Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Small Gods by Terry Pratchett

Source of book: Audiobook borrowed from my brother.

We just finished this book, and my response through most of it was:



This book is a brilliant look at how religion turns evil and destructive. Which means that it is a pretty good explanation for how we ended up with the Inquisition, wahhabist jihads, and the Salem Witch Trials. But also how Evangelicalism went from a movement that drove social justice and spoke truth to power to become the Christ-free shell it is now. Pratchett understood how tribalist politics and the lust for power corrupt religion and make it into something the polar opposite of its supposed meaning. 

 Got to love the camptastic 1980s cover art. :)

Small Gods is a Discworld book, but it doesn’t neatly fit into any of the usual categories. In order of writing, it is number 13. Some have classified it as in the “ancient civilizations” category - which only has Pyramids and Small Gods. However, there are no characters in common with other books (other than Death, of course), so it really stands alone. I wouldn’t recommend it as a first Discworld book, but only because it assumes some knowledge of the cosmology of the Disc. It might be easiest to start with The Colour of Magic to get the basics, then read this one. 

Brutha is a young man, not very bright, but with a literally photographic memory. He was raised by his devout grandmother, and sent to train to become a priest. Although he is illiterate, he has the entire scripture memorized. Okay, I guess it is best to explain the religion, which requires an explanation of how the Discworld works. Central, of course, is that in this reality, the world is literally a disc riding on the backs of four elephants, who stand on a giant turtle, who swims through the cosmos. Gods actually exist on the Discworld, although they do not wield the same sort of power traditionally ascribed to them. Some of the “bigger” gods live in a pantheon - the universal Thunder God, Fertility Goddess, and so on: the gods that every ancient culture seemed to start with. Gods can be small too, however. The very smallest have nobody who believes in them, and they live in the desert in a disembodied state longing for even a single believer. Gods can also change in size, depending on the state of belief. So, an old god like one from the Ancient Near East (Dagon anyone?) can lose power and even be reduced to the status of Small God if everyone stops believing in him. 

The book takes place in Omnia, which is on the Klatchian continent rather than the unnamed main continent that contains Ankh-Morpork and the rest of the usual Discworld places. Omnia worships the god Om in a monotheistic religion, which Pratchett patterned after Christianity and Islam. At the time of Small Gods, Omnism is a cruel and violent religion, ruled by the “Quisition,” which is...well, obviously. In addition to the inquisitors, there are the top dudes, the exquisitors. (Pratchett and his puns…) The unofficial motto of the Quisition is “Cuius testiculos habes, habeas cardia et cerebellum,” which is based on a saying Charles Colson had on a plaque in his office. (You know, back in the days when he was committing crimes for Nixon, before his jailhouse conversion and so on.) Supposedly, the original quote was from Theodore Roosevelt, but I was unable to find any confirmation. 

The head exquisitor in the book is Vorbis, possibly patterned after the Grand Inquisitor Cisneros. Vorbis is a delicious villain, devoid of conscience, devoted to torturing all who disagree, intent on power and conquest. 

In addition to the usual monotheistic beliefs, Omnism clings to the idea that the earth is a sphere - basically the way our world works - but which is as silly in the Discworld universe as belief in a flat earth is in ours. 

Om has a habit of periodically manifesting to his believers, installing a prophet, then going on about his business for a few hundred more years. The problem for Om, however, is that he seems to have lost his power. The most he can do is manifest as a tortoise, and he nearly gets killed by an eagle. (This is a central theme in the book - the eagle and the tortoise.) By random chance, he lands, not on something hard, but on a bush in the temple’s garden. Brutha, who, as it happens, is literally the only person left who truly believes in Om, is tending the vegetables. Om speaks into his head, and the two begin what has to be one of the most fun friendships in the Discworld universe. 

Vorbis discovers Brutha’s memory gift, and takes him along on a “diplomatic” mission to a neighboring country. (Patterned after ancient Athens.) Vorbis, with Brutha’s inadvertent help, sacks and burns the city. Brutha escapes with a philosopher, his mechanically minded assistant, and an atheist soldier intent on bringing real science to Omnia. Adventures and hijinks ensue. I won’t give away more of the plot than that. 

This being Pratchett, you know you will get a lot of humor, terrible puns, and silliness. But also hard-core discussions of ethics, empathy, tolerance, and Enlightenment values. 

This book in particular shined a light on some parts of my own spiritual journey. I’ve had a lot of deprogramming to do from my Fundamentalist upbringing and cult experience, and Pratchett seems to understand well the dynamics. Here are some examples: 

Like modern-day Evangelicals, the Omniums worship their scripture, take it literally, and fight based on its perceived inerrancy. And, of course, the scripture is used primarily as a weapon by those in power to abuse those who question their authority. But how did the scripture get there? Well, it was written by the prophets, who claimed to receive it directly from Om. But the problem is, Om didn’t actually say any of it. (In this book, Om is more of a spoiled brat used to getting his way, and has to learn how to be a decent person, if that is the right word for a god.) Om appeared to the prophets, and said stuff like “Hey, look what I can do!” The prophets interpreted how they liked, and wrote down what they wanted. Om, being a pretty neglectful deity, never bothered to check back and make sure his worshipers got it right. So he is kind of horrified at what is being done in his name. 

Pratchett puts his finger on the fundamental (sorry) problem with the Evangelical (and wahhabist) approaches to holy books. It is pretty obvious that they were written by humans, from the point of view of those humans, and with all the cultural, geographical, and chronological baggage those humans had. Trying to use scriptures as an instruction book doesn’t really work. And it tends to lead to Quisitions and jihad. It also works as a perfect weapon in the hands of those who crave power. 

Vorbis liked to see properly guilty consciences. That was what consciences were for. Guilt was the grease in which the wheels of the authority turned.

More rules = more guilt. More guilt = more control. Fear of either present Quisition or future Hell works with guilt to produce a harvest of control. The system itself is abusive. And it makes people abusive. 

The figures [on an ancient bowl] looked more or less human. And they were engaged in religion. You could tell by the knives (it's not murder if you do it for a god).

He thought: the worst thing about Vorbis isn’t that he’s evil, but that he makes good people do evil. He turns people into things like himself. You can’t help it. You catch it off him.

And this is the problem: Vorbis is horrid and evil and cruel - but he really believes. He has no idea that he is a bad guy, because he believes he is acting on behalf of the god and also in everyone’s ultimate best interest. This is why C. S. Lewis hated theocracy and said that the worst ruler of all would be an Inquisitor. 

On a related note, Pratchett’s vision of the Discworld afterlife is interesting. Basically, everyone gets the afterlife they believe in. So, for the “pagans,” they go to Valhalla or whatever party place they think exists. As an Omnium observes after he dies:

The Captain frowned. ‘It’s a funny thing,’ he said, ‘but why is it that the heathens and the barbarians seem to have the best places to go when they die?’
‘A bit of a poser, that,’ agreed the mate. ‘I s’pose it makes up for ‘em ... enjoying themselves all the time when they’re alive, too?’  He looked puzzled.  Now that he was dead, the whole thing sounded suspicious. 

For the Omniums, they journey across a desert, then face judgment from their god. This comes as a great surprise to Om, actually, as he wasn’t expecting that kind of work. But see, this is how Hell has been leveraged over the centuries. It is a concept that isn’t really even in the Bible the way we think it is, and was not the belief of the earliest church. It seems to have gained in popularity in lock-step with the rise of political power and the founding of the Roman church. The belief in Purgatory eventually became necessary for a variety of reasons, of course, not least being the way that the Hell doctrine makes God into a real asshole. Protestants resurrected the doctrine, and used it increasingly it seems as their political power (and thus the ability to kill and torture) waned. I have come to believe that the doctrine of Hell is closely related to the doctrine which calls for the murder and torture of infidels. Both are an abusive use of fear to control people. 

Going along with the cruelty - as it always does - is certainty. It is a black and white worldview where we absolutely know the truth and everyone else is wrong and any new information that contradicts the worldview is rank heresy, and why don’t we destroy those who are different. In contrast, Brutha and Om have to learn to accept ambiguity, shades of grey, imperfect knowledge. And they have to learn to act, not as blind followers of rules, but as compassionate, thoughtful people. 

“But is all this true?" said Brutha.
Didactylos shrugged. "Could be. Could be. We are here and it is now. The way I see it is, after that, everything tends towards guesswork."
"You mean you don't KNOW it's true?" said Brutha.
"I THINK it might be," said Didactylos. "I could be wrong. Not being certain is what being a philosopher is all about.” 

Certainty tends to lead to theocracy. (And, since Communism is a religion, it creates its own dogma and theocracy too.) A functional democracy, on the other hand, requires uncertainty, and flexibility to adapt to different needs and circumstances. Pratchett pokes fun at the messiness of democracy, of course, but he has a good point.

“I like the idea of democracy. You have to have someone everyone distrusts," said Brutha. "That way, everyone's happy.”

Pratchett also notes that it takes a long time for evil ideas to die. 

“It takes a long time for people like Vorbis to die. They leave echoes in history.”

Christianity is still haunted by the echoes of Constantine, the Inquisition, the Puritans, and so on. Religion and power do not produce good things when they join forces. Power corrupts the religion, and religion makes power insatiably cruel. Not that power leaves anything uncorrupted, obviously. This next quote has been in my head since I read it, and I think it rather explains a lot about whiteness in the United States, among other things. 

“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.” 

So many good things in that one. There are a number of other quotes that are great, but don’t tie in with this thread of discussion. So I’ll shift gears, and look at Pratchett’s treatment of faith. In the Discworld universe, the gods exist. Thus, religious belief is far from crazy or bad. Small Gods is almost the opposite of hostile to religion. Pratchett rather looks at when religion goes wrong, when it gets away from worship of the god and into violence against other humans. 

In this world, however, atheists still exist. They may worry about getting hit by lightning once in a while, but persist in atheism. Pratchett, like G. K. Chesterton (in The Ball and the Cross), notes that atheists and devout believers actually have a lot in common. 

“Gods didn’t mind atheists, if they were deep, hot, fiery, atheists like Simony, who spend their whole life hating gods for not existing. That sort of atheism was a rock. It was nearly belief …

“He says gods like to see an atheist around. Gives them something to aim at.” 

That first one perfectly describes a few atheists I know. I recognize the devout nature of their belief as similar to my own. And, if I am right about the existence of God, I suspect that they will turn out to be closer to genuine Christians than those who name the name of Christ but act in the opposite manner. 

Here is another quote that I really liked:

“Fear is strange soil. Mainly it grows obedience like corn, which grows in rows and makes weeding easy. But sometimes it grows the potatoes of defiance, which flourish underground.”

For Bill Gothard, he found this to be true of his own cult members. In the end, he was brought down by the children of his followers, many of whom, like me, found the fear-based shit he peddled to breed defiance. 

This one doesn’t really fit anywhere else, but it is pretty good. 

“The people who really run organizations are usually found several levels down, where it is still possible to get things done.”

I left my favorite quote to near the end of this post. In Omnia, everyone supposedly worships Om. But only Brutha actually does. How can that be? 

“Belief, he says. Belief shifts. People start out believing in the god and end up believing in the structure.”

And that is what happens with religions all too often. Rather than believe in the god, people want to believe in the structure. They want to believe in the theology, in the rules, in the rituals, in the tribe. In Omnia, they also (for very good reason) believe in the Quisition. The power. The ability to do violence to unbelievers. As Didactylos puts it, the scary thing is the way that the people throwing the stones are certain. They are certain they will be in the pit being stoned if they don’t throw the stones. 

I see so much of this in modern Evangelicalism, unfortunately. It has become a largely Christ-free religion, with little recognizable connection to the teachings or example of Christ. 

The belief is no longer in Christ, but in the structure. There is a belief in the theological superstructure. And a belief in The Rules™. There is a belief in the Tribe, in the politics, in the doctrines and political theories. A belief in the culture of a mythical past golden age. And, let us not forget, the power of fear. I think the number one reason that Evangelicals so doggedly cling to homophobia, and seek to use political power to persecute LGBTQ folks is that they cannot let go of their stones for fear of being in the pit. In Hell. I believe they feel that if they give in on this issue, they will be tortured for eternity. Best throw that stone, or stones will be thrown at you. It’s sad. But it is also dangerous, because it is the way otherwise decent people become violent. It is sad to see that when it comes to a religion that could be such an inspiration. But Christianity without Christ is...basically Donald Trump. Or Vorbis. 

I think it appropriate to end with this one. Vorbis has died, under the most poetic circumstances ever, and is faced with the desert, and Death, who is about to ride off to continue his job elsewhere. Vorbis has a mind, as Pratchett puts it, like an iron ball. Nothing gets in or out, and he hears nothing but his own thoughts bouncing around over and over. So Vorbis is truly the most alone person in the world. He is surrounded by other souls on the journey across the desert, but he cannot see or sense them. 

‘Yes. Yes, of course.’
Death nodded. IN TIME, he said, YOU WILL LEARN THAT IT IS WRONG.”

When Brutha finally dies at a ripe old age, having become Omnia’s greatest ruler and reformer, he finds that Vorbis is still sitting there curled into himself. And, being the truly compassionate person he is, he leads Vorbis across the desert, hinting at the possibility of future self-knowledge and redemption even for him. 

It is a fantastic ending to a great book. As always, Pratchett is the compassionate and hopeful writer who genuinely hopes to see everything redeemed. Even for Vorbis, he wishes that the afterlife will be less cruel than Vorbis wished on others. I have to admire that. 

Small Gods is a bit more serious than the average Discworld book, but that isn’t a bad thing. I firmly believe that between Terry Pratchett and Alexander McCall Smith, my kids are getting a pretty advanced education in ethical thinking. And why not have some fun and bad puns along that journey?  


The Terry Pratchett list:
Tiffany Aching:
Guards! Guards! (Stupid abridged edition, which is an abomination.)

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