Is There No God (or Religion) in Panem?

The highly anticipated movie, The Hunger Games, based on the Suzanne Collins novel of the same name, has earned huge box office receipts ($155 million on its opening weekend to be exact). After devouring the novels in the trilogy, reading all three in a span of three days, I must admit that I was one of those chomping at the bit to see the movie adaptation. Thought the movie lacks the detail of the book, if you were looking for the movie to remain faithful to the spirit of the book, you will not be disappointed.

Both the movie and the book (I’ll restrict this essay to a discussion of the first book) left me, as a scholar of religion in society, wondering “Is there no God (or religion) in Panem?” For the uninitiated, in this dystopian tale, Panem is the remnant of North America after global environmental catastrophe and a brutal civil war, won by the Capitol. The Capitol, located in the Rocky Mountains (presumably in current day Denver), rules over the other twelve districts of Panem, which are essentially colonies that live in varying degrees of squalor and provide the raw materials and goods necessary for the citizens of the Capitol to live opulently. The Capitol forces each district, as a consequence for starting the civil war, to offer up a male and a female child between the ages of 12 and 18 to fight to the death in the Hunger Games every year. While one can interpret the actual Hunger Games as a religious-like ritual, Panem itself seems to be devoid of religion. There is no God or gods, no prayers, no houses of worship, no sacred texts, and the like. Even the stories told in Panem of the North America that was, are devoid of religion.

I do not mean to imply that there are no religious themes in The Hunger Games. Quite the contrary. As Diana Butler Bass and Julie Clawson (spoiler alert, don’t read Clawson’s article if you don’t want to know anything beyond the first part of the trilogy) point out, The Hunger Games is profoundly theological. Bass suggests that in asking us to consider “the limits of freedom of violence as a way of freedom and redemption,” the story is “spiritual, but not religious.” Clawson claims that the story is one of self-sacrificial love, the kind of love which “nurtures and builds instead of tears down.” Notwithstanding these theological interpretations of the moral of The Hunger Games, I find it curious that in a post-apocalyptic world, religion would have no role in society. Where did it go? How did it die? What, if not religion, inspires the peoples of Panem to search and discover meaning? Is that even a thought or option in such a place as this, especially in the Districts of Panem?

One potential explanation for the nonexistence of religion in Panem may be that the story, particularly the novel, is told from the perspective of Katniss Everdeen, the 16-year heroine of the series. We are given a sixteen year old’s understanding of the sociopolitical situation in Panem, informed by Katniss’ anger, despair, and sense of hopelessness about life in Panem’s outermost district. If religion does exist in Panem, I doubt Katniss would be much interested in it anyway and since we only know what Katniss knows or thinks about, religion and God are absent.

Another potential explanation may be that science has killed religion. In The Hunger Games, the Capitol has a fleet of cloaked hovercrafts that can appear out of nowhere, forcefield technology, the ability and willingness to create genetic mutations (called muttations), and the like. This latter point is especially interesting because religion has often worked against this type of genetic manipulation, especially of humans, claiming that humanity has no right to “play God” in this manner. The seeming lack of objection or shame in creating such monsters suggests that science has played a part in eliminating belief in God or religion.

A final potential explanation of the absence of God (or religion) in Panem may be that the Capitol has destroyed the artifacts of the religions of Panem and prohibits religious worship. If that is the case, how does the Capitol prevent the Districts from succumbing to the despair of their oppressive conditions? The answer lies in the meaning and significance of the Games, themselves.

Through the eyes of Katniss, the novel cements the idea that the Hunger Games’ chief purpose is to psychologically torture the Districts, reinforcing the Capitol’s superiority over them. Though the movie is mostly faithful to showing us Panem through Katniss’ eyes, it does deviate from this particular perspective on occasion. One such occasion in the movie makes more explicit a subtext to the Games that is not as apparent in the book.

That scene is a conversation between President Snow (played by Donald Sutherland) and Head Gamemaker Seneca Crane (played by Wes Bentley) after Katniss has thrilled the citizens of the Capitol as the girl who caught fire, and impressed the gamemakers in her skills showcase, earning a score of 11 out of 10. President Snow confronts the Crane about the high score and reveals something about the nature and purpose of the Hunger Games that we are not privy to in the novel. President Snow tells the Head Gamemaker that the Capitol does not need the Games to threaten and intimidate the districts, they could just randomly round up people and execute them to do that. The Games serve to give the Districts hope, but not too much. A little hope keeps the Districts in line, too much hope sparks a rebellion, too little hope breeds a lack of productivity and despair. President Snow warns Seneca Crane that the rising popularity of the tributes from District 12 may be inspiring too much hope in the Districts.

This scene reveals the Games to be not only a form of punishment for the Districts, but a religious ritual designed to inspire enough hope within the Districts to prevent the desire of rebellion against the Capitol from fermenting. The Games are an opportunity to bring glory to one’s District and to potentially ease the burden on one’s family. Additionally, the Capitol potentially provides heroes for each District if their tributes perform nobly, even in death. One could glean this from the novels, especially when considering the existence of the Careers (tributes from the Districts closer to the Capitol who are groomed to fight in the Games), but it is certainly more explicit in the movie.

This scene in the movie invites us to think about religious-like rituals in our own society that smother the desire for meaningful social change by providing a glimmer of hope without addressing the root of social problems. One such ritual, though not as life and death as a staged battle to the death, is the charter school lottery. As depicted in the documentary film, The Lottery (2010), charter school lotteries offer the hope that a student can escape an inferior public school system. While those swept up in the Reaping in The Hunger Games are doomed, those left out of the reaping of charter school lotteries seem to be doomed as well. The glimmer of hope offered by charter school lotteries (and charter schools themselves) sidesteps the incredibly complex and difficult political task of improving public education for all. It is a ritual that does not address the real problem of failing public schools and helps keep the status quo in place. Society is not well served by half-measures that inspire a meager hope by providing opportunities for some, but not all. It is even worse off when even the half-measure is bitter opposed by those with greater access and ability to fend for themselves (the Affordable Care Act, currently before the Supreme Court, serves as an example of this). If the absence of an explicit religion in the world of Panem reveals anything for us today, it is that religion potentially has a positive role to play in facilitating social justice or conversations about the greater common good. Religion most certainly doesn’t always operate in this manner, but that does not mean that it ought to be regulated solely to the private sphere. For me, religion provides language and symbolism that can help us move towards a more just society, even if that sense of justice is must be ultimately sketched out in a purely secular framework.

So back to my original query, “Is there no God (or religion) in Panem?” We can’t be sure either way, but I feel comfortable in declaring that Panem could have used a little bit more of religion as a motivating force in bringing an end to the oppressive reign of the Capitol.

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