Atheist celebrity culture: you’re swimming in it

There have always been several gaps between new atheists’ self-image and reality. One gap that I have often expressed frustration with, is atheists denying that any atheist movement exists. You could argue the details about what it means to have a “movement”, but I heard such comments coming from people participating in atheist student groups in the heyday of new atheism.  It’s a stubborn refusal to engage in self-understanding, a denial that there is any self to understand.

But today I want to talk about another gap. Atheists see themselves as having no heroes or leaders, and yet atheist celebrities are everywhere you look. This is a point that often comes up whenever an atheist celebrity falls from grace:

“Skeptics and atheists like to think they are above human foibles like celebrity worship,” Rebecca Watson, a prominent feminist skeptic, told BuzzFeed News. “In a way, that makes them particularly susceptible to being abused by their heroes. I think we see that over and over again.”

This is a problem composed of two opposites: (a) atheists see celebrity worship as a human foible that they have escaped, and (b) atheists are more susceptible to celebrity worship. And there are two opposite responses to the problem: (a) the tendency towards celebrities should be acknowledged, or (b) we must strengthen our resistance to celebrities.

The danger is that in focusing on just one response, we leave ourselves vulnerable to the other half of the problem. For FTB in particular, the danger is that we look at the downfall of our heroes and say to ourselves, “we’re moving beyond heroes”–without actually moving beyond heroes. By placing ourselves above celebrity worship, we may be replicating the original problem.

I think we occasionally need to take a step back and observe the extent to which atheism is dominated by celebrity culture. And in order to do so, I think it is important to temporarily set aside the idea that celebrity culture is always “bad”. We tend to deny examples of celebrity culture whenever we personally deem it to be justified, because we think, it’s not celebrity worship unless it’s bad. I want to let go of that denial, to see the celebrity culture all around us, the good and the bad.

First, I reflect on my nine years of experience in atheist student groups. The first thing that comes to mind are several instances where new students would come in, and immediately talk about how much they really liked Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins, as if to establish that they belonged here. This was always kind of awkward for me since I’m not a fan, but I don’t want people to feel unwelcome. But doesn’t that say something about what attracts people to atheist groups, and who they think we are?

It was also common for the student leadership to talk about how great it would be to get Sam Harris to speak for them, because it would revitalize the membership and start discussions. I always had to admit that was true; in fact, it happened to one of the student groups a few years before I had joined it. Of course, Harris’ speaking fees are way too high, so we’d pursue other speakers instead. I think it’s easy to miss the celebrity culture, because many of the speakers weren’t particularly famous, but getting more famous speakers was always the goal.  Getting famous speakers was what atheist activism was to us.  (These days my advice to student groups is to not host speakers at all.)

And then there are atheist conferences, which obviously revolve around celebrities. It’s enlightening to compare to my experiences at queer conferences. At most queer conferences, there were very few celebrity speakers. The conferences were mostly made up of small workshops, panels, and caucuses, organized by ordinary people like me. At most there might be a couple keynote speeches, given by people not quite famous enough that I’d heard of them. Specific examples include a local politician, or the screenwriter of Milk. I note that these “celebrities” at queer conferences were mostly famous for having done something, or having produced some work of media. In some ways, this doesn’t lend itself to celebrity worship, because it’s not like we’re fans of their whole worldview–we don’t even know what their worldviews are until we hear them speak. In contrast, atheist celebrities are mostly famous for their words and ideas.

Finally, a personal admission. As mentioned above, I’ve never been a fan of Dawkins or the other horsemen, or any book authors, really. Thus I tend to think of myself as resistant to celebrity culture. But in fact, I’ve always been fond of another class of public figures: bloggers. Celebrity culture is not a necessary characteristic of a blogosphere–I have not observed much of a celebrity culture in ace blogging–but it’s clear that there’s a very strong celebrity culture in atheist blogging. If you read blogs I think you have seen it for yourself. So what I’m saying is, I’ve participated and contributed to atheist celebrity culture too.

Given the extent to which celebrity culture permeates modern atheism, I’ve often thought that the suggestions that we get rid of celebrities are made too lightly. For instance, Trav recently wrote,

One thing I suggest is getting rid of the concept of the atheist celebrity. By declaring just a handful of prominent atheist activists to be the movement’s leaders, it creates a hierarchal system where the same arguments against God get repeated ad nauseam, and newer ideas about how to put humanist values into action are ignored.

I agree, but we’re in it pretty deep at this point.  This requires change more radical than even the Great Schism.


  1. says

    One gap that I have often expressed frustration with, is atheists denying that any atheist movement exists.

    I cannot speak for all those who say “no leaders, no movement” but I’m not denying that a movement exists, or that there are self-elected leaders. I’m denying that they lead me or that I am part of a movement.
    One can athy along just fine without leaders or a movement.

  2. mercury101 says

    I would like to make a distinction between famous people and celebrities. To me a celebrity is someone who is famous for being famous, or at least has outgrown whatever they originally became famous for. So you get celebrities on idiotic TV programs or magazines. Contrast this with a famous author or football player or chef. Unless they came out of their element I wouldn’t call them celebrities.
    The basis of your post seems to say that fans of famous atheists are engaged in idol-worship in an unthoughtful way, whereas I think most have actually been inspired by the ideas that they have been introduced to by these people.
    I would count myself among this “non-movement” centered around “celebrity” atheism, but that doesn’t mean I passively accept everything that I read or hear from Sam Harris etc. Just as the famous footballer or chef is expert in their field, these individuals are experts in theirs, and I find the exposure to their viewpoints very stimulating.
    Lastly, most of all, I have no reason to suspect anyone else isn’t also taking what they hear from these individuals with skepticism. Actually, since one of the tenants of the “non-movement” is skeptical analysis of ideas, we should assume that is what is going on.

  3. says

    I’m not saying people are engaging in “unthoughtful” idol worship. I’m saying that there is a lot of focus on celebrities. You’re free to think that the focus on celebrities (or famous people, what have you) is justified or unjustified, but let that not obscure the fact that there’s a lot of focus on them. That was the whole point of me saying that we need to set aside the idea that celebrity culture is “bad”, in order to see it for what it is.

    Like yeah I know that people don’t passively accept everything Sam Harris says. But in my experience there simply isn’t any equivalent figure in either queer or ace activism. e.g. nobody talks about how they don’t passively accept everything David Jay says, because it’s so obvious it would be weird to even talk about.

  4. mercury101 says

    Ok. On the premise that there used to be atheist groups and conferences that used to exist before youtube, and that these were more grassroots and less focused on the ideas of a few individuals, and that this is still the case in queer activism, I can not disagree with you.

  5. says

    @Pierce R. Butler,
    Take your pick, but I had been thinking of everything post-Elevatorgate. Elevatorgate has often been framed as a clash of celebrities, e.g. PZ & Watson vs Dawkins & Shermer.

  6. Pierce R. Butler says

    Siggy @ # 7 – Considering the precedents, we should probably start numbering them: Accommodationists vs Confrontationalists as Great Schism I, Feminists vs Sexists as GS II, etc…

  7. StonedRanger says

    I’ve never read anything by Dawkins, or Harris, or Hitchens, or whoever you care to name in the atheist movement. I’ve heard of them all, seen a few YouTube videos about a couple of them, but I don’t know much about what they say or think. Don’t care either. I was an atheist long before any of these people became famous for whatever it is they became famous for. They don’t inform my world view or my atheism in any way. When I talk with theists, its about what I think, and why I became an atheist. When these people get brought up by the theists I can only shrug.

  8. Li F. says

    I think it’s an interesting discussion. How it happened for me, at least, is that I already considered myself an atheist and a skeptic, but hearing the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens was still very powerful. Because I’v always been extremely shy, just the thought of speaking up in front of other people made me very, very anxious (still does, to a point). So, seeing these people standing in front of a crowd, or surrounded by people opposing their arguments, and speaking up, defending their views in such an articulate, intelligent, strong manner really moved me. I don’t know if that feeling of admiration for those who have abilities we lack is a bad thing. It’s inspiring. At least to me, it made me want to be better, more confident, more acertive… But obviously there is danger when that admiration of particular things (particular abilities, particular ideas) changes into an admiration of the person as an unquestinable, perfect unit. It becomes sort of a shortcut: because I think this person is very right about X, then they must be right about pretty much everything else, so I can let them do the thinking for me. Anyways, my english sucks, maybe I’m not making any sense D:

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