The Muslims have Mecca, where millions gather every year for the Hajj. The bulk of Christianity has the Vatican, overflowing with believers at Christmas and Easter. And the world has Hollywood, where every year during “award season” entire city blocks are cordoned off as industry devotees prepare to worship the gods and goddesses worthy of the golden statues named Oscar, Emmy, or Grammy.
Ever-present “Religious Worship”
No disrespect to sincere adherents of a spiritual faith, but if the primary function of religion is to add meaning and social glue to society, then Hollywood fits the bill. Consider the trappings of the entertainment industry and how it can be seen as a religious institution that almost everyone follows:
We convene in cavernous temples (pandemic aside) to hold regular services where worshippers pay devoted attention to the celebrity gods who light up the screen.
The sparkly vestments and “exemplary” behavior associated with those same celebrity deities inspire wannabe saints to pay homage through fandom and mimicry. The reverent whispers of worshippers trail behind superstars, their entourage, and the priestly producers of their media products. Dead luminaries are immortalized in stories and statues.
The talismans of product placement and celebrity branding get distributed throughout the channels of capitalism, which in turn re-fuels the creation of more product. All of this — like a twisted form of tithing — keeps the “holy spirit” alive and flowing.
Those are just a few examples of the parallels between religion and all things “Hollywood,” which I began to notice during my years working in the entertainment industry. When out-of-towners would visit me at a studio or on a soundstage in LA, it was always with mouths agape, as though they were walking on hallowed ground. That sparked my thinking on where we put our “religious devotion” and how it continues to shift over time — in both alarming and hopeful ways.
Glory Through the Ages
When tracing the evolution of western religions by looking at houses of worship, we go from the colonnade temples dedicated to the Greek and Roman gods, to cathedrals and mosques, then to neighborhood churches, synagogues, chapels, shuls, and/or home altars. We can do the same when considering the religion of Hollywood.
In the glory days, people congregated regularly in the biggest theater their community would hold. Once television came on the scene, families gathered around the in-home “altar” centered in their living rooms. All were transfixed by the two-dimensional idols that spoke to them with the perfection of comedic timing and dramatic comebacks.
And though we still might “worship” in both moviehouses and at smaller screens anywhere, everyone still offers “contributions” to the advertisers who keep the programs churning. No matter the location or device, the dutiful tithing continues to fuel even more channels and streams that call for our devotion.
But something bigger has been happening with the tiny screens right under our noses.
The Temples We Carry in our Pockets
A religion beckons one to honor a god or gods with daily ritual, iconography, and possibly even a specific diet. It could be argued that in the “religion” of entertainment media, all of this falls under the demand for one thing only: the attention of the devotee to a screen. And we have no problem offering it up.
People across the globe spend several hours a day staring at the glow of a screen. If we talk about phones alone, some Americans spend 12 hours out of 24(!) devoted to their inseparable device.
Just as the viewing screens have gotten smaller over the past century, so have the giant production studios of yore splintered into smaller, more independent producers. Until finally, anyone today with a smartphone can become a producer or a star, with few barriers-to-entry: just set up an account with the likes of TikTok, YouTube or Instagram.
This new generation of worshiper-consumer-producers are discovering the power at their fingertips. No one needs the blessing of the proverbial bishop to grace the world with their creations. A lucky handful will reap great financial reward. And anyone can taste the glorious honor of “likes”.
Herein lies a dangerous opportunity: We are discovering our potential for becoming and creating our own gods within a mythology that we ourselves control. And given that half the world owns a smartphone — a far greater percentage than any single religion — the power we hold is enormous.
The Power at our Fingertips
To be sure, there’s the risk of getting drunk on this power, given the unhealthy narcissism, dangerous distraction, and mind-numbing avoidance — all of which we already have in spades with our traditional entertainment “services”.
What’s different though, is how this power continues to trend. From what I see, when peeking over my teens’ shoulders:
The “gods” emerging are everyday people, unafraid to show their flaws. Many are rewarded for being quirky and relatable, giving rise to owning one’s imperfections. Glamor and glitz are being knocked off their pedestals. Raw, authentic personality often holds more value than how it’s packaged.
Celebrity is becoming more democratized, which means that the drivers behind fame (big money-making studios) have less control over what we “worshippers” think (and buy).
Most important: Because anyone can participate in the creative process, awareness grows for how the whole system works.
With the help of revelatory documentaries like The Social Dilemma, along with articles about algorithms (including how to defy them), as well as associated threads and IRL conversations, the wizard’s curtain is collapsing. As this happens, we begin to understand how the content we consume helps create the society we live in.
In the domain of everyday social media, our celebrities, politicians, and other influencers swirl together in a sea of slick content. And because our habitual participation is part of this interactive-news-entertainment process, it would serve us well to swim with more discerning eyes. Because, as Hayley Phelan’s recent piece in the New York Times suggests, how we interact can, at some level, affect world events like the war in Ukraine.
The Fork in the Religious Road
Although complex geopolitical happenings can rarely be reduced to the actions of a single person, we do ourselves a big disservice by adopting a stance of “What I think, do or say, has no effect. It’s all on other leaders, not me.”
Once we each start to own the power we have within our collective digital communities — which bleeds over into our “real” lives — then we can start to game the system that’s been gaming us for so long.
It can be as simple as understanding the impact of the basic algorithm tied to what we click on:
Do we want to see a more shallow and vacuous society? Then mindlessly click and consume shallow and vacuous content.
Do we want to see more violence around us? Then mindlessly click on the most violent content out there, even as more of it presents itself to you.
Do we want to live in a dystopian future, or one that reaches toward utopia? Then you know what to do.
This doesn’t mean we aim to only look at happy sitcoms or uplifting eye-candy. Nor does it mean we all must join the ranks of creative YouTubers or memers to bring needed change to the world.
But it does mean staying vigilant about what we feed our minds — as well as what we offer up at the community “altar”.
Can we change the world?
In traditional religions, the content of what to believe has been passed down over generations — most of which centers on a god “out there” who has the power to save us or destroy us.
But in the church of “entertainment & media,” whose invisible spires reach up to satellites around the globe, we each have inherent power to both choose and spread the content that fuels our beliefs, which in turn, fuels our actions.
In order to step into that power, we need only ask ourselves a few simple questions before feasting from the cornucopia of content:
What do I want to feel after taking in this show/piece?
If what I watch/consume puts me in a dark and deadening space, how can I use my intellect to counter its effects?
When I encounter work created by those who inspire with love, how best can I spread that “gospel”?
Asking yourselves such questions is the least you can do as a faithful follower of digital “infotainment”. As a follower, you are also a missionary of this ubiquitous religion, whether you like it or not — just by being a human who consumes media and interacts in society.
So, remember that the next time you sacrifice a piece of your life to any “entertainment” tinged with despair or destruction, you can transform its effects. You — yes, you — have the power to shape the zeitgeist for the better, even in a small way, from wherever you live, breathe, and click.
If we want to live in a more meaningful, peace-filled and equitable society — and I assume the vast majority of us do — then let’s please recognize that we are the gods of algorithms. And together we can build the world we want to live in.
This piece was originally published as “How to Break Free from the Grand Religion that Ensnares Us All” in Alternative Perspectives on Medium.
One of the best things we can do for society is to better understand the impact the digital world has on our future leaders. That’s why the donation for this post is going to Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development for their work in bringing multi-disciplinary research to parents and educators so they can raise healthy children in the digital age.