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How To Kill a God

REVIEW: ‘Accidental Gods: On Men Unwittingly Turned Divine’

Tribesmen hold portraits of Britain's Prince Philip in Yakel, a remote Pacific village on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu that worships Britain's Prince Philip, following the Duke of Edinburgh's death on April 9. (Getty Images)
• January 9, 2022 5:00 am

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There’s something thrilling about college seminars taught by eccentric professors.

If you’ve ever taken one, you know the feeling. You always feel a step behind, and you’re never sure where things are going. You’re not entirely sure if the professor has a point, and think you disagree with whatever that point may be. But you keep coming back week after week, and not just because you need the credit.

Reading Anna Della Subin’s Accidental Gods feels a lot like taking such a course. A meandering, dazzlingly written debut, the book is ostensibly a treatise "On Men Unwittingly Turned Divine." From Christopher Columbus to Mahatma Gandhi, Subin guides the reader through centuries of alleged apotheoses, and attempts to convey why people choose to deify their fellow man.

But like the seminars around which so many dark academic novels are built, there is a more radical argument buried deep within the book. Between quirky anecdotes and academic digressions, Subin makes a case against the Enlightenment, Christianity, and other pillars of Western thought. At first glance an encyclopedia of curiosities, Accidental Gods is ultimately an attempt to dismantle belief.

The book begins with a survey of three 20th-century figures worshiped as gods: Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, General Douglas MacArthur, and Britain’s Prince Philip. Subin clearly groups these figures to show the common features of accidental god worship.

Notably, all three cults seem to have sprung up simultaneously, and in multiple locations at once. The Rastafarian faith, which holds Selassie as its "Living God," emerged in Ethiopia and Jamaica at the same time. One of the book’s strongest chapters shows how MacArthur was independently deified in Panama, Japan, South Korea, and on an island off the coast of Indonesia.

There are other similarities. Followers of Selassie and Philip recklessly abandoned money and possessions in anticipation of the imminent eschaton. All three men actively disavowed their godhood, but seemed to revel in the worship. And of course, all three men—the autocratic Selassie, the egomaniacal MacArthur, and the bumbling Philip—were painfully, notoriously human.

Subin, who studied the history of religion at Harvard Divinity School, could likely say much about these overlaps. But she drops the thread in the book’s second section, turning instead to the British Raj to argue that our contemporary notions of racism and religion developed commensurately—and are inextricably linked.

This section is quite inconsistent, veering between bland tales of deified British soldiers and questionable digressions on the Nazi philosopher Carl Schmitt. But it also includes the book’s best parts, on the too-crazy-to-believe tale of Theosophy, a mystical religion founded by a pedophile and a crackpot whose adherents included a young Gandhi.

The book’s third and final section shows "how whiteness was deified in the new world." Its subjects are conquistadors who encouraged ideas of their divinity among natives, and exaggerated the extent to which natives worshiped them in order to justify their exploits. This final section is essentially an extended theoretical essay that traces the roots and implications of modern man-worship to the colonization of the Americas.

Cultural studies that attempt to cover as much ground as Accidental Gods tend to begin with the author’s general argument and proceed through specific examples. Subin has inverted this structure, placing the most specific and contemporary examples at the top of the book and working backwards to her grand operating theory.

It’s an oddly unhelpful framing for a book that traverses time, place, and discipline. So odd, in fact, that it calls attention to itself.

Subin is a meticulous stylist with a deep knowledge of her subject. The fact that she framed her study in such a way as to obfuscate her thesis invites us to consider what that structure might mean. It invites us to trace what the classicist Seth Benardete called "the argument of the action" of the book.

In the beginning, Subin seems very sympathetic to 20th-century worshipers of flawed, white, male figures. She rebuffs Western commentators who criticize these "cargo cults" as savage or misguided, drawing out their similarities with Christianity and pointing out the ostensibly illogical elements of Enlightenment thought. The subtext is clear: Western adherence to the teachings of Christ and Locke likely seems ridiculous to islanders who worship unlikable British monarchs.

On its own, this is standard multicultural fare. But by the end of the book, Subin has shown the colonial roots of such worship and dismisses it as a relic of internalized racism. Along the way, she bludgeons religion, whether by insistently discussing it as an anthropological phenomenon or by engaging in the Schmittian fallacy of reducing "the divine" to political power. One by one she pillories various "gods," so by the end of the book there seems to be nothing left to believe in.

If Subin’s aim hasn’t already become clear, she makes it so in the book’s final section.

"Deicide is on my mind," she writes in the book’s penultimate chapter, appropriately titled "How to Kill a God." By "rewriting history … breaking open syllables so that whatever is sacred inside spills out," she predicts that "white gods will fall like raindrops." And it appears she has her sights set on one god in particular.

The book’s final chapter, "Liberation (Last Rights)," is a brief examination of Christian debates about God and race. It is the only part of the book that discusses Christianity head-on, and it turns on a single question: "Is God a White Racist?" The answer, at least according to the theologians quoted therein, is an unequivocal "yes."

Subin paraphrases "two scholar-activists in the Black Lives Matter movement" who conclude that "the only possible response" to such an unsettling conclusion "is atheism: not the traditional refutation of the existence of God, but a humanism that refuses the deification of the state."

These days, there’s nothing particularly subversive about a book that reduces religion to politics and Christianity to racism, nor a book that calls for a bland form of secular humanism. Accidental Gods is shocking not because of Subin’s arguments, but because she takes great pains to conceal them. Clearly, even this avatar of the new atheism knows that some gods still wield power.

Suspect arguments notwithstanding, Accidental Gods is a compelling menagerie of fantastical tales and exotic ideas. Subin may be wrong about religion and society, but she is interestingly, thoughtfully wrong. And like the best college seminar, she certainly gives us plenty to think about.

Accidental Gods: On Men Unwittingly Turned Divine
by Anna Della Subin
Metropolitan Books, 480 pp., $35

Published under: Book reviews