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The Cult of Diana

by Matt Cherry

The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 18, Number 1.

The response to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, surprised everyone. A private tragedy sparked a public paroxysm of grief, perhaps without precedent. Hundreds of millions of people, especially in Britain but also around the world, were grief-stricken by Diana's death in a car crash in Paris. Thousands of bouquets were sent to the royal palaces, and across the world distraught crowds gathered to sign books of condolence. People were overwhelmed by the emotional response of others, but also surprised by the strength of their own feelings.

The public had always felt a special affinity for Diana. And Diana came to recognize the value of her ability to touch people's hearts. "The People's Princess" made inspired use of her own problems and transparent emotions to gain public sympathy for important causes, such as AIDS, eating disorders, and the horrors of land mines. Indeed her death, and the subsequent award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the anti-land mine campaign, may provide the emotional impetus needed to achieve an international ban on land mines.

Yet Diana was hardly a model of virtue and achievement. She was notable for her complete lack of intellect (even by the dismal standards of Britain's royal family), her pursuit of fashion and luxury, and her attachment to rank and privilege. Describing Diana as a "saint" and calling her death one of the great tragedies of the century has nothing to do with any rational assessment of her life or character. These eulogies are more like proclamations of religious ardor.

In her fascinating new book, Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War, Barbara Ehrenreich explores how the naked emotions of war are clothed with a mantle of religious fervor (see interview in this issue). A similar process of emotions-gone-religious seems to have taken place with the mass expression of grief at the death of Diana. Public reinforcement of emotions usually kept private seemed to encourage ever more hysterical declarations of adoration and loss. A secular event was made sacred. As with Elvis Presley, people have even reported seeing apparitions of Diana.

"The good life is inspired by love and guided by knowledge," said Bertrand Russell. In society, as in one's life, it is necessary to strike a balance between emotion and reason. Diana's life showed the value of emotion in spreading understanding and inspiring good deeds. But her death showed the dangerous ease with which society can let emotion gain control over all reason.

Matt Cherry is Executive Director of the Council for Secular Humanism.

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