When Our Need for Belonging and Meaning Gets Lost in “Conspirituality” and Cults
Today I want to speak about the importance of connection through community and to shed some light on when that need is met by the wrong community.
There is a dangerous rise of conspiracy theories that get mixed with spirituality emerging in our politics. My hope is we get a better understanding of what’s going, what might be causing it, and what we can do to engage.
Let me start with a quick story. Three years ago, I had my first discussion with a believer in the QAnon conspiracy theory that has taken hold in the Republican Party. This brief discussion gave me an insight into the logic used in cults.
My friend who was more new-age than political, asked me, “With all of your experience in political DC have you met Q or the Q team?”
He explained in detail how Q was a high-level military leader secretly working to expose the Deep State of the elite DC political culture. When I told him that pulling off any conspiracy was next to impossible in DC because there’s an incentive to get secrets out there, he smiled and winked saying, “Ah I see you know more than you are letting on, and I admire how you haven’t betrayed anyone. You said the right thing and our denial is my confirmation.”
My denial of something led this person to believe I was agreeing with them. This is just how complicated conspiracy theories can be work in a person’s head. This has happened to me numerous times now.
Dealing with the rise of people who believe false conspiracy theories and act on them is a challenge that people of faith must address. This all begins with a quest for community.
What’s Going On: We Need Community
Underlying this crisis is the truth that we need community.
The need for us to belong to a community is well understood in the scientific world. Humans have a long nine-month gestation period and then babies can only survive if they are cared for. Humans are dependent on someone else taking care of them. We travel through our life often imagining we are independent only to end our lives in need of community again as when we were babies.
Humans are social beings, and we need each other.
This scientific truth is the manifestation of a deeper spiritual truth. Our tradition is built on this belief that we were created out of a loving being we call God because love itself requires a relationship. Love needs love back. Our purpose in our life is to love God back and that is only manifested when we love each other. Anyone who says they love God but hates others doesn’t love God.
We must live our faith in relationships and gain support through community. In fact, we even believe there are heavenly communities and hellish communities that we are connecting within our daily life. When we transition out of this world we gravitate to communities that share our deepest love.
Community and relationships also give meaning and purpose to our life. All of us are seeking some narrative or story that helps us understand the purpose of our existence. The reading from Romans today speaks about the different roles we can all bring to a community and how we need each other.
Conspiracies Give us Corrupt Community
We are in a time now where the community is being corrupted by leaders using false information to bring people together in conspiracies through the use of social media. This is nothing new and has been part of our history. Just think back to the “red scare” of the 1950s when the Birch Society declared President Eisenhower was a Soviet plant. There are also the groups that believe JFK’s death and the moon landing were both fake stories told by elites. Rachel Maddow’s for months told us of evidence tht President Trump was a Russian spy.
Mixing Spirituality and Politics
The image of a man wearing buffalo horns in war paint with no shirt standing and praying in the senate chamber represents something that we haven’t quite gotten our head around. It is the mix of traditional, new age, and conspiracy theories in our political life. The man is known as the QAnon shaman lead a haunting prayer vigil during the riots. If you haven’t seen the video, please take a minute. It’s haunting.
There have always been religious cults and this marriage of them with conspiracy theories is a new phenomenon. But why are these new religious conspiracy groups showing up now in our politics?
One of the reasons is that the old meaning-making systems of traditional religions have been left behind by the culture. Also, many evangelical groups have bought into the conspiracy-laden end of times beliefs. The combination has left many in our culture without a meaning-making system.
I believe one reason that secular media is missing as to why we see this rise of “Conspirituality” in politics is that the dominant secular meaning-making system which they are a part of in the culture isn’t giving people enough.
Meaning Making Systems
Throughout all of the recorded history cultures held a narrative that we were spiritual beings in a material world but there was some great God or gods that were behind it all. All cultures developed religions to have a story that gave meaning and purpose to their community.
About three hundred years ago, a new modern materialism narrative came into being which teaches that what exists is what we see and measure. We are all just chemical reactions within ourselves that explain our behavior and we are bumping into each other creating reactions. In this narrative, there is nothing transcendent or supernatural. All can be explained through science. The creation of your universe was a cosmic accident and our existence now is simply the product of evolution to survive. While we are alive we need rules and customs to get along. When we die we are gone except for the memories we leave behind.
For well-educated urban elite culture, this is the dominant story being told today. Religion, as Marx said, is an opiate of the masses. In other words, religion is an old story for unsophisticated people.
As one person said to me, “You seem so smart, I can’t understand why you’d invest all of that into the Christian myth.” Or as another person recently said, “I view your prayers as nothing more than a crazy person talking to yourself. There’s nothing out there.”
The world and our country are in a meaning crisis. Why am I here? What am I supposed to be doing? What’s the purpose of life?
We are told that our purpose is to get a good education which will get us a good job and find a good spouse and raise a good family and make enough money to have a good life and then when we are exhausted we can retire on a good pension to enjoy our final years before leaving this planet.
The materialist culture doesn’t deliver the spiritual reality people know is true in their lives.
Those are just a few of hundreds of meaning-making stories that live in America today.
The materialist culture is in many ways the dominant culture.
I believe that the failure of the materialist worldview and the failure of traditional church view has led people to seek spiritual meaning and community in new places.
What they are looking for is someplace that has clear spiritual answers. A place that can offer a framework to explain what they see. A framework that puts them on the side of good and light against the forces of evil and darkness. A framework that connects to their experience.
This desire for a new meaning-making system means certain leaders will make one up to attract an audience.
Conspiracy theories and cults and stepping into this space.
QAnon is just the latest version of this fusion of spiritual teachings with politics. It’s complicated to understand but let me try to give a quick summary. QAnon believes that the elite culture which includes a deep state of the US government is participating in child abuse networks lead by media stars like Ellen, Oprah, and Bill Gates. Donald Trump was chosen by God to be elected to reveal this conspiracy. “Q” a person with the highest authority in government sends the message a clue like a game for followers to solve. JFK Jr, who was killed in a plane crash, is alive leading the fight. Ultimately, the promise was that President Trump would call in the national guard only to use those soldiers to arrest the elite DC political culture and have them killed.
Part of the hysteria of January 6th was the fear that Trump was losing his last chance as president to save the nation and world.
This didn’t happen, so you’d think the followers would concede they were wrong, but that’s not how cults work.
But the power of cult thinking is that you can constantly change the rules. Now they are saying it will happen later or Biden is in on it or whatever it takes to keep the conspiracy alive. Conspiracy theory communities provide the excitement of a cause, inside knowledge, and purpose to your life.
Conspiracy theories also work because they connect to something we know in our own experience. The arrest and death of Jeffery Epstein would be a good example of something that really did happen that dies into these narratives.
Many of the issues they stress have truth to them though we want to dismiss them. Here some things I believe are true and can be built off of.
Do elite people in society get access to better benefits than the average person? Yes. Do those elite people often behave in immoral ways protected by their money? Yes. Do most politicians pretend to care about but are only self-interested? Yes. Is there a deep state or political class that holds power in our country without being elected? Yes. Have political figures promised us things and lied to us? Yes. Do the elites in the culture look down on us? Yes. Have the elites been doing much better when I’m doing worse? Yes.
When I preached on how evil works last week I pointed out it always starts with something we know to be true and builds from there.
The power of conspiracy theories is they build on something true. Our tendency is to write them off entirely, but if we can help those involved sort through what’s real and what’s not we might be able to help them find a way out.
Our drive to be social and find community is suffering right now. The materialistic world view isn’t meeting our needs to make sense of our lives. This means we are in a period when new religions or cults will be on the rise led by leaders with simple answers that put the follower in the category of good versus evil.
What can we do to protect our society?
We can build loving communities that live in the truth and are open to differing viewpoints. Communities that embrace science and faith and a variety of political solutions. Those are in short supply right now.
We need to teach kids and friends to be suspicious of any group that demands unquestioned loyalty. We need to beware of groups or leaders who tell you to pull away from loved ones to join. We need to teach kids to engage in critical thinking skills that understand complexity and paradox. We need to teach respect and engagement of different viewpoints outside our bubble.
How do we engage people in these groups?
Trying to engage with QAnon followers is tough.
Conspiracies, as I shared in my story at the beginning, work in circular logic. Even my denial creates confirmation, which makes it hard to reach people.
Most people in a conspiracy theory have so much invested in it and the social networks that they will bend reality to meet the theory instead of coming around. There’s no easy answer to this, but this will become one of the most pressing issues of our time. What can we try?
Eight Ideas to Engage
Here are 8 suggestions for dealing with a friend being pulled into conspiracy thinking groups.
1. Engage them with love and listen to what they say.
2. Don’t shame them or call them stupid—this never works.
3. Find common ground in truth where you see it.
4. Speak the truth in direct terms.
5. Engage them in the deeper reasons they are involved with the group.
6. Find other topics to engage them in.
7. Be prepared to walk away and from them to walk away.
8. Be patient they may come back.
Here’s a quick example where I tried to engage a person who arrived at the church.
A young man arrived at church to tell me he’d just gotten off a plane and had to come to meet me. I wasn’t sure whether he read my name on our sign or found me some other way. He held a numerical system where books of the Bible and passages all added up to a certain number. Then he showed me ten other examples where numbers added up to a code. Our church address added up the code. The number of windows in our church added up the code. Ultimately the code, if uncovered would reveal evil, including abusing children. The deep state needed to be revealed. was taking place in Washington that he felt I was supposed to unmask with him.
To be honest I started looking around a bit nervous and hoping he wasn’t carrying a weapon. Here’s what I tried.
I engaged as best I could and listened.
I shared with him that many of my own beliefs would seem strange to others, for example, I believe in angels and spirit.
I agreed that there was a deep state and that politicians were often play-acting.
I told him I didn’t think his theory made any sense.
As we talked further he explained the trauma that he’d been abused as a child.
I told him I needed to go to another meeting, and he needed to go.
He eventually left not satisfied and I was relieved.
I’ve had a number of similar conversations like this and I haven’t had anyone say to me, “Wow, I was wrong and now I see the light.” But I do think we have to try through love to break through those walls.
This is a very big challenge for our country at this time.
The rising number of people getting lost in “Conspirituality“ and cults is a crisis for our country, church, and politics. We’ve got to increase our understanding of this issue.
It all comes back to this.
We all need a healthy community that helps us make sense of our life and gives us meaning. We must invest our time in finding new ways to create loving communities based in truth.
We can try to build bonds of trust through love.
We must hold them legally accountable when their actions lead to danger.
We must begin to build communities that engage people’s minds and their souls to address all of our needs to finding meaning and purpose.