What we believe, regardless of its validity, is often more powerful than reality itself. In most cases, belief is powerful means to a net-positive end: you can believe in yourself, the goodness in other people, and in the work you’re doing to improve the world. But when it comes to absolute belief above reason or outside context? That’s when you get into sticky territory. Systems of belief are deeply personal and therefore hard to talk about without bias or feelings getting in the way—and in a time when fervor around them drives so much of the social and political conversation (either as an undercurrent or more explicitly), it makes sense our television shows would take a stab at upending the power of belief and questioning its true power.
And there is no greater example of the power of belief than the OG power-holder over human thought itself: religion.
Religious depiction has often toed a cautious Touched by an Angel or 7th Heaven line, mostly out of fear of disrespecting or upsetting viewers that are also believers. But the new wave of television coming this spring is slated to bring that conversation, loudly, to the forefront. Returning series like The Leftovers, and the scienced-up religion behind the nefarious baddies of BBC America’s Orphan Black (Neolution) will be joined by a new class of rabblerousers, American Gods and Handmaid’s Tale, which take the look at belief and religion forward in their depiction of belief on TV. Where The Leftovers and Orphan Black ruminate on the idea of evangelism and the power of faith, Starz’s American Gods and Hulu’s Handmaid’s Tale look at what happens when you weaponize that power to not only control the believers, but the social mechanics of the world itself.
Which is to say, they tear ideology D-O-W-N.
The arguments for and against religion are perhaps the most heated a group of people could have given how many ways they could go (often poorly). There’s an oft-misquoted line that feels relevant to one side of that discussion: “Religion is … the opium of the people.” But that was only part of the Karl Marx quote. It continues, also categorizing religion as “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.” To that end, there’s a bit more compassion regarding the mindset of any believer; there’s no one right or wrong way to believe something. Belief can be good—it can be a powerful light in the dark. But there is a danger that comes with belief gaining absolute, unchecked power over truth, and that’s a supply you may not want to get high on.
Enter: the Republic of Gilead. Much like American Gods, Handmaid’s Tale also started out as a novel. Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian tale takes place in a future that begins in 2016, where fertile women are few and far between, and world populations are rapidly declining. Fear drives the belief that the human race is at risk of extinction and a 180-degree shift in governing ideology is made—thus the Handmaids (a set of women forced by the government to carry babies for infertile families) are born. The resulting upheaval of America’s federal democratic republic for something far more religiously focused comes from its leaders’ belief that their concerns are valid enough to warrant domineering an entire gender. Gilead is about the future, but it’s also about the past, believing a return to fundamentalism will save America and the world. Caring is sharing, and what better way to care for the future than to mandate that all women who can have children share that “blessing” with the women who cannot? (Because in Gilead, infertility is woman’s problem and no one else’s.)
Sounds like a noble sacrifice on paper, doesn’t it?
But it also comes with major consequences placed—surprise, surprise—squarely on women. In Gilead, all women are barred from working or owning property, and Handmaids are forbidden from even having their own names (the Of-prefix is attached to the name of the man of the house, et voilà! this is who you are now); they are forced to relinquish all money and personal autonomy (bodily or otherwise) they have, returning them to the baby-having, man-owned subservient pieces of property that the older portions of the Bible really loved. And that’s the thing about belief: it’s up for interpretation, it changes over time, and it’s largely unreliable as a finite source for anything. There are nearly as many iterations of Christianity as people who identify as Christians, and within those iterations exists an infinite grey area in which followers can tailor belief to their own personal values. When you force that narrow view on others, though, it becomes a weapon against free will.
But then there is the other side of the coin: American Gods, which glorifies interpretation and lives in the grey area of belief, pondering just how far belief can take you.
At its heart, Bryan Fuller and Michael Green’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s novel is a pastiche of American culture, a send-up of the myriad beliefs and melting pot of religions that make up this singular nation. But under the surface of all that chaos an even deeper, more nefarious war rages: one between the old gods and the new. What happens when a new class of gods hits the scene, gobbles up everyone’s devotion, and belief in the old way dies out? And what will gods do to get or stay on top? Pretty much anything by any means necessary. Lying, cheating, stealing, manipulating, creating the illusion that their motives are wholly pure and those on the other side are not—nothing’s off limits. Because these gods may walk among us, but they live in an alternative reality and a world ruled by the power of belief. And when a god in a position of power must find new means to gain the power they’ve lost and keep it on their side, they’ll go to great lengths to ensure survival by channeling people’s greatest fears. Sound familiar?
The beauty of American Gods is that it tackles all of these ideas without ever admonishing the idea of having beliefs or people who hold said beliefs. How could they know they’re pawns in a game being played over their heads? What American Gods dismantles is belief as a power source, religion as that conduit, and the actions people take in the name of those beliefs regardless of veracity. American Gods believes that something CAN be real just because you believe it—and that makes it scarier than you may realize. It’s a big difference that’s hard to properly express outside of allegory, to be frank, because admonishing religious belief always makes people feel personally attacked.
And Mr. Wednesday, a very famous Old God in his own right (no spoilers from us as to whom—Google it if you want to know!), certainly feels attacked by the new heroes of worship, Media and Technology. But luckily for him, it’s easy to oppose forces that represent so much of what society deems trivial, divisive, and inconsequential. Particularly when embodied by Technical Boy (a walking subreddit, sculpted by 4chan, vaping on your trigger warnings and hot takes, played by Bruce Langley) and Media (the face on every screen, embodied by foolhardy characters like Lucille Ball and Marilyn Monroe and David Bowie—played by Gillian Anderson).
But when motives are revealed, the means by which some characters want it all to end may change your beliefs. So what does that say about any of us? If there’s power in belief, is it just as valuable as fact? Unlike fact, belief is malleable. Laying at your feet the more existential questions—If belief is real and powerful, should we take it so lightly? Is religion truly a source of good? Should belief overpower truth? And if so, when is that okay? And if not, what are we going to do about it when there’s no one single evil force to join together to battle?—American Gods demands you take this battle to your own house, your own belief systems, and ways of thinking.
Most peoples’ views on religion stems from personal experience and external judgments, which are as varied as the myriad schools of religious thought that exist. In a time when the separation between church and state is increasingly blurred, when lies are accepted as truth and the truth is believed to be a lie, it feels chaotic but ultimately harmless. The truth, in the end, will always find a way because it’s real: right? These are huge, nuanced conversations that are made all the more difficult because they’re nearly inextricable from a person’s feelings about them. So how are we supposed to do it, when the propensity for damage—to the truth, to belief, to relationships, and so much more—rises exponentially?
Why not through TV—our current opiate of choice?
This is exactly why these shows need to exist. We need an exaggerated look at the thing in question to gain perspective on it, to relate it to the modern world. TV storytelling bridges that divide obfuscated by religion and/or belief, probably even more so than film because it plays a longer, more nuanced game. It’s removed enough from reality to not feel like an attack. Personal biases are eliminated by the knowledge that the world you’re watching is not real, and the emotions that drive that particular conversation forward in the real world are rendered moot on screen. Suddenly that which was once taboo becomes all the less entirely.
The power of religion is real and, in many cases, a real force for good. But when belief supersedes facts in society, no one—not even the people in power—ultimately win. In the world of Handmaid’s Tale and American Gods, belief is about control, power, conviction, and the repercussions that such ardent beliefs gives rise to. They’re proof—as are all of these shows—that we must remain vigilant in the face of proselytizing of any kind. To not question what is presented to us as fact doesn’t show them respect or deference, but rather gives unchecked power to those putting these ideas forth. And only if we dismantle the idea of that power do we find reality.
Belief of any kind should not pass without scrutiny — lest you end up on the wrong side of history.
Image Credits: Hulu, Starz, BBC America, HBO