Our New American Gods
Politicians are our new messiahs, social media demands our outrage, and our phone commands devotion.
“People believe… It’s what people do. They believe, and then they do not take responsibility for their beliefs; they conjure things, and do not trust the conjuration. People populate the darkness; with ghosts, with gods, with electrons, with tales. People imagine, and people believe; and it is that rock solid belief, that makes things happen.”
— Neil Gaiman, American Gods
I often blank when I open a new internet browser window.
Instead of staring at the search bar, racking my mind for what I should be doing, I let my hands tell me where to go. Without thinking, I type F-A-C-E-B-… then furiously delete the letters I’ve typed. I try once more to let my unconscious brain tell me where to go. Again, I type F-A-C-E and decide, what the hell, let’s take a bump.
It’s like that moment while you’re driving, but you time travel. You come to and have no recollection of having operated a motor vehicle for the past 15 minutes. Just how the hell did I end up on Facebook? I was meaning to open my email since I’m at work, yet here I am.
Back when I joined Facebook during my college years, the platform was shiny and new. I’d check it every few days to leave absurd comments on friends or fraternity brother’s walls. Most times, we’d all use the events feature to plan a campus party and invite friends. At said party, you’d meet a new fling then creep on her. You needed to see if she posted a photo of herself in a bikini (don’t lie, you did it and maybe still do).
Now when logging into Facebook, the environment is like being greeted by a man on fire screaming about everything and nothing. Behind the burning man is someone taking selfies in lingerie and begging me to agree with their politics lest I find fascism/socialism sexy.
Ask anyone about Facebook and most will agree it’s a dumpster fire. Yet, sixty-eight percent of Americans are still on the networking platform. We sacrifice our time, our sanity, moments we could converse at dinner, and even our children to the lumbering tech giant.
In Roman mythology, the gods acted much like their human counterparts — jealous, angry, outraged, and sensual. Major deities empowered minor gods to carry out their duties. Zeus, wishing to depopulate the Earth, used the Trojan War as a catalyst for his vision. In turn, Ares — the God of War — gained power through the subsequent bloodshed and strife.
In antiquity and throughout the Roman Empire, people would carve images of what they worshipped and place them on an altar. They’d ask Poseidon for safe passage across the sea. They directed prayers to Ares for protection on the battlefield. Now what we worship takes the form of a laptop that sits innocently on our desk, but the forms once more resemble the gods of lore.
Zeus (Social Media)
In 2001, novelist Neil Gaiman released what many consider to be his magnum opus, American Gods. The central plot revolves around a character named Shadow Moon, who learns of his wife’s passing as he’s released from prison. While heading home to bury his wife, he encounters a con man named Mr. Wednesday who — spoiler alert — turns out to be the incarnation of the Norse god, Odin. The rest of the book revolves around a war brewing between old gods — like Odin, Horus, Anasani, and Loki — and the new gods of America — TV, media, globalization, computers, and the stock market.
The point of the novel is that what people invest their time, energy, devotion, thought life, or money into is what they worship. As they do, they conjure these “gods” to life who grow more powerful given the level of sacrifice laid at their altar. While the modern man, and even Sigmund Freud, scoff at benevolent deities ruling over our lives, how many within the population have blamed Facebook for almost god-like powers that have determined the course of our society or elections? In a twist of irony, we’re the ones giving such platforms their power with our undying allegiance. We can laugh at old tales of pious men and women anxious about pleasing mythological divinities while anxiety and depression charge through our ranks at an alarming pace. We’re worried and depressed about money, relationships, jobs, who won an election, and what people think of us. Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook all fuel the emotions behind our fear. Were Gaiman to update his tale, our new gods would be unlimited in power, and at the hub of the spoke, social media would reign.
Why social media as the lynchpin? When we’re angry about politics, our relationships, the state of the world, sexism, or just about anything, most of us became incensed due to something shared online. Videos and articles don’t go viral because they weren’t shared. People found enough value to pass along, thus taking a small fraction of time and energy to place at the altar of social media.
So is it really social media and Facebook’s fault for the way we place our trust in the giant’s hand, only to become disillusioned? Just like our predecessors in antiquity, the common man grows angry when we feel slighted by an omnipotent entity with endless power, and we now feel the same about Facebook. We like to pretend we’re more enlightened, but the way social media feeds political discourse, entertainment, and romantic ideals is quickly showing us what we’re willing to bleed for.
Like the myth of Zeus instigating the Trojan War, social media is the cult we’ve joined and allowed to wage war, thus giving power to the lesser gods.
There’s an interesting statement made by Jesus Christ where he claims his followers will be “known by their love for one another.” I asked a friend, if this were true of any religion, what would an American religion be known for?
“Outrage,” he tells me. “Pure, unbridled anger and outrage.”
After Donald Trump won the 2016 election, I watched people collectively lose their mind and melt down. Some friends didn’t go to work. Others cried. Most ranted online. Others, however, were ecstatic; convinced Trump’s win would usher in a new era of prosperity and security. In my home state of Texas, it happened again in the 2018 mid-term elections with Senatorial candidate, Beto O’Rourke. The way you heard people talk about Beto was like listening to the second coming of Christ. They were convinced he would fix the government, civic issues, the border, and education. Other people I interacted with called him a socialist nazi who planned to destroy Texas. Whether you were for or against O’Rourke, at the core of the debate people were having was a deep, and seething anger (It’s worth noting O’Rourke spent close to six million on Facebook ads given my previous remarks about the platform as a lynchpin).
Political candidates these days closely resemble that of a messianic figure in whom people put their hopes and aspirations. Underneath their fear and anxiety about the world, they believe — though most would never outright admit it — this candidate is the salvation we need for our society. They will usher in the reform, prosperity, change, and clear guidance we need to become a better democracy. In the 2008 presidential election, Barack Obama ran on a campaign of “hope” and “change,” playing on our growing ideologues of a figure who could bring about the reform we seek. While many supporters were thrilled when Obama was elected, they later became disillusioned with his policies and the hotly debated Affordable Care Act.
Even those of the major faiths have bought into the new messiahs. Evangelical leaders are known for White House dinner parties, endorsing candidates, or even allowing a candidate to speak at their church. Parishioners of the major faiths then pray that their God favors a specific candidate lest the world catch fire. It’s tempting to chuckle at religious zealots praying reverently to endorse their god-ordained candidate, but that response is hypocritical given that so many weep, moan, cheer, pray, or send positive “vibes” to those whom they deem the correct political candidate. The face of the divine is no longer a one-eyed Norse deity or a bolt-welding thunder god, but a man or woman in a suit claiming devotion will bring about their deepest hopes and desires for society. Our ancestors used to pray for a successful harvest. Now our candidates will be the one to fix agriculture. But what happens when the other side of the aisle disagrees believing their candidate will spell disaster? Well then, it’s the Crusades all over again. Only this time it’s not fought with swords, but hidden shanks in our online posts. Like the Roman gods, the candidates quarrel for adoration. So when we bleed it pleases them, for they gain power.
A friend of mine is a police officer in Austin, Texas. Over coffee he explained that during the holidays most of what they respond to are domestic disputes involving relationships.
“We’ll show up and the girl is berating a guy for not letting her check his phone or Facebook app. She claims he’s cheating. We ask if we can see his phone to assuage her fears. He says no and reaffirms he’s not cheating. Most of the issues stem from Facebook,” he tells me.
New studies show that women are equally unfaithful in a marriage given today’s society. Hook up culture appears fun for singles in the beginning, but as most young adults have told me, “online dating is the worst.” Despite infidelity, casual sex, and a disappointing dating scene, most people are still in love with the idea of love. In fact, singles in their late 20s are terrified of spending the rest of their life without a partner. We’ve even co-opted a meme for the fear — Forever Alone.
While a fat baby in a diaper shooting us with magic love arrows is absurd, don't be fooled. Cupid’s power is stronger than ever. Don’t like the relationship you’re in? Get hit with an enchanted arrow while staring at a potential new fling. Desperate for a relationship? Worry, fret, and obsess over a partner wishing for the day that arrow hits you.
Cupid’s power isn’t his own, however. He borrows from the other gods who share favor. And Cupid’s mutual power resides in Ms. iPhone and Mr. Netflix.
“The TV’s the altar. I’m what people are sacrificing to.”
“What do they sacrifice?”
“Their time, mostly… Sometimes each other.”
―Neil Gaiman, American Gods
Conduct an experiment for me. Go to dinner and see how many people are actually talking to one another. Count them. Then search around for the room for those with faces buried in their phones. Each day our phones manage our attention and devotion. We have to respond this this text. We have to read this breaking news article. We have to check Instagram. We can’t even walk into an elevator for less than 2.5 seconds before we feel awkward and pull out our phone. We are endlessly entertained, yet hopelessly lonely. So we pour more time into our new god who promises satisfaction. Then when we go home, we continue to worship at an altar that promises escape. Netflix, Hulu, and PlayStation pledge endless pleasure.
There’s just one problem. The show you end up watching has an enviable romantic relationship. Nevermind that it’s unrealistic. They depict epic car sex with no mess to clean afterward — but hey — don’t think about that. Frustrated, you turn off the TV and check Instagram. Unfortunately, tonight’s algorithm is a giant dose of couples in happy relationships. The anxiety creeps in and you wish one day — just one — you’ll meet that special someone. Cupid smiles. But the other gods need their adoration too. Netflix beckons you to watch a crime drama rather than dwell on your romantic lack. So you watch and Netflix grins. While watching, you decide you might get on Facebook and connect with your old college sweetheart. Facebook smirks.
You decide against it. After all, you want a caring and compassionate partner. Face-to-face interaction isn’t too much to ask, is it? But Bacchus has his finger in hook-up culture, increased access to porn, and the overtly sexualized crime drama lighting your dark bedroom. Maybe you should call that old fling, despite the fact they treated you like garbage. Love today seems out of reach anyway, so just settle for sex the minor god reminds you. “Of course,” he whispers, “there’s free sex you can watch on your computer.”
The old barbaric deities of blood, grit, and human sacrifice seem so far away as you drift off to sleep scrolling through articles that demand your outrage. But they take far more insidious forms these days.
And the sacrifices they demand now occur in plain site.