Posts Tagged ‘American Gods’

Lately, I’ve been watching the new television show called American Gods (based on the Neil Gaiman novel of the same name). Whilst being a fantasy and mythological drama, I found it to resonate quite subtly to our confusing and ever-changing political landscape. One of the central premises of the novel is that the mythological gods (such as the Norse God Odin and Egyptian gods such as Anubis) that once dominated our thinking and lifestyle have lost their power to newer and more modern powers, such as the ‘power of technology’ and the ‘power of the media’. Which got me thinking, isn’t that a closer representation of the societies  that exists in the ‘western world’?

american gods

The God “Media” from American Gods. Has new media technology taken the place of traditional religion?

In the UK, the power of the Church and Christianity itself has significantly lost the ability to influence its members, and many citizens no longer identify themselves with Christianity. A recent report has been published which outlines that since 2009, the amount of non-secular religious people have always outnumbered Christians. Now of course we can’t use this an absolute barometer to measure the types of religiosity in the UK, but it may indicate that we have moved to new forms of ‘religion’.  For example, our obsession with social networking and social media has reached record high levels; to the extent that many young people hold on to their smartphones with same precious sacredness as priests do with religious texts. And whilst materialism has always been prevalent since the beginning of mankind, the evolution of technology has enabled us to embrace a greater diversity of items than ever before. This has also affected the way in which we access our media; with the relatively recent introduction of 24hr rolling news stations we have the ability to surround ourselves with sensational and false news stories that many people consider to be gospel.

However, there is a sign that things are changing. Whilst these new powerful forces dominate our current public and private sphere, older ideologies and forces are making themselves more relevant. In particular, Nationalism. Nationalism, has been what many would call a ‘sleeping giant’ during the past couple of decades, the rise of the Alternative-Right and the populist demand for ‘sovereignty’ has unleashed Nationalism back on the social scene. And just like the power of Technology, Social media and even Christianity. Nationalism is in a way like a religion, it requires support and devotion towards a vision of a preferred environment. Nationalism often (but not always) operates in a religion by transcending our material needs; it can often provide a spiritual purpose by uniting different types towards a theory of how the world should be.

In this short passage, the American Academic Carlton Hayes, eloquently outlines the interchangeable aspects of both conventional religion and nationalism:

“Nationalism, viewed as a religion, has much in common with other great religious systems of the past. It has, for example, a god….one’s fatherland, one’s national state.”

“Nationalism, like any religion, calls into play not simply the will, but the intellect, the imagination, and the emotions. The intellect constructs a speculative theology or mythology of nationalism. The imagination builds an unseen world around the eternal past and the everlasting future of one’s nationality. The emotions feed the theological virtues of faith, hope, and filial love of the national god, who is all-good and all-protecting. For nationalism, again like any other religion, is to a large extent a social function, and its chief rites are public rites, performed in the name and for the salvation of the whole community.”

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Is this true? To what extent are nationalism and religion linked?

There has been much talk about the UK being a godless and secular state, but the re-emerging rise of nationalism as well as the forces of technology and media demonstrate that we still share a devotion to religion, just not in the traditional sense of belief. However, if Nationalism is becoming relevant in today’s political discussion, it can’t be assumed day that traditional religion will not resurface on the political scene. This could present a dramatic shift in the way we perceive our roles in society, there are several historical precedents in British history which indicate that this could either be a positive or detrimental to the idea of a progressive society.

There were several instances in the seventeenth century when religion revolutionised not only our political system but our political culture as well. Lets start with the death of Elizabeth I, her reign is often seen as one of prosperity and stability. Her religious reforms as well as her strengths in longevity (one of our longest living monarchs) and administration made Protestantism as the established religion in British culture. But her death created a succession crisis which threatened to possibly bring Catholicism back on the political agenda. Elizabeth’s cousin James I took the reigns and displayed strong political skills in keeping England relatively harmonious, but the hostility between Protestants and Catholics never reduced throughout the seventeenth century. The Gunpowder plot of 1604 was the first of many violent attempts by religious non-conformists to overthrow the establishment. The entire political political elite then increased their intensity of persecutions against Catholics which then provided the basis for the “English Civil War” that occurred in the 1630s, 40s and 50s. Prior to the Stuarts taking the throne, Britain was relatively stable due to Protestantism facing no serious challenges throughout Elizabeth’s reign. But the Stuarts had reopened a box of religious turmoil and tension that led to both James I and his son Charles taking oppressive measures against their subjects. It was not until the English Civil War, when English and Scottish subjects started to witness progressive effects of religious politics.

During the 1640s, a new political group emerged from the crisis between Charles I and his parliament. This group who called themselves the Levellers, criticised the oppressive religious reforms that Charles I had implemented and called for a new policy of religious liberty and tolerance. But interestingly, the levellers claimed that this liberty was a fundamental part of English identity; they claimed the evidence for this rested with the civil liberties and freedoms that previous English medieval Kings and Queens had endorsed. However, this progressive thinking was eventually crushed by Oliver Cromwell a pious protestant who used conservative politics as well his military reputation to quell all anti-establishment thinking. During the later part of the century, the relationship between British politics, religion and national identity intensified significantly. In the 1670s and 1680s, Stuart monarchs came under particular pressure for their close relationship with Catholic monarchs across Europe. There was a growing fear of Catholic Monarchs attempting to invade England with the help of a Stuart Monarch. It is important to remember that this was during a time when the conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism often spilled over into a xenophobic conflict between England and Catholic France. England had historically found it difficult to engage with their European neighbours in a positive manner as it wasn’t just France, but Spain and even Scotland were often targeted by the English as potential threats.

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Religious non-conformists burnt at the stake during the Tudor period. Could this be a possible future for British society?

There were however were some turning points towards the end of the seventeenth century; Charles II decided to welcome many French protestants who were seeking a safer and more prosperous life away from a French Catholic state. The way in which French immigrants were welcomed is in stark comparison with the way Theresa’s Mays government has handled the influx of EU nationals and non-EU nationals in the UK.  In the 1680s and 90s French immigrants had security and stability from the government;

“From 1689 to 1693 King William and Queen Mary allocated the (French Protestant) refugees a sum of £39,00 from the Civil List, the so-called ‘Royal Bounty’. This was supported by Parliament which provided a precedent for further grants”

This is in stark comparison with the way Theresa May has used immigrants as a political football in the Brexit negotiations and also in terms of developing a patriotic agenda to gain votes.

The decision that Theresa May has made and supported over the last few years, to effectively deport non-eu nationals who were earning less than £35,000 was seen as an ethical mistake which is unfair to immigrants.

Josh Harbord, the British citizen behind the Stop35k campaign which has attracted the support of SNP, Labour and Green MPs. “I don’t want to live in a country that values people’s incomes over people’s contributions to society.”

The measure has also been deemed discriminatory for British natives on the basis of gender, age and region. A spokesperson from the Migration Observatory has claimed that; “Any policy which places a financial threshold on the ability of someone to bring a partner into the country naturally discriminates against those who earn less, particularly women, those who don’t live in London and young people”. It can only be seen as a regressive decline, that immigration is now perceived as a potential threat to our economy and society. Indeed, it also seems as though some ministers are actually willing to use religious extremism as a way to subvert the law. A former military officer and a member of the joint intelligence committee has claimed that any potential religious extremists should be deported even if they are innocent to avoid future catastrophes.

If we believe that they pose a threat to us then they have to be got rid of. They should not be here any longer… Some of them may be innocent but I would rather take that risk than I would risk having dead children on our streets…..It was counterproductive in Northern Ireland but we can do it in a different way than we did it in Northern Ireland and make sure it is both productive and effective.

The idea of Muslim being deported because they happened to speak to an extremist at a mosque or a somebody having their citizenship status revoked because they happened to visit an Jihadi website is a dangerous prospect. Furthermore, this idea gives intelligence agencies the power to work outside of the law, it is also a draconian idea that harps back to the time of the Gunpowder plot where Catholics and other ‘undesirables’ could be exiled from a country based on either word of mouth or little to no evidence.

There is also plenty of evidence of how religion has affected the way in which we interact with politics in the later centuries of British history.  The eighteenth century has often been viewed as the year that succeeded a hundred years of religious wars. In fact religion made its mark on our political system but in a much more profound and subtle way. Historians have spoken favourably about how the British economy developed due to a rising middle class that was engaged in alternative religious groups.

“The emergence of an evangelical approach to religion and utilitarian attitudes to ‘practical’ philosophy lay at the root of the middling orders claim to political power as well as reinforcing their growing economic dominance”

This evangelical approach to religion often led to the creation of denominational churches such as Methodism, Baptist Churches and Quaker churches. All of these churches initially rose in the seventeenth century due to a political upheaval of the ‘English Civil War’; but two factors led to the widespread growth of middle class non-conformism. Firstly, the liberation of censorship towards the end of seventeenth century allowed for various religious groups to develop and grow. In 1695, the licensing act meant that there was no more censorship before publication which meant that people could now access different forms of worship that were outside of the Church of England. As the Historian Castillo notes

Conventional methods to suppress printed material or books that threatened accepted religion were not much of a benefit in this period

The new found wealth that the middle classes had acquired from the rise of trade within the British colonial empire combined with the relaxation in censorship created the time and the respectability for other forms of religion to be explored. This revolutionised the eighteenth century from what was known as an Ancien Regime(old regime) of Church and monarchy towards a period of relative liberty that helped to usher in the enlightenment and the move towards rationalism and scientific theories.  These movements towards modernity are particular interesting when we consider the decision taken by the government to enforce censorship-type laws over the internet: the conservative manifesto has stated that Some people say that it is not for government to regulate when it comes to technology and the internet…we disagree”This is dangerously close to the justification  of censorship in the UK which is also an inadvertent method of clamping down on free speech.  May has expressed pride in her policy of moving the fight from the “battlefield to the internet” and also “to halt the spread of extremist material and hateful propaganda that is warping young minds”. I have already mentioned previously in this blog about the problems of clamping down on “hate speech”. But I believe the same logic applies in this instance; the use of terms like “extremist material” and “hateful propaganda” are still subjective terms which are open to interpretation and are in no way concrete in their meaning or purpose. The eighteenth century thus provides a good example of how the economy and civil liberties combined to provide a diversity of religious fervour, those principles of social freedom are now being challenged by today’s government using the excuse of “religious terrorism”.

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John Wesley was one of many radical religious nonconformists who rose to popularity.

In my opinion, the nineteenth century provides a good example of how religious politics could work in a progressive manner for Britain. Whereas the 17th century demonstrated how religion dismantled and replaced political systems in England and Scotland. The eighteenth century explained how religion was able to bring about a new set of liberal social changes to British society. The eighteenth century shared some of these developments as religion was adopted as a political and social movement to transform the welfare of society based on a sense of moral obligation to the people. As Prochaska stated:

The Victorians, who believed that Britain’s greatness rested on Christian foundation, assumed that religion and the public good were inextricably linked. It was axiomatic, as one social campaigner declared in 1800, that charity could only be effectively exercised under the influence of ‘sacred principle’.

These acts of christian charity were often delivered by the British middle class and their influence was seen in many sections of British life. Including health, education and politics. For example, many evangelical movements including the Quaker helped to inspire a pacifist movement against the British Empire involvement in the Napoleonic wars. This movement helped to garner a sense of respectability due to the involvement of notable and credible figures from the political scene. A Reverend called Henry Richard became an MP during his tenure as leader for the Peace Society, and attempted to contribute towards some progressive legislation in education, health and housing. He attempted to put an end to landowners evicting tenants in Wales who voted for their political opponents, as a non conformist his support for religious liberty often matched his support political liberty. He also had a strong support for welsh nationalism and saw education as a means to improve the morals of society; he was a member of both the royal commission on education and another committee which oversaw intermediate education in Wales. During his membership, he helped to create the University of Wales and helped to establish  a scheme to ensure that the Welsh language was being used in elementary schools appropriately.

Most interestingly, when Henry was allowed to vote on a new education bill in 1870, he actually refused to approve it because of a conscience clause which encouraged the idea of religious teaching in elementary schools. Richard refused to agree with this mainly because he thought that “religious instruction should be supplied by voluntary effort and not out of public funds“. Henry provides some interesting insight in the way some Victorians perceived the relationship between church and State. Here we can witness not the avocation of a secular state, but a nation that is supported by a grassroots religious fervour as opposed to a state-led approach to religion. Furthermore it also suggests a certain level of religious liberty, as it is down to an individual or a group to introduce their religious belief outside of government interference. For the Victorians, this was especially progressive particularly during an era when blasphemous beliefs such as Catholicism and Atheism were seen as dangerous subjects that were adopted by their arch enemy; the French.

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Charity Relieving Distress – Thomas Gainsborough. How can we become more charitable in today’s society?

Furthermore, I believe the actions of Henry Richard do provide some sort of support for society that is not dominated and controlled by a central government. Henry’s time was one where the local parish had a greater influence over the surrounding communities, particularly in terms of welfare and worship. The parish still had close ties to the central government in terms of foreign policy and taxation but the citizens of the parish still had greater influence of the identity of the local character  and the I also believe it demonstrates a world where the forces of nationalism, religion and a relative equality can co-exist peacefully and without division. In today’s society we have a regional divide where some northern communities have expressed the lack of integration between Asian Islamic neighbourhoods and the more traditional predominately white areas in Northern England. The division has been fuelled by a fear that traditional British customs and values are being eroded and replaced by foreign ones and that Islamic neighbourhoods are undergoing a culture of xenophobia against their way of life. Some may say this also coincides with the issues surrounding immigration and the strain of public services.

Wouldn’t it better if we had a decentralised system where local governments had the ability to allocate resources in a much more appropriate away?  Local governments would have the authority to undertake measures that could improve the cultural harmony of the community rather than having to deal with the bureaucracy of state governments, this is particularly true in terms of education and the way our national curriculum caters towards a generic sense of Britishness rather than taking into account the various regional characters across Britain. Some may argue that is could only create a broken Britain, but this isn’t necessarily true. As Henry Richard did in the Victorian times, Members of parliament will and should still be able to address their grievances to Parliament in order to share and understand the problems of the nation, but local governments would have a greater power in tackling their issues more decisively.

In the wake of recent terrorist attacks in London and Manchester, the forces of technology and the media are ever present in our society. They have become godlike in their ability capture attention and to distribute critical information in manner that could not be have been foreseen decades ago. They have the power to control what we understand about the world and also the power to change the way we perceive each other. The room then for bias, sensationalism and inaccuracy is particularly unwelcome as we approach one the most important general elections in decades. There is a tendency for some media and technology outlets to exploit brutal atrocities and twist our information to suit a particular narrative, this can result in an increasing feeling of paranoia and ignorance towards certain social groups in society. Because of this, I believe that a certain wave of (Anglo)Christianity could sweep the nation as people search for new ways to be compassionate and patriotic at the same time. Islamic immigrants have given Britain a level of diversity that has improved the cultural awareness of many of our citizens but it has blurred our sense of a British identity. Historically, Britain has always been a beacon for many different belief systems to come and visit, this diversity has allowed us to become a creative nation but it has also made us prone to division and conflict. This need for us to conform to a distinctive national identity whilst at the same allowing us to be harmonious and peaceful with one another could be fulfilled by Christianity. It has enough historical roots in this country for it be a part of British patriotism but it also has the ability in enabling us to be compassionate and merciful to one another. As I’ve explained earlier this suggestion is not a straightforward one, there are plenty of  historical examples of Christianity being used to divide us and turn us into a fragmented nation. I am only predicating possibilities, not certainties. But with the rise of Far-right populism and also a desire for universal harmony it is inevitable that we will have to search for news in caring for each other. Could Christianity be that answer?

 

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