I didn’t choose New Age culture. But I grew up in a college town in Northern California in the 1980s, where the ubiquitous Grateful Dead stickers, crystal shops and tarot card readers suggested that the 1960s ethos of self-discovery never ended. Psychedelic accoutrements and people who self-identified as seekers were normal to me — and so I craved mainstream American culture. I rebelled — mildly — by eating Domino’s pizza at sleepovers and idolizing the nihilism of 1970s punk.
It turns out that I didn’t entirely resist it. In the past decade or so, my fluency in the world of New Age culture, wellness, woo-woo (whatever you might call it) became a professional boon as a journalist. These ideas were taking off once again, especially among women who are White and middle-class, which I also am. I understood that world and had a lot to say about it. While on assignment I’ve gone to menstrual huts and tea ceremonies; I’ve gotten massaged by boa constrictors and I’ve meditated at sound baths. I’ve greeted this all with professional curiosity, something between an open mind and a world-weary arched eyebrow.
On Jan. 6, along with the rest of the country, I followed the news of the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and the prominence of Confederate flags, nooses and other symbols of the far right. Like many others, I took note of the so-called QAnon Shaman: 33-year-old Jake Angeli, born Jacob Anthony Chansley, of Arizona. He was bare-chested and covered in Nordic tattoos, at least one of which, the Valknot, is a Norse symbol sometimes associated with white supremacy. But he was also, infamously, wearing a headdress fashioned from buffalo horns and coyote skin — elements associated with the American West that seemed to telegraph a pagan spirituality. I’ve been around a lot of White people who have adopted a mishmash of pagan and Indigenous signifiers as a New Age aesthetic. It’s a cringeworthy and offensive display of appropriation that I don’t endorse, but it’s common in that world.
After the attack on the Capitol, news reports unearthed that Chansley was a founder of something called the Star Seed Academy (in a certain New Age vernacular, a star seed is a higher being). The Facebook page for the venture, before it was taken down, read: “Star Seed Academy creates leaders of the highest order! We help people to awaken, evolve and ascend! Are you ready to be a leader? Are you ready to ascend?” Recently, Chansley’s lawyer, Albert Watkins, told me in a statement that his client “is deeply spiritual. His spirituality is serving him well as he traverses the pending federal charges.” He added that Chansley has “a personal commitment to Ahimsa,” the principle (found in Jainism, Hinduism and Buddhism) of doing no harm.
As a devotee of QAnon — the sprawling set of false claims that have coalesced into an extremist ideology deemed a domestic terrorist threat by the FBI — and a freedom fighter for Donald Trump, Chansley was my ideological opposite; yet there was also a lot about him that was familiar. It felt shocking and suggested serious flaws in a culture I thought I understood: a fine line between the kind of zeitgeist-y, sensitive New Age-guy version of masculinity, and something more nefarious. The idea of spiritual lineage is too generous to bestow on Chansley, but he represents a growing pipeline between New Age male spirituality, new masculinity movements and QAnon. This pipeline is one of unlikely connections and strange bedfellows, of mixed martial arts fighters and poets, evangelical Christians and yoga teachers.
In 2009, Charlotte Ward, an independent researcher on alternative spirituality — religious beliefs outside of conventional groups — began to notice a hybrid of conspiracy theory beliefs and New Age culture cropping up online. Two years later, she co-wrote a paper titled “The Emergence of Conspirituality” in the Journal of Contemporary Religion. She and co-writer David Voas, a quantitative social scientist at University College London, noted an emphasis on patterns and connections in both conspiracy culture and alternative spiritual beliefs. Nothing is as it seems, and nothing is an accident. “These worldviews make public and personal life respectively seem less subject to random forces and therein lies part of their appeal,” they wrote.
Ward and Voas defined “conspirituality” as a “politico-spiritual philosophy based on two core convictions” — one core to conspiracy theories and the other rooted in New Age belief systems: “1) a secret group covertly controls, or is trying to control, the political and social order, and 2) humanity is undergoing a ‘paradigm shift’ in consciousness. Proponents believe that the best strategy for dealing with the threat of a totalitarian ‘new world order’ is to act in accordance with an awakened ‘new paradigm’ worldview.”
In our cultural moment, when baseless claims about both a rigged election and the dangers of vaccines hit Americans almost simultaneously, there has been renewed interest in Ward and Voas’s decade-old paper and, specifically, the idea of conspirituality. (During the week I interviewed Voas, he had three other similar interviews lined up.) With the image of Chansley in animal horns and fur leading an attack on the Capitol, conspirituality was more than an idea in an academic paper or on the Internet. It had become our shared reality.
When I was about 10 years old, my mother became interested in the idea of the divine feminine, specifically centering spirituality on women rather than the patriarchal notion of a male god. She had never shown interest in spirituality before but dived in with, well, a religious fervor. She took me to a screening of the 1989 Canadian documentary “Goddess Remembered,” about goddess worship in ancient European culture and its potential as a renewed spiritual movement. Judging from the attendees of the goddess fairs in hotel ballrooms I was also taken to, this was a fairly White, progressive and privileged group of women. It served as a kind of spiritual extension of the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s, parallel to feminism.
Men soon started to realize that they, too, had a gender to consider, and the men’s movement took off in the ’70s and ’80s. It manifested in three expressions, says Cliff Leek, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Northern Colorado and vice president of the American Men’s Studies Association: “You get pro-feminist [men’s] groups that do work around reproductive health and sexual violence; and, on the other end of the spectrum, men’s rights groups that say, ‘We are gendered and the system is out to get us.’ The middle way is the mythopoetic: tying masculinity back to the sacred and mythological.”
The prevailing figure in the mythopoetic movement is the poet Robert Bly. In 1990, Bly, who was in his 60s (he’s now 94), published “Iron John: A Book About Men,” which includes lines like, “Where a man’s wound is, that is where his genius will be.” Bly’s idea, told through Jung-influenced archetypes and fairy tales, was that men had been robbed of true masculinity via emotionally withholding fathers who raised soft sons. With some reflection — and maybe some banging on drums with other dudes in the forest — they could reclaim their inner Zeuses and thrive. The book was sometimes the butt of jokes, but spent over a year on the New York Times bestseller list. It was so popular and so part of the New Age canon that I bought a copy as a teenager. I thought it seemed a bit corny, like the kind of thing long-haired aging hippie dads of my friends might enjoy. But I read it because I knew it was an element of a cultural conversation that I wanted to be a part of.
The spirit of “Iron John” can still be found in mythopoetic men’s groups. Take, for example, the Embodied Men’s Leadership Training, a program that offers retreats and coaching. (A representative of the company declined to comment for this article.) The retreats promise a lot. “In this meticulously held circle of men, you will be both met with compassion and called to deepen,” one description reads, accompanied by images of mostly White men patting each other on the shoulder or sitting atop rocks. “Your embodied presence will expand, your relationship to consciousness will deepen, and the sword of your integrity will sharpen. You will be challenged, nourished, and given the tools and brotherhood you wish you had found years ago.” Sounds enriching, but the wording around a related program for women has a distinctly anti-feminist flair: “Women, we’ve reached a point in history in which many of you are equalling and surpassing men in earning, personal growth and spiritual capacity. ... And yet, there is a longing deep in your heart for something more.”
“As soon as we tie masculinity to spirituality, we turn masculinity into something ‘sacred’ as well as distinct and exclusive of women,” says Leek. “I’m not entirely sure that is something that can be done in a way that doesn’t reinforce or naturalize inequalities.” These retreats seem to be encouraging strong behavior from a group — White, ruling-class men — who are already the most privileged in our society. But you also see this core message about strong men in socially conservative packaging. There’s a fear of women getting too powerful and a veneration of the housewife that, frankly, reminds me of the Proud Boys, the alt-right group with a history of violence that believes women are best left at home raising children.
“The wellness and spirituality world is very parallel to the evangelical Christian world, especially when it comes to the messaging around masculinity,” Leek explains. “The mythopoetic aspect of the men’s movement is very much rooted in patriarchal notions of chivalry and men as protectors and warriors. Evangelical masculinity is basically identical.” He wasn’t surprised to see the QAnon Shaman beside evangelical groups at the Capitol. QAnon, with its fixation on pedophilic conspiracies led by Hollywood and the liberal elite, can give a certain kind of man in search of purpose a way to feel like a literal protector.
Last year, Matthew Remski, a writer and co-host of the “Conspirituality” podcast, was reporting a story on QAnon for the Canadian magazine the Walrus, and he interviewed Lamont Daigle, founder of a Canadian QAnon spinoff group. During the interview, Remski noted to Daigle that he talked about his political journey as if it were a spiritual journey. Daigle responded, Remski told me recently, that it all started with “Iron John.”
I emailed Daigle to ask how “Iron John” had influenced him. He wrote back praising the book’s view of pre-industrial history, including the tradition of fathers passing down a trade to their sons. “ ‘Apprenticeship’ was lost and is/was key for bonding,” Daigle wrote. “As ‘Iron John’ was suggesting, the love unit most damaged by the industrial revolution has been the father-son bond.” His view of society today is much darker: “From what I’ve seen on the streets and stage of this New World Order agenda in the last year, fierce protective men have been noticeably absent, and the women are standing up stronger and more vocal.”
All of which fits with Remski’s analysis of this subculture. “There’s a kind of iconographic romance between swole but New Agey male figures who are taking supplements and staying disciplined, and women who have deep connections to the divine,” he says. “There’s a righteous and holy and sacralized sexuality, an immunological radiance around the holy couple.” I know exactly the type of couples he’s talking about. I see them on Instagram espousing the know-your-strength relationship consciousness taught at the Embodied Men’s Leadership Training retreats, and in the vulnerable but divine masculinity of “Iron John.”
I think of the macho wellness dude as epitomized by the comedian-turned-podcaster Joe Rogan, who sells mugs and tube socks that read “conquer your inner b----” and Hindu-deity-inspired T-shirt designs. (I reached out to Rogan, but his representative did not respond.) Then there is the pandemic-era bro upgrade to the mythopoetic archetype — which is how you find MMA fighters like Tim Kennedy on the podcast of comedian JP Sears, with both men arguing that we’ve overreacted to covid.
A vast landscape of lost people — who need a belief system to guide their actions — constitutes promising terrain for someone seeking to attract believers, proteges or followers (online or otherwise). The central figures in this subculture “are guys who don’t know how to manage their charisma,” says Remski. “They are burdened with unwarranted confidence amplified and recycled by social media until it’s habitual but also viral.”
Jules Evans, an honorary research fellow at the Center for the History of Emotions at Queen Mary University of London, has investigated the history, philosophy and psychology of well-being. In an article for Medium called “Nazi Hippies: When the New Age and Far Right Overlap,” Evans wrote about how leading members of the Nazi party in the 1930s and ’40s were followers of alternative spirituality and medicine. “There was an idea that western culture has lost its way and we need to return to traditional sources of wisdom, whether that be Hinduism or Sufism or traditional gender roles,” Evans told me. It’s a concept that’s popular today with the alt-right. “There is an overlap,” he says, “between New Age and far-right populism in traditionalist thinking, that the West has lost its way with feminism, multiculturalism, egalitarianism, and we need a return to order.”
In December, an NPR/Ipsos poll asked respondents whether they believe the myth behind QAnon: that “a group of Satan-worshipping elites who run a child sex ring are trying to control our politics and media.” Seventeen percent said it was true, and 37 percent said they didn’t know. It would be easy to write this off as simply a mass lack of critical-thinking ability — and that is certainly part of it — but when Jeffrey Epstein, whose friends were some of the most powerful people in the world, was charged with sex trafficking involving underage girls, it’s easy to see how someone might be tempted to blur the line between real-life corruption and conspiracy theories.
“Conspiracy theories are going to attach to how we already see the world,” says Joseph E. Uscinski, a professor of political science at the University of Miami who researches American conspiracy theories. They are representative of people’s concerns at the time: the Bavarian illuminati of the 18th century, the Freemasons in the 1930s, the JFK assassination in the 1960s.
I have a sense of how women in the wellness world can fall down these rabbit holes. Alternative spirituality “is related to issues that are thought to be of greater concern to women, such as self-care or connectedness,” Voas told me. “This is thought to be upbeat and optimistic in its orientation — which is a contrast to conspiracy theory, which is darker, more pessimistic, more political, about secret forces controlling things behind the scenes.” And yet, alternative spirituality and conspiracy are, in the end, united by a narcissistic idea: that there are things in the world crying out for explanation and that you alone are unraveling the truth. As Voas puts it, “The central point is that we have, in our society, competition between trust and doubt.”
An article last year in the European Journal of Social Psychology called “An exploration of spiritual superiority: The paradox of self‐enhancement,” by Dutch behavioral scientists Roos Vonk and Anouk Visser, found that “the road to spiritual enlightenment may yield the exact same mundane distortions that are all too familiar in social psychology, such as self‐enhancement, illusory superiority, closed‐mindedness, and hedonism (clinging to positive experiences) under the guise of alleged ‘higher’ values.” This spiritual form of narcissism reminds me of Chansley’s language on Facebook around star seeds. According to Evans, it’s derived, in a copy of a copy kind of way, from an idea in Gnosticism — a collection of beliefs from early Christian sects, popular in alternative spirituality, that there are spiritual aliens who are different species: “You are from another planet, you’ve fallen into this prison of the material world, and you’re working to ascend to your true home. It’s an extreme expression of spiritual alienation and spiritual narcissism.”
I am guessing Chansley probably wanted to achieve notoriety for his ideas — and that a desire to stand out is part of the reason he chose such a bizarre costume to wear to an attempted coup. He is, to use a term popular on the Internet, a spiritual version of a clout chaser.
But I don’t want to tease anyone for their spiritual ideas, even Chansley, who has been charged with six federal crimes and awaits trial. Rather, I’m interested in the larger question this raises about contemporary masculinity. What void is this filling? If QAnon provides an easy answer for a small but steady group of men, we should think about what a healthier spiritual alternative looks like. “Whatever it is, it should be offline for starters,” says Remski. “It could focus on community service, but at the very least it should be built in the neighborhood, not on the consumer workshop circuit. The last thing the ex-QAnon man needs is a leader or a group commodifying his recovery or monetizing his confessions or emotions.” Remski has already noticed a rise in men’s groups based on spiritual bodybuilding, sacred real estate and supplement pyramid schemes. “I guarantee,” he predicts, “that within the year a pair of bros will start up a [multilevel marketing business] that sells QAnon recovery products.”
Correction: An earlier version incorrectly identified the name of the men’s program that offers retreats and coaching. It is The Embodied Men’s Leadership Training, not Embodied Masculine.
Marisa Meltzer is a writer in New York. Her most recent book is “This Is Big: How the Founder of Weight Watchers Changed the World (and Me).”
Design by Clare Ramirez. Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks.