Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Faith-Fueled Gods in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and Sandman

Most religious people believe in a god or gods that exist independently of humans, and that do not need anything in particular from humans in order to keep on existing. Some people believe their god or gods predate the existence of sentient life, or even of the universe itself. Neil Gaiman likes to play around with this idea of belief in deities. In particular, in his comic series The Sandman and in his book American Gods, he posits a surprising (to people of faith) scenario: what if gods exist only because people believe in them?

This has some fascinating implications for human (and, in Sandman, other sentient being) agency. It essentially grants superhuman strength to human belief, empowering us to control our own destinies. On the other hand, this premise also opens a whole bunch of cans of worms. It directly contradicts many faiths’ theology and causes issues with causality. Perhaps most chillingly, however, it introduces a degree of moral relativism that could (and in the stories, does) lead to unjust consequences.

Mild spoilers for the Sandman series and American Gods below.

AmericanGods10th

A note before we begin: In this post, when I discuss American Gods, I will refer to the version I read, the “Author’s Preferred Text”, which is longer than the original version and contains some important appendices.

In both American Gods and Sandman, Neil Gaiman presents a world in which gods and folktale creatures come into existence due to the belief of worshipers. Sandman shows us a bit about how that process works. In that universe, a god is born when someone dreams of them, and they spend the beginning of their life in the Realm of Dreams. The line between waking dreaming and sleeping dreaming is blurred in Sandman, so this doesn’t mean the dreamer who initially creates the god has to be literally asleep at the time. The new god is only able to leave the Realm of Dreams if enough people begin to believe in them. From then on, in both stories, the god depends upon continued belief in order to survive and thrive. As Mr. Wednesday (i.e., the American version of Odin) puts it in American Gods, “We feed on belief, on prayers, on love. It takes a lot of people believing just the tiniest bit to sustain us. That’s what we need, instead of food. Belief.”

We see examples in both stories of gods down on their luck who fade as their worshipers decrease over time. This is the case for almost all of the “old” gods we meet in American Gods, gods from pantheons that are no longer widely worshiped, like the Norse and Slavic and Egyptian pantheons, or folk creatures from folktales that are no longer widely believed, like leprechauns and ifrits, who all seem to be in some sort of poverty. In Sandman, the Egyptian cat goddess Bast grows old and frail in the late 20th century. We see her perk up when a little girl silently calls for help when her cat is struck by a car. Interestingly, this form of prayer, in which it’s pretty safe to assume the girl doesn’t even know Bast exists, let alone her name, is enough to provide Bast with sustenance. Similarly, in American Gods, the old gods survive not necessarily on direct belief or prayer, but by practicing professions that are likely to remind people of the power of the concept these gods represent. For instance, Bilquis, the Islamic name for the Queen of Sheba, is a sex worker in modern times, likely related to her depiction as a seductress or demon in some traditions. And Thoth and Anubis, Egyptian gods of the dead, work at a funeral home. The book also has many “new” gods that people don’t even know they’re worshiping, like gods of Media, Technology, and Wall Street. So “belief” apparently doesn’t have to be a literal process.

SandmanBastBelief

Bast in Sandman, calling upon a scrap of belief, all that remains in the modern age

Both of these works focus heavily on the power of Story. In the case of gods, the stories people tell about the gods literally become true because people tell the stories and believe them. This could be quite empowering. It means that gods aren’t the creators; we are. It means we have the power to change the forces that have power over us, simply through changing our beliefs. It is the ultimate relativistic theology; no matter how strange someone’s belief might be, the fact of the belief itself makes it true, so all beliefs should be respected (presumably in Gaiman’s universes, there needs to be a critical mass of belief for it to have a concrete effect, though). Relativism is a legitimate philosophy, and a theology like this helps relativism to make more sense.

However, faith-fueled gods fly in the face of many religions’ theology. Most religions don’t believe their gods need worship in order to survive. This introduces a significant limitation to gods that basically makes it impossible for them to be omnipotent, even if their worshipers believe they are. Gods created by people’s beliefs can never be greater than what humans can (collectively) imagine. And yet many faiths claim that their god(s) are so much greater than that, and are ineffable and unknowable, full of mysteries that will never be fully comprehended by humans. I know in my own faith, this transcendence helps to explain the complexity of the universe, and why things sometimes seem to happen arbitrarily. We can never fully understand all the mysteries of the physical universe, or why bad things sometimes happen to good people. But we believe it’s all part of God’s plan, even if we will never, in this life, understand how it all fits together. If we were the ones who created God, though, then this all falls apart. There could be no overarching Plan to explain everything because we could never imagine such a Plan, and then everything would seem to be happening for no reason.

In addition, this creates tricky chicken-or-egg issues. Many traditions believe that their god(s) created the world or universe. If that’s the case, then how could the god(s) have come into existence only after people dreamed them up? Does that god then retroactively become the creator of the universe? But there are multiple creator gods in various human belief systems. Do they all retroactively become creators? That doesn’t make sense. Gaiman’s stories seem to imply that this particular belief people have is flat-out wrong, and no amount of faith can change it. Gods emerge at specific times in history and were not present before time began. The stories don’t answer the question of what did create the universe, though. But this is still a hole in Gaiman’s theological system.

What about different groups of people who have different beliefs about the same god? Jews, Muslims, and Christians all supposedly worship the same God, but clearly their approach toward him differs. Even within each of those faiths, views of God are vastly different. In Gaiman’s theology, is there a different version of God for each of these disparate beliefs? It doesn’t appear to be the case. In American Gods, each country has its own version of the gods, but not every single belief system. For instance, we meet an Odin in the U.S., and another, very different one in Iceland, with no connection to the American one. But in an appendix to the story included in the Author’s Preferred Text, which Gaiman ultimately decided against putting in the final draft of the novel, we meet the American Jesus, who struggles with trying to be the different forms people believe him to be, all at once:

“Have you thought about what it means to be a god?” asked the man. He had a beard and a baseball cap. “It means you give up your mortal existence to become a meme: something that lives forever in people’s minds, like the tune of a nursery rhyme. It means that everyone gets to re-create you in their own minds. You barely have your own identity any more. Instead, you’re a thousand aspects of what people need you to be. And everyone wants something different from you. Nothing is fixed, nothing is stable.”

Which aspect wins out? Does majority rule? As a member of a Christian denomination that is a minority in the States, I sure hope not.

If majority beliefs rule, then we run into issues of morals and social justice. For instance, there was a time in history when most Americans believed their God condoned slavery, because they thought the Bible confirmed that people of African descent were genuinely inferior to those of European descent and actually deserved to be slaves. If the beliefs of the majority control causality, does that mean that, back then, African Americans literally were inferior? Even if beliefs couldn’t go quite that far, their effect on a faith-fueled God would mean that a superhuman force (i.e., God) would be actively complicit in the oppression of slaves and African Americans. I think we can all agree that’s pretty unjust, and it’s also an offensive idea to the vast majority of Christians nowadays.

This isn’t just a hypothetical; we get an example of it in Sandman. As Lady Geek Girl explains in this post, the fifth volume of Sandman, A Game of You, features a trans character, Wanda, who is shut out of a ritual involving the pagan Triune Goddess (precisely which version of the Goddess is never made clear) because she is not a cisgender woman. If gods in this universe are controlled by their worshipers’ beliefs, then this Goddess is transphobic because her worshipers are transphobic (I’m not saying worshipers of the Goddess really are transphobic. But within the context of the story, the fictional believers must have been). So besides all the societal prejudices Wanda must face, she also has to deal with superhuman oppression from transphobic deities because of the whims of human worshipers. How can anyone fight against that? Indeed, Wanda ends up dying because she can’t use this ritual to travel with her cis female friends and escape a deadly storm. In the end, it’s important to note that the universe itself seems to validate Wanda’s identity as a woman, regardless of people’s beliefs or the transphobia of this Goddess, since Wanda is shown as a woman when meeting the personification of Death. But she shouldn’t have had to deal with an additional burden from a superhuman source, simply because people projected transphobic beliefs onto their deity.

WandaBeforeAfterDeath

Wanda, before her death (left), and after it (right), with Death

So while Gaiman’s theological system seems to radically empower believers, it is also full of internal contradictions, makes some fervently held beliefs (such as a God greater than humanly imaginable) impossible, and seems to validate bigoted beliefs and multiply the effects of oppression by making gods complicit in it. I think it’s pretty clear why most religions would not accept a theology like this. Personally, I don’t think it’s wise to entrust morality, enforced by supernatural forces, to the whims of majority rule. But what do you think? Do the pros outweigh the cons? Let me know in the comments!


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4 thoughts on “Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Faith-Fueled Gods in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and Sandman

  1. Great Sunday morning reading, which is a bit ironic for me, I guess, because I’m a Christian and am reading an article on Sunday that questions God and gods.
    You brought up many things I’ve been considering about gods. I didn’t know Gaiman’s work touched on these questions. I have The Sandman, Vol. 1 but I haven’t yet read it but now I am more interested in trying both it and American Gods.
    Seeing how people mostly call upon a deity during distressing situations, I’ve often wondered if it’s our need to believe in something higher than ourselves, and have something else to blame, that creates gods and then that belief in a higher power then expands and becomes something bigger. But being from a Christian background, I’m more inclined to believe God has always been around despite my many questions.

  2. Nice post – I stopped reading the Sandman a long time before the events you describe, but it was implicit in the early issues as well, I think. Supernatural of course makes much of this – there was a great Christmas special about it, as well as an episode where the the old gods get together to try and get back some worshippers. And of course it’s a common idea in Chaos Magick.

    I wonder if the idea of belief-fuelled gods exists simply because we want to keep our gods, but in order to believe in them we need a view that leverages modern psychology, so the idea of a god that exists because you believe in it is appealing. The god of the Gaps has been replaced by the God of the Placebo, perhaps.

  3. Pingback: 2016 Article Wrap-Up: First Quarter | Zezee with Books

  4. Reading Jung’s “Answer to Job”, I was struck by a passage that reminded me of this topic in The Sandman and led me to this article. I would not be at all surprised if similar avenues led Gaiman to his insight.

    “In view of this intense personal relatedness to his chosen people, it was only to be expected that a regular covenant would develop which also extended to certain individuals, for instance to David. As we learn from the Eighty-ninth Psalm, Yahweh told him:

    “My steadfast love I will keep for him for ever,and my covenant will stand firm for him. I will not violate my covenant,or alter the word that went forth from my lips. Once for all I have sworn by my holiness; I will not lie to David.”

    And yet it happened that he, who watched so jealously over the fulfilment of laws and contracts, broke his own oath. Modern man, with his sensitive conscience, would have felt the black abyss opening and the ground giving way under his feet, for the least he expects of his God is that he should be superior to mortal man in the sense of being better, higher, nobler—but not his superior in the kind of moral flexibility and unreliability that do not jib even at perjury.

    Of course one must not tax an archaic god with the requirements of modern ethics. For the people of early antiquity things were rather different. In their gods there was absolutely everything: they teemed with virtues and vices. Hence they could be punished, put in chains, deceived, stirred up against one another without losing face, or at least not for long. The man of that epoch was so inured to divine inconsistencies that he was not unduly perturbed when they happened. With Yahweh the case was different because, from quite early on, the personal and moral tie began to play an important part in the religious relationship. In these circumstances a breach of contract was bound to have the effect not only of a personal but of a moral injury. One can see this from the way David answers Yahweh:

    “How long, Lord? wilt thou hide thyself for ever? shall thy wrath burn like fire? Remember how short my time is:wherefore hast thou made all men in vain? Lord, where are thy former loving kindnesses, which by thy faithfulness thou didst swear to David?”

    Had this been addressed to a human being it would have run something like this: “For heaven’s sake, man, pull yourself together and stop being such a senseless savage! It is really too grotesque to get into such a rage when it’s partly your own fault that the plants won’t flourish. You used to be quite reasonable and took good care of the garden you planted, instead of trampling it to pieces.”

    Certainly our interlocutor would never dare to remonstrate with his almighty partner about this breach of contract. He knows only too well what a row he would get into if he were the wretched breaker of the law. Because anything else would put him in peril of his life, he must retire to the more exalted plane of reason. In this way, without knowing it or wanting it, he shows himself superior to his divine partner both intellectually and morally. Yahweh fails to notice that he is being humoured, just as little as he understands why he has continually to be praised as just. He makes pressing demands on his people to be praised and propitiated in every possible way, for the obvious purpose of keeping him in a good temper at any price.

    The character thus revealed fits a personality who can only convince himself that he exists through his relation to an object. Such dependence on the object is absolute when the subject is totally lacking in self-reflection and therefore has no insight into himself. It is as if he existed only by reason of the fact that he has an object which assures him that he is really there. If Yahweh, as we would expect of a sensible human being, were really conscious of himself, he would, in view of the true facts of the case, at least have put an end to the panegyrics on his justice. But he is too unconscious to be moral. Morality presupposes consciousness. By this I do not mean to say that Yahweh is imperfect or evil, like a gnostic demiurge. He is everything in its totality; therefore, among other things, he is total justice, and also its total opposite. At least this is the way he must be conceived if one is to form a unified picture of his character.”

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