American Gods: An Atheist Theology

Neil Gaiman’s award-winning novel has made some significant cultural waves in its more than ten years of publication, now resulting in a comic book series and an upcoming cable television series.  Unfortunately, that influence is patently negative, propagating a distinctly atheist approach to religion, theology, and culture.

Simply put. American Gods is fantasy meets Americana.  The story begins as Shadow is released from prison to find that his wife and best friend, who, it turns out, were sleeping with each other, have died in a tragic car accident.  He has no life to go back to, and so he accepts a job from a mysterious passenger on the plane back home named Mr. Wednesday.  Before long, he’s drinking hero’s mead, having a fist fight with leprechaun, and having strange dreams about a bison-headed man.  Oh, and his wife is now a zombie.  Except for the whole flesh-eating thing.

Mr. Wednesday, as it turns out, is actually a god.  Odin, if you want to be particular about it.  A variety of other old gods come up as well, from various pantheons and cultures, including Egyptian, African, and Native American.  In contrast, there are new gods that have sprung up all around America.  Gods of technology, credit cards, and entertainment.  They are gods that, while explicit altars may not be erected in their names, they are worshiped by Americans.  And that worship gives the new gods power over the hardly-acknowledged old gods.  That gives room for some interesting social commentary, and social criticism, with Western culture’s obsession with wealth and entertainment.  But that’s not the route this story is ultimately going.  The true destination of this story is found in the theology of the gods themselves.

The gods, both old and new, exist primarily as a function in the imaginations of believers.  They do exist, and they do impact reality, but they only exist to begin with because someone believed in them.  In this way, gods might exist, but they are dependent upon their worshipers rather than superior to them.  This idea has been used to different extents in other fantasy works.  In The Clash of the Titans, for instance, the power of the Greek gods is determined by how much devotion their worshipers give them, which leads to Zeus being weakened due to a revolt on the part of the worshipers.  But while it has been used in other places, it’s extrapolated here to a humanistic set of values that make humanity out to be its own god.  In one aside from the main story, a priestess to an African god says, in response to someone saying yes, the gods are great, “but our hearts are greater, for it is from our hearts that they spring.”  Gods may exist in this theoretical fantasy universe, but it is not the gods that are the creators, but the humans.  The common man has taken that role, and deity is his creation.

And that’s hardly the narrative’s only problem. The book is overflowing in sexual content – some of it nearly pornographic – and the vast majority of it adding nothing to the plot but a juvenile obsession with sexuality. The level of profanity is also far beyond much of Gaiman’s other work, making the entire story a waist-level pool of depravity and blasphemy.

That’s interrupted, briefly, by a period of time that Shadow spends in a remote Western town. The time spent here gives Shadow a new sense of meaning, and Gaiman shines when utilizing these down-to-earth characters. And yet, even those brief positive moments only reminds us that, in addition to the plethora of moral issues the book has, its protagonist is distinctly uninteresting. Shadow spends most of the book as a glorified plot device, with motives and actions so varied that they’re rendered nonsensical. Gaiman eventually finds direction for the character, but not until the book is more than half over. That this character becomes the lone hero in a story full of gods is both morally and aesthetically bankrupt.

It’s disappointing that a talented author such as Neil Gaiman has penned a book like American Gods.  He has written some of the most delightful children’s fantasy in recent years, including CoralineOdd and the Frost Giants, and Fortunately, the Milk.  But none of that changes the fact that this book, despite a few bright moments, is set on a worldview that is incongruous with Christianity.  With the show coming to Starz and rumors of a sequel in the mix, American Gods could be a budding craze in the entertainment world.  But I would suggest it’s a craze that Christians should stay far away from.

Rating: 3/10

Logan Judy
Logan Judy is a Christian blogger and science fiction author with a Batman complex. At Cross Culture, Logan writes about film, comics, cultural analysis, and whatever else strikes his fancy. In addition to his work at Cross Culture, Logan also blogs and podcasts at A Clear Lens. You can find him tweeting about Batman, apologetics, and why llamas will one day rule the world, @loganrjudy.
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2 thoughts on “American Gods: An Atheist Theology

  1. This is honestly a great look on the religous aspect of the most heralded novel by one of my favorite authors. I’ve never thought about it like this. My only gripe with the novel orignally was the extreme sexual content. Something Gaiman is not known to have. I guess I was looking at it form the perspective of Idol worship and how humans throughout the ages replaced deity with physical needs. I found the portion of the novel about Easter facinating. How we totally forget the meaning of a holiday based on the charade that surrounds it.

    • Thanks! The sexual content remains by biggest gripe – Gaiman is a talented author, and he clearly does not need that content to craft an appealing novel even from a secular perspective.

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