Skip to main content

An Orthodox Theory of Brainworms

April 4th, 2022 | 6 min read

By Lucian Staiano-Daniels

Commentators have been calling political extremism a form of religion for a long time. Discussions of the United States’s current political hysteria often describe it as similar to Western Christianity, whether Catholic or Protestant, or through Western heuristics. It is more rare to discuss modern American extremism from an Eastern Orthodox perspective.

Through this heuristic I read American political extremism as a desire for religious activity that has become unhinged because it is not recognized.

American Christianity has historically been largely Protestant. Although Protestantism as an umbrella term has not been devoid of physical practice–going to church is an act–the ancient Christian tradition of which Orthodoxy is the living continuation is intensely physical, and it is physical in a way that strains of Christianity influenced by the Reformed tradition, even Lutheranism, are not. Orthodoxy experienced no Reformation, no Counter Reformation, and no Enlightenment. Its physicality not only includes immediately obvious differences like sacred images, opulent churches, or elaborate ritual, it also encourages actions like eating certain things at certain times of year, dressing a certain way, or even specific bodily postures and gestures during prayer. Religious practice requires practice.

When low-church Protestants develop practices like lighting candles, it’s against their own theology and against the common practice of their church; but these actions answer a spiritual need to do something. So do the actions of people involved in the Q-anon conspiracy theory. Treating yourself with ivermectin and becoming sick from it or camping in your truck in the middle of a Canadian winter are not only acts, they are extraordinarily difficult, onerous acts. These are ascetic practices.

Alan Levinovitz in The Boston Globe writes that the comparison of politics to religion is badly overextended: “It’s hard to imagine any ideology that wouldn’t qualify…Using religious terms to describe standard features of an ideology creates a flashy veneer that covers up rather pedestrian and obvious truths.” Unless you argue that politics has supplanted religion’s rightful place in public life, this comparison seems redundant. Instead, it should “illuminate features of an ideology that might otherwise remain undetected.”

Stepping to one side from ideology and comparing political actions to religious actions allow us to consider American extremism as an example of the Orthodox concept of prelest, or spiritual delusion.

Prelest develops when a person who is on a religious path and desires to do good becomes convinced of his or her righteousness and maladaptively obsessed with religion. This concept was codified late, by the early nineteenth century Russian saint Ignatius Brianchaninov, but the recognition that there are spiritual risks to concerted religious activity is found throughout the ancient writings of the Church. The third-century Desert Fathers knew that religious action invited these thoughts, and described the people who engaged in the monasticism they were inventing as “those who fight.”

Prelest is not solitary–sufferers egg one another on in culty little groups and compete to be the most extreme–but someone who is consumed in it does not take criticism. It is zeal without compassion. It is characterized by the desire to be important, the hope that once everything is smashed, then at last people will listen. Someone with prelest fantasizes about being a great figure. He or she feels impelled to teach others whether or not they want to be taught.

Even if I were not convinced of the truth of Eastern Orthodoxy, I would value it for developing a robust description of radicalization from within a religious paradigm. There is a direct line between this behavior, which Orthodox theologians have observed over generations of religious activity, and its political parallels, especially on social media. A liberal Australian columnist infiltrated Q-anon groups for a year and found their conversations revolved around telling one another how special they were: “They have ‘woken up’ to the conspiracy and amongst themselves share secret insights into the source of their own specialness.” They were also deeply lonely, because their obsessions had driven their relatives away.

Instead of withdrawing from the world, extremists remain in it, and are disgusted by it. Living in the world means navigating groups, coexisting with people who don’t agree with you, working to survive, loving and hating, the whole untidy snarl of human interaction. It is to be finite, bored, lonely, subject to physical pain and the whims of desire, and in the vast majority of cases confronted with your own irrelevance. The world is too much with us, getting and spending. Extremists recognise that life is frustrating, but they blame imagined versions of their political opponents. As Stuart Clark argued about early modern Western European demonology, fringe politics requires the presence of inverted people as opponents, “wreckers” who represent everything the believer rejects, the hidden source of imperfection. At a witches’ sabbath, partners dance back to back.

Fanaticism rests on the idea that a human being can shape reality by wanting to badly enough: This is the will of Triumph of the Will. Since this is impossible, symbols of the rude unconquered earth recur in multiple contexts: fluids like blood or water, subterranean tunnels, uniquely perverted sex, the swamp that must be drained. The fringier corners of far right and far left are convinced their opponents are pedophiles who ritually sacrifice children, eat the skin of their faces, and drink their blood to gain demonic power and eternal life. This was a central plank of Q-anon and the Pizzagate conspiracy theory from which it originated, as well as the belief that the Clintons had Epstein killed. Anti-vaccine circles fixate on a contaminating liquid in the body, which contains parasites, invisible machines, strange powder, or illness. Obsessing over these symbols isn’t chaste, it’s prurient. Klaus Theweleit described this hysteria in the hack fiction written by members of the interwar Freikorps, men who later became Nazis; Yuri Slezkine identified the same patterns in Bolshevik thought in a book which explicitly compared the Bolsheviks to monks.

Ironically, in Orthodox sources these hunters of impurity are victims of demonic suggestion. Evagrius Ponticus, who wrote in the late fourth century, described demons as almost coterminous with “logismoi,” patterns of evil thoughts. In the sayings of the Desert Fathers, demons inflict logismoi upon people. As the saying goes, if you want to know about your brother’s sins, the demons will tell you. Other authors call logismoi the result of an ascetic’s personal struggle with the devil, and more modern writers call them compulsions. Amma Theodora said the demons also fast, because they do not eat; they also keep vigil, because they do not sleep; and they also abandon the world, because they live in the desert: the only thing that can fight their influence on the mind and body of the ascetic is humility.

With a small intellectual stretch, you could call social media algorithms logismoi: they replicate themselves, they reinforce and direct themselves, they transform themselves, and they draw you in. Logismoi are memes in their oldest sense, as Richard Dawkins meant it: imagine an idea were a living thing, a “self-replicating unit of transmission,” and it used our minds like a living thing.

I think many American extremists would become monastics if they could, but don’t know this is an option. Since they don’t, they try to force the rest of us into whatever monastery they set up in their minds. But just as the Orthodox church has identified and described prelest, it also has ways to deal with it.

Gregory of Sinai (c. 1260-1346) wrote that prelest occurs when someone begins a life of prayer but does not repent. The Orthodox ascetic life, which is one of constant repentance, is similar to what Foucault meant by ethics: “the intentional work of an individual on itself in order to subject itself to a set of moral recommendations for conduct.” For the classical Greeks and Romans as Foucault interpreted their ideas, self-mastery was freedom, attained through the subjugation or direction of one’s desires and emotions–what the Orthodox church calls the passions. Ancient Christians inherited this ethic and grounded it on the revelation of the Christian God. Care of the self means constant prayer and repentance. I am not a Foucault expert, but I wonder if repentance might be compared to the concept he explored in the last years of his life: parrhesia, criticizing yourself with the plain truth in spite of danger.

In the modern American political environment, the last thing most people want to hear is the importance of controlling the passions.Too many people have confused feeling powerful emotions with political action, as though you could just get angry–or happy, or terrified–enough and the world would change around you. But Orthodoxy’s ancient insights say that this is not only not true, it’s bad for you: it corrodes your sense of feeling and your sense of aesthetics, and opens you up to prelest. Since everything becomes interesting only insofar as it repeats propaganda, it is hollow. Everything becomes a meme. This ruins your ability to sense beauty, whether of art or of other people, the image of the living God.

Instead, the way of life Orthodox religious practice encourages even for laypeople is a moderated one, where you control your emotions instead of the other way around. The repeated practice of prayer is more boring than frenzied action or feeling. It’s also sustainable in the long term. Orthodox Christianity demands compassion for all others; but ironically, through asceticism–compassion for the self, that first of sinners.