Algorithms are surfacing content that combines Christian ideas like prosperity gospel with New Age and non-Western spirituality — along with some conspiracy theories.
“It just doesn’t sit right with me,” begins a TikTok by a user named Evelyn Juarez. It’s a breakdown of the tragedy at Astroworld, the Travis Scott concert in early November where eight people died and more than 300 were injured. But the video isn’t about what actually happened there. It’s about the supposed satanic symbolism of the set: “They tryna tell us something, we just keep ignoring all the signs,” reads its caption, followed by the hashtags #wakeup, #witchcraft, and #illuminati.
Juarez, a 25-year-old in Dallas, is a typical TikToker, albeit a quite popular one, with 1.4 million followers. Many of her videos reveal an interest in true crime and conspiracy theories — the Gabby Petito case, for instance, or Lil Nas X’s “devil shoes,” or the theory that multiple world governments are hiding information about Antarctica. One of her videos from November suggests that a survey sent to Texas residents about the use of electricity for critical health care could signify that “something is coming and [the state government] knows it.”
Her beliefs are reminiscent of many others on the internet, people who speak of “bad vibes,” demonic spirits, or a cosmic calamity looming just over the horizon, one that the government may be trying to keep secret. Juarez tells me she was raised Christian, although at age 19 she began to have a more personal relationship with God outside of organized religion.
Today, she identifies more as spiritual, as an increasing number of young people do, many of them working out their ideas in real time online. They may talk about manifesting their dreams and faceless sex traffickers waiting to install tracking devices on women’s parked cars. Some might act almost as prophets or shamans, spreading the good word and guiding prospective believers, while others might just lurk in the comments. They might believe all or only some of these ideas — part of the draw of internet spirituality is that it’s perfectly pick-and-choosable — but more than anything, they believe in the importance of keeping an open mind to whatever else might be out there.
I asked Joseph Russo, a professor of anthropology at Wesleyan University, if this loosely related web of beliefs could ever come together to form into its own kind of religion. “I think it already has,” he says.
Call it the religion of “just asking questions.” Or the religion of “doing your own research.” It’s still in its infancy, and has evolved in an attempt to correct a societal wrong: that the world is a pretty fucked up place and it doesn’t seem like the current system of dealing with it is really working, so maybe something else is going on, something just out of reason’s reach. The religion of the internet has also already culminated in real-world violence, the most obvious examples being the QAnon-related coup on January 6 and the conspiracy theories surrounding lifesaving vaccines. Yet its more innocuous effects have been likewise transformative.
Consider the widespread mainstreaming of astrology over the past decade, the renewed interest in holistic medicine, or the girlboss optimism of multilevel marketing companies. These are all frameworks of belief that question traditional logic and institutional thought — for instance, that science-backed medicinal practices work better to cure disease than essential oils, that 99 percent of people who sign up for an MLM end up losing money, or that the idea that your entire personality can be determined by the positioning of the stars at the time of your birth is fundamentally false. These are beliefs that cast oneself as the exception to the normal rules of the universe, that perhaps even if the data says that rates of violent crime have dropped considerably since the 1990s, you, personally, are in far graver danger than you were the year before.
2020 was the first year on record that the majority of Americans said they did not belong to a church, synagogue, or mosque; from the 1930s to the turn of the 21st century, around 70 percent of Americans did belong to one. Americans, particularly younger ones, increasingly report that they have no religious preference, or as some have put it, it’s “the rise of the nones.” But perhaps “none” doesn’t quite tell the whole story.
The religion of the internet posits questions like, “what’s the harm in believing?” and “why shouldn’t I be prepared for the worst?” The deeper you go, the harder those questions are to answer.
Perhaps it’s all because of the Puritans. They were the ones, after all, who consecrated the American legacy of individualism, piety, and hard work at the expense of all else. Or maybe it came out of the recurrent phenomena of Protestant-led Great Awakenings that have peppered US history since before it was a country, social movements that preached the importance of one’s personal relationship with God outside of organized rituals and ceremonies.
“It was the idea that you could perfect yourself, your health, and your circumstances,” explains Mary Wrenn, an economics professor at the University of the West of England Bristol who studies neoliberalism and religion. This eventually culminated in the prosperity gospel, known best for its charismatic leaders preaching financial wealth and the widespread practice of manifesting, or the idea that in order to make positive things happen in your life, all you have to do is pretend as though they already are. “It’s during periods of economic crisis that we really see it start to flourish,” says Wrenn. Because many of the churches where it’s preached can be attended virtually, the message travels much further. “It’s a lot easier to have believers when you don’t have to physically be in a church. The portability of the message is what makes people believers in the prosperity gospel even when they’re not necessarily regular churchgoers.”
The same could be said for the internet, where spiritual trends proliferate much like cultural and political ones. In fact, the latest iteration of New Thought’s founding principles is inseparable from the internet: Russo, the anthropology professor, notes that as social media has become the dominant cultural force in our society, ideologies are spreading between people who may have vastly different beliefs and backgrounds, but who show up on each other’s feeds and relate in new ways.
“It’s a mishmash of different Christian and non-Western beliefs and aesthetics, but this stuff — good and evil, prosperity — are present in all religious systems worldwide, and always have been,” he says. “Even our most fervent atheists or agnostics are still interested in morality. It’s the same idea, different packaging.”
These binaries espoused by internet spirituality — good and evil, demonic and angelic, abundance and poverty — are reinforced everywhere in culture, and not only in the context of religion. “‘The demonic’ is one of those very superficial distinctions that really has a lot to do with, ‘who’s your customer? Who are you trying to frighten?’ It can stand in the kind of generalized force of evil in a very effective way, regardless of what the specifics are,” explains Russo. “It works on people not necessarily because they’ve read the Bible, but because they watch Harry Potter or read Tolkien or play Dungeons and Dragons.”
Juarez, the popular TikToker, joined the platform during a particularly difficult period in early 2019. She was forced to drop out of college, then began suffering from depression. After that, her husband was in a bad car accident. “I needed somebody to vent to,” she says. Though she was raised in a religious household, her beliefs differ from her parents in that she feels less connected to the ideas taught by the church, and more to Jesus himself. “I’ve noticed a lot of the younger generation looking for God in a different way,” she says, “They move away from their religious background and have an actual relationship with God.”
Juarez’s TikTok comment section is proof in itself. “People have been like, ‘Yo, I can relate to this more than what I’ve been taught.’” Her approach to spirituality echoes many beliefs common in certain sects of Christianity — that occult practices shouldn’t be messed with, for instance (she doesn’t engage in manifestation because, she says, humans don’t always know what’s good for us: “I’ve dated a bunch of guys that now I know I shouldn’t have, but at the time thought they were the man of my dreams.”)
Abbie Richards is a 25-year-old disinformation researcher who creates TikToks about how conspiracy theories spread online and who regularly works with scholars to debunk and contextualize harmful myths. She’s watched how chaotic current events — the Astroworld tragedy, Covid-19, the confusing, broken job market — have driven louder conversations around spirituality from TikTokers, no matter where they fall on the ideological or political spectrum. “There’s a collective sense that the world is ending, whether it’s climate change, whether it’s the rapture, the return of Jesus, wealth inequality, Satanic worship, or whether people’s ‘vibrations are too low,’” she says. “It’s the only nonpartisan issue.”
When enormous swaths of people feel as though they have no power against evildoing, she argues, they tend to opt into narratives that provide a simple answer as to why the world is so terrifying. “With the case of Astroworld, the [organizers] didn’t do their due diligence, and they prioritized profit over the health and safety of humans. And that is a lonelier, grimmer thought to sit with than Travis Scott being a demonic villain.” It also lets us off the hook: “I totally empathize with why you would want to believe that you can fix capitalism by just wishing for money,” she says. “That’s so much easier than trying to implement taxes for the rich.”
The internet offers endless answers to these kinds of questions, in part due to the way it functions. TikTok, for instance, facilitates a pipeline for viewers that begins the moment they log on, surfacing more and more content related to something they enjoyed in the past. Because of how short TikTok videos are — time is limited to three minutes but they’re often much shorter — viewers can consume 100 videos in the same time span as they could watch a single YouTube video. And naturally, the speed at which an idea travels correlates to its simplification: An exciting or provocative idea can draw someone in but not necessarily keep them around long enough to help them fully understand it.
In June, a TikToker named William Knight posted a video of himself staring intensely into the camera. “There is no such thing as a coincidence,” he says. “The fact that you’re watching this video means that you are energetically aligned with me and this message.” The bizarre video, which claimed that simply by stumbling upon the video means that you unconsciously manifested the desire to see it, quickly became the butt of a joke, but Richards says she sees this kind of content go viral all the time. “They’re using the algorithm as evidence that the universe is ‘working,’ but it’s like, no, that’s ByteDance [TikTok’s parent company]. [These creators] game the algorithm and call it destiny.”
That human beings tend to organize our uncertainties within spiritual frameworks is not an inherently bad thing; it’s just that spirituality, when stewarded by humans, is subject to human impulses. “Religions need scapegoats in order to make distinctions between what’s good and bad,” Russo says. “This utopian idea of a new techno internet religion free of hatred won’t work without someone eventually saying, ‘I’m actually in charge of this.’ These kinds of conflicts emerge just by being with people and having to get along in life. We find ways of resolving, and sometimes they’re violent. But in this virtual world where maybe this church is forming, it’s not so easy to know how or when or why things are happening. There’s an irony because people are trying to establish order — this is what you can say, this is what you can’t say — but there are so many sub-factions and so many voices in the void.”
It’s easy to point to QAnon, which some have argued is itself its own religion, as the worst-case scenario of internet spirituality. QAnon appeared to be led by a mysterious, prophetic figure, dropping vague omens and references to a coming battle of good and evil before over time becoming increasingly likely that Q, the supposed top-ranking official under President Trump, was actually just the guy running the message board. Despite the fact that none of Q’s predictions have come true, it barely matters: The roots of QAnon have already been seeded in American culture and politics; many believers now use the same fear-stoking online rumor campaigns to cast antiracism as liberal propaganda or abortion as murder and will certainly evolve to espouse the next reactionary ideology in the culture war.
But just as in mainstream religions, it’s impossible to judge a system of belief based on its most extremist or violent adherents. Believing wholeheartedly in illogical or unexplainable things is part of being a person, and not necessarily a bad one. Although it’s perfectly reasonable to view the current state of the world and remark that things do not seem to be going in a very positive direction, that total destruction is imminent whether it comes in five years or 500, many of us still cling to the arguably illogical hope that “good,” whatever your idea of it, will prevail. Prominent thinkers like Rebecca Solnit and Fareed Zakaria have advocated for optimism about the climate and American democracy, respectively, often noting that pessimism breeds apathy. “That we cannot see all the way to the transformed society we need does not mean it is impossible,” writes Solnit. “But only if we go actively towards the possibilities rather than passively into the collapse.”
One of the more unfortunate tragedies of humanity is that we don’t know everything, and we never will, and therefore are destined to be guided by imperfect and varied systems of belief. “I don’t know that we’ve escaped the religious or sacred model of how to make sense of the world,” says Russo. “The irony is that you have it being espoused by people who are anti-religious.” Though their definitions will change, we will always hold onto warring ideas of good and evil, and those ideas will always have a distinctly spiritual bent regardless of where people fall on the spectrum of religiosity because they deal with questions of why we’re all here and what life is, well, for.
“I believe there’s good and evil,” Juarez tells me when I ask whether, in her video about the satanic symbolism of Astroworld, she was speaking literally or figuratively. “If someone is hurting and as a human being you don’t take action, that means you lack empathy and that doesn’t come from a good place. That, to me, is demonic.”
“That makes sense,” I tell her, and on a level I don’t quite understand but nonetheless feel, it does.