This post relates to topic 4.2 Secularisation, in particular “The rise of New Religious Movements and definitions of ‘spiritual’ and ‘religious’“, and “Disillusionment with some aspects of traditional religion compared to hard line atheism.” It is also of relevance to topic 4.3 New Movements in Theology, specifically “The global development of Evangelicalism, and of the nature and influence of Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity in the US and beyond….and their impact on the lives of believers and communities in Christianity today”.
There are also considerable overlaps with Paper 1 topic 2.1 (Conversion) and 4.2 (with respect to ‘falsification debates’ and the contrast between ‘bliks’ and ‘beliefs that are significant articles of faith which may be significantly challenged but not easily abandoned‘).
With the above context in mind, the following questions will be explored below: Is QAnon a New Religious Movement? What impact has it had on Christianity in the USA?
First of all, another reason for ‘disillusionment with some aspects of traditional religion’ (previously looked at HERE) needs to be considered, namely, its recent moral failures.
Probably the most well-known example is the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal that first came to the attention of the general public in the late1980’s. By 2020, over 3,000 priests from around the world had been exposed as having been involved in the systematic abuse of children of both sexes, some as young as three years old. Church leaders were initially dismissive of the claims being made, silenced or settled individual cases, and some of the offending priests were transferred to different parishes to keep them out of trouble, all in an attempt to preserve the moral standing of the Holy See.
By the 1990s, these cases began to receive significant media and public attention in countries such as Canada, the USA, Chile, Australia, and much of Europe, and in 2002, an investigation by The Boston Globe newspaper led to wider coverage of the issue in the United States, so much so that the Church hierarchy was then no longer able to substantially suppress the emerging narrative. In response, Popes John Paul II, Benedict and Francis have all acknowledged the abuse to a greater or lesser degree.
Subsequently, further instances of sexual abuse and misconduct have come to light within the wider world of Christianity. In the Protestant community, for example, the efforts of female bloggers who, after examining court and police records, sermons and e-mails, began to publicise details of incidents and instances within their own community, have compelled the Protestant church to acknowledge the issue. Social media, especially the #ChurchToo movement, has also been encouraging victims of inappropriate sexual behaviour, assault and abuse to speak out and seek justice for what happened to them*.
Although the focus here is on Christianity, reports and allegations of predatory sexual behaviour, impropriety and harassment towards women, and additional cases involving the sexual abuse of children have surfaced in relation to other religious traditions, most notably Buddhism, Islam, and Judaism.
The above disclosures have obviously undermined both trust in the Church and its moral authority, and one consequence of this is that some have abandoned their faith altogether. According to Mia Bloom and Sophia Moskalenko in their book Pastels and Pedophiles – Inside the Mind of QAnon, “Ten percent of young Protestants have left the church because they found that clerical sexual misconduct was not taken seriously. Likewise, 11 percent of Catholics said they were considering leaving their religion because of how the Church handled the sex scandal.” However, they go on to state that many, including some who have chosen to remain as members of Christian congregations in spite of their concerns, have acquired a rejuvenated sense of moral clarity through their involvement with QAnon, a movement that the co-authors declare “could be a kind of religion.”
WHAT IS QAnon?
QAnon has been described variously as “a sort of mega-conspiracy theory, [one that] can encompass a wide array of other, more conflicting conspiratorial beliefs” (Daily Beast reporter Will Sommer), as “really a new religious movement…the first great internet religion” (author and Church leader Mark Sayers), and as a movement that has become “overtly political, in recent months, helping to spread baseless claims that the 2020 election was rigged for Joe Biden” (Guardian journalist Ed Pilkington).
QAnon itself is the product of an event that took place on October 28, 2017, when an anonymous user started a thread on the notorious, politically incorrect message board 4chan entitled “Calm before the Storm.” Alleging themselves to be a government insider in possession of a “Q level” security clearance*, the post announced that, “Hilary Clinton will be arrested between 7.45 AM – 8.30 AM EST on Monday – the morning of October 30th 2017.” Although no such arrest was made, this was the first of almost 5,000 messages** authored by this user, who eventually became known as Q, an abbreviation of ‘Q Clearance Patriot’, a title the poster initially adopted to suggest that they were someone from a military background with access to President Trump***. The posts that Q made on 4chan, and later 8chan/8kun, are referred to as ‘drops’ or ‘breadcrumbs’. Devotees of QAnon dedicate themselves to decoding these cryptic and allusive Q drops in order to better understand and expose the activities of what is known as the ‘deep state’****. The movement has since migrated from the darker corners of the Internet to mainstream social networks like Facebook, Reddit, Twitter and Instagram, and has gone on to become firmly established in countries other than the USA, including the UK.
The events of January 6th, 2021, when a pro-Trump mob launched an assault on the US Capitol building, served to demonstrate how embedded QAnon has become in the the political consciousness of the American electorate, as in the aftermath of this failed insurrection it has become clear that many of the participants were QAnon followers. Even beforehand, QAnon adherents had already committed various crimes, including murder, the kidnapping of children, and attempted sabotage. Overall, according to Bloom and Moskalenko:
‘QAnon [has] metastasized from a fringe movement on anonymous message boards into a cultlike movement, with millions of followers around the world – one that has captured the imagination and practically seized control of the Republican Party…There were 97 QAnon supporting candidates in the 2020 primaries, of which 22 Republicans and 2 Independents were victorious and ran in the November 2020 elections.’
Currently, businesswoman and far-right conspiracy theorist Marjorie Taylor Greene is serving as a Republican member of Congress. In 2020, she said that many of Q’s claims “have really proven to be true”. Another Republican member of Congress, Lauren Boebert, expressed tentative support for QAnon in an interview, but has since backtracked on her previous statements and declared herself to be “not a follower”.
As for Donald Trump, according to Media Matters for America, before getting himself banned from Twitter, the former President had amplified QAnon messaging at least 216 times by retweeting or mentioning 129 QAnon-affiliated Twitter accounts, sometimes multiple times a day. When asked about QAnon during a press conference, Trump replied: “I don’t know much about the movement, other than I understand they like me very much, which I appreciate”, and he has also described QAnon followers as “people who love our country”.
*This is the US Department of Energy’s highest level of clearance, one that grants access to the design of nuclear weapons but not to other national security concerns.
** The final drop was posted on the 8th December 2020. Since then, Q has been silent.
*** To this day, no-one is quite sure who Q is. A mesmerising 6 part documentary series is devoted to exploring the mystery (see immediately below for the trailer). .
**** The term ‘deep state’ refers to a form of shadow governance made up of usually secret and unauthorised matrixes of power that operate independently of a state’s political leadership and democracy, and whose members pursue their own agendas and goals.
“A SORT OF MEGA-CONSPIRACY THEORY”
The most significant claim made by Q is that President Trump is engaged in a battle against a Satan-worshipping, pedophile cabal made up of the rich and powerful, who secretly control governments throughout the world. This allegation went on to to form the nucleus of QAnon conspiracy theorising, though it actually draws on and integrates elements of earlier, somewhat disparate theories.
One example is Pizzagate. which emerged from the hacking and subsequent publication of John Podesta’s e-mails. Podesta is a former White House Chief of Staff who also served as the chairman of Hilary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2016. In messages to friends and family, Podesta frequently suggested “getting a pizza” at a popular local restaurant called Comet Ping Pong Pizzeria. The related conspiracy theory started on 4chan, and involved speculation that references to “cheese pizza” (CP) functioned as a code for “child pornography”, and that Clinton was operating a trafficking ring, along with other Democratic politicians, out of the basement of Comet Ping Pong. The theory was then amplified by various far-right media influencers, like Alex Jones, host of the InfoWars website, and on social media platforms such as Twitter (where it appeared to receive a tacit endorsement from pop singer Robbie Williams during an interview that was shared there), and TikTok.
QAnon believers went on to embellish the theory by insisting that Hilary Clinton was not only trafficking children but also abusing them and harvesting adrenochrome (see below for more on what this is) from their blood. This is not without significance for Bloom and Moskalenko, who argue that “saving the children” is an aim that resonates with women in particular and “evokes a visceral – even maternal – reaction”, especially for those who may have heard of and been affected by the previously mentioned sex abuse scandals involving Christian clergy, as well as other cases implicating Hollywood celebrities like the actor Bill Cosby, film producer Harvey Weinstein, financier Jeffrey Epstein, and Prince Andrew.
Interestingly, self-declared QAnon follower Liz Crokin (who inspired Marjorie Turner Greene to also embrace QAnon thinking), Roseanne Barr (see above), and Ann Vandersteel (President of the far-right video blog YourVoiceAmerica) have all helped to promulgate versions of the theory, and on January 6th 2021, many women were either involved in the protest or participated in the ensuing violence.
Unsurprisingly, the owner of Comet Ping Pong began to receive threatening phone and text messages, and on the 4th December 2016 an armed gunman called Edgar Welch entered the premises – which was full of customers at the time – and fired his assault rifle at a locked cabinet that he thought was being used to hide abused children. Fortunately no-one was hurt, and the man eventually gave himself up following a stand-off with the local police, who, upon further investigation, found no evidence that underage children were being held captive in the basement of the restaurant, one reason for this being that it does not have a basement. However, none of this proved sufficient to deter another QAnon supporter, Ryan Jaselskis, from mounting an arson attack against the pizzeria in April 2020.
A further strand of QAnon conspiracy theorising involves the assertion that some of the blood drinking members of the satanic coven are actually lizard people. This is a claim whose origins can be traced back to the UK and the writings of David Icke, a former footballer and BBC sports presenter turned prolific author, who has published a number of books about their presence among us. According to Icke, they are genetically descended from an alien species who came to earth from the Alpha Draconis star system. Their ability to shape-shift means that they have been able to live among us undetected. Icke has alleged that many global leaders and celebrities, both past and present, are related to these reptilians. The list of includes the Merovingian dynasty, the Rothschild dynasty, US comedian Bob Hope, musicians Kris Kristofferson and Boxcar Willie, George Bush, George Bush Jr, former British Conservative Prime Minister Ted Heath, the Queen Mother, Prince Philip, and the Queen of England.
According to the Wikipedia entry on Icke, some of those who have been seduced by this theory have asked public figures if they are lizards. For example, an Official Information Act request was filed in New Zealand in 2008 in order to enquire whether John Key, Prime Minister at the time, was a lizard, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was asked the same question during a Q&A in 2016. Both men denied that they were. It also appears to have gained traction with a diverse audience, one which includes groups from both sides of the political spectrum, including the far-right Christian Patriot movement in the USA, and the UK neo-Nazi organisation Combat 18. Some New Agers, and Ufologists have also embraced the conspiracy, and it has attracted celebrity admirers such as bestselling novelist Alice Walker, author of The Colour Purple, and musician Mick Fleetwood from Fleetwood Mac.
In addition to renewed speculation about hybrid human/lizard people, there is also an anti-semitic component to the QAnon conspiracy theory, the origins of which are traced back to the middle ages by Bloom and Moskalenko, specifically to the infamous ‘blood libels’ that arose within the Catholic Church, who propagated the myth that Jews required Christian blood as an ingredient for the unleavened bread that was baked for Passover celebrations, or alternatively, that they drank the blood as a form of medicine, or made use of it as an aphrodisiac. These libels continued to circulate in Europe, and were eventually appropriated by the Nazis, who devoted an entire issue of their newspaper Der Sturmer to them, alongside accusations that there was a Jewish master plan to murder non-Jews.
In its latest incarnation, in addition to maintaining the trope that the Jews are working behind the scenes to control what goes on in the world politically and financially (e.g. through the allegedly nefarious activities of billionaire investor and financier George Soros, and Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, and the manipulation of both the Democratic Party and social justice campaigns like Black Lives Matter), in order to undermine the interests of white Americans, a modern version of the blood libel can, Bloom and Moskalenko contend, be seen in QAnon’s focus on a chemical substance called adrenochrome.
Adrenochrome is, in fact, a genuine chemical compound that forms through the oxidation of adrenaline, the stress hormone. It is, apparently, easily synthesised, readily available, and inexpensive. Doctors in some countries prescribe it to treat blood-clotting. However, none of this has deterred QAnon devotees from claiming that the substance is harvested from the blood of children when their adrenal glands go into overdrive during pain or torture, that it has psychedelic properties, and that the aforementioned demonic cabal of Democrats and celebrities (who include Hilary Clinton, Tom Hanks, Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates, and Madonna among others) make use of it along with their Jewish sponsors and members, in order to maintain a youthful appearance, as a cure for the coronavirus, or simply to get high when they all cavort together.
QAnon, or rather Q – as the online presence who fans the flames of his/her followers’ overworked and credulous imaginations – seems to be drawing on a famous literary source* at this point, namely, Hunter S. Thompson’s amoral, anarchistic, autobiographical novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, in which the author’s attorney describes adrenochrome as “…stuff that makes pure mescaline seem like ginger beer”, adding, “You’ll go completely crazy if you take too much.” Thompson himself then declares that, “There’s only one source for this stuff…the adrenaline glands from a living human body. It’s no good if you get it out of a corpse.” The attorney goes on to describe how he procured the substance in lieu of legal fees from an impoverished Satanist, a client accused of child molestation.
Given that some regard QAnon as having begun as an Internet prank, a “designed” viral meme that snowballed and ultimately took on a life of its own, the gonzo origin story for this piece of chemical misinformation**, one that is illustrative of a style of journalism that wilfully dispenses with objectivity, certainly serves to buttress this view, whilst also perhaps demonstrating just how easy it is for some to fall down the conspiracy theory rabbit hole.
* Additionally, adrenochrome receives a mention in Aldous Huxley’s 1954 book The Doors of Perception, a classic philosophical work that discusses the implications of drug-induced mystical experiences. Written mostly about his use of mescaline, Huxley speculates that adrenochrome (which he admits to not having tried) could have similar effects. So it seems likely that Thompson may have used Huxley to promote the fiction that it is a powerful entheogen. Meanwhile, in Anthony Burgess’ s dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange, the substance appears under the pseudonym ‘drenchrom’, an optional ingredient in the cocktail ‘Moloko Plus’ , and it makes a cameo appearance in Dune author Frank Herbert’s Destination Void, as well as in an episode of the British TV police drama Lewis (where it features as an element in the unfolding plot).
** Just to be clear, adrenochrome has no hallucinatory properties.
“REALLY A NEW RELIGIOUS MOVEMENT….THE FIRST GREAT INTERNET RELIGION”
Opinions vary as to the present significance of QAnon, though most commentators regard it as far more than just a conspiracy theory. For example, William Turton and Joshua Brustein have noted that it ‘…has often been described as a religious movement—and, like many religions, the core of the belief system stems from revelations in a foundational text. In this case, that text didn’t appear on stone tablets handed from a mountaintop or on golden plates buried in the ground in upstate New York*, but through a series of cryptic postings on a website.’ Similarly, Amar Diwakar observes that, ‘what makes QAnon distinct from a run-of-the-mill conspiracy theory is religious zeal and eschatology**. At the core is the notion that cleansing the world of evil will redeem a fallen, corrupt world and usher in a new golden age – in what could be described as the birth pangs of a millenarian sect.’
The ‘foundational text’ is made up of the aforementioned Q drops, many of which are composed in a prophetic style that is, perhaps, comparable to Revelation, the last book of the New Testament, a scripture replete with its own similarly obscure, allusive and extravagant imagery. The drops are also somewhat imitative of Socratic dialogue, as QAnon devotees attempt to engage with, as well as decipher and answer the avalanche of questions posed by Q in their online responses and commentaries on each drop.
Rather than engage with the infamous chan message boards directly, followers of QAnon turned instead to what are known as aggregation sites. An aggregation site compiles information about the ongoing conspiracy and attempt to demystify and interpret the drops. Perhaps the most popular of these was qmap.pub, the creation of former Citigroup executive Jason Gelinas. Gelinas’s aim was make the drops accessible to those who may possess only limited computer skills. According to Turton and Brustein, by mid-2020 the site was attracting 10 million visitors per month, thus helping to facilitate the transformation of QAnon into a religiously and politically influential movement. However, Gelinas was eventually exposed as the owner of Qmap and it was shut down in September 2020. He was also fired by Citigroup.
Another major QAnon influencer and interpreter of QAnon writings is Dave Hayes a.k.a. “Praying Medic”, an Arizona-based faith healer, evangelical Christian, paramedic and author, who has gained more than 750,000 followers across Twitter and YouTube. Then there is the Christian Instagram influencer @roseuncharted, with 173,000 followers who, according to Emily Belz, on one occasion promoted the idea that hospital tents were being placed over tunnels under Central Park in New York by the organization Samaritan’s Purse, which was using them as a cover to free children from sex slavery via this escape route. “Rose” is, like Hayes, a follower of QAnon, and she posts denunciations of child trafficking and Netflix (for ‘normalizing pedophilia’) alongside images portraying the ‘perfect pot roast’ and ‘cooked apples’ as a suggested ‘kids breakfast’.
The popularity of Hayes and “Rose” is reflective of the fact that the theology of evangelical Christianity appears to have come to define the movement. This is unsurprising, as Q took on a prophetic role buttressed by frequent Biblical references designed to appeal to a Christian constituency. One such reference is to John 3: 16 (‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.’), a passage deployed by Q to invest the figure of Donald Trump with a messianic aura, and to present his presidential aspirations as having been motivated by a desire to be in the vanguard of a cosmic battle against forces of evil manifested in the Satanic ‘deep state’. Another is to Ephesians 6:10-18 (“Put on the full armour of God”), a passage which suggests that believers must prepare themselves for a decisive future conflict to be fought on both a spiritual and political level.
Two additional terms that it is essential to understand when it comes to Q’s End Times theology are “The Storm” and “The Great Awakening.” The former refers to an event instigated by President Trump where there will be a mass arrest of those associated with the demonic cabal. This ‘Storm’ has been anticipated several times but has thus far failed to materialise, most notably on January 20th 2021 when Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th US President. Although Biden’s inauguration resulted in some QAnon followers becoming disaffected with the movement, others maintain that the election was stolen, and there are many who still anticipate a final victory of good over evil. Once this occurs, the ‘The Great Awakening’ will follow, when a majority of people will finally acknowledge and become supporters of the movement.
Thus far we can see that QAnon has its own prophet with a distinctive eschatological vision, who encourages his/her readers to trust in God and a divine plan, and to be vigilant about signs and portents heralding “The Storm”. There is also a saviour/Messiah figure in the form of Donald Trump, an esoteric sacred text represented by the Q drops, and even a belief in a kind of second coming, namely, that of the late John F. Kennedy Jr. (the son of the 35th President), who was killed in a plane crash in 1999. Convinced that Kennedy was still alive, around 100 QAnon adherents gathered for a candlelit vigil at Dealey Plaza on the anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy on November 22nd 1963, some wearing T-shirts bearing the slogan ‘Trump – Kennedy 2024’, fully expecting JFK Jr to emerge from occultation. According to QAnon mythology, he had been hiding in Pittsburgh for the previous two decades and was set to announce that he would be Trump’s running mate in the next election. Needless to say, nothing happened and this was another failed prediction.
Whether all this is enough for QAnon to be called a new religious movement is open to debate. Leaving aside dictionary definitions, there is no scholarly consensus about the meaning of the word ‘religion’*** and no precise equivalent for it in many languages and cultures. For example, in Sanskrit – the language in which the Hindu and many Buddhist scriptures were composed – the nearest approximation is probably ‘darsana’, a word which can be translated as ‘a way of seeing’ [reality]. Unfortunately some Indian religious ‘ways of seeing’ are atheistic and thus deny the existence of a deity with attributes like the ones traditionally ascribed to the Christian God. These include Buddhism, Jainism, and the Lokayata/Carvaka school of ancient Indian philosophy. So any quest to identify a common core to all faiths that QAnon might then be compared to would seem to end in vagueness, especially when one takes into account the variety of different outlooks, beliefs, schools of thought, denominations and subtraditions that can also exist within a faith. Plus, a person might be religious without belonging to any specific religion, a point made by Paul Heelas in his study of the New Age Movement (see HERE for a previous blog entry that touches on this). It may also be of significance that in her study of Near Death Experiences, Penny Sartori notes that one of their effects is to loosen the existing bond that an experiencer may have with a particular faith, with some preferring to adopt what they see as a more expansive description of themselves as ‘spiritual’ rather than ‘religious’ (which is interesting, given that the contrast between these two terms is specifically mentioned in connection with topic 4.2 Secularization in the Edexcel syllabus).
One possible way to make headway with this problem might be to invoke Wittgenstein’s notion of ‘family resemblance’ that underpins his notion of language games. When we think of a specific family, some may have the jug ears and amber coloured eyes that are regarded as somewhat emblematic of the clan as a whole, suffer from premature baldness if they are male, have inherited a particular disease, be predisposed to depression or possess an inclination to be musical, have a volatile temperament, and so on. However, there is no single feature exhibited by all, no ‘essence’ as such. There is only an overlapping series of similarities and resemblances, a criss-crossing of features that might be said to resemble a thread, where the strength of that thread is not to be found in one fibre that runs throughout the entire length of the garment, but rather in an overlapping of many fibres. From this perspective, QAnon can certainly be said to bear such a family resemblance to other faiths****, as even though it presently lacks a physical location (in the form of, say, a place of worship or a headquarters), it certainly has a virtual one.
Moving on, a related issue is to determine how QAnon relates to Christianity. We have already seen that it has, to an extent, co-opted the language and theology of evangelical Christianity. Opinions presently therefore vary as to what this signifies. For example, Nate Carlson has referred to the movement as a form of what he calls ‘parasitic Christianity’, whereby Christian theology has been ‘usurped and retooled by Q as a method of faith based political radicalization’. Carlson accordingly recommends a policy of deradicalization when it comes to dealing with members who are to be found among Christian congregations. Bloom and Moskalenko further note that – according to a wide-ranging survey in the USA – QAnon ‘has infiltrated several Christian denominations besides evangelicals, including 15 percent of white Protestants, 18 percent of white Catholics, 11 percent of Hispanic Catholics, 7 percent of Black Protestants, 22 percent non-affiliated, and 12 percent of non-Christians’. The co-authors consider this development to have been the result of the social isolation and loneliness engendered by lockdowns during the Covid pandemic: ‘Instead of attending Sunday services in person, people were forced to worship at home….Like the rest of the world they spent additional hours on Facebook and the Internet.’ Encountering QAnon material, they were then seduced by its seeming familiarity.
Consequently, priests and pastors found themselves having to deal with various QAnon claims circulating among their parishioners, including, ‘that 5G is an evil plot for mind control’, that ‘George Floyd’s murder is a hoax’, and that ‘Bill Gates is related to the Devil’. In response, though some have condemned QAnon as heretical, others have hesitated to be quite so outspoken in case their congregants start to desert them. The Omega Kingdom Ministry (OKM) in Indiana has even, according to Marc-Andre Argentino, gone so far as to openly embrace QAnon narratives, and devotes a regular two hour Sunday service to a form of exegesis that aims to demonstrate how QAnon conspiracy theorising confirms Biblical prophecies.
Overall, what appears to be the best policy when interacting with those who have fallen prey to QAnon conspiracy theorising is one of gentle deradicalization rather than confrontation. For example, Mark Sayers recommends. ‘…just asking Socratic questions. So very gently putting the burden of proof back on people. Like, “I’m really interested in that idea. Can you share some more? Cause I’m struggling to believe that the government could organize something that big. Help me out there.” So, engaging with the person but doing that in a loving way.’ In a similar vein, Bloom and Moskalenko suggest that ’empathetic listening’ is to be preferred to arguing with friends and relatives who have become QAnon converts.
Does this mean that QAnon is a dangerous cult that brainwashes people? The most prominent exponent of this view is Steven Hassan, who regards QAnon as no different from organisations like the Unification Church , the Peoples Temple, The Family International, and Aum Shinrikyo, new religious movements that have been condemned for allegedly practising ‘mind control’ as a recruitment technique. Hassan is himself a former member of the Unification Church (more commonly referred to as ‘the Moonies’) whose online Freedom of Mind Resource Center is, according to Bloom and Moskalenko, currently ‘spearheading efforts to help Q followers re-enter the world outside of QAnon.’ Publications authored by Hassan include Combatting Cult Mind Control and the more recent title depicted above.
Unfortunately, as has previously been noted with respect to the issue of ‘conversion’ in an earlier blog entry (see topic 2.1 – Religious Experience), there is presently no evidence to suggest that brainwashing is a genuine phenomenon. Firstly, no psychologist has ever been able to devise a test to distinguish a brainwashed person from someone who is not. Secondly, if brainwashing entails a process in which people are turned into real life Manchurian Candidates who are devoid of free-will, this does not seem to be true of famous members of those new religions that have been accused of doing this to their followers. For example, as Paul Heelas has pointed out, ‘Scientologist John Travolta’s performance in Pulp Fiction does not appear to be robotic.’ Finally, as academic researchers like Heelas and Eileen Barker have confirmed through their research, the more controversial cults, including the Unification Church, are often spectacularly poor at retaining their converts, an outcome that seems unlikely if subtle forms of mind control are being deployed to gain recruits. A passage from Heelas’s book The New Age Movement is thus worth quoting as a summation of the current state of affairs:
‘The basic point with regard to this controversial topic, is that advocates of the brainwashing (mind control, psychological coercion) thesis shoot themselves in the foot. Unlike virtually all social psychologists studying socialization, they make claims which are either patently wrong or which cannot be demonstrated.’
Note that this should not be taken to mean that the more infamous new religions are benign, nor that those who believe in mind control are motivated by anything other than a sincere desire to help those who have become enmeshed in them. Radicalization undoubtedly does happen. But ‘brainwashing’ is simply a poor explanation for this process. And with respect to QAnon specifically, there is no authoritarian structure in place to facilitate and reinforce the sinister form of indoctrination that is alleged to be taking place.
* a reference to the Book of Mormon.
**beliefs about the end times.
*** 48 definitions of religion (not including the more famous ones ventured by Marx, Durkheim and Geertz) can be sampled HERE.
****Ninian Smart prefers to focus on the identification of seven distinct dimensions that he thinks can be used to make sense of what he has called the ‘luxurious vegetation of the world’s religions’, while Andrew Rawlinson prefers to set faiths within a template consisting of four polar variables: Hot and Cool, Structured and Unstructured. It is well beyond the scope of this blog entry to describe or evaluate either of these approaches, but both are definitely worthy of attention both by teachers and students, who may be inclined to consider the extent to which Smart’s dimensions are represented to a greater or lesser extent by the present contours of QAnon, and also – assuming that the movement counts as a new religion – to then attempt to place it within the parameters of Rawlinson’s inventive pair of axes. See HERE and HERE for summaries of each model.
If the brainwashing thesis cannot explain why so many have been taken in by QAnon, is there anything else – in addition to the adoption of the vocabulary of Christian fundamentalism by Q – that can?
For Bloom and Moskalenko, an inability to think critically is a factor that contributes substantially to the formation of a conspiratorial mindset. In particular, they highlight the fact that the US education system does not presently encourage the cultivation of an attitude of intelligent scepticism among its school-age population. This contrasts markedly with the experience of Finnish students, who receive lessons in how to identify online ‘clickbait’ stories that are biased or complete hoaxes, and to be on the lookout for photographs that may have been doctored, while in other European countries pupils are introduced to the skills of critical thinking and social media literacy from an early age. The co-authors therefore recommend that analogous programmes be developed for use within US schools, alongside free courses for adults with similar content that could be made available through the public library system. Social media companies like Facebook and Instagram should also be encouraged to come up with ways to help their users develop an ability to identify fake profiles and fake news.
Intriguingly, the co-authors also refer to a study that correlates belief in the kind of COVID-19 conspiracy theories that QAnon adherents have bought into with an inability to adequately follow the logic of scientific reasoning. For example, more of those who tended to strongly agree with claims such as “SARS-CoV-2 (coronavirus) is a biological weapon created to eliminate the overcrowded human population” and “COVID-19 (coronavirus) is only a fabrication, it is an ordinary flu which pharmaceutical companies rebranded to increase the sales of drugs” also showed themselves to be less capable of discerning the falsity of statements like the following:
“The researchers want to find out how to increase natality. They ask for statistical information and see that there are more children born in cities that have more hospitals. This finding implies that building new hospitals will increase the birth rate of the population.”
Although this may suggest that QAnon devotees (and vaccine sceptics) lack intelligence, those who have studied the movement disagree. For example, Vice News journalist David Gilbert and Mark-Andre Argentino both testify to the fact that all educational levels are represented within the movement, including “PhDs, doctors and lawyers”.*
So if QAnon followers are not necessarily uneducated, could they be somehow resistant on a deeper level to reflecting more critically on the beliefs that they hold? The philosopher James Garvey thinks so. Garvey is the author of The Ethics of Climate Change (see this previous BLOG entry) and has been called an ‘eco-fascist’ by climate change deniers because of his refusal to consider the possibility that it is all a hoax perpetrated by IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) scientists who wish to hang on to their research grants and jobs. In an interview with the journalist Will Storr he argues that this kind of thinking constitutes, ‘a way of seeing the world. In order to be a conservative person in America, you have to be anti-abortion, pro-guns, pro-death penalty, small government, no regulation – and climate is in there too. if you look at that set of beliefs, that’s an identity. And you can’t change an identity with facts…David Hume says, “nature hasn’t left it up to us what we believe”. You can’t pick your beliefs. You can, to some extent, have an influence on them, if you are especially open. But evidence cannot shift almost all the things you believe.’ Given that Christianity is identity-constituting for a majority of QAnon members, especially evangelicals, many of whom are also in alignment with the conservative political beliefs listed by Garvey, his insights surely apply to them as well.
Those who remain impervious to disconfirming information are also predisposed to distrust the medical, political, media, and even religious establishments (recalling the sex abuse scandals that were described at the outset of this blog entry) because they consider them to be part of the overall conspiracy and simply express what the shadowy cabal want the rest of us to believe. Effectively, the QAnon conspiracy is therefore unfalsifiable in a Popperian sense, and perhaps constitutes a kind of mega-blik, an expression of collective irrationality on a par with RM Hare’s famous example of the paranoid student**.
As even intelligent QAnon followers may not be capable of recognising this, perhaps the course in critical thinking favoured by Bloom and Moskalenko should include Popper as part of the syllabus, along with a study of John Wisdom’s parable of the gardener, and also Stephen Law’s amusing update of it, ‘The Strange Case of Dave – Dogs are Spies from Venus’. The aim here would be to show that theories which need to be endlessly adjusted and modified in order to remain consistent with the available evidence – what Law refers to as the ‘fit’ model of confirmation (“But it fits!”) – are suspect, and not to be preferred to those that remain open to disproof.
*Interestingly, some members of the Westboro Baptist Church are also well-educated and possess professional qualifications.
**see this Blog entry on Religious Language for more on Popper and Hare.