Each day millions of Instagram savants wake up and take their morning coffee with the Kardashians, spend their lunch break painstakingly assessing the Angelina Jolie divorce, and settle in for a pleasant dinner at home with Beyoncé and her family.
All of this is to say, once we make the decision to be online, we come into conversation with celebrities. They invite us into their homes, they share inspirational quotes, but ultimately they manifest as people to relate to.
Relatability bodes well for and with religion. The appeal, the draw, what brought him or her to a religion usually involves an aspect of relatability as well as fulfillment. Some have said religious affiliation is selfishly motivated, (queue Freud,) or based on mass appeal, (insert Marx). However, with regards to the phenomenon of celebrities as idols, or people to be worshiped, neither Marx nor Freud missed the mark.
Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, the reigning queen of celebrity worship, garners not only one of the largest musical fan bases in the world but became the muse of her own organized religion. She rose from a trio of women, collectively known as “Destiny’s Child,” to become one of the most prestigious singers, songwriters, and performers in this day and age. She married Hip-Hop mogul Jay-Z, doubling her fan base, and she became a mother to a child with more social media followers than many could dream of having. Stardom aside, Beyoncé became an idol in the most religious sense.
One group in particular has not only sought out the religious aspects of the Beyoncé phenomenon but rather they have created a religion devoted to this pop sensation. The National Church of Bey, organized in 2014 out of Atlanta, Georgia, practices a religion they refer to as “Beyism.” The church founder, known as “Minister Diva,” is Pauline John Andrews. Andrews speaks on behalf of the Church of Bey openly criticizing the public about their critiques of their religion. Andrews has stated,
“We are very disappointed in the failure of the public to recognize the existence of a divine deity walking among [us].”
Responding to an online celebrity gossip source, Minister Diva asked the public to consider the implications of what this religion meant to the greater population of celebrity consumerism:
“As our congregation continues to swell, we ask that you consider what is more real; an invisible spirit on high, or a walking, talking, breathing Goddess who shows you her true form daily? Beyoncé’s spirit is entrancing. We know that she was sent to this place to spread love, peace, and joy. While we do not believe Beyoncé to be the Creator, we recognize that she still sits among the throne of Gods. There is a lot of false information being spread about our beliefs, but we will correct all of the vicious lie-tellers. As Beyoncé spreads her gospel through song and dance, her message provides uplifting, loving, and many times real-life happenings. We humbly ask you to respect our beliefs, just as you want those to respect yours. Open your mind to new possibilities and you will see, just as we did, that Bey is a true higher power. Surfbort!”
The church of Bey has a ‘Beyble’ from which passages are read during services. The sermons are based on a specific lyric or verse, accompanied with shouts of “Surfbordt” (pulled from Beyoncé’s latest hit “Drunk in Love”) where a traditional “Amen” would go. While most of the information about the National Church of Bey comes from online, celebrity gossip magazines, they all utilize direct quotes from the founder and outline the religious practices of this church. Despite the National Church of Bey’s fall from the public’s eye, the lasting implications of this celebrity idolization carry over into the greater understanding of celebrity worship.
The National Church of Bey is one of many celebrity worship devotional allegiances, but one of the only ones recognized as a “Church” in the “Durkheimian” sense of the word (Emile Durkheim was a famous 19th century sociologist who pioneered our understanding of what constitutes “religions” and explains the formation of religious organizations).
Following Durkheim, we can say that celebrity worship as a sort of religious congregation runs amuck throughout society, even if it simply manifest as a social media idolization of the Kardashian clan. As outdated as Durkheim may seem today in the academic world, his definition of religion as a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to a sense of the “sacred” can adequately be used to characterize celebrity followings. If, for instance, we propose that a celebrity’s social media account(s) are sacred spaces, then their followers or adherents are united in a single moral community, loosely known as a “church.”
The malleability and leniency of this definition, while problematic, allows for virtually any phenomenon to be counted as a r(R)eligion(s). Problematic? Maybe. Appropriately applicable to understand how Kim Kardashian and Beyoncé have a combined 170 million followers on Instagram alone among social media? Overwhelmingly so.
Where is the place for celebrity worship in the academic study of religion? Is it worthy of study, or just another popular culture, or “cultic”, fad that will die out at the turn of the year? As the so-called “nones” in America (so-called by social scientists because when ask for their religious preference, they check the box for claiming no religion) begin to grow in size, should the academy not recognize other forms of religiosity that these such “non-believing believers” align with?
That is not to suggest that all those who identify as “nones” find solace in the social media accounts of celebrities, but consider sports, communing with nature, Star Trek, any number of activities could hold the same place in a person’s life as organized religion, as the Church of Bey shows. And celebrity worship as a form of religious devotion may come to be considered increasingly by scholars as deserving of their time, expertise, and attention.
Madison Tarleton is a former Division One swimmer and student athlete from the College of Charleston (Charleston, South Carolina), a graduate student at the University of Denver, and a writer.