Or, How Neil Gaiman Reflects Contemporary Theories in Religious Studies
First, my credentials (not that I’d need any for blog posts); I am a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religion and Cultures at Concordia University. I have taught undergraduate courses titled Witchcraft, Magic, and Religion and Cults and New Religious Movements in North America; published on my specialty of religious Satanism; won multiple academic research grants and awards of excellence; and generally sit in an area of scholarship where I study weirdos of all kinds (said with great affection).
This informal essay attempts to highlight the academic theories of religion as echoed in the television show American Gods (based on the Gaiman book of the same title). Examining narratives in popular culture is a means for revealing the concerns and interests of its audience: what concepts and themes do people consume, absorb, and then manifest, and why?
Disclaimer: I have not (yet) read the book. Gaiman’s works (unsurprisingly) have overlaps with my academic interests, as they often reflect similar concepts and ideas that rest in the tension between contemporary popular culture and new religious movements—especially those groups and persons of the self-identified “magical” kind. As I’m currently trying to get through my doctoral comprehensive exams, I have to get super tight with Judith Butler before I can enjoy things like reading for pleasure. So, a copy of American Gods is currently waiting for my time and attention, as it stands on my bookshelf in good company, next to a small collection of miniature witches.
Holtzmann’s there in case things go awry.
Ok. To begin, please indulge me in a brief pedagogical exercise. In my very first lecture, on the first day of class, I often ask students to call out defining traits of religion. Let’s do this now, as a group. Go ahead. Mentally think them at me. I’ll wait.
In the dozens of times I’ve asked this of an audience, they produce these characteristics, that, put together, we (popularly) conceive of as “religion.” I usually write them on the blackboard as I hear them:
Rituals/rites of passage
I then stand before the classroom, point to these words—these supposed traits of religion—and ask one revealing question:
“What religion does this look like?”
After a pause, one brave person will answer “Christianity” or “Monotheism.” And this is the moment that demonstrates my point: we perceive these particular traits as defining “religion” because of the influence of Christianity in the Western world. By defining religion solely this way, we are, in fact, reinforcing the notion that Christianity is the only legitimate way to be religious.
Whether we are individually religious or not, Christian or not, is irrelevant. Broadly speaking, we absorb the concepts of our enveloping society. As Christianity has a distinct impact on Western thought (among other things), we have accepted its own internal definition of “religion,” and then (inappropriately) imposed it on other worldviews and religions. The result is that when we encounter religions that are missing these characteristics, we dismiss them as illegitimate or not real religions, despite intentions to understand other worldviews on their own terms.
This is also a problem in the academic study of religion.
In his book, Empire of Religion, David Chidester claims that the history of the academic study of religion is actually invested in the concerns and interests of the colonial empire by upholding the supremacy of (Protestant) Christianity, despite scholarly claims to objectivity. Chidester notes that early anthropologists, following pre-existing colonial merchant routes throughout the British Empire, encounter domestic religions, and deem them primitive, savage, and magical, as opposed to the enlightened, refined, and spiritual religion of Europeans. These early studies bifurcate human history, positioning (Protestant) Christianity as the pinnacle of human civilization.
This history is embedded within higher education. We (the scholars) deem ourselves as having overcome and addressed this bias. However, if we still define religion in ways that apply accurately solely to Christianity, where it is an awkward or harmful framing otherwise, then we are, in fact, still advancing (Protestant) Christianity’s purported supremacy.
And this brings me to Neil Gaiman and the concept of “belief” in American Gods. Using “belief” as the rubric for what is considered religious behaviour is a modern(ish) phenomenon, and limited to the Western world. The Vikings would never have said, “I believe in Odin,” anymore than the ancient Israelites would have said, “I believe in Yahweh.” Ancient religions are imbedded within daily life and practice. The separation between what you do everyday and an ultimate claim—a “belief”—originates from a Christian theological development (and that idea was influenced by early Greek Platonic philosophy, but that’s a lecture for another occasion). In modern times, we have come to understand religion as equal to belief, without challenging the foundational premise. Is “belief” truly equal to all religion? Or is it, as I suggest here, yet another conceptual framework prejudiced by the history of the colonial empire and its interests?
The phrasing of religion as synonymous with “belief” is a methodological problem in the academic study of religion. We have taken a theological development from the Christian Nicene creed (you know the one that begins, “I believe in one God, the Father almighty,” etc.) from the fourth century, which is in turn compounded by the Lutheran claim of “sola fide” (by faith alone) in the fifteenth century, and then applied it as the standard by which to investigate all religious behaviour, in hilarious, confusing, and destructive ways.
We tend to ask, “What do they believe in?” when trying to understand a foreign culture. I like to tell the story of my brother’s deployment to Japan, wherein he was handed a pamphlet of information on Japanese culture, written by American corporations for their business executives. It stated: the Japanese people do not have any religion. Now, I do not know the method by which this data was gathered, but I am willing to bet that someone surveyed Japanese businessmen and asked them, “What do you believe in?” To which they likely replied, “Nothing.” This then gets understood as Japan having no religion.
But it’s the wrong question.
The question itself is burdened by the entire history of Western culture, which (erroneously) posits that religion is equal to belief. Consider instead asking, “Why do the Japanese people build temples? What is the significance of the Shinto rituals? How do they celebrate rites of passage?” And other types of questions that do not necessarily rely on a Western construction of organized religion.
We even hilariously apply this concept of “belief” to wildly inappropriate areas: we say incongruous things such as, “I believe in science,” as if this statement is secular and contradicts religious worldviews. It does not. No scientist claims to “believe” in his or her work. Science is a method, a tool. It cannot be reconciled with what we conceive of as religion (in any of its forms). [Scientism, however, could certainly be viewed under this rubric.] We have adopted a phrase from one system (Christian belief) to inaccurately explain another (the scientific method) because they are in conflict in popular discourse.
“Belief”—that abstract, Christian, and central notion of religious behaviour—should not be retroactively considered when trying to understand the Vikings, Indigenous traditions, or anything divorced from contemporary Christian theological developments.
And this is where American Gods does an interesting thing. In its depictions of the old religions, it doesn’t quite explicitly state that the concept of “belief” was central (again, I have no idea if Gaiman’s descriptive words in the book had this implication). It does, though, present the dying gods as seeking adherents who “believe” in them in order to revive and reclaim their popularity. Shadow’s journey throughout the first season is to be slowly manipulated by Wednesday to eventually declare, “I believe.” “Belief” is central to how the gods seek power. So while I challenge the idea that Vikings in the Iron Age “believed” in Odin (they didn’t; the concept didn’t exist), it would certainly be appropriate for Wednesday to seek “believers” in modern times because Shadow has absorbed the narratives of Western culture that does equates belief with religion (as we all have).
Not only does Gaiman have Wednesday adapt to the conceptual framework of contemporary humans (i.e. “belief”), he also advances that modern society has shifted its definition of religion to echo another modern academic theory: that is, our society’s most “religious” behaviour is that which most occupies our “time and attention,” as Media claims. She continues with my favourite quote of the season:
The screen is the altar. I’m the one they sacrifice to. Then till now. Golden Age to Golden Age. They sit side by side, ignore each other, and give it up to me. Now they hold a smaller screen on their lap or in the palm of their hand so they don’t get bored watching the big one. Time and attention, better than lamb’s blood. (Media in American Gods)
Indeed. The television screen-altar is placed in prominence in most American homes. An alien anthropologist would look at the artifacts in our homes and claim that viewing images on screens is our primary religious activity. We’ve enlarged these home screen-altars to cinematic proportions, centralized them as our social and solitary focus, replicated smaller screen-altars to Media in other rooms, and now carry these hand-held screen-altars and incorporate them into our daily rituals.
Our obsession extends to celebrity itself. Famous people are Media’s priestly class, a means to access the divine, and we, the laity, offer our time and attention for a glimpse at the promised Good Life. We worship the cult of celebrity. We take their opinions—uninformed, decidedly amateur, and manufactured by publicists as they are—as gospel, as somehow more weighted than authorities and specialists. To be clear: celebrities are allowed to have opinions like anyone. But the general public is incapable of distinguishing informed opinion from unqualified opinion.
As celebrities are now our Priests and Priestesses of Media, we envy their position and influence. We voraciously devour their social media productivity. We fantasize about attending parties of the glitterati. We imagine ourselves as their romantic partners to such an extent that we get angry or sad depending on the status of this famous stranger’s romantic situation. We make ridiculous things called “The List.” The List, for those unaware, are names of famous people that you’d be permitted to shag if you met them in real life, with your partner’s (and presumably the celebrity’s) consent.
I cannot fathom making such a list. Even if I were, my so-called “list” of people I’d be permitted to fuck would never consist of something so banal as celebrities. If I’m going to imagine the impossible I’ll fantasize about book characters, mythical creatures, and sex that defies the laws of physics and the limitations of the known universe.
Provided my creativity is the only constraint, then, yes, I’d fuck the entire cast of American Gods ONLY IF they were actual gods and demigods. It would be my duty as a scholar of religion.
First on my list, is, naturally, Bilquis, because who doesn’t want to be all up in this exquisite cosmic vagina for all eternity?
Second, Mad Sweeney, because we all have a crush on Mad Sweeney.
I’ll be in my bunk.
Third, Media, because Gillian Anderson as David Bowie incites my bisexual impulses.
Media could transform into virtually anything I’ve ever seen on screen, like a Holodeck for sexual fetishes. Could Media also morph into the 1970s Hammer Film aesthetic? Because I have a vampire lesbian orgy fantasy that’s been with me since Ingrid Pitt.
I demonstrate my own obsession with celebrity here: images on screen are often our initial exposure to true arousal. The first time you saw something depicted on television or film that stayed with you, that marked you, is an aesthetic that remains in your personal repertoire of erotic tendencies—as highly idiosyncratic and individualized as they are, the experience of claiming that your first true crush was a television or film character is common.
Media as depicted in American Gods, though, is far more that simply our modern obsession with famous celebrities. Media represents a visceral provocation by images. For example, the first time I saw a 1970s lesbian vampire on screen I had a distinct, uncontrollable, and decidedly pleasurable reaction, far before I understood the concept of “bisexuality” or even had any mature, adult woman insights into my own grown-ass desires. And now when I see Mad Sweeney flex his muscles I think, “Oof. Pornstache got thick.” And I sigh a little, hypnotized by the beauty and sheer maleness of his body.
It is this immediacy of experience that has positioned images and the unruly feelings they provoke as a historical threat to Western monotheistic religions. It is not an accident that these religions warn against “idols” and “false” depictions of the divine. Images—especially the unsanctioned kind—incite wild emotions, they are perceived as rooted in base reactions of the body, reactions in direct conflict to loftier, intellectual, or spiritual ideals (i.e. “beliefs”).
So it’s fascinating that while Wednesday, the older god, clings to “belief” as a method to regain influence, Media, as the new god, presents herself as a series of iconic images, as they are a carnal means of manipulation and power. In their own way, Wednesday and Media are reflecting different theories of religion, the old and new, and the tension between them.
As the older religions withdraw (a debatable claim; also a topic for another time), so does our understanding of religion as “belief.” Newer religions tend to focus far more on the immediacy of experience, and centralize the human aspect and its potential (the divine plays a secondary role).
So if I were going to investigate modern notions of religion in western society, I would look at its obsessions, its common narratives, and its recurring themes and concepts. Media then emerges as the new religion. How would I apply theories of religion to television narratives as if they were canonical scripture? How would ritual theory explain people’s behaviour with screens (altars), as a means to access their divine (celebrities)? When someone fantasizes about attending a Hollywood party, is that their version of a heavenly afterlife reward for sacrificing their time and attention?
I don’t (yet) have answers. I have to get through the dissertation first. Maybe that’ll be the post-doc.
Love in procrastination,
 In this schema, those awfully ritualistic and peculiar Christians—Catholics—are also viewed in a similarly negative light.
 Yes, I acknowledge that in order to study foreign cultures and have your research read by a broader audience, scholars write in European languages and concepts. Post-colonial critique attempts to address some of these issues. I have no idea how successful we are just yet.