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.


Glossary: Atheism, Atheist

atheism, atheist – the plain etymology of this word is from the Greek a=without and theos=god. However, atheism can mean different things to different people:

  • As self-identification, “I am an atheist” is a commitment to a position regarding religion and – depending on one’s definition/understanding of “religion” – atheism is a religious stance or position. It can range from soft atheism – “I have no time in my life to concern myself with God” or “the word God has no meaning for me” – to strong forms like “there is no evidence for God so I choose to assume that God does not exist” or “religion is a force for evil in the world and humanity should grow out of it”.
  • As other-identification, it is commonly used by theists to label others whose theism is not sufficiently strong or in line with their own views. So, for example, if someone denies Jesus’ literal bodily resurrection and/or his birth of a literal virgin mother but chooses to understand these miracles in a symbolic way then a certain type of literalist theist will view that person as an atheist, no matter how they might self-identify.
  • As a simple failure to refer to God – as occurs in Buddhism and Taoism – atheism may simply refer to a religious tradition that has no need of a god idea in order to formulate its position. It may be perfectly tolerant of others’ needs or preferences to seek enlightenment through an idea or concept similar to God (eg, Brahman or Atman, etc) but it is simply a religious tradition that manages without a God idea.

Some similar or related religious positions include antitheism (opposition to theism), dystheism (viewing god as evil, as does Lovecraft), misotheism (hatred of god) and post-theism (god is obsolete).

A final word on “The Zero Within the All”

One of those who attended the PhiloSophia meeting on this topic was Greg who submitted this preliminary “final word” on the subject under discussion:

The “all” (I think) are religions and philosophies where very many people have complete “faith” that they are “right” in their understanding of the details of their fundamental beliefs. For them, not only do they not see the zero as part of the all, they of course, do not see any other religion, or philosophy as part of the all. But, the religions’ leaders/administrators (particularly) are aware that in the older technologically advanced countries the senior level educated classes are increasingly drifting away, many to the zero. And, I think, many are going to one, or another of a number of the versions of the zero, and this is also significant regarding measuring up to the scientific community’s scrutiny and power. In my view, of course the zero belongs to the all, but it is a long, long way from being “there yet”, so how do the people of “the zero” (the atheist, anarchist, and deist philosophically inclined, too?) and those who are “religious” – get it there? I have a view on this, but I am unable to do it justice, at this point.

My own response to this is that Greg is using the word “faith” with a particular meaning that is different from the one that is accepted within serious academic religious studies. In fact, he is using “faith” where (dogmatic) “belief” would be more correct.

I would direct him (and any others interested in this distinction) to the following resources:

My own brief summary or paraphrase of what Smith and Carse are saying in their books would be the following:

Faith is really more of a commitment or an expression of love/devotion. For example, I have faith in truth and justice. Belief originally had this meaning – the “lief” in it is related to “love” – but it has developed a meaning closer to “belief that (a proposition or statement)” rather than belief (faith) *in* some ideal. In other words, “belief” has now come to mean “I am convinced” rather than “I am committed”.

I would invite further comments (below) after some acquaintance (at least) with the CBC radio interview.

WC Smith: Buddhism as Atheism

In my recent research among Smith’s writings I’ve looked around for the word “atheist” (or “atheism”) and have found it elusive. He does write of the “secular”, the “humanist” and the “rationalist”; as well as (my own favourites) the “confused” and the “eclectic perplexed enquirers” (of the “New Age”?). So far, the only clear reference to atheism that I’ve found occurs in Smith’s Faith and Belief: The Difference Between Them. Indeed, he has there a whole chapter titled “The Buddhist Instance: Faith as Atheist?” from which I’ve taken the following excerpt (p22) available through “Look Inside!”:


I don’t (yet) have a copy of this book but I would like, one day, to read it in its entirety.

WC Smith: philosophia as religious tradition

I have been researching the writings of WC Smith for the purposes of the coming PhiloSophia meeting on “The Zero Within the All”. I came across an essay dating back to 1984 and titled “Philosophia as one of the Religious Traditions of Humankind”. The essay appears as a chapter in Smith’s Modern Culture from a Comparative Perspective (Ch 3) and also in editor Kenneth Cracknell’s Wilfred Cantwell Smith: A Reader (Ch 8).

I have made this essay/chapter available to PhiloSophia members as well as some friends who are not members. The casual reader might like to look at the partial preview available via Amazon’s “Look Inside!” feature at Smith’s Modern Culture …

I would invite anyone who reads this – and especially who likes this – to comment here.

Thank you!