Formations of Power and Belief in American Gods

American Gods presents viewers with a unique portrayal of power, belief, and the relationship between worshipper and deity. But, in doing so, does it add to discussions of faith in contemporary culture, or does it merely leave viewers with a cynical outlook towards humanity and belief?

Recently, religious belief has been getting explored in great depth on television, with character-driven series, such as The Leftovers and Hand of God, illuminating personal and sometimes idiosyncratic approaches to belief. American Gods approaches it similarly, with an attempt to showcase the anthropomorphic element of the gods we choose to worship. The crux of the series is the idea that gods can only exist if they are believed in, and thus, they appear to be the result of Freudian-wish fulfillment. This, along with uncovering the flaws of the gods, may demystify them but it ultimately highlights the shifting spectrum of religious belief. The series presents a secular approach to the topic by showing how it is dictated by society, thus undermining the divine element and outlining it as merely a human-made creation. This critique is nothing new, but it masks itself in a continued discussion of how religious belief plays a unique role in society.

The original STARZ series, based on a novel by Neil Gaiman of the same name, revolves around multiple characters who are gods, each with their own story of origin and purpose. The narrative threads together how these gods affect society. In the series, multiple gods – such as Odin, Ostara (Easter), and Mad Sweeney (Irish god Buile Suibhne) – are shown interacting with one another and in their struggle for power because they only exist if people believe in them. This changes what some may see as the traditional power dynamic between deity and worshipper: if a god loses all of its believers, it cease to have power and is rendered mortal.

The series plays with conceptions of religious belief and posits that they are at risk due to changes in culture. An example of this is the creation of Technical Boy, one of the newer gods, who has the power of the Internet and illuminates the role technology has in our lives. Technical Boy exists because of a changing society: what we invest our faith and energy in is manifested as a deity in the world of American Gods. According to Alex Welch at Paste, he is an example of how the series “uses…depictions of religion to visualize our obsession with attention, devotion and the desire to feel wanted in striking and thought-provoking ways.” The series plays with the idea that what we believe in will guide, help, and, sometimes, save us – and it does so from a uniquely humanistic perspective.

This obsession with attention is magnified with the gods: they require it to survive, so they are forced to constantly adapt. In the season one finale, “Come to Jesus,” the god Media makes a bargain with Ostara, offering to make her more relevant by sharing what was originally her holiday with Jesus. By sharing the attention, Ostara is given what she needs to survive and Jesus can maintain relevance in the increasing secularization of the holiday. The newer gods call it “religious Darwinism,” an appropriately uncomfortable pairing of concepts. Such a pattern is “key to the series’ take on American faith,” Annalee Newitz argues at Ars Technica. By demonstrating how gods and goddesses continue to survive, we are shown the flaws and unpalatable elements of deities that aren’t normally seen on screen or in other mediums detailing those traditions: they’re humanized in both personality and form, and through the explicit willing of them into existence by their human creator-worshippers.

These gods can sometimes be seen as “just caricatures of abstract [human] tics and traits,” critics like Tim Goodman argue. American Gods seems to luxuriate in its multi-faith approach to religion and the variety it has to offer. It presents as if it has shared a secret with us about just how many different versions of faith there might be, and how they are similarly constructed and maintained. Arguably, this explicit comparison of the many various gods and their roles weakens their authoritative positions in their respective traditions. Each has a unique power and role in the lives of their worshippers, but the fight for attention also alters their core elements.

For many, religious belief may offer stability, an anchor. By upsetting the balance, the series takes away what many may find valuable in religion. Gods are shown in some ways as subservient to humans because of their need for believers. This reversal of power also calls to mind an ongoing discussion throughout the series: the relevance of religion and belief. What do these gods do for people? With a continued rise in religious “nones,” the role gods play in daily life has changed from the times many of these figures were initially in vogue. Yet, gods still underpin much of culture, and our obsession with understanding their power is evident from texts such as this one.

In focusing on their flaws and the animosity between them, American Gods changes the narrative and doesn’t offer any answer as to why we should believe. Instead, it provides a story that we are the ones in control. By providing scenarios where gods are shown to have to “sell out” in order to maintain power, it underlines how power-hungry these gods apparently are.

The need to diversify and to showcase the many forms of belief feels at first like an acceptance of difference. Yet, by doing this, it undermines what people find in religion. In pitting the gods against each other, American Gods tries to show the human elements behind them, and arguably equates them with one another. Along with this, the invention of new gods – such as Media or Technical Boy – feels inserted only to show how religious belief may be sublimated or forced to take on new forms (e.g., metaphorical instantiations of mainstream understandings of religiosity and deity – worshipping the internet, or using it religiously). The nuance of belief is missing; in focusing on the variety, the series has missed what makes a god special to actual believers.

Thus, we’re left asking if these sorts of depictions add anything to discussions about the variety of faith in contemporary culture, along with the relevance of traditional forms. While we might locate elements of social legitimation and world construction throughout the series, I actually think it’s less about structure and more about what we use as coping mechanisms to understand the world and live through it – the meaningful order we prescribe to it through belief and practice. But, the cynicism regarding belief is hard to miss. Are viewers merely left with a depressing evaluation of humanity, or can a more critical perspective be discerned? What do you think?

Discussion and Comments

  1. An interesting review! Belief is such a complicated epistemological concept.