I expect there will be too much God at the Grammys

I wasn’t going to be watching anyway. In all honesty, I didn’t know they’d be on tonight until I came across a Wall Street Journal article about celebrity confidence and the god connection. Neil Strauss has been noticing the trend of thanking a god for successes in all kinds of award shows.

Until I began interviewing many of the winners of these awards two decades ago, I thought this was a sign of humility and gratitude (or at least an affectation of them). But the truth is more interesting than that.

Before they were famous, many of the biggest pop stars in the world believed that God wanted them to be famous, that this was his plan for them, just as it was his plan for the rest of us not to be famous. Conversely, many equally talented but slightly less famous musicians I’ve interviewed felt their success was accidental or undeserved—and soon after fell out of the limelight.

He’s written a book that covers this topic, among other things: Everyone Loves You When You’re Dead: Journeys Into Fame and Madness to be available in March. He’s discovered (probably unsurprisingly to readers) that an assumption about God specifically wanting someone to be famous is going to improve that person’s chances of being famous. I know God wants me to be a success, so I’m going to be a success. It’s all part of His plan… Recall what I wrote recently about Calvinism, predestination and God wanting people to be rich? Same kind of thing, apparently.

Let’s call it competitive theism, a self-styled spirituality that can be overlaid on any religion and has nothing to do with personal morality. This faith gap, I’ve noticed in the interviews I’ve done, is often what sets the merely famous apart from the ridiculously famous. It can make the difference between achieving what’s possible and accomplishing what seems impossible.

Though scientists, to the best of my knowledge, have yet to study the relationship of faith to superstardom, they have studied addicts, transplant patients and natural disaster victims, and they have found that actively seeking God’s intervention has improved people’s odds of survival.

Yes, but in much the same way as people can put faith in a placebo and improve. Even when they know it’s a placebo. Thinking God’s got some major plan for you winds up being a major confidence booster that will change the way you behave, and improve your chances. But confidence, no matter how you get it, will improve your chances. Confidence comes from hard work and training and ability. Perseverance. Dedication to becoming good at something. You can know you deserve it because you worked to achieve it. Confidence often leads to success and it doesn’t require a god’s intervention to make the difference. People just think it does. Confidence also helps people deal with the criticisms that go hand in hand with (sometimes undeserved) success, as well. And thinking God is on their side even if nobody else is winds up being the way many stars deal with gossip, controversies and general bad press. Things that would cripple a less confident performer will barely ruffle their feathers.

He ends the piece with this:

stars who are presumptuous enough to see themselves as God’s chosen ones are likely to dominate the pop charts, award shows and sports championships. Talent counts for a lot, but so too does the motivating power of divine conviction.

I’d say he’s right. No matter what we might want to succeed at, the idea that something outside ourselves will take an interest and help make that happen is probably one of the biggest reasons human beings continue to flourish. It could be argued that’s the reason we’ve succeeded as a species — not because a god actually exists, but because we, as a species, continue to believe one does. God-belief is a product of our evolution and, like it or not, we’re probably stuck with it because it works. If it didn’t, why would we have developed the idea in the first place?

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