To peek into the world of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is to peel back the curtain of America’s culture and see, through one artist’s creative lens, the temple of what the culture truly worships. It is a perverse world that feels too ancient, and yet uncomfortably familiar. In one way it feels like a post-colonial protest. In another it feels like an anthropological experiment. This is an untold story not just of the religious practices America does not admit are religious, but also of the religious practices that have carried over from immigrants across the world.
Growing up being told that America is a “Christian nation,” a simplified notion that the only religion that really exists or fits with America is American Christianity, I viewed America through that lens. I wanted to see American, monumental Christianity in everything, and I wanted to defend America as somehow a part of the Christian religion. When I grew up and faced the real world, I learned that the country has its own religion, with its own values, rituals, and pantheon.
Jesus belongs to the Christians. But America as a culture has her own religion.
In Gaiman’s fictional world, the old gods of ancient cultures are like superheroes drained of their powers, whereas the power brokers of this modern world are gods that represent all that Americans hold dear. His pantheon is small, yet immensely powerful:
Technology—The internet itself is a religion to many Americans, with its shrines, meditations, and assembly. The newest American god, resembling our creations being served by us, rather than serving us.
Media—”Time and attention, better than lamb’s blood.” As Warhol prophecies the 15 minutes of fame for every American, the media (and not just the mainstream one) is a god Americans submit themselves to, whether through the news or entertainment (or both at once).
The Market—An intangible god that is a deity who manages things by himself, and whose business should pretty much be left alone.
New Vulcan—The only old god that seems to have successfully remade himself in America, Vulcan is the god of firearms, around which America seems to have formed a dedicated cult.
Mr. World—The god of globalization. Black hats. Spooks. Govt. agents. Black helicopters. Conspiracy theories. Control. The illuminati. Those secretive guys representing power beyond what you understand. They all work for that power Americans fear, whatever it is, and sometimes, even reluctantly, worship.
I couldn’t help but wonder what other cultural idols America worships that Gaiman didn’t cover in his story (which wasn’t about the new gods so much as the old). The gods he “identifies” I think certainly are a kind of pantheon in the American subconscious, but I imagine there are others. I put my imagination to work based on what I see in culture:
HiWay—From NASCAR to car dealerships on Memorial Day to the open road and the powerful chariots that tear across it. America invented the high way. Some Americans worship cars, others the open road. Perhaps that’s two gods, perhaps it’s one. Combustion engines and an endless horizon are an American religion. Oil is extracted as an offering for the convenience of this god.
Sport—While world-round people obsess over soccer, nobody seems to obsess over sports like Americans. Who else spends more money on sports combined? Who else puts more focus on collegiate sports than on the colleges themselves? Or even high school sports? Athletes are sometimes demigods in the world of sports, stadiums the venues.
Liberty—We have a statue of her, after all. People pay tribute. While Americans have conflicting notions of what liberty means, the notion of being freed is incredibly basic to the nation’s beginning and greatest struggles. It is even said that we pay for Liberty’s blessings in the blood of soldiers and enemies, a holy sacrfiice.
Welfare—It has been said that America no longer values freedom, but a higher standard of living, and is even willing to trade the former for the latter. If that’s true, liberty and welfare may be at war. The idea of a new mother goddess that exacts tribute (taxation) for good fortune (the first world version of rain for crops) isn’t far fetched. Free health care isn’t free.
Caffeine—The name sounds like a woman. I don’t mean to hate on Starbucks, but look how many shrines we have set up where daily people visit the symbol of a fish-woman who keeps the world running. Coffee culture is its own religion.
Feline—I just think people worship cats. I really think some do.
Eco—Not quite like Gaia, which gives to earthlings, Eco is a delicate god Americans feel guilt for hurting and must sacrifice in order to save. She is nature, the ozone, the ecosystems on the brink of destruction, the various threatened species. We grieve over her incarnations, like Harambe.
Sam—Nation states are a relatively new thing. Flags, borders, constitutions and other institutions have evolved a new kind of thing in the last 200 years. Any nation can become its own god to some people. Uncle Sam, who can sometimes take the shape of an eagle. This god isn’t just the state. It’s the idea of the country itself as a deity.
Sexuality—Our obsessions with porn, with gender identity, with LGBTQ, with everyone having to be sexy to be meaningful. There is an almost religion in not being able to talk about people without obsessing over their gender and sexuality. There is a sex god somewhere in the American mind, a god not just of the act of sex, but of the whole spectrum of sexuality.
Self—Selfies, cosmetics, YouTube. While there’s some overlap with media, Time Magazine’s person of the year was once “You.” In America, each person is sometimes seen as their own god. This is who I think is the most revered god in American culture. In all these other shrines, it is ourselves we serve. We are the god consuming coffee, enjoying welfare and liberty. We expect, no—demand to be served. The only problem is, who will serve us, if none want to be served? Even one of the latest cults, that of the hipster, is about doing everything ironically in order to construct the self as a god who rejects its own offerings.
Jesus—Because Christianity was the most prominent religion since the beginning, we can’t just ignore it because it’s mainstream or old fashioned. People believe in Jesus. But he’s competing with these other gods for our attention. And sometimes, it’s not even the real Jesus, but a warped facsimile. Millions of Americans worship an incarnation of Jesus that is made in their own image, whether he be a hippy, a warrior, or a great teacher exalted alongside the Buddha.
This is not to say that I believe going to a coffee shop, a ballgame, a gun show, a car dealership or any of the like means you are participating in paganism. The point is, branching off of Gaiman’s creative locus, religion has evolved. The new Paganism is not about gods, worship, and teachings, but about ideals, lifestyles, and memes. The things we tend to revere and pay tribute to we no longer call “gods,” necessarily, but reapply the language of religion and every American lives by one or another. What is at the center of your life? That is your religion? What is a hobby to one person is a ceremony to another. But the way we talk of people getting into things like a religion, we must realize two things:
a) We were made to yearn for and worship someone/thing
b) Call America “Christian” all you want; she is still steeped in idolatry
While eating meat offered to idols, so to speak, may be harmless to you, it can also be a stumbling block. Anything you invest in can swallow you up, become your god.
May that god be the God of all creation, the god who loves you, died for you, resurrected to be with you.
What other gods, or idols, do you think America turns to?