Justin Bieber and the beliebers
Justin Bieber is surrounded by a group of Beliebers. Photo: Lwp Kommunikáció, Flickr

Celebrity worship as parareligion

Can we find religious characteristics in the relationship between a celebrity and his or her fans? Yes we can, according to a newly published article by Peter Ward. 


Religion and popular culture in America
Third edition (2017)

Ed.: Bruce David Forbes og Jeffrey H. Mahan.

Professor Peter Ward 

Ward takes his point of departure in a visit made by Justin Bieber to Oslo in 2015.

«They were trying to carry on as if it was just a normal day at the Lutheran Seminary in Oslo, Norway. Students training for the ministry attended their classes in the usual way, but the noise coming from outside was starting to make things difficult. There had been a warning that there might be some disruption, but the reality was still quite overwhelming. Justin Bieber was to stop off in Oslo for a special performance that day. The televised special was to be filmed in a student venue right next door to the Norwegian School of Theology, and as a result the ministerial students found themselves staring out of the windows at a different kind of devotion altogether.» 

This is how Peter Ward, professor II at MF, begins one of the chapters in the book Religion and Popular culture in America. The chapter Bieber and the Beliebers: Celebrity Worship as Parareligion deals with the relationship between the popular singer, Justin Bieber, and his large group of fans who call themselves “Beliebers”.

During Bieber’s visit to Chateau Neuf, Ward observed that he was dealing with two different kinds of devotion. On one side of the window were those being “inducted into a formal and authorized religious life in Christian ministry; on the other, there is the deregulated personal devotion of the Beliebers” (p. 315). 

It is commonly recognized that traditional forms of religion are gaining fewer adherents. At the same time, researchers agree that religious emotions and actions are more frequently becoming visible in popular culture. Peter Ward calls this parareligion: Celebrity worship is not religion, but has clear parallels to religion.

- There are many similarities and parallels between traditional religiosity and the relationship between celebrities and their fans. Some of their actions and behaviour seem religious, for instance in the way dead celebrities are memorialized. The main feature is nevertheless the way their relationship is described by the media and commentators, says Ward.

The Holy Self
In the article, he highlights that Bieber can be read as a complicating factor in terms of the religious characteristics of celebrity worship, because Bieber himself is clear about his Christian faith and communicates it to his fans. The artist is also clear that human beings should not be worshipped, and that this is dangerous.

Ward argues that the self is what is “holy” in the relationship between celebrities and fans, and in our culture in general. Celebrities contribute to this because they represent something we can either identify with or dissociate ourselves from.

- We are constantly renegotiating ourselves, and this self-project appears is considered holy in our society. In the relationship between celebrities and fans, it is the fans who work on their self-image, while the celebrity becomes the focus of this project. In this way, celebrity culture has become one of the main resources in our process of creating our own self-image.