The psychology of secular saints: Americans worship celebrities for better or worse

Arts column article for The Wellesley News on societal worship of celebrities. Original can be found here.

The New York Times recently published an article regarding celebrity worship, asserting that Canadian singer-songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen has become a “secular saint” in Montreal. According to the article, Montreal citizens are obsessed with him; they paint murals of him, sing his songs and visit his house as well as the places he frequented. As The New York Times put it, “In the pantheon of Montreal cultural figures, the soulful, self-effacing singer occupies exalted space.”

Yet this phenomenon is not just limited to Leonard Cohen in Canada. In the United States, celebrities –– especially those who have seen significant success in the music or film industry –– have become increasingly idolized by the public to such an extent that they are arguably religious in nature. Artists such as Bob Dylan, David Bowie and Carrie Fisher are worshipped both on social media and in real life.

Carrie Fisher, who was most famous for her role as Princess Leia in the “Star Wars” franchise, has become an icon on sites like Tumblr and Pinterest since her death in Dec. 2016. Dozens of blogs and thousands of pins have been dedicated to her. Recently, Fisher’s home in Beverly Hills had an auction where her collection of Star Wars items were sold off, and fans regularly visit her estate as a touristy homage.

As we see in both Cohen’s and Fisher’s cases, and in countless others as well, people in North America canonize “secular saints” because they have made a significant impact in the entertainment industry, are recently deceased or have advocated for social justice issues. While these individuals still have personality flaws, as do any human beings, we often choose to overlook them in service of our vision of these celebrities. In this way, these figures become merely the faces behind inspirational quotes, representative of a state of virtue. We neglect to see their faults in favor of idolizing their accomplishments. Such a viewpoint is unrealistic and inaccurate and can become an unhealthy habit. A 2008 Time Magazine article even correlated celebrity worship with poor mental health.

Furthermore, we are identifying not necessarily with the celebrities themselves but with the images of themselves they project. Each celebrity, especially in the case of the secular saints, projects a pure, unadulterated image of a specific personality. For example, when listening to Steve Jobs’ journey, it is the archetypal hero’s journey. The images that these celebrities project are created specifically to appeal to fans and may not be fully accurate.

Celebrity worship is a close relative to the secular saint phenomenon. One way that celebrity worship manifests itself is through candle lighting wherein celebrities put their faces on candles. As Catholic Today wrote in an Oct. 2017 article, “Saints of the Church are often memorialized on icons and candles. … However, aspiring artists have discovered that replacing the faces of saints with the faces of celebrities sells.” Instead of the Virgin Mary or Saint Paul, candles are now adorned with the faces of Kim Kardashian or President Obama. This is a strange way to co-opt a tradition for a markedly non-religious purpose.

Interestingly, University of Buffalo psychologist Shira Gabriel discovered that moderate celebrity worship can actually have benefits. In 2010, he did an experiment where 348 college students, one-fifth of whom admitted to having a celebrity crush, took a self-esteem questionnaire and then wrote an essay on the celebrity they most idolized. Afterward, they took the self-esteem questionnaire again, and those who initially had the lowest self-esteem were found to have significantly higher scores after having written the essays.

In an article he published about his research titled “Love and Lunacy,” Gabriel wrote that “Because people form bonds in their mind with their favorite celebrities, they are able to assimilate the celebrity’s characteristics in themselves and feel better about themselves when they think about that celebrity.” He continued: “That means that some of the benefits people get from pseudo relationships with celebrities may be the same as those reaped from real friendships and real-life interactions.” This line of thought supports the idea that we look to celebrities as objects of our own ideals rather than as real-life humans.

Whether we admire Leonard Cohen or Carrie Fisher, it is clear that the worship of celebrities is widespread. At the core of this alleged obsession is a desire to connect to whatever abstract personality these celebrities project. Essentially, we are not connected to these people themselves, but rather to hyper-idealized versions of them.

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