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Spring 2023
Illustration Ester Mejibovski

God in the machine: the emergence of nu-spiritualism online

From IRL fashion shows and club nights to social media and Reddit threads, people are turning to the mystical to make sense of the chaotic world around them

Taken from the spring 2023 issue of Dazed. You can buy a copy of our latest issue here

It’s January, and I’m sitting in the smokers’ area of a south London club as a guy tries to convince me that the silver crucifix around his neck is spiritual protection against the night, which he claims is a “pagan reverse psy-op”. We’re here for gr1n, the latest in a series of experimental nights in the city exploring the relationship between technology and the spiritual. Ravers dressed in white robes and chains encircle an electric chair that’s positioned in the centre of the dancefloor, as they move in time to the wobbles of bass. There are wires everywhere, and a performer in head-to-toe Cyberdog dances a new age dance as the audience watches on. “See!” says crucifix guy, pointing to the chair as proof – and I think he actually believes it. 

Earlier that month, while the internet was busy debating the intricacies of Schiaparelli’s faux-taxidermy animal heads, Rick Owens had debuted his AW23 collection at Paris Fashion Week. Inspired by ancient Egypt, he described the season’s low-slung leather pants and ab-baring capes as carrying “a whiff of sleazy 70s pseudo mysticism”. The previous season had also seen designers like Chopova Lowena, Paolo Carzana and Simone Rocha take a similar approach, drawing on the healing properties of essential oils and crystals, both core components of the new-age arcana of the 1970s. For his cruise 2023 show, Gucci’s Alessandro Michele also turned to the arcane, staging a lunar eclipse on the celestial grounds of a 13th-century castle. The collection, he said, was his attempt “to launch the narrative of the House into the stars”; the fantastical garments, starry iconography and attention to cosmic detail only bolstered the sense of mysticism.

From IRL fashion shows and club nights to social media and Reddit threads, people are tuning in and dropping out as people turn to the mystical to make sense of the chaotic world around them. Sliced up and repackaged into post-ironic bytes, millennia-old ideas are being slammed, remixed and fragmented into memes and online ephemera. While some turn to ancient religions – gnostic symbols, cabbalistic charts and pagan iconography – many online posters are embracing ‘trad-cath’ aesthetics, while others are choosing to see God in the computer. Sometimes it’s a mix. Either way, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that there’s an esoteric spiritualism in the air.

It’s not that we’re operating on a higher frequency than before, although the frantic pace of information might make it seem that way. Rather, the internet has created space for arcane beliefs to multiply and fester during a time of social and political upheaval. This was no doubt accelerated by two terminally online years of pandemic in which billionaires jetted off to space, the economy plummeted and people felt betrayed by modern science and its promises of a better, fairer world. During this time, private internet spaces and meme channels, also known as ‘the Dark Forest’, thrived as consensus reality evaporated, with people turning away from official news sources and towards fringe beliefs (as seen by the uptick in conspiracy theories surrounding QAnon and the New World Order). 

“There are all these ways [in which] the concrete sense of being somewhere has evaporated, and in these gaps run all these idealisms, mysticisms, rumours of God,” says Erik Davis, the author of Techgnosis and High Weirdness. “Because human worldbuilding is hackable, you can throw more weird possibilities, constructs, propositions, systems, conspiracies, and it will actually start producing the sense of another world.” When paired with the overarching feeling that we can no longer condense the complexities of our feelings into scientific frameworks (for example, the death of therapy-speak) and the poor living conditions of late capitalism, this hyper-networking results in a vibrant experimentalism, where identities are performed and mythologised. On TikTok and Instagram, users inhabit their own realities as magical thinking or Larping acts as a portal to new imagined worlds, while the algorithm guides our interests in mysterious ways, like a higher power guiding our every move with an invisible hand. There’s a feeling that material and virtual reality has broken down to such an extent that everything is post-truth, everything is a Larp, so we turn to myth-making to fill in the blanks. 

Scrolling down my feed, I encounter a multitude of spiritual beliefs condensed into UI-friendly content: sorcerous Wojaks and lion-headed serpents, pagan sigils and the numograms created by the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (CCRU), an experimental wing of the Warwick University philosophy department blending cybernetic theory with cyberpunk and a fascination for the occult in the late 90s. This isn’t God-talk in the traditional sense, but a choose-your-own-adventure, spirituality edition. “What we’re seeing is remix culture on spiritual steroids,” agrees Davis. There’s Witchtok and new age revivalists, neo-pagans and heaps of freaky IG pages untangling the writings of old mystery cults from ancient literature. Elsewhere, purple-pilled memes featuring cyber angels and celestial waifus with captions that read ‘god’s little soldier’. “We can now go into these esoteric texts that are available online and pull out super intense, mystic language and put it into the context of post-irony,” Davis elaborates.

“There are all these ways [in which] the concrete sense of being somewhere has evaporated, and in these gaps run all these idealisms, mysticisms, rumours of God” – Erik Davis

Within online music circles, and particularly among the Soundcloud rap scene, Drain Gang’s gospel spreads like hellfire across Reddit and 4chan. The Swedish group have created countless cryptic music videos, posts and lyrics that draw on esoteric mythology, and often include icons, numbers and symbols such as GTBSG, d9 and holy number 3, which play into the group’s extensive lore. Drainerdom has acquired pseudo-spiritual weight since the pandemic, with fans unpicking a multitude of references from gnostic mysticism to folklore, the occult and paintings by visionary Swedish artist Hilma af Klint. For its logged-on fanbase, the sermon of Bladee is more than just an AutoTuned call to “confess your sins”: it’s scripture.

Whether people actually believe in the occult forces of r/sadboy threads, or the divine protection of 11:11 screenshots on an iPhone screen, is unclear and, for the most part, irrelevant. “The world sucks and young people in particular must be really suffering with the sense of a closed-out future and the upper-crust polarisation of money in our society, which is just gonna get worse,” says Davis. There’s an absurdity to the content which reflects the nihilism we feel, where it’s easier to post images of Jesus delivering a sermon on a mound of microplastics, or a bimbofied Stacy strutting into the Pure Land, than it is to question the conditions that created such an atmosphere of disassociation and unreality to begin with. “If people are really suffering then there is sometimes a real earnestness to where you turn, whether it’s astrology or the meditation pillow or a Franciscan retreat.”

But it’s also cool to see God in the machine. There’s something about the mix of edgy symbology and contemporary internet references that, as an aesthetic, feels based. Posting images of CCRU numograms overlaid with images of neo-chibi angels won’t actually make us any wiser, but the effect is akin to the feeling of having read A Thousand Plateaus. This is presumably because the internet itself holds an innately spiritual quality. “If you squint hard enough, you can start tracing these parallels between heaven and the digital, and then you can see the angelic nature of what it means to be online,” says Nate Sloan, cultural theorist and meme admin behind the Instagram account @vitruviangrimace. 

The digital realm is abstracted from reality; it’s so vast that it’s incomprehensible, which only adds to the sense of the divine. “I think people have realised that the internet works as a portal, a temple and a place of comfort. It’s a place where we can manifest how we show ourselves and act [in] the world,” says the anonymous user behind the meme account, who posts mock inspirational quotes overlaid with esoteric symbolism and templar crosses. It’s not surprising that a lot of nu-spiritual content online has ties to 90s cyberculture: when heading the CCRU, philosopher Nick Land, who later reemerged as a prominent fascist thinker, famously compared lines of code to spells to highlight the idea that you can shape your own reality – a sentiment that also fuelled the basis of 60s counterculture. 

“If you squint hard enough, you can start tracing these parallels between heaven and the digital, and then you can see the angelic nature of what it means to be online” – Nate Sloan

“If you understand God as the sum total of human reason, a way of abstracting humans’ ability to act on its environment, and reshape itself or its environment, the internet is an attempt to speed up and make that God come into an increasing degree of self-awareness by hyper-accelerating the minds’ abilities to communicate with each other,” explains Sloan.  Schizoposting – an unfiltered approach to sharing information via unintelligible text walls, memes and videos – promotes a similarly fast-paced and formless style of communicating, and is ubiquitous among these online communities, while the internet’s capacity to derealise and dissociate is arguably the most accessible way to reach religious ecstasy. Combine this with ketamine as the drug of choice for a generation of young people post-pandemic, and it becomes the perfect potion for accessing the sublime. 

But at what point does the content stop and the real practice begin? “If it’s just meme play, there’s a point where the rubber does not hit the road,” warns Davis. “Whatever’s animating religious or spiritual practice has to have an element of actual practice with your mind, body and spirit as you interact with the world.” Just as posting memes about touching grass isn’t the same as actually going outside and touching it, no amount of magical thinking will alter the conditions that made us want to transcend the IRL plane to begin with. You have to make the meme a reality.

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