A while ago Stinekey wrote a post about people who call themselves spiritual, but not religious. What people generally mean by this is that they do believe in a “something more”, but they’re not attached to a specific religious belief system. While pondering a topic for my own post I considered that the opposite, things that are religious but not spiritual, are also a common feature in media.
What do I mean by that? Well, I mean that different forms of media often use religious figures in their stories without showing any spiritual aspect of said religion. And while I think this happens across faiths, a lot of pagan pantheons get this short shrift more often, probably because the general public doesn’t usually think of Greek or Egyptian or Norse deities as being worshiped in the modern day.
Rick Riordan has made bank off this idea with his Heroes of Olympus and Kane Chronicles books. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love Percy Jackson and co. as much as the next person, but I think that the use of Greek and, to a lesser extent (because Western audiences are not as familiar with it) Egyptian pantheons as a backdrop are simply an easy way of introducing magic—not religion—into the story. They pay brief lip service to the deity of the gods, mostly by showing the demigod kids occasionally praying for help throughout the series, but what they’re really looking for is magical aid, not spiritual guidance or strength. We as readers are probably functionally familiar with Poseidon as the god of the sea, but for the purpose of the story we’re more interested in the “of the sea” part and what sort of cool water powers Percy’s heritage gives him than with any sort of religious aspect of his nature. Basically, we’re told they’re gods, but they might as well be vampires or fairies or any other supernatural creature for all the use that faith and belief has on the storyline.
Supernatural is also deeply guilty of this. Pagan gods and non-Christian deities and beings show up all the time, and are treated with the exact same perfunctory “how do we kill it” mentality as a wendigo or a rougarou. They might be a little more challenging to kill—they might require a special weapon or only be vulnerable at a certain time—but nevertheless, they’re still just a monster for the Winchesters to gank. The show also gets extra negative points for a sort of weird Christian-centrism—weird because while Christian myth is the most prevalently drawn-upon in the show, and Christian-powered things and beings (holy water, angels, etc.) tend to trump non-Christian ones, none of the characters really put any stock in Christianity as a faith as opposed to a means to conquer the supernatural.
Now, at first, it may seem unclear what the problem is with this. After all, isn’t a miracle just a sort of religious magic? What’s the functional difference between God and a mermaid if either of them can save you from drowning? Well, the spiritual aspect of faith is critical. Gods (pagan or otherwise) are first and foremost religious beings in whom their believers find spiritual strength; their power to affect the physical world is secondary to this. If religious characters are there to just be magic and not to provide any aspect of spirituality, to the point where they might as well be replaced with magical beings, that’s actually pretty demeaning. A common criticism of religion by atheists is that religion is just fairy tales, and reducing religion to the stuff of fairy tales in fiction essentially cosigns this belief.
It’s frustrating especially because it is possible to use religious characters in fiction without shearing away their spirituality. In fact, my primary example of this has a such a ridiculous premise that it leaves no space for more serious media to fuck up.
The Saint Young Men anime features Jesus and Buddha as its main characters. The premise is this: the two travel to modern Japan on vacation, posing as foreigners named… Jesus and Buddha. They’re not there to proselytize or preach, and this isn’t a second coming—rather, they just want to take it easy, check out Tokyo Disney, visit some hot springs, and hit some killer sales on produce. Far from drawing attention to their presences, anonymity is their priority, and the greatest moments of tension come when one of them is feeling too full of holiness and has to hide their suddenly glowing visage from the people around them. That said, while the premise isn’t remotely serious, within the scope of that premise, the religiosity of the characters is actually quite authentic. Once you come to terms with the setup, neither Jesus nor Buddha ever act in a way that would be grossly out of character or offensive. They’re religious figures, and any powers they display clearly derive from their spirituality and not from a generic form of magic.
In the end, it’s just not right for writers to use religious figures constantly in media without acknowledging that they have a spiritual aspect, and that most if not all of them—yes, even figures from the the older pagan pantheons—are still worshiped by real people today. They’re not stand-ins for some sort of megapowerful fae, and it’d be cool if more media realized that.