QAnon functions as a religion. Its fantasies defy political logic

Comment by Andrew Brown

QAnon is usually called a conspiracy theory and treated as a political story. But it can’t really be understood that way and the reason for that does a lot to explain how the media generally misunderstands religion.

People who call QAnon a conspiracy theory think that the important thing is what its believers believe. This is exactly the same mistake as supposing that religions are only activated theologies. They are not.

What gives religions life is not the beliefs themselves, but the way they are believed; and that, like poetry, is the bit that gets lost in translation.

QAnon, which claims Donald Trump is battling against a Satan-worshipping paedophile elite, is not exactly a religion. It has no organisation or recognised practices, or even a leader. But it does provide what science fiction fans call a universe: a coherent narrative of the world in which there are good and bad actors working on a recognised stage. This is something that any religion must also do and it is also the way that theologies come to life.

A universe is made up of a linked collection of stories that operate according to clear, if unstated, rules. This is most obvious in fictional universes: we all know that there are some things that Sherlock Holmes could never do, and others that would defeat a Marvel superhero.

In Christianity these narratives coalesce around the figure of Jesus, so that “What would Jesus do?” is a serious question for a Christian. But the Bible provides a very capacious universe. There is a character in that mythology for every situation and over the years many of the characters, as Jesus himself did, worked with the earlier stories that had been handed down to them.

The Christian Bible, though, is only one pattern. It has a single hero around whom all other stories coalesce, like the Quran, or for that matter any contemporary Hollywood film. That is obviously a pattern which we find attractive. But it is not the only one.

There are examples of mythologies — collaborative universes — that have no leading men (or gods) around whom history revolves. Pre-Christian mythologies, among them the Hebrew Bible, don’t have a single script but a tangle of stories with an ensemble cast.

That is also the nature of QAnon. If QAnon were a theology, a political programme, or even a properly worked-out conspiracy theory, it would make promises that could be true or false. It would be governed by the rules of logic, more or less, and when its predictions turned out to be false (to the extent that Q’s pronouncements have any definite meaning at all) its followers would turn away.

The contrast with Brexit is clear — as the consequences of Brexit look nastier, polling shows the proportion of people supporting it diminishes. It is now down from 52 per cent to 38 per cent. Q, on the other hand, seems to be gaining popularity despite the failure of its prophecies.

This is because the test for mythological stories such as QAnon is built from isn’t so much “Are they true?” as “Are they enjoyable?”, and “Do they involve the characters I already believe in behaving in credible ways?”

So if you already believe that Trump is a kind of superhero, stories in which he plays that part will be infinitely attractive. If you are primed for the existence of a billionaire supervillain — and he has after all been a fixture in popular culture for decades now — pinning a name on him, whether it’s Bill Gates or George Soros, makes perfect sense. The fantasies are nourished within the mythological system of American evangelical Christianity.

The prophetic element of Q, in which cryptic messages are opened up to reveal a wealth of meanings, is familiar to anyone who has spent time in charismatic evangelical circles in the US since the 1970s, when Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth first predicted the imminent end of the world and sold 17.6m copies.

The millions of people who bought that book did not react with disappointment when the world failed to end on schedule, Instead, they demanded more of the same sort of stories, and the immense success of the “Left Behind” series was also undented by the failure of the rapture to arrive.

All of these are stories which people do not just consume, but make their own, and tell to others. That offers a set of rewards quite independent of their truth or even their meaning. And, while prophecy is risky, it is an absolutely certain bet that QAnon will continue to flourish whatever the outcome of the election, even if it makes no political sense — because it functions according to the logics of religious belief.