A crowd in New York City marches toward a hotel where Roosh V, a “pickup artist” with a large online following, was holding an event, Feb. 2016. (Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Tara Isabella Burton is the author of the forthcoming book "Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless Age." Her debut novel, "Social Creature," was published in 2018.

One of the Internet’s best-known “men’s rights activists” — a onetime pickup artist infamous for slamming feminism, championing “neomasculinity” and publishing articles with titles like “5 reasons to date a girl with an eating disorder” — just announced that he’s now a committed Christian. As of this weekend, Daryush Valizadeh, better known as Roosh V, has banned all talk of what he now calls “fornication,” and even profanity, from his forums lest, he says, he lead readers “into sin.” Until now, Roosh V’s freewheeling forums had encouraged would-be pickup artists to trade tips about psychologically manipulating women into casual sex.

At first glance, this seems like a stunning reversal: One of the most influential denizens of the “manosphere” — the subculture of online anti-feminist activists that, for a growing number of readers, doubles as a gateway to the far right — saw the error of his ways and chose a different path. He certainly had cause for self-examination. Masculinist discussion groups dead set against “PC culture” have increasingly become recruiting grounds for more extreme groups, including those advocating real-world violence or celebrating “revolutionary” acts of right-wing terrorism. At its worst, the manosphere can itself turn violent: In 2014, Elliot Rodger, an angry and frustrated consumer of such content, killed six people in Isla Vista, Calif., during a self-proclaimed “revenge” rampage against all the women who refused to sleep with him. (Rodgers has become a folk hero in some dark corners of the Web and was cited as an inspiration by the man who is accused of killing 10 people with a van in Toronto in 2018.)

But Roosh V characterized his transformation from pickup artist — one with a loose definition of consent that led some to call him “pro-rape” — to Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Christian not as an about-face but as a linear progression. In fact, it’s representative of a broader trend within far-right Internet-based groups: Some of their members come to embrace a highly conservative, traditionalist version of Christianity as a bulwark against what they see as the decadent, liberal modern world. In the minds of many would-be Internet transgressives, conservative Christianity has become the biggest troll of all.

 The conversion of Roosh V highlights another, even more vital, truth about the anti-feminist and alt-right movements: They already function as quasi-religions. These movements gain adherents precisely because they tap into young men’s existential hunger for the kind of things that also underpin religious observance: a narrative of meaningfulness in the world, a sense of purpose within that narrative, a community to share that narrative with, and rituals to both demonstrate and intensify commitment to that narrative (yes, posting memes on Twitter counts).  

 Roosh V’s conversion story makes clear the continuity of his views, even as they evolved. First, he wrote, a disaffected person in the modern world takes the metaphorical “red pill” — meaning they wake up to the “reality” that “social justice warriors” and feminists control society. The next step is the “black pill,” the nihilistic worldview that many men’s rights activists and alt-right adherents adopt in response to that revelation. But at the end of the road, Roosh V told his readers, there’s the “God pill”: “submission to God’s will.” 

Roosh V says he had his epiphany while tripping on psychedelic mushrooms. Whatever provides the final push, many on the alt-right follow a similar path to the rhetoric of religion. One increasingly popular catchphrase on 4Chan and its far-right successor, 8Chan, is “Deus Vult,” or “God wills it,” a reference to Pope Urban II’s call to begin the First Crusade — typically invoked to bolster anti-immigrant or anti-Islamic sentiment. The red cross of the Medieval Knights Templar has become a prevalent symbol at right-wing gatherings , including the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. And then there’s Steve Bannon, among the most politically influential alt-right thinkers, who since leaving the White House has been working to found, via a local proxy, a reactionary Catholic-affiliated “gladiator school for culture warriors” in a monastery outside Rome (over Vatican objections).

Alt-right “Christianity” of this sort is not a theology so much as a reactionary shibboleth: a way to condemn not only Islam but such societal “degeneracy” (a favorite Roosh V term) as feminism and political correctness. Even before he announced his conversion, Roosh V wrote that we “are now stuck with a clown country where we suffer daily humiliations and degradations at the hands of sodomites, man-jawed feminists, pedophiles, cuckolds, and aliens” — and proposed, as a partial solution, the establishment of Orthodox Christianity as the official state religion.

Some of the most radical and deadly far-right extremists, themselves steeped in Internet culture, have also adopted Christian rhetoric. Before John T. Earnest allegedly killed one worshiper and injured three others at a synagogue in Poway, Calif., in April, he posted a manifesto that claimed explicitly Christian motivations, calling upon “my brothers in Christ of all races” and members of a far-right 4Chan group to join him in killing Jews, in order to herald a reactionary “revolution.” Echoing centuries’ worth of reactionary, anti-Semitic tracts, Earnest’s manifesto treated Christianity as a link to a mythic, idealized past, while characterizing Judaism as the cause of cultural, sexual and moral decay.

Roosh V, for his part, also seems to be using his newfound Christianity not to call for neighborly love but to advocate for a war on modern culture. Since his announcement, he’s posted an article titled “Modern Life Is Aids” (illustrated with a photo of an LGBT pride parade), in which he criticizes the “cultural HIV” of contemporary existence. To counter this cultural disease, people should choose “God over the glorification of themselves,” he writes. That’s not the voice of someone who has turned his back on reactionary radicalism.

Atavism — the obsession with looking backward to an imagined “primal” past — is a common characteristic of online reactionaries. From the “paleo” diets ubiquitous in the men’s rights world, to the “gorilla mindset” embraced by alt-lite conspiracy theorist and self-help guru Michael Cernovich, to alt-right Twitter icon Bronze Age Pervert’s obsession with power weightlifting, practices and rituals associated with an imagined, pre-modern past have long suffused the Internet right. The manosphere and the alt-right use references to Christianity in a similar way — as shorthand for a supposedly purer time.   

The lines between “religion” and these online ideologies grow blurrier by the day. By buying into the red and black pill narrative, disaffected and lonely young men have access to a seductive explanation of how the world works, alongside a reassuring etiology of their own failure to launch. No less importantly, they also have a group of like-minded 4Chan or Reddit friends, eager to reinforce that narrative. Whether it uses the imagery of Medieval Christianity or of the cult of “Kek” — an ironic 4Chan meme-religion that worships alt-right symbol Pepe the Frog as an amphibian chaos god — the Internet right is itself a cult.

Roosh V’s pivot to Christianity might stop him from posting explicitly about premarital sex. But it’s unlikely to change his or his followers’ fundamental ideology: a “revolt against the modern world,” this time dressed in Christian garb. The red pill and the God pill aren’t so different, after all. 

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