American Gods and the Intersection of Religion and Pop Culture

All my fans know that I love the show American Gods, so both of you may appreciate this post. As the second season evolves from the book, it demonstrates by its very storytelling how religions actually change in human societies. That is, religions are continually adapting to the social, political, economic, and geographical circumstances as they move throughout time and space.

One of my favourite things to do when I teach courses on New Religious Movements (otherwise known as “cults,” though scholars use the acronym NRM in order minimize the automatic and often incorrect biases against them) is to introduce the topic via the beginnings of Christianity. The early Jesus followers were viewed with suspicion, not only by other Jews, but also by the surrounding Roman rulers. The accusations against them ranged from being cannibals (because they ate of the body and drank from the blood of Jesus during the Eucharist); incestuous (Athenagoras claims they faced Oedipal allegations); and suspect because they engaged in bizarre secret rituals like eating among their dead in the catacombs (because Christianity was illegal, they retreated to areas few people ventured).

Romans and Jews alike saw them as strange and a threat. Two thousand years later, and it is one of the major influences of the “western” world, whether you are Christian or not, whether you realize it or not.

This example demonstrates a pattern in human behaviour: newly introduced ideas are often viewed with suspicion and vitriol. Once an idea takes hold, it becomes familiar, and it is then subsumed into the larger culture. In the 1960s, yoga and vegetarianism were considered dangerous “cult” practices luring American youth into deviant lifestyles. Today, most people reading this (both of you) will view them as largely innocuous if not personally appealing.

Ideas change over time. This is not a radical claim. What is, perhaps, (mildly) radical, is to suggest that when religious ideas inevitably do change they are just as much influenced by popular culture as they are theological elites. In my subfields of magic, ritual, new religions, and pop culture from a religious studies perspective (which means it’s secular-ish) the distinctions between high and low cultures are being challenged and uprooted, as they are in many academic subfields, to greater and lesser reception and resistance.

Keep all this in mind as we discuss American Gods.

When I first watched the show I was slightly disappointed that actual American new religions were not represented at all (Scientologists, Mormons, Satanists, what have you). Instead, Gaiman presents our obsession with pop culture as the New Gods (Media/New Media, Technical Boy, Mr. World, etc.). On the surface, new religions are not present in an overt way on the show, but they are present tangentially because of the prime feature of many American New Religions: they develop incorporating and responding to narratives from popular culture.

America is the birthplace of several new religions centered around aliens and science. They emerge alongside the genre of science fiction, which produced books, zines, newsletters, comics, and cartoons. It was a popular obsession. One result is an outcropping of these smaller religious groups, and another is the USA going to the moon. “Elite” and “popular” culture are exchanging ideas with each other. While Technical Boy doesn’t address these religions, he is actually the one they could potentially worship, because many centre around the idea that humans have the technological capacity to achieve various religious ends: measure a person’s mental state (Scientology); overcome death and illness (transhumanist movement); clone ourselves like aliens cloned us (Raeliens); or evolve into the next level of human achievement and fly away on a spacecraft hidden behind a comet (Heaven’s Gate). Pop culture intersecting with religion.

Mr. Wednesday, in his quest to revive his worship, never mentions the contemporary neo-Pagan movements that incorporate him into their pantheon. But he has certainly experienced a “revival”—which is more accurately called a “reconstruction” as there is no unbroken link between his ancient popularity until today. What we actually have is people using modern research methods to educate themselves on ancient Norse religions, and then altering these ideas to suit their respective modern religious interests. It’s a “do-it-yourself” type of practice, studied under the broad umbrella of “magic” and/or “new religious movements.” The most fascinating aspect of contemporary pagan or magical religious groups and individuals is that they are heavily influenced by popular culture. Even if many self-understand as harkening back to a “pure” ancient knowledge, the aesthetics, ritual objects, chants, and spells evolve with and mirror shows like American Horror Story: Coven, Charmed, Vikings, and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. They inform and reflect each other. [Note: Ostara features prominently in these pantheons as well.]

This brings me to New Media—a welcome deviation from the book as she encapsulates  how religions shift and expand under new circumstances. As she’s the God of social media, entertainment, and mass communications, some of my favourite outlier religions are her constituents. Consider the Otherkin (people who believe they are partially non-human, such as part dragon, vampire, unicorn, etc.) and Therianthropes (people who believe their true selves are animals, such as wolf, eagle, cat, etc.), two groups that first developed in online chat rooms and early Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs is where us old school non-digital natives first went online to find other freaks like ourselves). As there is an understanding that they cannot ever be a “kin self” in their current body, online interactions with others like them and role playing in online forums becomes the format by which they express their desired true nature. New Media not only allows for interaction with co-religionists, it is their virtual ultimate form. New Media is the avatar of their true “religious” selves.

It’s not farfetched to conceive of an actual religion that develops around media and mass communications. It may ring weird at first, especially to people who haven’t grown up with the internet, but eventually becomes ubiquitous. New Media (or something like it) could potentially be a central religion for future human societies. Weirder things have happened, folks. We’re a bizarre species, and I love the most strange among us.

There are a thousand different links to draw between this show and what I do: the multiple images of Jesus in global Christianity, where he is depicted from Buff Black Jesus to Twink; the notion of true faith as exhibited by Salim in tandem with his homosexuality, like many Muslim LGBTQIA groups and the scholarly studies about them; and how religions deal with those who oppose the Gods, such as the Jinn/Ifrit becoming a “demon heretic.” [Note to religion scholars: could not all demons be considered heretics, by their very nature? Is it redundant, or am I forgetting some theological discourse?]

If time and revelation permit, I’ll continue these posts, as I’m currently thinking about how to frame an article/book on American Gods, fandom, pop culture, and religion. The blog allows for a quicker processing of ideas without having to vet it via the strident rigours of my discipline. Plus, it’s fun. And academia definitely needs more of that.

Scientific Models of Religiosity

A recent mathematical study reported at the American Physical Society, and covered by BBC news, claims the provocative title, “Religion may become extinct in nine nations.” Those nations are mostly in modern western secular societies.

The scholars of religion, however, have seen these claims before: not a one has ever held up to scrutiny or time. Early twentieth-century sociologists also predicted the decline and inevitable extinction of religion, and well, look around you.

But the question is far more than simply “Is religion going extinct?” but actually a more nuanced discussion on religion itself. How are they defining religion? The study examines censuses from different nations, which usually asks about religious affiliation, i.e. are you part of an officially recognized, institutionalized religion, which is, without question, on the decline. But census questionnaires do not ask deeper questions. When most people check the “non-religious” box they are usually rejecting the concept of a dogmatic religion, which modern popular sentiment views as violent, divisive, and even silly. But these questionnaires do not account for the multitude of ways people then reinterpret their religiosity: atheistic religions, magical religions, UFO religions, satirical religion, or even vague notions of “spiritual” religions that can incorporate everything from astrology to yoga to homeopathy to psychology, etc.

I posit that when people check the non-religious box they are, in fact, objecting to the word “religion” itself, and its popular negative conceptual implications. It is a political statement. A statement that conveys a critique of perceived imposed religion. In modern western secular societies, this narrow view of religion is what is on the decline, but not religiosity itself.

(Better) Scholars of religion refrain from advancing a particular definition of religion, because when they try, they usually end up with a religion that looks akin to an Abrahamic, monotheistic tradition (i.e. a god or gods, a prime text, ritual, community, etc.). They are cherry-picking familiar traits from non-Abrahamic traditions in order to ease categorization (See Robert A. Orsi, Between Heaven and Earth). This has a consequence of explicitly or implicitly legitimizing religions that resemble the western conceptual framework, which also, intentionally or not, has political and legal ramifications. If your religion falls outside of the rigid concept, then you (as an individual or as a group) face particular challenges. If your religion deliberately rejects the rigid concept of religion (ex.: Neo-Pagans/Wiccans have no prime text or center of authority precisely because they view these things as rigid and unadaptive*; Satanists have no concept of the divine, no main building or communal rituals, yet fully adopt the term “religion;” Raeliens self-identify as atheistic, yet ascribe to the notion of aliens as the creators of human life via cloning) then courts have difficulty making judgements on what protections you are afforded, because they first have to define religion in order to protect it, which becomes an issue if your religion is “atypical” (suggesting there are “normal” and “abnormal” religions).

So when we, the scholars of religion, read yet another study from scientists about how religion is on the decline, a psychological delusion, or has  a “god” gene we react with a collective eyeroll. Studies like these assume particular premises of religion that scholars of religion not only reject, but deliberately avoid, because they are all predicated on stiff definitions of religion, instead of on the far more useful (so far) approach to defining religion based on an ever-shifting (yet admittedly more complicated) notion of political, social, religious, and even economic tensions and negotiations.

The scientific studies themselves are political statements: it denotes that scientists, funding agencies, and institutions are invested in disavowing religion, likely because religion is viewed as an impediment to scientific advancements. And religions absolutely have been, at certain times, in some places (they have also been patrons of science). The current climate in western nations is reflective of a decrease in institutionalized religion, and the reaction to this is for “fundamentalism” to embed more deeply, and vehemently reject science (such as the creationist worldview). Communities under duress amplify their confrontational and schismatic rhetoric. The scientific studies, then, are responding to this rhetoric. There is no apolitical religion or science.

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* Scholars of texts argue that “scripture” has always been reinterpreted and adapted to negotiate changing societies. I agree with this view, but here I am addressing the perceived notion of text being inflexible.