“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.
Welcome to the confusing and dangerous world of when the internet and the sacred meet.
Juarez, a 25-year-old in Dallas, is a typical TikToker. 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 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,” reports Vox.com. “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.”
She identifies now as more spiritual like many young people. Some identify as “prophets” or “shamans.” They believe in cafeteria-style religion – picking and choosing what they believe. They believe in keeping, above all, keeping an open mind.
Is this a new kind of religion being created?
Joseph Russo, a professor of anthropology at Wesleyan University, said, “I think it already has.”
Everyone has one – on the internet, it seems.
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Remember, 2020 was the first year in which a majority of Americans said they did not belong to a church, synagogue or mosque. Until the turn of the 21st century, about 70 percent did.
But perhaps “none of the above” religion 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?'” Vox reports. “The deeper you go, the harder those questions are to answer.”
“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.”
Russo, the anthropology professor, notes that as social media have 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?” asks Russo. ‘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. 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 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.”
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,” she says. 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. That’s so much easier than trying to implement taxes for the rich.”
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.”
When stewarded by humans, as the internet is, it’s 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.”
Although it’s perfectly reasonable to view the current state of the world and say it looks like it’s coming to a rather abrupt end, that total destruction is imminent whether it comes in five years or 500, many still cling to the idea that “good,” whatever your idea of it, will prevail.
“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.”
Juarez says: “I believe there’s good and evil. 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.”
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