In an Op-ed on Psychology Today, Steve Taylor, Ph.D., -senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Beckett University – writes about people who have had profound spiritual experiences, yet fall for spirtual conspiracies. In this article, some intriguing history is recounted, and the recent phenomenon of conspiracy theories about the global pandemic and the US Election are examined. Steve Taylor comes to a conclusion which the reader may consider and evaluate…
Karlfried Graf von Durckheim was a remarkable German man who helped to popularise Zen Buddhism in the west. He had his first spiritual experiences during the First World War when he came close to death on the battlefield. In these moments, Durckheim became aware of a deeper aspect of his own being. As he put it, “When death was near and I accepted that I also might die, I realised that within myself was something that has nothing whatsoever to do with death.”
After the war, Durckheim became a spiritual seeker. He was from a wealthy aristocratic family but gave up his property and inheritance to devote himself to his spiritual studies. He had a major spiritual experience while reading the ancient Chinese spiritual text, the Tao Te Ching. As he wrote, he felt as if “the veil was torn asunder…Everything existed and nothing existed. Another Reality had broken through this world.”
However, Durckheim was also a Nazi. In the 1930s, he was a great admirer of Hitler, who he described as a “new man” who had been given to the German people “to awaken fellow Germans in an infectious movement and transform them.” In 1933, Durckheim signed a declaration of loyalty to Hitler and the Nazi state, and later wrote an article for the Nazi teachers association where he stated that, “The basic gift of the Nazi revolution is for all occupations and levels across the experience of our common nature, a common destiny, the common hope of the common leader….which is the living foundation of all movements and aspirations.”
However, around this time it came to light that Durckheim was of Jewish descent. His maternal grandmother was Jewish, which meant that he was a “mixed-blood” and therefore a second degree citizen. In order to escape embarrassment, in 1937 his superiors arranged for him to serve as a Nazi envoy to Japan. There, at the same time as studying Zen, he disseminated Nazi propaganda and tried to build links between the Nazis and the Japanese government, promoting the idea that the two countries could conquer and dominate the world together.
There seems no doubt that Durckheim had profound spiritual experiences and was deeply devoted to Zen and to spirituality in general. In his later life, he wrote several books that show genuine insight and wisdom.
How is it possible for a spiritual person to be a Nazi? How could a spiritually developed person ally himself with a murderous fascist regime with a philosophy of paranoid conspiracies and bizarre racist ideas? How could a person who was clearly wise in some ways be taken in by a leader who was a deranged and brutal authoritarian?
The Strange Phenomenon of Modern Conspiracists
and followers on social media. Recently I have been surprised that some of them have propagated conspiracy theories about the global coronavirus pandemic and the recent US election. Some of them believe that the pandemic was purposely generated as part of a strategy for a “great reset” by a global elite (including figures such as Bill Gates and George Soros). They are opposed to masks and vaccines and some of them view the outgoing president, Donald Trump, as a kind of saviour-warrior figure who is fighting against this global conspiracy. Of course, they also believe that Trump’s election loss was rigged, to try to derail his efforts to halt the great reset (and to fight against child sex-trafficking rings).
I know some of the people who propagate these theories personally and am aware that, like Durckheim, some of them have had authentic spiritual experiences. This begs the question: How can spiritually-minded people be taken in by irrational and completely unsubstantiated conspiracy theories? And in a similar way to Durckheim with Hitler, how can they support a president who appears to completely lack spiritual qualities such as empathy and compassion, and who many mental health professionals believe suffers from severe personality disorders?
The Appeal of Conspiracy Theories to Spiritual People
Fortunately all of this only applies to a minority of my friends and followers. As far as I can see, most spiritually-oriented people have a healthy skepticism about bizarre conspiracy theories, and are appalled by President Trump’s policies and behaviour. However, there is certainly a tendency for some spiritually-minded people to take on unsubstantiated conspiracy theories, and to idealise and worship authoritarian figures, even if such figures behave corruptly and exploitatively (as they often do).
I am aware, of course, that there are many different types of ‘conspiracy theories’ and that not everything which is conventionally labelled as a conspiracy theory is demonstrably false. But here I am referring to theories which are completely unsubstantiated, with no evidence for them, and a great deal of evidence against. For example, I would class climate change denial is a conspiracy theory, since 97-98% of independent climate scientists believe that anthropic global warming is real. I would class claims of rigging in the recent US election as a conspiracy theory, as there is no evidence for them, and all courts have unceremoniously thrown them out.
I would suggest three main reasons for the tendency of spiritually-oriented people to believe in conspiracy theories. I’ll describe these in turn, saving the most important reason for last.
First, spirituality is often associated with a sense of exclusivity. Following spiritual practices and ideas may bring a sense of “specialness,” of having access to esoteric knowledge that most people are not aware of. Of course, this is an unhealthy tendency, and actually contravenes the real aim of spiritual paths and practices, which is to transcend self-centredness and narcissism. However, some people are certainly attracted to spirituality because of this sense of specialness.
This is a large part of the appeal of conspiracy theories, too. They also make people feel special, that they possess secret esoteric knowledge that others are too naive or dim-witted to take on board. In many cases, spiritual conspiracists are simply expressing the same impulse for a sense of superiority and exclusivity in two different areas: spirituality and conspiracy theories.
Second, authoritarian figures like Donald Trump (or in the case of Durckheim, Hitler) may appeal to a devotional, guru-worshipping impulse. I am aware that Trump does not have this effect on all conspiracy theorists, and that some people who believe in the conspiracy of ‘the great reset’ do not view him in quite so reverential terms. But there is certainly a tendency for some spiritual conspiracists to revere him. This relates to another unhealthy reason why some people are attracted to spirituality, and to gurus (or spiritual teachers) specifically. Although many people devote themselves to gurus to further their own spiritual development, others view gurus as powerful, parent-like figures who can take control of their lives. (Of course, these motives may be mixed to some degree).
As I noted in a previous post, this is due to a desire to return to a childhood state of devotion and irresponsibility, when their parents had complete responsibility for their lives, protected them from the world, and satisfied all their needs. Authoritarian leaders like Trump have a similar paternal, protective appeal. Their authoritarianism is an attractive throwback to parental omnipotence during early childhood, and we instinctively offer them the same unquestioning trust that we did to our parents (which is the same unquestioning trust that many disciples offer their gurus).
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, spiritual conspiracy is caused by an impulse for connection. Spirituality is largely about connection. It’s about expanding beyond our own limited ego-identity and making connections with our own deeper selves, to other people, to nature, and to the whole cosmos. This type of connection is based on feeling or being, but sometimes the urge to connect is taken on by the intellect, where it manifests itself in an impulse to find connections in random events.
This is where conspiracy theories come in. Conspiracy theories are all about connections. Nothing happens randomly. Nobody acts randomly or altruistically. There is an agenda, or a network of nefarious agents, behind everything. World figures and global institutions are not acting independently or altruistically; they are all in it together, from Bill Gates to Prince William and the World Health Organisation. It’s all part of a coordinated effort to enslave us. The coronavirus isn’t an unfortunate accident but purposely created as a part of this effort.
Spiritually-minded people become vulnerable to conspiracy theories when their impulse for connection is misdirected into their intellectual outlook.
There are no doubt other significant reasons that I don’t have space to mention here – for example, a hunger for meaning, to make sense of a chaotic and confusing world. Most people find some sense of meaning in the consensus world of everyday life, in possessions, careers, entertainments and pleasure. But spiritually-oriented often reject consensus reality. They have a hunger for a more meaningful reality, and so perhaps they are primed to create meanings (and connections) that do not actually exist.
It, therefore, doesn’t seem too surprising that some spiritually-oriented people take on completely unsubstantiated beliefs and voice support for authoritarian fascist (or would-be fascist) leaders. This doesn’t make it excusable though. All of this represents the shadow of spirituality, the negative aspects that can emerge when spirituality is hijacked by narcissism, or that occurs when healthy spiritual impulses are misdirected. Healthy spirituality moves beyond the poisonous suspicion of conspiracy theories into the clarity of reason. It moves beyond unfounded conceptual connections into a felt sense of connection with other beings and the world. It moves beyond the unquestioning worship of corrupt authoritarians, into self-sufficiency and personal responsibility.
Steve Taylor, Ph.D., is senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Beckett University. He is the author of several best-selling books, including The Leap and Spiritual Science.