From the Mouths of Atheists: Faith Lessons from Terry Pratchett

In creating the Discworld, Terry Pratchett set for himself an interesting problem for an atheist of his era: he created a world where gods are a reality. From an artist’s perspective, this is no particular problem at all. Pratchett made what I call a Syncretic Overlay world, where he took all the great legends, myths, and folktales that have landed on Western shores, brought them together into a single fictional universe and placed them upon an early industrial age London (Ankh-Morpork)–which, over time, expanded to other parts of England, Europe, and our world, as well as various dimensions of time and space. As gods are a key part of the sources of Pratchett’s Discworld Imaginarium, gods are a part of the Discworld.

What is unusual about Discworld is that it contains within it an internal logic so that gods come into existence through belief, rather than the other way around. It is a creative machine that gives animated life to the stock answer from anthropology of the last few generations. An atheist today might say that as humans, we invent gods that exist only as a projection of our humanity or as a database for hopes and dreams or as a cultural coping mechanism. Those gods are no more real than the worlds that writers make.

In Pratchett’s Discworld, however, the gods actually come alive as belief grows. In this way, the lesson from anthropology fuels Discworld’s reality: the gods actually come to life as belief grows and they diminish belief falters. On a metaphorical level, this is not unlike Pratchett’s own view. When asked whether he believes in God or gods, Pratchett answers this way here (see below):

[Humans are] shaped by the universe to be its consciousness. We tell the universe what it is. In my religion, the building of a telescope is the building of a cathedral. I have no truck whatsoever with Genesis, I was inoculated against the Christian religion by reading the whole of the Old Testament in one go (apart from the begats). And I thought if this were true, we were in the hands of a maniac.

Reading this, it is hard not to hear a modernized version of Granny Weatherwax saying, “I have no truck with the gods.” The interesting problem for an atheist creator of a world like Discworld is that it is difficult to capture unbelief from the perspective of the narrator. Granny Weatherwax may have no truck with the gods, but the gods exist nonetheless. Everyone in Discworld who has any sense to see beyond the pebbles and puffy clouds knows the gods are in various degrees of real. There seems to be a detente between witches and gods, so they each stay off the other’s turf (except when excited Omnian priests were doing their best to burn witches). But Discworld gods exist, if only in an unwritten covenant of correlation with humans.

It is important to note what is missing in Discworld: God, with a capital G, Yahweh, the Unmoved Mover of philosophy, the God above god.

There is the Great God Om, but I think it is actually Omnianism that resembles Christianity rather than Om being like the God of Sarah and Abraham. Omnianism has a state like European Christendom had, and the schismatic nature of the church looks like Protestantism, which has the tendency to splinter like fine wood. In Carpe Jugulum, the schisms reach such a high pitch that they are splitting into global-sized denominations every few minutes. Like the popular belief of Europe’s Christian past, the Omnians had a witch-burning period–though, of course, no real witches would have put up with being burned at the stake. There is a Church of the Latter-Day Omnians, as well as ReUnited Free Chelonianist group, split into the Hubwards and Rimwards conferences. They love handing out tracts (like Jehovah Witnesses, or Campus Crusade for Christ volunteers in the 70s), and there are monastic versions of the religion. The multiplying of Scriptures into the thousands is more like Buddhism, but the Omnian believers we get to know still carry around a single collection of books like Christian or Jewish pilgrims.

But the Great God Om in not like the creator and sustainer God, though he has claimed to be one of the most powerful gods. Instead, Discworld exists in a universe of either unknown origins or infinite regress–theorized in The Colour of Magic, which I talk about here. There is no god that would satisfy philosophers in Discworld, though there are plenty that would satisfy psychologists, anthropologists, classicists, and used car salesmen. In this way, there is a kind of atheism embedded in Discworld.

And yet, I derive great spiritual benefit from these books. Besides the delight of humour and the awe I feel at the feet of a mythopoeic master, I find spiritual lessons embedded everywhere in the series. Honestly, I can’t help including Pratchett in the list of authors that I feel are “near to the kingdom of God.” Don’t think I’m buying into the rumours of conversion that haunt the afterdeath of many great atheists. Though in the video below Pratchett hints at a kind of scientific mysticism, he also denies any belief in the kind of god that is God. I find quite dishonourable the recently popular trend of seeking to posthumously baptize (or unbaptize, or demonize) figures of the past. I have learned much from atheists, and some of my best students have been of that zealous, evangelistic new atheistic streak.

In any case, if I have read history and philosophy aright, Terry Pratchett will have plenty of time to defend his case against God far away from the court of public opinion.

I have only read about 2/3rds of Discworld and am now 1/2way through the 45+ Discworld books and stories in the order they were written. For my money, though, Small Gods and Carpe Jugulum–and to a lesser degree, The Hogfather–are the more sophisticated books in dealing with matters of faith. All three deal with the nature of belief, where “humans tell the universe what it is” (Small Gods) and how belief contains fiction and myth that is each necessary to human experience (The Hogfather). In Small Gods we walk with Om’s last true believer, Brutha, when Om shows up as a tortoise and needs Brutha’s help. In Carpe Jugulum, we meet Mightily Oats.

Mightly Oats, or the Quite Reverend Mightily-Praiseworthy-Are-Ye-Who-Exalteth-Om Oats, is an Omnian missionary who lands in the city-state of Lancre just as it is about to be taken over by vampires (Carpe Jugulum = “Seize the Jugular”). As a recent graduate of seminary, Rev. Oats is seized with indecision. He has a great mind for science and languages and is unforgivably curious. This skill and curiosity led him to the Omnian archive, where he began to note contradictions in the text and parallels between the Omnian stories and those of other religions. This is where atheistic-type texts from The Golden Bough to Bart Ehrman begin, and it is often these kinds of issues that lead my brightest atheistic students away from faith in the first place.

Yet, this is not the fate for Mightily Oats. The spiritual anxiety that Oats’ doubtfulness brews within his own soul creates a double-mindedness that is essential to resisting the hypnotic lure of the hipster vampires that seek to subvert the throne of Lancre and turn its people into cattle. Yet, Pastor Oats is not free to wallow in the sorrow of his doubt. For one, he is driven by a moral courage that overwhelms his intellectual fearfulness. More than that, though, Granny Weatherwax seizes upon him as a surprisingly resourceful companion. As she applies headology at the highest levels against a foe she is certain she cannot beat, Oats is helpful along the way. In this Granny, for all intents and purposes a Discworld atheist, guides Mightily Oats into a critical breakthrough in his faith.

In the scene I include below, Mightly Oats has followed Om’s advice in Scripture that he should bring a light into dark places: he faithfully brings light by burning the Scriptures for heat and light as he and Granny were freezing to death. Watch how Granny shapes Oats, whose double-mindedness had not shaped a critical faith but a slippery one, where truth is like mercury between your fingers. The witch puts the screws to him:

Now if I’d seen [the god, Om], really there, really alive, it’d be in me like a fever. If I thought there was some god who really did care two hoots about people, who watched ’em like a father and cared for ’em like a mother . . . well, you wouldn’t catch me sayin’ things like “There are two sides to every question,” and “We must respect other people’s beliefs.” You wouldn’t find me just being gen’rally nice in the hope that it’d all turn out right in the end, not if that flame was burning in me like an unforgivin’ sword. And I did say burnin’, Mister Oats, ‘cos that’s what it’d be. You say that you people don’t burn folk and sacrifice people any more, but that’s what true faith would mean, y’see? Sacrificin’ your own life, one day at a time, to the flame, declarin’ the truth of it, workin’ for it, breathin’ the soul of it. That’s religion. Anything else is just . . . is just bein’ nice….

This is why Pratchett says in the video, “God help me if I ever become a Christian.” If Pratchett were to be a believer, he would have to be a true believer. If he really believed in God, it would matter. There is a dark tinge to this claim. Mightily Oats trades his holy relic tortoiseshell for a double-edged axe. But he wields the battleaxe as the hard edge of forgiveness and love–something a pamphleteer would not be able or willing to do.

And though Pratchett underestimates the importance of doubt for the formation of faith–how could he understand?–his picture of Mightly Oats is one of genuine, unhypocritical faith. Pratchett captures the essence of faith: laying down your own life, “one day at a time, to the flame.”

If Christians understood the self-sacrificial, steeled-soul principle of faith that this atheist gets, oh what a world it would be.


‘Shame about your little book of holy words. . .’ she said, when she was further down the track. There was a long pause before Oats replied.

‘I can easily get another,’ he said levelly.

‘Must be hard, not having your book of words.’

‘It’s only paper.’

‘I shall ask the King to see about getting you another book of words.’

‘I wouldn’t trouble him.’

‘Terrible thing to have to burn all them words, though.’

‘The worthwhile ones don’t burn.’

‘You’re not too stupid, for all that you wear a funny hat,’ said Granny.

‘I know when I’m being pushed, Mistress Weatherwax.’

‘Well done.’

They walked on in silence. A shower of hail bounced off Granny’s pointy hat and Oats’s wide brim.  Then Granny said, ‘It’s no good you trying to make me believe in Om, though.’

‘Om forbid that I should try, Mistress Weatherwax. I haven’t even given you a pamphlet, have I?’

‘No, but you’re trying to make me think, “Oo, what a nice young man, his god must be
something special if nice young men like him helps old ladies like me,” aren’t you?’

‘No.’

‘Really? Well, it’s not working. People you can believe in, sometimes, but not gods. And I’ll
tell you this, Mister Oats . . .’

He sighed. ‘Yes?’

She turned to face him, suddenly alive. ‘It’d be as well for you if I didn’t believe,’ she said,
prodding him with a sharp finger. ‘This Om . . . anyone seen him?’

‘It is said three thousand people witnessed his manifestation at the Great Temple when he
made the Covenant with the prophet Brutha and saved him from death by torture on the iron turtle-‘

‘But I bet that now they’re arguing about what they actually saw, eh?’

‘Well, indeed, yes, there are many opinions-‘

‘Right. Right. That’s people for you. Now if I’d seen him, really there, really alive, it’d be in me like a fever. If I thought there was some god who really did care two hoots about people, who watched ’em like a father and cared for ’em like a mother . . . well, you wouldn’t catch me sayin’ things like “There are two sides to every question,” and “We must respect other people’s beliefs.” You wouldn’t find me just being gen’rally nice in the hope that it’d all turn out right in the end, not if that flame was burning in me like an unforgivin’ sword. And I did say burnin’, Mister Oats, ‘cos that’s what it’d be. You say that you people don’t burn folk and sacrifice people any more, but that’s what true faith would mean, y’see? Sacrificin’ your own life, one day at a time, to the flame, declarin’ the truth of it, workin’ for it, breathin’ the soul of it. That’s religion. Anything else is just . . . is just bein’ nice. And a way of keepin’ in touch with the neighbours.’

She relaxed slightly, and went on in a quieter voice: ‘Anyway, that’s what I’d be, if I really
believed. And I don’t think that’s fashionable right now, ‘cos it seems that if you sees evil now you have to wring your hands and say, “Oh deary me, we must debate this.” That’s my two penn’orth, Mister Oats. You be happy to let things lie. Don’t chase faith, ‘cos you’ll never catch it.’ She added, almost as an aside, ‘But, perhaps, you can live faithfully.’

Her teeth chattered as a gust of icy wind flapped her wet dress around her legs.

‘You got another book of holy words on you?’ she added.

‘No,’ said Oats, still shocked. He thought: my god, if she ever finds a religion, what would come out of these mountains and sweep across the plains? My god. . . I just said, ‘My god’…

‘A book of hymns, maybe?’ said Granny.

‘No.’

‘A slim volume o’ prayers, suitable for every occasion?’

‘No, Granny Weatherwax.’

‘Damn.’ Granny slowly collapsed backwards, folding up like an empty dress.

He rushed forward and caught her before she landed in the mud. One thin white hand gripped his wrist so hard that he yelped. Then she relaxed, and sagged in his grasp.

Something made Oats look up. A hooded figure sat on a white horse a little way away, outlined in the faintest blue fire.

‘Go away!’ he screamed. ‘You be gone right now or . . . or. . .’

He lowered the body on to some tufts of grass, grabbed a handful of mud and flung it into the gloom. He ran after it, punching wildly at a shape that was suddenly no more than shadows and curling mist.

He dashed back, picked up Granny Weatherwax, slung her over his shoulder and ran on,
downhill.

The mist behind him formed a shape on a white horse. Death shook his head.

IT WASN’T EVEN AS IF I SAID ANYTHING, he said.

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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7 Responses to From the Mouths of Atheists: Faith Lessons from Terry Pratchett

  1. julie dick says:

    That is one of the things that intrigues me about Discworld. There are ‘gods,’ but they’re treated more like superheroes or magicians or something. Prachett may be an avowed atheist, but he’s a good humored one, at least. He treats everything with equal skepticism, instead of contempt, which makes it less painful to read them some other atheist authors.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is a nice way of putting it. He isn’t skeptical about his own skepticism! I haven’t read a lot of anti-religious material (most stories that are about something fail to be good stories). Phil Pullman’s His Dark Materials is brilliant, but I think the structure fails. I haven’t read his other work. I do find Hollywood and pop books tiresome for the hypocritical priest/pastor/do-gooder role. That’s so 14th century!

      Like

  2. Thanks, I will read this article over the weekend, I can’t wait to read about this lesson’s of faith. I head that PBS produced a documentary about the reality of Jesus. i do not know the name of the documental, but my sister called me crying. The documental really art the people that watched it. I will get the name or look for it and will send it to you

    Beatriz Clarke >

    Like

  3. L.A. Smith says:

    I’ve never read Discworld, but have heard a lot of praise about it. I keep thinking I should give it a try…this article intrigues me enough to maybe take the plunge. Hah. Not as committed as I should be, I suppose. 🙂

    Love that quote. It reminds me of a similar one I heard about a man in a prison talking to an evangelist (might have been Chuck Colson, but I forget), saying something along the line that “If I really believed everything that Christianity says about the love of God and the sacrifice of Jesus and the fate of those who do not believe I would travel around the world on my knees to tell them.”

    It does make you ponder, all right.

    Like

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