The official blog of University of Missouri Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists, & Agnostics

Atheist Book Club: ‘American Gods’ by Neil Gaiman

This summer the SASHA gang and Columbia Atheists are experimenting with a book club. We wanted more diversity in the types of meetings we offer, and it turns out that most of us like reading and discussing what we read.

We call it Atheist Book Club, because that is nice and ambiguous, and it has alphabetically sensible initials. It is ambiguous because it’s not clear whether we are a club that reads atheist books or a book club composed of atheists. If we were ever listed in the phone book, and if people still used phone books, we would be one of the first book clubs a person would see.


The death of a medium.

We chose Neil Gaiman’s American Gods as our first book. I’ve read the book before, but I’ve been blessed with a terrible long-term memory, so I am experiencing much of the book as if for the first time. So far, I’m really enjoying it.


The main character, Shadow, paroles from prison only to find his wife has died. A guy named Mr. Wednesday comes out of nowhere and offers him a job as a bodyguard of sorts. This kicks off the story.

In prison, Shadow passed the time by teaching himself magic, mainly coin tricks. To me, this is a big red flag that the author will be playing some sort of trick on me with the story. Gaiman even goes so far as to have Shadow explain the importance of misdirection. I’m skeptical of the story now, and looking closely for signs of misdirection. Ironically, this is the surest way to fall victim to misdirection, so I might be screwed anyway. Shamefully, I wasn’t able to see past the misdirection of The Prestige.

Viewer: Oh my gosh he's drowning! Save him, Christian Bale!

Viewer: Oh my gosh he’s drowning! Save him, Christian Bale!


[shink] THE PRESTIGE!!!

The universe of the story is one in which gods are real, so it is fiction. When the Vikings came to America back in the 1000s, they brought their Norse gods with them. Since then, though, things have been pretty shitty for the Norse gods of America. No one really worships them anymore, so they are kind of experiencing rough times. They deal with this by teaching inmates magic tricks and seducing hotel night managers.

Gaiman's pitch to HBO: "Yeah, it's like that. But less Hemsworth vibe, more Kilmer."

Gaiman’s pitch to HBO: “Yeah, it’s like that. But less Hemsworth-y.”

Gaiman: "Yeah, that's more like it."

Gaiman: “Yeah, that’s more like it.”

Noticeably lacking, as of Chapter 5, is Christian God. In fact, I find his absence distracting. Given the premise of the novel, Christian God should be all over the place, running shit, smiting the other gods’ worshipers, etc. But he never shows up. As of yet, there’s been no mention of Christian God or his archangels.

Instead, the dominant gods of the story’s America are what might be called false idols, representing technology, the media, and other such cool things that we more or less worship. I take Gaiman to be making a point about our culture’s obsession with materialistic and evanescent icons. Rather than being a Christian nation, as many take us to be, we are a nation of rampant consumers and gossipers who twist Christianity to meet the needs of our real religion. This is consistent with what we see on The Real Housewives of [American City], most of whom identify as Christian.

The Real Housewives of Orange County.

The Real Housewives of Orange County and their worship of materialism (and Christianity, supposedly).

Along similar lines, the “places of power” dotting the American landscape are not churches, as you might expect, but roadside attractions. Yes, the nexuses of supernatural power lie within the biggest balls of yarn, the biggest wheels of cheese, and houses randomly built on rocks. In England, they have Stonehenge. I’m certain this says something about America, but I can’t quite articulate it.

House on the Rock. A real roadside attraction in Wisconsin.

House on the Rock. A real roadside attraction in Wisconsin.

The religious power of roadside attractions might simply add to the notion that America’s religion really centers around consumerism and cheap novelty, and convey no deeper message. But drawing this conclusion makes me feel like I’ve fallen for some misdirection, and that I’ve missed something important. As I continue reading, I’ll look for clues that suggest a deeper meaning to America’s gods in the story.


About Seth Kurtenbach

Philosophy grad student who wandered into a computer science PhD program with a backpack full of modal logic and decision theory.

2 comments on “Atheist Book Club: ‘American Gods’ by Neil Gaiman

  1. Carla B
    June 6, 2013

    I came across a deleted chapter featuring Jesus at the end of the Kindle edition. Otherwise, I haven’t seen anything I’d call Christian/Jehovah-esque. Wondering if there’s deeper meaning to Jesus winding up on the cutting room floor….

    • Seth Kurtenbach
      June 6, 2013

      Oooh, I like deleted scene informed literary analysis. I’d like to read that chapter somehow.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


This entry was posted on June 6, 2013 by in Author: Seth Kurtenbach, SASHA Meetings, Skepticism.
%d bloggers like this: