Tuesday, 4 September 2007

The Value of Celebrity

This post is inspired by the Celebrity Atheist List. Thanks Hemant for reminding me of that website.

What is the point of celebrities? Should humanists look for celebrities among their ranks?

There are different ways to see this.

Looking at the reality TV shows, the singing and dancing contests, designed to generate celebrities under our watchful eyes, it's easy to become cynical. Celebrities exist to be famous. No real point there, except for the celebrities.

Try this alternative out, though. Celebrities are billboards for ideas. When people learn that intelligent, entertaining, and famous people like Joss Whedon, Isaac Asimov, Keanu Reeves, and Carrie Fisher are non-religious, it might make them think. It probably won't make them become humanists, but it might make them think twice before painting us with too vile a brush. They've seen the billboard, and it's given them the opportunity to think about the product being offered. And the more billboards there are out there advertising humanism, the more likely someone is to try out the product - learn a little more about these ideas that so many people share.

There is a third way to see it. If you are a humanist living in a community where nobody is openly non-religious, where the atmosphere is hostile to skepticism, celebrities seen on television or read about in books may be the only exposure you have to people who think like you. If you know (for example) that two of the cutest actors in show-biz are non-theists, then every time you see a movie with Keanu Reeves or David Duchovny in it you'll feel a little less lonely. It may be somewhat escapist, but sometimes you do just need to escape for a bit.

I don't read the celebrity magazines, but I do have some favorite celebrities. I am a fan, not just of people whose celebrity is based on their humanism (Julia Sweeney, Richard Dawkins, Hemant Mehta, Dale McGowan), but of actors.

And not all of them are humanists. Before I say something withering about believers, I have to consider whether I want to paint Christians such as Bishop Spong, Tom Hanks, Mr T, or Alice Cooper with the same brush.

And, moving beyond celebrities, I am lucky enough to have people in my own life who exemplify a wide variety of beliefs and positions. I have my own Russes for Christianity, for Islam, for conservative politics, even for people who enjoy eating that orange stuff.

It's best to have such people among those we know personally. But failing that, celebrities are a good backup.


  1. Hey Timothy! Your blog is an inspiration.

    I live in an area with a couple of fundamentalist churches (in South Africa, btw), and have fundamentalists in my extended family. I'm slowly moving over to humanism, it was tough, but I'm getting there. I call myself a humanist in private, but not too publically yet, as I can't call myself something when I don't yet know enough about it.

    I see you are involved in a humanist society... we will be starting some form of society at our university, leaning either towards a "freethinking society", or maybe a "humanist society". I like the freethinking idea in an attempt to be more inclusive, to find more interest. There are some, uh, "rival factions", that seem to have a more anti-theistic agenda, and want a more exclusive "society for non-religious people". I'm pointing them at your "belief and understanding" post.

    Any recommendations in this regard (freethinking vs humanist vs something else)?


  2. Hugo,

    Glad you like the blog. Inspiration? I'm blushing!

    To answer your question, let me first say that our society has been active for almost half a year, and has yet to throw an event (or even have a meeting) where more than seven or eight people come, so I do not speak from extensive experience. But here are my thoughts, for what they're worth...

    I think that humanist is as inclusive a term as freethinker. When I described humanism to a couple of religious friends I have here at university, they responded with variations on "Well, I suppose I'm a humanist too, except for the no-god part."

    I'd certainly encourage "humanist" or "freethinking" over "atheist" society - you want a name that expresses something positive, something you are for, rather than something you exclude. Even if you're all atheists, that's not enough to run a society on (any more than you could have a Society For Not Collecting Stamps).

    I'll blog soon about the wide mix of attitudes our society's members have. We have very anti-religion members, and very pro-cooperation members. We often disagree, but because we come together under a common theme - humanism - we are able to get along. We have some lively debates at the pub, without damaging the sense of community we all share. And, at least starting out, there are few enough of us that we do want to share one community, rather than separating into Atheists vs Humanists vs Freethinkers vs whatever.

    One recommendation I have is to remember that your society will be part of the wider university community. How do you want to be treated by others? We have access to space in the chaplaincy rooms for our meetings and events, partly because we are willing to deal respectfully with religious groups and individuals.

    Tell members of the rival faction that dealing respectfully with people does not require them to respect bad ideas. As humanists, we are committed to respecting people. But we are also committed to an honest evaluation of ideas, rejecting bad ones. And remember that, when it's just us humanists meeting over a pint, we hurt nobody by venting about how stupid this or that religious statement, practice, or person is. Bishop Spong once told my wife (a former Christian) that "religion has hurt many people". Some of those will be drawn to your society. They need a place to express that hurt, so they can move past it.

    Do what you can to make the anti-theists feel welcome as part of your humanist group, but make it clear (for example, as part of the constitution) that respect of people is important - that you are promoting positive ideas, not (just) ripping down bad ones.

    Hope that helps. And stay tuned. We have our Freshers Week next week, when hundreds of new students will arrive. We have a few events planned, spanning the spectrum from lifting up humanist ideals to debunking silly ideas. I'll blog about how it goes, about what works and what doesn't work.

  3. Don't forget the inimitable (and very cute)atheist-Rupert Everett!!

    Yes, celebrities are a great way of flagging up ideas and lifestances, but, what happens when they mess up (and they're rather good at this), the philosophy tends to take a severe knock as well. So swings and roundabouts.

  4. I agree with your post; I think that while celebrities are not necessarily the best informed on issues, they capture the public's attention in a way that professors and professionals do not. I don't know that celebrity atheists change anyone's mind (at least, not ones whose job is not atheism but tv or film) but I think they are a good way to say, hey, you let this person into your home on tv 22 weeks a year- surely you don't think he eats puppies and tries to kill the Pope?

  5. I carefully but publically came out of the closet today. This post of yours has to bear at least some of the responsibility. ;)

  6. Hugo,

    Good for you. I would not want to push anyone into coming out before they are ready.

    However, visibility is ultimately the only real solution to our sense of being marginalized. Every individual who comes out is another step away from the margins. Celebrities, because they have more visibility than most people, help to accelerate this process.

    Your blog seems to be well-read, so I'm sure your coming out will have some celebrity value too.


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