“The real problem is not whether machines think but whether men do.” – B.F. Skinner. In this quote, the speaker is trying to convey that as technology advances, machines do more thinking while humans do less. The quote is significant because although technology is typically a helpful tool, it can also clash with traditional beliefs. Despite this, technology cannot be all bad since it has allowed people to pursue better education and grow as a country. This comparison relates to the novel American Gods, in which traditional values and modern, technological values are represented metaphorically in a war between old gods and new gods. Neil Gaiman uses the war between gods to establish that both traditional values and new values have their merits, but are inevitably wrong and unfavorable in American culture.
Technology in modern values was the initial adversary in American Gods, for it is not as benevolent as society may make it out to be. Shadow had first enlisted to help Wednesday in his goal to rally the old gods to fight against the new. Their enemies were the “gods of credit card and freeway, of Internet and telephone, of radio and hospital and television” (137-8). They were physical embodiments of what Americans idolize today, which are much different compared to what people worshipped in the past. Since “value is measured by the intensity of the differences expressing themselves as nature evolves” (Grange), modern values have been the forefront of American culture. The virtues have changed along with the advancement of the country, however it is not necessarily right. The new gods in the book are the main antagonists, portrayed as evil and cruel. They are “proud gods, fat and foolish creatures, puffed up with their own newness and importance” (138). The new gods are representative of American consumerism today, and how people wrongfully rely on technology excessively. According to a Nielsen company audience report, Americans spend almost half a day looking at a screen. “Adults in the United States devoted about 10 hours and 39 minutes each day to consuming media,” and unfortunately, “too much screen time and other inactive behaviors also have been linked to obesity risk” (Howard). This shows how too much technology in one’s life can lead to negative consequences. People have been so caught up in the importance of these machines that they don’t even realize that they can have negative effects on American society.
Although modern values are not optimal, the classical religious values aren’t perfect either. In American Gods, the traditional ideals are represented by the old gods. Shadow may have originally sided with these old gods, but the main leaders turned out to be evil in the end. Wednesday, was a god who fed on death, while Loki fed on chaos, two terms that were only negative in connotation. These gods of old “were betraying both sides… [and] wanted a massacre” (533). The two gods were of the same Parthenon and did not positively represent traditional virtues. This example can be connected to a similar situation in history, being the Pendle witch trial of 1612. Ten Lancashire villagers were executed by hanging, after being accused of witchcraft. “It was a mandate for the British to fight witches,” (Cronin) in order to uphold religious ideologies, apparently even if it meant executing women and children. Not only was there little evidence of these victims actually explicitly harming others, they practiced a different religion than that of King James I, who feared Catholic rebellion at the time. This event in history shows how others were wrongfully killed for the sake of upholding the traditional values of religion. It can even display the prejudice and bias against other religions, which may have had clashing ideals. Many elements of traditional values no longer have a strong place in American culture.
Both modern technological values and classic traditional values can be seen in a negative light, but they do have their own merits. Technology has led to important scientific breakthroughs in medicine, engineering, and safety, allowing people to receive better educations and achieve new heights in research. People are able to not only discover more in America, but also gain an understanding of the entire world. Additionally, religion can be a valuable factor in the hearts of many. They offer a moral code of ethics and a fulfilling lifestyle when belief is put into it, while also shaping one’s worldview. “Scientific research on the material universe is rapidly expanding human knowledge of both its vastness and its intricately interacting minute parts, processes and relationships. Similarly, research on spirituality is expanding our perceptions toward both an ever broader awareness of its vast domains and a deeper discernment of its largely impenetrable components, processes, and influences” (Moberg). Since these virtues have positive aspects to them, it is important to infuse both into everyday life. In the practical world, “Many faith-based colleges and universities with engineering programs find themselves trying to simultaneously satisfy two educational objectives… to produce graduates who have ‘an understanding of professional and ethical responsibility’ and… student spiritual formation and development of Christian moral values” (Ermer). Students should be able to combine technological ‘smarts’ with spiritual ‘smarts’. Their understanding should be affected by both knowledge and spirit. American God’s Shadow appropriately utilizes the pair of values in his journey throughout the story. Given the time period he lives in, he must work with cars, telephones, and televisions, but he does not let them consume him. Furthermore, he gains a strong belief in the gods in order to persevere through hardship and understand situations, but he still manages to stay worldly. Shadow mixes these concepts together when “he remembered turning the Winnebago, shifting it at right angles to everything. He tried to capture that sensation—… With one step he had moved from the tourist path on the mountain to… To somewhere real” (535). He had remembered using technology in order to travel spiritually, and he had finally done it on his own. There are negative aspects to modern and traditional values but they still have positive aspects.
American Gods is an important novel that highlights the virtues of American society today, as well as those of the past. Neil Gaiman presents the hard truth concerning both of these values in his war between the gods. Sticking to one concrete ideal of either religion or technology is detrimental for society, so one should instead take the best parts of both and form their own standards. Incorporating both modern values and traditional values will help maintain a strong sense of knowledge and spirit. You do not have to take a side and participate in this war.
Cronin, Frances. “The Witch Trial That Made Legal History.” BBC News. BBC, 17 Aug. 2011. Web. 13 Apr. 2017.
Ermer, Gayle E. “Professional engineering ethics and Christian values: overlapping magisteria.” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, vol. 60, no. 1, 2008, p. 26+. Academic OneFile. Accessed 13 Apr. 2017.
Gaiman, Neil. American Gods: A Novel. First edition. W. Morrow, 2001.
Grange, Joseph. “DAO, TECHNOLOGY, AND AMERICAN NATURALISM.” Philosophy East and West, vol. 51, no. 3, 2001, p. 363. Academic OneFile. Accessed 4 Apr. 2017.
Howard, Jacqueline. “Americans Devote More than 10 Hours a Day to Screen Time, and Growing.” CNN. Cable News Network, 29 July 2016. Web. 13 Apr. 2017.
Moberg, David O. “Spirituality research: measuring the immeasurable?” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, vol. 62, no. 2, 2010, p. 99+. Academic OneFile. Accessed 4 Apr. 2017.