Religion and Atheism within Terry Pratchet’s Discworld Novels.

“The Discworld, being a flat disc supported on the backs of four elephants on top of a giant flying turtle, exists in a region of the universe where reality is somewhat less consistent than it appears in our own, more mundane corner of existence. Because reality on the Disc is so fragile and malleable, belief has a tendency to take on a life of its own, and Gods are far more obvious to the people of the Disc than they appear to us.”

Terry Pratchets discworld series is strongly atheistic and humanist despite the factual existence of gods within it.  The various gods are used as metaphors for both powerful human beings as well as for organised religion in general. This is best shown in lifecycle of gods who exist as powerless microscopic spirits who are strengthened by human imagination that allows them to transform into ancient Greek-style gods. If they are forgotten the gods shrivel back to their former state, resulting in the gods needing human worship to stay alive. This means that the gods function as a metaphor for organised religion.

Throughout the entire series of books there is a general themes that the various gods are nuisance. No intelligent characters are shown worshipping them or tacking them seriously.  They habitual drop lighting bolts on people who deny their existence or overly reject them.  Their are offhand reference to gods in the past ordering their followers to commit genocde of unbelievers or starting holy wars to spread the faith.

When the Gods are shown onscreen they are no better. The powerful gods are depicted living on mount Dunmanifesting (like Mount Olympus) where they entertain themselves by treating the mundane world as giant board game where humans are simply game pieces and props.  The lesser gods are obsessed with their own morality and obtaining power, committing atrocities in order to gain become safe.  All gods shown are utterly amoral, caring nothing about the lives of other lesser beings.

This critique is so effective because it is based in exaggerating real religious ideas of gods. The major ones shown are taking the metaphors of gods as high status human to its logical conclusion, showing that power causes corruption and amorality. The gods are far too human, performing miracles only to compete with one another for power/status and doing nothing to improve the world below them (Theodicy).

On a more religious friendly note, while faith is shown to strengthten gods, legalism is shown to weaken them. In “Small Gods” the god Om finds that his theocracy has destroyed all belief in him, with fear and empty ritual having replace all actual veneration. Similarly in “Monstrous Regiment” the state religion of the Borogrovio ended up killed their god Nuggan by replacing worship of him with fear of an endlessly increasingly list of abominations (e.g. chocolate, the colour blue, cats).



No gods anywhere play chess. They haven’t got the imagination. Gods prefer simple, vicious games, where you Do Not Achieve Transcendence but Go Straight to Oblivion; A key to the understanding of all religion is that a god’s idea of amusement is Snakes and Ladders with greased rungs.

Interestingly enough, the gods of the Disc have never bothered much about judging the souls of the dead, and so people only go to hell if that’s where they think they deserve to go. Which they won’t do if they don’t know about it. This explains why it is important to shoot missionaries on sight.

Demons have existed on the Discworld for at least as long as the gods, who in many ways they closely resemble. The difference is basically the same as that between terrorists and freedom fighters.

Seeing, contrary to popular wisdom, isn’t believing. It’s where belief stops, because it isn’t needed any more.

‘[…] on the disc, the Gods are not so much worshipped as blamed.’

Gods don’t like people not doing much work. People who aren’t busy all the time might start to think.

We get that in here some nights, when someone’s had a few.Cosmic speculation about whether the gods exist. Next thing, there’s a bolt of lightning through the door with a note wrapped round it saying, “Yes, we do” and a pair of sandals with smoke coming out.’

The Omnians were a God-fearing people. They had a great deal to fear.

Because what gods need is belief, and what humans want is gods.

When you can flatten entire cities at a whim, a tendency towards quiet reflection and seeing-things-from-the-other-fellow’s-point- of-view is seldom necessary.

When someone is saved from certain death by a strange concatenation of circumstances, they say that’s a miracle. But of course, if someone is killed by a freak chain of events — the oil spill just there, the safety fence broken just there — that must also be a miracle. Just because it’s not nice doesn’t mean it’s not miraculous.

Creators aren’t gods. They make places, which is quite hard. It’s men that make gods. This explains a lot.

This is where the gods play games with the lives of men, on a board which is at one and the same time a simple playing area and the whole world.

“Gods are all right,” said Granny, as they ate their lunch and looked at the view. “You don’t bother gods, and gods don’t come bothering you.”

‘I know about sureness,’ said Didactylos. Now the light irascible tone had drained out of his voice. ‘I remember before I was blind, I went to Omnia once. This was before the borders were closed, when you still let people travel. And in your Citadel I saw a crowd stoning a man to death in a pit. Ever seen that?’

‘It has to be done,’ Brutha mumbled. ‘So the soul can be shriven and —‘

‘Don’t know about soul. Never been that kind of a philosopher,’ said Didactylos. ‘All I know is, it was a horrible sight.’

‘The state of the body is not — ‘

‘Oh, I’m not talking about the poor bugger in the pit,’ said the philosopher. ‘I’m talking about the people throwing the stones. They were sure all right. They were sure it wasn’t them in the pit. You could see it in their faces. So glad that it wasn’t them that they were throwing just as hard as they could.’

‘What’s abominable about the colour blue? It’s just a colour! The sky is blue!’

‘Yes, sir. Devout Nugganites try not to look at it these days. Um …’ Chinny had been trained as a diplomat. Some things he didn’t like to say directly. ‘Nuggan, sir … um … is rather … tetchy,’ he managed.


Mythology of Science

Science has its own mythology. It has no shortage of what are seen as “culture heroes” and “great men of history”. The history of science is frequented turned into simple stories about individuals (e.g. the apple falling on Newtown’s head, Darwins inspiration at the Galapagos). Like all myths this involves distorting history into memorable stories via poetic license and exaggeration. However these stories work as a mythology, showing moral values and building a tradition to bind scientists together.


Like all moral traditions, science acts to present its adherence in the best possible light. Scientists view themselves as separate from the corrupt mundane world, working to discover truth to expand human knowledge which in turn benefits all humanity via technological progress. Scientists are put forwards as simultaneously wiser, more innocent and more moral than outsiders whose ideas are misused by the corrupt outside world (e.g. Albert Einstein, Alfred Nobel).


Like other mythologies science has its own moral values. Truth is viewed as something sublime that is both terrible and wonderful that must be searched for and accepted using the scientific method. Curiosity is venerated. Optimism is the norm with progress inevitable and all schisms short lived and temporary. By requiring evidence to confirm beliefs science perceives that lies will inevitably be destroyed ensuring the spread of truth.


Science can be shown to be similar to religion despite lacking several of the traits required to be a religion (social organization, creed,  belief in supernatural entities). It can shown to possess cultus and arguable possess scripture via recorded history itself. Like numerous religions it has a mystical tradition as can be shown from numerous author, the most popular of which is Carl Sagan. Like other popular religions science has spawned offshoots from its mythology such as transhumanism , the atheist movement as well as the skeptics movements.





“Peace cannot be kept by force. It can only be achieved by understanding. You cannot subjugate a nation forcibly unless you wipe out every man, woman, and child. Unless you wish to use such drastic measures, you must find a way of settling your disputes without resort to arms.”

  • Albert Einsten From a speech to the New History Society (14 December 1930), reprinted in “Militant Pacifism” in Cosmic Religion (1931). Also found in The New Quotable Einstein by Alice Calaprice, p. 158.


“My dynamite will sooner lead to peace than a thousand world conventions. As soon as men will find that in one instant, whole armies can be utterly destroyed, they surely will abide by golden peace.”

  • Alfred Nobel. The Military Quotation Book (2002) by James Charlton, p. 114


“Never do anything against conscience even if the state demands it.”

  • As quoted by Virgil Henshaw in Albert Einstein : Philosopher Scientist (1949) edited by Paul A. Schilpp


“‘People keep saying “science doesn’t know everything!’ Well, science knows’ it doesn’t know everything; otherwise it would stop.”


“The symbol and the metaphor are as necessary to science as to poetry.”


“Fortunately science, like that nature to which it belongs, is neither limited by time nor by space. It belongs to the world, and is of no country and of no age. The more we know, the more we feel our ignorance; the more we feel how much remains unknown; and in philosophy, the sentiment of the Macedonian hero can never apply, — there are always new worlds to conquer.”

  • Sir Humphry Davy, discourse delivered at the Royal Society (30 November 1825)


There’s real poetry in the real world. Science is the poetry of reality.


Our freedom to doubt was born out of a struggle against authority in the early days of science. It was a very deep and strong struggle: permit us to question — to doubt — to not be sure. I think that it is important that we do not forget this struggle and thus perhaps lose what we have gained.

  • Richard Feynman, in “The Value of Science,” address to the National Academy of Sciences (Autumn 1955).


Science is a way of trying not to fool yourself. The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.

  • Richard Feynman, in “What is and What Should be the Role of Scientific Culture in Modern Society”, lecture at the Galileo Symposium in Italy, (1964).


Science … commits suicide when it adopts a creed.


Some people think that science is just all this technology around, but NO it’s something much deeper than that. Science, scientific thinking, scientific method is for me the only philosophical construct that the human race has developed to determine what is reliably true.


Science, at bottom, is really anti-intellectual. It always distrusts pure reason, and demands the production of objective fact.

  • H.L. MenckenMinority Report : H.L. Mencken’s Notebooks 412 (1956).


Science is much more than a body of knowledge. It is a way of thinking. This is central to its success. Science invites us to let the facts in, even when they don’t conform to our preconceptions. It counsels us to carry alternative hypotheses in our heads and see which ones best match the facts. It urges on us a fine balance between no-holds-barred openness to new ideas, however heretical, and the most rigorous skeptical scrutiny of everything — new ideas and established wisdom. We need wide appreciation of this kind of thinking. It works. It’s an essential tool for a democracy in an age of change. Our task is not just to train more scientists but also to deepen public understanding of science.


To the natural philosopher, to whom the whole extent of nature belongs, all the individual branches of science constitute the links of an endless chain, from which not one can be detached without destroying the harmony of the whole.

  • Friedrich Schoedler (1813 – 1884), Treasury of Science. Astronomy. Quotes reported in Hoyt’s New Cyclopedia Of Practical Quotations (1922), p. 691-92.


Why does this magnificent applied science which saves work and makes life easier bring us so little happiness? The simple answer runs: Because we have not yet learned to make sensible use of it. In war it serves that we may poison and mutilate each other. In peace it has made our lives hurried and uncertain. Instead of freeing us in great measure from spiritually exhausting labor, it has made men into slaves of machinery, who for the most part complete their monotonous long day’s work with disgust and must continually tremble for their poor rations. … It is not enough that you should understand about applied science in order that your work may increase man’s blessings. Concern for the man himself and his fate must always form the chief interest of all technical endeavours; concern for the great unsolved problems of the organization of labor and the distribution of goods in order that the creations of our mind shall be a blessing and not a curse to mankind. Never forget this in the midst of your diagrams and equations.

The Cthulhu Mythos, Cosmic Horror and Dark Enlightenment

Howard Philips was a horror write who is now viewed with the same esteem as Edgar Allan Poe or Steven King. His works are highly distinctive and share intertexual references to a series of ideas that have been named by others “The Cthulhu Mythos”. These ideas have spread widely with other authors carrying on his mythology and it has inspired occultists, been the base for multiple roleplaying games and has even shown up in childrens cartoons like the Ghostbuster and Justice League.

H. P. Lovecraft received what others would call Enlightment. But for him enlightement was not a positive experience. He looked beyond the ordinary world and saw nothing but fear and despair. The ability to see beyond the ordinary showed him not a universe of joy and purpose but cold hostile universe without hope. Lovecraft believed that the ordinary social world we live in was just an illusion to hide this truth about the universe from ourselves so that we could stay sane and happy.

These ideas would mix with his own intrests to create the Cthulhu Mythos. He would write horror stories not about violence or human flaws, but about unknowable secrets and unfathomable extra-dimensional alien lifeforms set in a universe were humanity is insignificant by nature. This story tone would be known as ‘Cosmic Horror’ and different ideas from it would be used by range of authors as well as occultists and other thinkers.

Below: Azathoth the Cosmic Sultan, the ” blind idiot god” who created and sustains the universe in the Cthulhu Mythos.


Azathoth (Photo credit: Wikipedia)