Cultural Atheism in ‘Britannia’

A partially successful meld of history and fantasy, Amazon’s Britannia seeks its audience through a “Game of Thrones lite” approach, with one eye on paganism and the other on Nietzsche.

The year is 43 A.D. and the mystical and mysterious land of Britannia is in chaos.  All kingdoms are at war with one another, and all respect the druids – messengers of a collective of generic gods whose will is erratic, cold, and bloodthirsty.  Both sperstitious and divided, the native Celts are woefully unprepared for a Roman invasion.

That division is the key weakness of the Celts.  Roman invader Aulus uses this division to his advantage.  But more ot the point, both for our purposes and the purposes of the series itself, Aulus targets their reigion: “It’s their gods you’ve got to kill.”

Aulus means this as a strategy, but the viewer could easily adopt this as an ethic.  True to many pagan conceptiosn of the gods (although historical knowledge on Celtic religion is murky), these deities are harsh, merciless, and silent in a time of need.  One such example is Cait, who blames herself for the Roman invasion because she broke an oath of silence.  An exiled druid confirms this.  We also learn that the gods of executed a queen for being part Roman, while giving the power-hungry daughter-in-law to the crown a second husband.  The druids, complete with orgy-filled tents, are themselves masters of chaos and vice.  In fact, it’s sex and war that most of our characters seem most interested in, from a bizarre subplot about conceiving a god to illicit affairs to Amena’s sex life, the show feels at times like a “Game of Thrones lite,” even though it never quite reaches that level of explicit material (although there are a few instances of nudity, in addition to sex, throughout the series).

At a certain point, the conclusion that the Celts would be better off without the druids is practically inescapable.  And although the story is inconsistent about whether the druids are exactly villains, their reign is hardly a gracious one.  And as the druids seem to cave underneath the pressure of the Roman invasion, particularly in a land where hte gods are so synonymous with the land itself the series makes its point perfectly clear, even in its dialogue: “the gods are dead.”

It was Nietzsche who, following the Enlightenment, famously proclaimed “God is dead.”  He meant this more in terms of social order and culture than metaphysical reality, but the statement is provocative, and inspires and informs a great deal of anti-religious sentiment.  And the sentiment of Britannia, although it dabbles in other themes and character arcs, is decidedly anti-religious.  Most notably, a high Roman soldier launches into a lecture about hwo, because different cultures have different gods, and each culture thinks the others’ gods to be frauds, “maybe it’s all bollocks.”  In the same scene, Jupiter fails to strike the Roman dead for a blasphemous challenge.  Even more interesting is the writers’ choice in which mythic elements to bring into their blended reality.  The gods are silent, but demons are out and proud.  If there is a supernatural realm, it is out to harm us, not help us.

The argument that “different cultures have different gods, therefore atheism,” is itself, well, bollocks.  Different cultures have also had different ideas on the realms of science, ethics, and law, none of which we declare inane pursuits wholesale.  There are, in fact, numerous reasons why the persistence of human cultures in religious pursuits is evidence in favor of a supernatural metaphysical reality, although such a discussion is beyond our scope here.  Siffice it to say that this is poorly reasoned philosophical argument, at times even intrusive in the series’ natural flow.

In the end, it’s hard to find much of anything one can recommend about Britannia.  It certainly is well-acted, and contains some fitting criticisms of paganism proper.  But its transparent attempts to link paganism to all religion reeks of a poorly reasoned lay atheism that offers little to engage the Christian mind, save for arrogance and ridicule.

Rating: 4/10

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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