Are We Killing Religion By Loving Celebrities?

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There Could Be An Opportunity Cost To Our Attention on Brad Pitt and Rihanna

More Americans know the ingredients of a McDonald’s “Big Mac” than the Ten Commandments. That gap becomes larger when talking about celebrities. We know when they marry, when they break up, the names of their children, where they vacation, what they eat, what their hobbies are, and all of their drunken mistakes.

But do we know as much about religion? Americans have a difficult time answering questions about their own faith, let alone the religious doctrine of others. But we seem to remember that Daniel Radcliffe is an Atheist, or that Mark Wahlberg goes to church every day. You can find a plethora of information about which celebrities have seen God, lost God, are looking for God, gave up on God, love God, hate God, don’t believe in God but are spiritual; the list goes on.

When John Lennon said of The Beatles “we’re more popular than Jesus” he was referencing a cultural shift that continues at a breathtaking pace. With digital technology, we can track everything about a celebrity and feel a connection, even if the celebrity doesn’t know we exist. This has led to similarities between celebrities and deities becoming more pronounced. We call our celebrities “idols.” More people visit TMZ than church on a daily basis. We create shrines from celebrities when they die. People talk with a fevered pitch about how Chris Pratt has created “meaning” in their life. People pick apart Ariana Grande’s Instagram posts looking for hidden meaning.

Social psychologists believe humans fill our lives with meaning and value to avoid thinking of the inevitability of death. This is called Terror Management Theory. Religion is one way individuals give sense to their life. Celebrity worship is a different tactic for the same urge. This could be seen as comparable for several reasons. Celebrity worship is contemporary. I can interact with my object of worship on a daily basis, making it more tangible. Celebrity worship also has more freedom than religion. There are no established rules, beyond laws on stalking. Someone can interchange their icons with no repercussions. I can’t switch from worshipping God to Zeus without being told that it will damn my eternal soul. Moving from Jaden Smith to Migos? Easy.

Whether celebrity worship has caused a decrease in religious membership is a more complicated question. There could be numerous factors that have effected shrinking membership: scientific discovery, generational change, religious scandal, the liberalism of governments and societies, etc. It is unclear if people who were previously religious decided to reject official doctrine and begin to follow what Katy Perry is doing. What is more likely to happen is that families and people who have already moved away from religion have filled the gap in meaning and values by paying attention to celebrities.

The power of the celebrity continues to grow. New types of stars have been created with social media channels like YouTube, and there are an increasing number of people who are famous strictly for being famous. The pantheon is becoming crowded. It remains to be seen if people will abandon celebrities and return to religion.

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