 24 per cent of adults agreed with the statement, I dont follow a religion, but consider myself to be a spiritual person; and 17 per cent said they were religious and spiritual. A nationally representative survey of 1,200 young people aged between 13 and 18 also revealed 22 per cent were Spiritual but not Religious, while 16 per cent were Religious and Spiritual. There has been a significant uptake of spiritual practices online across Australia to help cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, and research also shows that Australians turn to alternative therapies because they are disillusioned with Western medicine and have lost faith in modernity, science, and technology to solve pressing global issues. (It goes without saying that not all who self-identify as spiritual or partake in holistic medicine necessarily buy into conspiracy theories.)

Conspiracy videos and documentaries such as those of the infamous conspiritualist David Icke, Plandemic, and Americas Frontline Doctors have attracted a substantial Australian audience. Australian celebrities and influencers have embraced (con)spiritual ideas most notably celebrity chef Pete Evans, and former reality show participant Fanos Panayides. Other figures within the Australian wellness movement have also gained notoriety by posting videos and/or participating on Panayidess and Raphael Fernandezs 99%Unite platform. These self-proclaimed experts mobilise social media and then profit from the attention they garner. At the same time, other Australians who are prominent in the wellness industry like Sarah Wilson have publicly critiqued conspiritual views.

Protests directed against 5G, Bill Gates, vaccines, and masks, and demonstrations for the reclaiming of freedom and sovereignty have been organised in Australian cities and attended by QAnon supporters and others with conspiritual views. Protests have been more frequent in Melbourne than elsewhere in Australia due to its stricter and longer lockdown measures. Australia was also found to be one of the top-four countries contributing to QAnon discussions on Twitter. In an Essential Report poll of 1,000 Australian adults, 13 per cent (which rose to 20 per cent among 18-34 year-olds) thought that COVID-19 was not dangerous and was being used to force people to be vaccinated, and that Bill Gates has played a role in creating and spreading COVID-19. These are substantial and disturbing minorities. And not only are there growing numbers of people attracted to these movements, the movements themselves are becoming more radical and vocal through social media.

As with many social movements, those with extreme and dangerous conspiritual views are a very small minority within broader spiritual movements. Nevertheless, it is critical that we better understand their internal diversity and complexity, as well as the processes of radicalisation occurring within them and their links with QAnon.

Associate Professor Anna Halafoff is a sociologist of religion, and a member of the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, the Centre for Resilient and Inclusive Societies Consortium, and the AVERT (Addressing Violent Extremism and Radicalisation to Terrorism) Research Network at Deakin University. She is the author of The Multifaith Movement: Global Risks and Cosmopolitan Solutions, and co-author (with Andrew Singleton, Mary Lou Rasmussen, and Gary Bouma) of Freedoms, Faiths and Futures: Teenage Australians on Religion, Sexuality and Diversity.

Dr Enqi Wengis a Research Fellow at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin University, and the author of Media Perceptions of Religious Changes in Australia: Of Dominance and Diversity.

Professor Andrew Singleton is a sociologist in the School of Social Sciences and Humanities at Deakin University. He is author of Religion, Culture and Society: A Global Approach, co-author (with Anna Halafoff, Mary Lou Rasmussen, and Gary Bouma) of Freedoms, Faiths and Futures: Teenage Australians on Religion, Sexuality and Diversity, and co-author (with Michael Mason and Ruth Webber) of The Spirit of Generation Y: Young Peoples Spirituality in a Changing Australia.

Cristina Rocha is Professor of Anthropology and the Director of the Religion and Society Research Cluster at the Western Sydney University. She is a former president (2018-2019) of the Australian Association for the Study of Religion, and she co-edits the Journal of Global Buddhism and the Religion in the Americas series. She is the author of John of God: The Globalisation of Brazilian Faith Healing and Zen in Brazil: The Quest for Cosmopolitan Modernity.

Dr Alexandra Roginski is a Research Fellow at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin University. She is the author of The Hanged Man and the Body Thief: Finding Lives in a Museum Mystery.

Emily Marriott is a PhD student in Sociology at Deakin University. She has recently worked as a Research Assistant on an Australian Research Council Discovery Project on Religious Diversity in Australia: Strategies to Maintain Social Cohesion.

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The pandemic has provided fertile conditions for conspiracy theories and conspirituality in Australia - ABC News

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