From early childhood on, Americans are entitled with a certain sense of freedom, instilled in them by the now-fading American dream: they can be whatever, whoever; they can create the life they want–they simply have to work for it. This idea of creating a lifestyle to establish a sense of convenience, has shifted with the development of material goods that allows one complete and utter independence, should they choose it. The danger of culminating a culture contrary to its founding ideals, comes in the loss of where to place new ideals. It quickly becomes a cultural convention of people who relied on forms of higher power, to now lead a life completely independent of spiritual worship. Thus, as displayed in Neil Gaiman’s novel, American Gods, America’s access to technology and development has shifted its culture from “one nation under God,” to secularization.
Gaiman’s novel depicts both the reality of such a culture and its implied consequences, particularly in how it affects interpersonal relationships. Even the names of many of the gods denote the incontestable nature of this shift: traditional, ancient gods, such as Ibis, Jacquel, the Zorya Sisters–to the new gods: Technical Boy, Media, the Intangibles. It is thus made immediately clear from the beginning of the novel, that Gaiman intends to impress how far American culture has shifted its values. This shift in worshipping materials rather than spiritual deities, is demonstrated in American consumption ideology (Haggins). While “the meaning that people, as consumers, ascribe to their possessions, as products, seems to remain ever elusive,” it is becoming explicitly apparent that, “the personal, socio-cultural, and situational meanings that arise through interaction with “things”” is undeniable (Academy of Marketing Studies Journal, 38). This realization is vital in understanding the value assigned to technology is an incessant cycle: American culture plays both its own worshippers and gods in the creation of technological advancements, thus creating a culture that transforms independence to isolation, damaging efforts toward interpersonal relationships. Gaiman further depicts this through the pointed declaration from Whiskey Jack to Shadow that America is “not a country for gods,” (649), because of the cultural shift from worship through tradition and order, to worship of self, of object, of agency.
Furthermore, with the progression of technology and thus cultural secularization, comes the idea that religion transforms itself into means of convenience. Gaiman demonstrates this sense of abusing religion for self-service, in a conversation between Jesus and Shadow. Jesus prompts Shadow what being a god truly means; he answers his own question, explaining, “Everyone gets to recreate you in their own minds…you’re a thousand aspects of what people need you to be. And everyone wants something different from you” (Gaiman, 748-749). The idea of utilizing religion, and specifically a god, for one’s own needs and wishes, is not a novel concept; it has been a progression in American culture for years. Sociologist and professor Steve Bruce articulated that religion “diminishes in social significance, becomes
increasingly privatized, and loses personal salience except where it finds work to do other than
relating individuals to the supernatural” (Bruce, 30). It is important to note that this shift toward a secular nation is not a black-and-white issue; it was not a matter of whim, but of careful decisions that would eventually lead America away from its theological foundations. This progression toward secular worship grew in part from those “espoused to materialism,” motivated to establish a cultural change, largely due to a “complex mix of antipathy” toward religious peoples (Smith, 1-2).
The effect of such a drastic cultural shift is particularly damaging toward intrapersonal relationships as well. Gaiman reaffirms this ideal when the technical boy hauntingly sings to Bilquis, “You are an immaterial girl living in a material world…You are an analog girl, living in a digital world” (Gaiman, 475-476). The forthright reminder serves to highlight the intrapersonal displacement that many suffer as a result of the shift toward secularism. Often this creates social displacement both within the individual, and with those around them. Beliefs of spirituality or higher law served as fundamental guidance for Americans; now, in contemporary times, with bombardments of purposeful uncertainty and doubting, secularism makes sense socially. If one does not follow suit, they lose out on a sense of cultural inclusion–of history, of decision-making, of influencing. It is becoming more apparent that materiality is the “precondition for the social circulation and temporal persistence of experiences and ideas” (Webb). The harm of such a shift toward willing isolation is further demonstrated by Gaiman, when Media persuades Shadow: “We can give you power over what people believe and say and wear and dream” (558). Media presents the ever-pervading ideal that one’s power and worth comes through what they themselves worship; people are no longer defined by the strength of their god, but by the material manifestation of where they place their time. While the significance of worship has not changed–“the language of the human heart is life experience connected to worship” (Bean)–the intentions behind it, thereof, have. That is precisely what is so damaging to the intrapersonal relationship; the shift of focus from outside worship, striving for improvement in self and culture, is lost in the shift toward materialism. The focus, instead, becomes not how the self is perceived by the self, but how the self is perceived by others. This shift is fundamentally detrimental to the human spirit, and has damaged American culture as an entity, depicting its“fall from grace” (Haggins).
America’s progression toward a nation of secularization has neither been simple nor uneventful. Instead, such a shift, has entirely altered the way American culture operates. In Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, Gaiman demonstrates the destructive effects such a shift carries. People no longer worship ideologies or established belief systems; this is not the issue in itself. The break from rigidity and mindless worship was necessary to developing both a nation and culture that is independent, creative, and successful. This break was a historical catalyst, enacted in bits and pieces; however, it was this same break, that would later become distorted in its ideals and representations: that not needing a god, is convenience. But what harm has convenience ever done anyhow?
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