(RNS) — In 2019, when I began studying the “new religions” of the American spiritual landscape, it became clear to me that what was defining American religion (and politics) was not our ecclesiastical establishment but new folk faiths — wellness culture, modern witchcraft, alt-right-adjacent atavist movements.
Even so, I would never have predicted QAnon.
QAnon is a lattice of conspiracy theories blended with so-called “insider information” from an anonymous government official-turned-informant known as Q. The gist of Q’s warnings is that the federal government has been infiltrated by a satanic pedophiliac conspiracy, largely peopled by top Democrats and deep state denizens, and that Trump is part of a wider sting operation to stop it.
A variety of equally outlandish adjacent storylines — for instance, that vaccines are part of Bill Gates’ plan for mind control, or that furniture company Wayfair is smuggling trafficked children in its cabinets — rest on the same fundamental premise: We can’t trust the elites in power; we can’t trust the information we’ve been given; the only way to save society is to destroy its institutions.
Unlike some of the alt-right strains from which it derives, QAnon doesn’t fetishize the past, real or imagined, so much as it highlights the horror of the present. By combining elements of folk faith, especially its anti-institutionalism, QAnon has succeeded in expanding from its core of committed political reactionaries to capture many who simply feel as if they can’t trust, or stand, the world as it is. >
The distance between QAnon’s MAGA-hatted reactionaries and Goopsters in yoga pants may seem wide, but it’s not so difficult to see how it has infiltrated wellness culture, which is not above indulging in conspiracy theories about Big Pharma and GMOs and, of course, vaccines.
QAnon has little by way of a coherent internal structure, but the little it does have owes a debt to the long tradition of American intuitionalism — the philosophy that our hunches can be as or more correct as what we know through reason or evidence. You can’t trust anybody, the ideology goes, especially not anybody in control.
The same self-focused attitudes that govern wellness culture — a vision of the transcendent, resplendent self, throwing off the shackles imposed by a false society — underpin the QAnon vision. The seeker-self is possessed of special wisdom that allows it to look past the veil of illusion drawn by mainstream media and scientific sources.
But QAnon goes further — or rather, it takes a turn down a blind alley. It sates alienated Americans’ desire to see the world how it really is while actually only sating our basest instincts for commercial entertainment. The cosmic tale woven by QAnon — good versus evil, secret lizard people versus a Trumpian, “Die Hard”-style, unheralded hero — owes less to religious ideology than it does Hollywood blockbusters.
At its core, QAnon’s story provides a vague sense of meaning, but a definitive sense of excitement: The seeker-adherent gets to play the role of the archetypical roguish hero. QAnon’s eschatological thrill mimics that cathartic chaos of a Mad Max movie: a post-apocalyptic landscape where the fantasy of burning down the system promises “renewal.” But it’s almost impossible to locate in QAnon what the revolutionary agenda might be. It looks more like pure nihilistic entertainment, life as a video game.
It’s not wrong, in other words, to call QAnon a kind of religion. But it is a religion of the self. Its “shamans,” “Vikings” and “patriots” claim to turn away from the corruption of the modern world but end up exemplifying our commercial internet age. It may claim to try to tear down the hierarchies of modern power, but at its core, it reinforces them.