American Gods | Secular Religion

An analysis of the 2001 novel “American Gods” by Neil Gaiman.

American Gods is a 2001 novel by English author Neil Gaiman. The book blends genres of Americana, urban fantasy, and ancient and modern mythology. It gained a positive critical response at its release and won the Hugo and Nebula awards in 2002. In April 2017, Starz began airing a television adaptation of the novel, in which Gaiman is an executive producer.

The novel revolves around Shadow, a taciturn convict who has just been released from prison. With no friends or relatives, he takes a job as a bodyguard for a mysterious con man called Mr Wednesday, and together they travel across America visiting Wednesday’s strange colleagues and acquaintances. Eventually, Shadow learns that Wednesday is an incarnation of the Norse god Odin, who is recruiting American manifestations of the Old Gods of ancient mythology, whose powers have waned as their believers have decreased in number. They are to participate in a battle against the New American Gods of Internet, media, technology, and others. Shadow finds himself in the midst of the conflict between the gods.

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The premise of the novel is that gods and mythological creatures exist because people believe in them. People who immigrated to America brought with them the spirits and gods they believed in. The power of these mythological beings has diminished as people’s beliefs waned. New gods have arisen, reflecting the American obsessions with media, celebrity, technology and drugs, among other things.

Gaiman puts forth the idea that that the act of worshipping is not a primitive act relegated to unsophisticated cultures. Instead, the same questions, desires, and superstitions that led humans to create Odin and the other Old Gods are still embedded in the human psyche, causing contemporary people to worship material things and cultural phenomena in the same way the ancients worshipped their gods. Gaiman shows the centrality of mythology and belief in shaping the identity and purpose of contemporary individuals and communities. Belief systems that do not involve spirituality are called secular religions, and among secular religions are capitalism, communism, nationalism, sport, individualism, and many others. In American Gods, Gaiman mainly focuses on the secular religions of consumerism, media, materialism, etc, that dominate the United States.

American writer David Foster Wallace, author of Infinite Jest, has said in a speech, something which truly captures what American Gods is all about:
”In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure, and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.”

American Gods is a reminder to us that we all worship something, whether it be a spiritual religion or a secular religion, and that we must be careful what we devote our lives to, as it will affect our lives. And these beliefs, old or new, need not compete against each other, or rule each other out, but should instead exist peacefully beside each other, causing religious and cultural diversity.