The Religious Wars of the Pandemic Endgame
A special preview of our major new film project
The film accompanying this piece has been several weeks in the making, an attempt to navigate the complex and fraught topic of sensemaking the pandemic endgame. It’s a two-hour epic featuring new conversations with John Vervaeke, Mary Harrington, Paul Kingsnorth and many more. We hope you enjoy it.
As the months roll on, almost everyone is waiting to know when (and whether) our collective pandemic nightmare is going to end. Tempers are flaring, world-views clashing. The facts of one side are the lies of another.
We can view our COVID-19 culture war through a number of different frames. The political-tribal. The media-informational. The socio-economic. The psycho-emotional. In this essay, though, we want to explore another frame we believe is essential to making sense of the ‘COVID endgame’: the theological.
Making sense of the pandemic requires holding all these frames at the same time, so we we will try to touch on as many as we can. We’ll also look specifically at the conspiracy-minded doctors Robert Malone and Peter McCullough’s appearances on The Joe Rogan Experience, which we believe sparked a new phase of what we’re calling ‘The Religious Wars of the Pandemic Endgame’.
The religious is showing up everywhere, from the new vaccine purity codes, to the levels of messianic certainty of both the “Covidian” zealots and the “Covidiot” contrarians. It is, in part, a phenomenon fuelled by the eruption of belief, revelation, desire and communitas rushing to fill the gaping hole of meaning at the heart of culture, hothoused and pressurised in the chaos of the culture wars.
If we can embrace this strange religiosity, it gives us an essential new lens to help us see the rigidity, certainty and passion on all sides of the cultural conversation around COVID in a new light. It helps us to embody the psycho-emotional underpinnings of both sides, looking to the deeper levels of society’s growing dysfunction - and the internet’s role in birthing new religions that are changing the world as we know it.
The COVID Thesis and Antithesis
We also ask one of the most crucial questions of the pandemic, what is responsible heterodox thinking? What is the necessary questioning and counterpoint to the mainstream narrative, and where does that questioning veer off the road and into the ditch of misinformation and unsubstantiated fear mongering, and how do we tell the difference?
Before we dive in deeper, it’s useful to look at a model that helps us define the cultural split the pandemic has caused. Peter Limberg, the writer, philosopher and steward of The Stoa, has summarised the two sides of the pandemic debate with his Hegelian notion of the COVID ‘Thesis’ and ‘Antithesis’.
The position of the ‘Thesis’ is generally promoted by legacy media (sans Fox News), NGOs, Universities, Western governments, and memetic tribes on the political left. Basically, the ‘Blue Church’, to use Jordan Hall’s language, can be described in the following way:
“Lockdowns are needed to contain the virus, masks work and need to be mandated, vaccines are safe, people should take the vaccine to protect themselves and others, and vaccine passports will help open things up quicker and encourage those who are hesitant to get vaccinated.”
And the Antithesis, represented in broad terms by alternative media spaces, popular podcasts, and innumerable social media profiles:
“Lockdowns are not needed, masks do not work, the safety and efficacy of the vaccines are being oversold, vaccine passports will not only fail but further segregate society, and in the near future we can expect Giradian scapegoating of the unvaccinated. In other words, we are positioned on the precipice of a slippery slope that leads towards increasingly draconian biopolitical control measures, the grip of which is unlikely to release even once the pandemic is over.”
Perhaps more than ever before, the two sides of the COVID debate are occupying entirely incommensurate versions of reality.
If you walk the streets as a skeptic, the sight of masks may spell a worrying sign of creeping totalitarianism. Pace them as a Thesis proponent, however, and you see a basic gesture of safety, concern, and communal good practice.
And with the looping effects of algorithms and filter bubbles embedded in tech platforms, our tenuous grip on that consensus reality has slipped. As John Vervaeke puts it in our film, we lack a shared sense of relevance from which to have conversations - so it appears to both sides that the other is completely divorced from the real world. To put it in the parlance of the times, each side believes the other is a victim of ‘mass formation psychosis’.
The Issue of Synthesis
We’re all prone to the kind of cognitive distortion that makes alternative viewpoints seem insane. In fact, as John Vervaeke points out, the very same cognitive machinery that allows us to seek truth renders us susceptible to delusion. As we explored in our first Sensemaking Companion, that’s because in many ways intelligence is bias. It’s a process of selecting what’s relevant to you from the overwhelming amount of salient information in your environment. You’re biased for reading this sentence instead of listening to what’s going on in the room around you.
However, our environment can make us more biased, and biased in particular ways that render truth-seeking more difficult. And this isn’t just due to social media algorithms that hijack our outrage. There are larger incentive structures at play in both legacy and alternative media structures, and very little communication between them.
We’ve called this the ‘Uncanny Valley’ of truth seeking: a gap between a mainstream closed to fringe perspectives for fear of giving ‘false equivalence’ and risking costs to their credibility, and an alternative that racks up huge views for unchallenging interviews with marginal figures. It creates ecosystems of information that never meet, where what is ‘unchallenged truth’ in one ecosystem is ‘obviously discredited’ in another.
The traditional ‘marketplace of ideas’ we might have trusted to resolve our factual dilemmas and come to a shared sense of what’s relevant seems incommensurate with how modern media functions. As argued by Unherd’s Mary Harrington, “the age of objectivity - if you like, the age of rationality - was to a great extent an effect of the print era”, in which linearised thinking, authority, and ‘the facts’ ruled the roost.”
“Whereas now”, Harrington suggests, “...everybody has the microphone, everybody has the platform. You might as well be back at the point where nobody has the platform.” ‘The medium is the message’, as Marshall McLuhan said - and what once seemed like the ‘democratisation’ of truth now seems more like a dissolution.
What are we to do? How should we find truth when facts themselves are so polarised? You could diversify your ‘information diet’. You could make use of ‘ethical tech’ like AllSides, which show balanced representations of news stories. Perhaps follow media channels and talking heads in (rather than either side of) the Uncanny Valley - what Zubin Damania calls the ‘alt middle’. You may benefit from techniques like ‘de-centering’, ‘blending’, and ‘flipping’ explained in the first person edition of the Sensemaking Companion which are assisted by meditation, helping us zoom out and create wider frames to avoid the narrowing effects of a particular reality tunnel.
To do really good sensemaking, however, we might need to zoom out further to look at the stranger, hazier aspects of what’s going on: embracing the irrational, and engaging with the deep emotional underpinnings of both sides. Indeed, it’s worth asking why claims like those made by the likes of Malone and McCullough are so attractive to so many right now, or why the excesses of the Thesis side likewise go unchecked.
One reason might be that the ‘COVID end game’ has furnished a unique kind of psycho-emotional pressure cooker. Two years into our pandemic, we’re all wondering when (and whether) it’ll ‘all be over’. The horizon is ever-glimpsable, but always retreating. A kind of ‘reality fatigue’ has set in and any sense of certainty or clarity has a powerful emotional pull.
The Religious Push
In his book The Righteous Mind, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt suggests that our political beliefs extend from inbuilt collections of core ‘moral foundations’: concerns for care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion and sanctity/degradation. Whereas the conservatively-minded exhibit all five moral foundations, progressive voices tend to constellate around care/harm and fairness/cheating.
But Unherd’s Mary Harrington noticed something. Progressive voices, those typically behind universal (and mandated) vaccination, seem to have evolved in their moral foundations. Vaccination does not prevent the transmission of Omicron - so why do the ‘unvaccinated’ provoke so much reactivity, aggression, and venom? Is it driven by a concern for their wellbeing? Is it a matter of having not ‘followed the science’?
What Harrington suggests is that progressive voices now exhibit all five foundations, including and especially sanctity/degradation: a sense (in Haidt’s terms) “shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination [that] underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants.”
The vaccine is central to a new kind of “purity discourse”, Harrington says. “Increasingly, vaccination carries a social meaning as well as a medical one. It’s a ritual infusion — albeit via injection, not anointment — of sacred liquid, whose application confers freedom from spiritual taint,” she writes.
“This is not to say that vaccination has become religious exactly”, Harrington told Rebel Wisdom. “But it's become a delivery mechanism for something with religious characteristics, which actually has a great deal less to do with the published numbers or the objective documented efficacy of the vaccine. And it’s much more to do [with] the re-emergence of something older, which I call ‘filling the god shaped hole’.”
The full interview with Mary is available now here on Substack for our paid subscribers, along with the full interviews with John Vervaeke and Rocky Jedick MD. Subscribe below to get access to those, and to nearly 100 other exclusive member videos (all existing Rebel Wisdom members have been already added as full subscribers when we moved over to Substack).
The Crucial Role of The Story
On the antithesis side, the religiosity is showing up in a different way, as an evolving and increasingly all-encompassing conspiracy narrative, articulated by the likes of Malone and McCullough on Joe Rogan, by far the biggest podcast in the world.
As we discovered in the summer when we turned our attention to the likes of Malone, then hosted on the Dark Horse podcast, there is a small in number, but huge in influence, group of renegade medical figures all coalesced around a shared and evolving narrative. Call it the hardcore antithesis perspective. The broad outlines of it are that the vaccines are dangerous, that early treatments like ivermectin are hugely effective and are being suppressed, in short that if the bad actors and hidden forces could be exposed, then the pandemic could be all but over.
We spoke to ER doctor Rocky Jedick, who has been dealing intensely with Covid since the beginning of the pandemic, and has also spent a great deal of time addressing the claims by Malone and others, and he described the hidden religious framing within their personal narratives:
“They paint this picture as if there's this large conspiracy theory, this large conspiracy of gigantic forces that are against them. Kind of this good versus evil type of narrative playing in the background of which they're on the good side. And they're just, you know, they're the they're the resistance, you know, and that they're they're being martyred. Their careers are being threatened.
“Interestingly enough, though, most of these people no one had ever heard of prior to COVID, so it's actually the opposite. Their careers are being made off of this. You know, they're being invited on Fox News regularly. They're being invited on Joe Rogan's podcast, and they're being able to build their own brands that they're going to be able to use in the future to to market many different products and services.”
In framing themselves as renegades - indeed, self-describing as ‘heretics’ is not uncommon - against a fallen world of ‘mass formation psychosis’, the likes of Malone, McCullough and others on the extreme Covid Antithesis side are playing roles in a Christian drama we’ve all been conditioned to recognise. And when both sides make their arguments in terms of data, cold facts and ‘the science’, they fail to see that it’s the deeper stories they’re telling that really make the difference.
The Problem of Truth
These interviews with Joe Rogan provide a fascinating sensemaking challenge, because we have to look at that propositional level at the same time as all the others we’ve been exploring here - and doubtless many more we’re not aware of. We encourage you to bring in as many frames as you can as you try to make sense of them.
Our interview with Rocky Jedick dives into some of the specific claims made by Malone and McCullough, and we would also highly recommend other counterpoints, such as the recent article by Vinay Prasad in Unherd, the video by Debunk the Funk, and the lengthy examination of the nature and dynamic of the rhetorical devices used by both Malone and McCullough, by Matthew Browne and Chris Kavanagh of the Decoding The Gurus podcast, which describe the appearances as a ‘litany of untruths’.
Once you spot the exaggerations, the deliberately obtuse language, the grandiosity and the false claims, they are impossible to unsee. Doing the work now to pull apart why someone like Malone should not be trusted will stand you in good stead to spot similar kinds of rhetorical techniques and manipulation in the future. Malone, McCullough and others in this very small group of influencers are convincing in as much as we want to believe what they are saying is true.
As Vinay Prasad points out in his Unherd article, it’s not that everything that Malone and McCullough are saying is wrong, though the most lurid claims, the ones that grab us right by the fight-or-flight amygdala response, are. Some of the claims they make have some validity, like the risk benefit ratio of vaccinating children for example. Many valid questions have been squashed by the mainstream thesis position. This allows bad actors to weaponise genuine concerns to slip in deliberate misinformation and scaremongering narratives.
Responsible heterodoxy does exist, though we should look away from Robert Malone and towards folks like Vinay Prasad, Zubin Damania or Marty Makary, responsible doctors who have questioned the mainstream narrative, taken flak from their own side, but have avoided the temptation to follow the incentive landscape for terrifying misinformation all the way to crazytown. Check out a recent dialogue between the three of them here.
The Lessons of the Egregore
These religious impulses move through different tribes through stories and memes. No single person controls them, and they seem to quickly take on a life of their own. For B.J. Campbell, the analyst behind the Handwaving Freakoutery newsletter, the historically-occult concept of egregores is especially useful for making sense of this dynamic.
Translated from Greek as ‘the watcher’, the egregore is akin to a kind of ‘hive mind’. Appearing in the works of Eliaphas Levi, the Rosicrucians and the Golden Dawn, the egregore is described as a thoughtform entity that emerges from enclosed groups. If this seems a bit abstract, consider it as a set of values, norms, behaviours and symbolic expressions that eventually take on a life of their own. Companies have egregores, social movements have egregores, and your group of friends may even have a small egregore of their own.
The more we constellate around a particular set of ideas - and lose an ‘outsider’ perspective and form social status around those ideas - the more these cognitions become something different. At a certain point, it’s said, that momentum becomes quasi-autonomous: the engine of the group’s collective thinking process evolves into its own entity, the egregore, that controls and shapes the group itself.
Both the Thesis and the Antithesis have their own egregores. A kind of demon; an emergent intelligence birthed by the filter bubbles in which the two sides congregate. In the occult tradition, the egregore’s only incentive is to fuel itself and displace its competitors. And these egregores are now birthed primarily online - forming, growing, and then erupting into the real world in a ‘breach event’, a dynamic we explored in The Age of Breach.
The short answer is, we have no idea what a synthesis may look like. But in the process of wrestling with this issue, we have come across some possibilities that seem promising. One came from speaking with John Vervaeke, who argued that many of us are interpreting the world through ‘the hermeneutics of suspicion’, a concept from the French phenomenologist Paul Ricœur. In short, that means our default for any analysis is deep scepticism (if not cynicism) and an accompanying fascination with anything that confirms this belief and seemingly reveals ‘the true nature of reality’.
Vervaeke argues that this way of seeing the world can’t ultimately lead us to wisdom. In fact, it can lead us into a ‘reciprocal narrowing’, where our frame of reference becomes smaller and smaller over time. The possibilities for thinking differently shrink more and more until we’re lost in a reality tunnel. As neuroscientist Marc Lewis has argued, addiction may work in much the same way, and mental health problems like depression and anxiety might, too. This revelatory impulse of the Antithesis, and the authoritarian bent of the Thesis, are both trying to move toward their version of a better world.
If they each shared two magic words, they might be ‘If only…’
If only everyone would get vaccinated, this nightmare would be over. If only people would see the truth and stop getting vaccinated, this nightmare would be over. If only people would look at the facts, they’d see the truth. If only people would listen, I wouldn’t feel so scared.
Vervaeke has suggested that one remedy to this narrow form of revelation is to move from the hermeneutics of suspicion to the ‘hermeneutics of beauty’, which is perceptible through authentic, honest and open conversations and dialogos: a form of mutual inquiry and exploration that takes us from ‘I’ve got it!’ to ‘I’m getting it’ and ‘I get you’.
It’s a move from ‘If only’ to ‘what if?’
In dialogos, we explore truth as a process, not a goal. It’s a participatory process we enter into with one another - not a passive process where we receive borrowed revelations from a figure claiming authority - as in the case of Malone or McCullough - and try to make them our own. Likewise, blindly adopting the Thesis narrative and shaming anyone who doesn’t. These are the strategies of a ‘dead player’ in the culture wars - or to use an old meme, being an NPC (non-player character).
Instead, we can do the work and enter into a process of dialogue with one another by which we create the conditions for our own authentic insights - the experience of widening our own frames to see what we’ve been missing. In doing so, we may begin to see the deeper longings that both sides are holding, and why they are valid. In a similar way, Peter Limberg has suggested identifying the common needs and desires of different egregores, and finding a way to identify those as a bridge to create a new egregore that can contain all of the deeper emotional drivers we’re trying to meet.
That likely means accepting, for a time at least, that the factual level is not where the main action is in the COVID endgame. It’s at the deeper level of values, religious belief and longing. And it’s by going to that place and learning how to embrace it that we might come to a place of shared relevance and understanding. A true COVID Synthesis.
For the full interviews with Mary Harrington, John Vervaeke & Rocky Jedick, subscribe here on Substack. We’re discussing this in our Digital Campfire on 24 Jan, details below!
I'm just relieved that you guys are there. It seems important to promote your work, so if anyone would like to share this LinkedIn post (where I'm seeing the warring factions ramp up the rhetoric) it may get the film a few more viewers.
The thesis / anti-thesis framing works well, because on the other side of the thesis there is not a counter-thesis per se. I have noticed that smart people on the anti-thesis side will share a piece suggesting COVID is being exaggerated, and then also a piece suggesting it might be a frightening bioweapon. Similarly with the vaccines or therapeutics, the same person will share a series of irreconcilable arguments.
After engaging with several of these people, I understood they are operating from something akin to the "reasonable doubt" standard for criminal cases in court. Many of them don't have a particular counter-thesis they can defend or would stand by, but they interpret the sheer breadth of counter-claims itself as reasonable doubt that the thesis can be solid.
Of course this hinges on their general distrust of the institutions and factions who support, defend, or otherwise advocate for the thesis. This means the thesis is already weak to begin with (in their view), so their threshold for reasonable doubt is very low.