Wednesday, 23 January 2013

American Gods - Religion as metaphor?

Neil Gaiman's novel "American Gods" is a popular fantasy that is based in small town America. The basic premise of the book is that gods exist alongside humans in the everyday world from every historical mythology. America, being an amalgam of cultures and peoples, is over run with gods brought by immigrants with them from all over the globe. The gods though immortal can be killed and are often powerless because they derive their power from the belief, worship and sacrifices of their human followers. In the novel the ancient gods are failing because their followers have forgotten them and in their place are emerging a new pantheon of contemporary gods such as road, computer, media, town, car etc. The clash between the two groups of gods spread across the most unlikely holy sites of small town USA gives the foundation of this massive book onto which is superimposed a human hero just released from prison and his dead wife who continues to appear throughout the narrative.  Though fantasy Gaiman captures perfectly the eccentricities of small town life in the US.
A clue to the philosophy behind the book can be found on page 551: 
"Religions are, by definition, metaphors, after all God is a dream, a hope a woman, an ironist (sic), a father, a city, a house of many rooms, a watchmaker who left his prize chronometer in the desert, someone who loves you -even, perhaps, against all evidence, a celestial being whose only interest it to make sure your football team, army, business or marriage thrives, prospers and triumphs over all the opposition.  Religions are places to stand and look and act, vantage points from which to view the world." 
Surprisingly Gaiman does not use any Christian imagery or references in the book given the deeply help and sometimes extreme versions of the Christian religion found across the continent. Perhaps this was a commercial decision made by the publishers to ensure wide sales!?
In his description of religion as metaphor Gaiman is perhaps echoing the philosophy of Nietzsche. Nietzsche argued that metaphor is at the basis of language, concepts, and perception, making it the vehicle by which humans interpret the world. As such, metaphor has profound consequences for the nature of religion and of philosophy. 
A metaphor is the concept of understanding one thing in terms of another. It is a "figure of speech" that constructs an analogy between two things or ideas. Saying that religion is a metaphor implies that it is the human attempt to understand something about life and its meaning that we do not really understand. It's a bit like using a clock as a metaphor for time. A clock is not time but rather it is a representation of the passage of time. Dana Jennings wrote in an article in the New York Times: 

"religions, if nothing else, are metaphors for how we choose to lead our lives, how we choose to defy the empty cultural whirlwind. Our lives begin in mystery ... and end in mystery. In between, we try to explain ourselves to ourselves, all 6.5 billion of us who are wedged onto this improbable planet — 6.5 billion potential paths toward the holy."
Saying religion is a metaphor is not in any way to say that it isn't true or meaningful. This was a fantasy novel and a real good holiday read so perhaps I shouldn't worry about the philosophy of metaphor!   

To buy this book click here

Image"Thai Art Murals" courtesy of pichart99thai /

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