When there is no belief in God, who do people worship? When there is no belief in an afterlife, how do people deal with death? In a world where churches are being abandoned left and right, fame might just be the answer to our prayers.
Throughout history people have always worshipped the rich and famous, but over the past few decades this focus on celebrities has increased significantly. In 2003, the New Scientist even described celebrity worship as “a new disease that’s tearing through the western world”, already affecting one third of the Americans. More recently, James Houran, clinical psychologist and joint creator of the Celebrity Worship Scale, a scientific survey measuring the intensity of celebrity worship, confirmed this trend. According to his research, celebrity worship is becoming more prevalent and more intense.
Besides worshipping celebrities, the growing obsession with fame is also being expressed in another way: people’s desire to become famous themselves. In 2006, a study conducted in the US revealed that the majority of 18- to 25-year-olds (Generation Next) perceived getting rich and being famous as the most important life goals of their generation. On the contrary, Generation X (26- to 40-year-olds) reported much less emphasis on wealth and being famous.
Another notable trend that started in the 1990s and continues today is a decrease in religiosity – meaning less people are now affiliated with a Church or religious doctrine. Although this trend affects all ages, it is especially visible in young people.A 2010 poll showed that 25% of the Americans under 30 describe their religion as “atheist,” “agnostic” or “nothing in particular,” while in earlier times the percentage of Americans who said they had no religious affiliation hovered between 5% and 10%.
Yet this decrease doesn’t just affect the United States. In 2012, researchers conducted a poll in 57 countries across the globe to measure religiosity. The results showed that between 2005 and 2012, those claiming to be religious had dropped by 9%, while atheism had risen by 3%. In a time where people are becoming more preoccupied with celebrity and less with religion, could there be a relationship between these developments? Does fame fill the void left by religion?
Although plenty of celebrities are worshipped as if they were gods, research indicates that religious people are not among those who tend to upgrade celebrities to a divine state. Within the Christian religion, the Ten Commandments forbid the worship of anyone other than God. This made psychologist John Maltby of the University of Leicester wonder what the relationship between celebrity worship and religiosity actually is. Do religious people really not care about Justin Bieber and Scarlett Johansson?
He asked 257 students to complete two surveys measuring their attitude towards celebrity and their adherence to divine law and church authority (religious puritanism). He found a significant negative relationship between celebrity worship and religious puritanism. Maltby writes that his findings indicate that “religious individuals who show adherence to divine law and church authority tend to ignore celebrity worship in preference for religious worship.” So the more someone clings to religion, the less likely he or she is to worship celebrities – and vice versa.
But why are people, religious or not, so eager to worship something? Houran argues there is a worshipping trait in all of us. “It seems people are hardwired to find meaning and purpose in life, and this striving is often tied to personifications of ideals and values. “We like symbols, and we gravitate towards things that are attractive to us.
With celebrities, humans have always strived to emulate and copy “successful” people so we can perhaps achieve success of our own.” Apparently celebrity culture can serve the need to worship in non-religious people. “In the absence of a religious or spiritual deity or outlook, people will transform celebrities into modern day religious icons,” says Houran.
What blurs the line between God and celebrities even more is that world famous celebrities may become truly aware of their divine state and even consider their own fame comparable to that of religious figures. Madonna once said: “I won’t be happy until I’m as famous as god.” The Beatles took it one step further. They didn’t only perceive themselves as more famous than Jesus; they also believed they had similar healing powers. According to Chris Rojek, professor of sociology and culture at Britain’s Nottingham Trent University and author of ‘Celebrity’, the front rows of their concerts were reserved for the handicapped at the height of their popularity. “The idea was that after the show, The Beatles would come down and touch these people and heal them.”
Fame serves as a substitute for religion in more ways than the occasional obsession with celebrities. Nowadays people also want to become famous themselves as it fulfills another human need that was previously satisfied by religion: a sense of immortality.
Like all other forms of life, humans are characterized by the will to survive. However, only our species has the mental capability to also be aware that death signals the absolute end of our existence, which terrifies us. Luckily our cultural worldview can bridle this overwhelming fear of mortality, as it can provide a sense of immortality in various ways. One of the reasons many people cling to religion is that it offers immortality through the promise of an afterlife, which serves as a death-anxiety buffer. This has also been demonstrated by several studies. For example, research by psychological scientist Mark Dechesne and his team showed that belief in an afterlife helps people cope with death-related concerns.
But if you don’t believe in an afterlife, how do you then deal with that overwhelming fear of death? Luckily for the atheists (or other people who don’t believe in life after death) in this world there’s another way to handle those death-related thoughts.
We don’t necessarily need to believe in an afterlife to achieve a sense of immortality, we can take solace inthe belief that we will live on in the mind of others after we’re gone. This is called symbolic immortality. You can achieve this by having children, but you can also invent the cure of cancer, break a world record or win idols, and transcend your death by becoming famous.
Research confirms that death anxiety can be an important motivator behind fame striving behavior. In 2010, researchers presented participants with a reminder of their mortality, by asking them to respond to two open-ended questions: “Describe the emotions the thought of your own death arouses in you” and “Jot down what you think will happen to you as you physically die and once you are physically dead.” A “pain salient” control group responded to similar questions regarding being in intense pain. Afterwards all participants completed a survey, measuring their desire for fame. They found that the participants in the “mortality salience” condition exhibited a higher interest in becoming famous than the control group.
“The present research provides support for the idea that the appeal of fame derives partly from existential needs engendered by the uniquely human awareness of death,” conclude the researchers.
Just like the belief in an afterlife, fame seems to function as an anxiety-buffer, helping us to cope with death. Which brings us back to the question: Does fame fill the gap left by religion? In a less religious world, do more people aim for a sense of symbolic immortality (fame) because they lack a sense of literal immortality (belief in afterlife) provided by religion?
Just like the belief in an afterlife, fame seems to function as an anxiety-buffer, helping us to cope with death.
It appears so. Although a decrease in religiosity doesn’t necessarily mean that less people believe in life after death, it is safe to assume that the number of people who believe in an afterlife is decreasing, since atheism (as previously discussed) globally increased by 3% since 2005. As a result, it seems plausible that the desire to become famous is rising, because it provides that increasing number of people that don’t believe in an afterlife with a sense of immortality, which they need to deal with death. Instead of the comforting belief that their soul lives on after they have died, they are comforted by the idea that their fame will keep them alive in the mind of others.
Fame can serve needs that go beyond just making us feel good about ourselves, especially in those who have lost their religion: When there is no belief in God, people can worship the earthly divine. When there is no belief in an afterlife, people can transcend their death by becoming famous. Can fame be a substitute for religion? Not entirely. Yet in a world where the younger generation is looking for new ways to add meaning to their lives, it sure helps to expel its demons.
This article was originally published in the tablet issue Death and Taxes
psychology of fame, declining religiosity, measuring religiosity, society’s obsession with fame, belief in an afterlife but no god