I mentioned in passing awhile back that I’ve been contemplating atheism in the context of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Book 3 currently contains a minor character who describes himself as atheist. When he meets Sieh — a god — the following exchange occurs (cutting for length and worldbuilding spoilers for the second and third books):
I looked him up and down, opened my mouth a little to get a better taste of his scent, and was stymied. Usually it was easy to tell which god, or gods, a mortal had chosen to worship. He certainly wasn’t one of mine. “So which one do you honor?”
“I honor all the gods. But in terms of spirituality, I prefer to worship at the altars of knowledge and artistry.” He made an apologetic little gesture with his hand, as if he worried about hurting my feelings, but I had begun to grin.
“An atheist!” I put my hands on my hips, delighted. “I haven’t seen one of you since before the Gods’ War. I thought the Arameri wiped all of you out.”
“As well as they did all the other gods’ worshippers, Lord Sieh, yes.” I laughed, which seemed to hearten him. “Heresy is actually rather fashionable now, especially among the common folk — though here in Sky I am more circumspect about it, of course. And the, ah, polite term for people like me is ‘primortalist.'”
“Ugh, what a mouthful.”
“Unfortunately, yes. It means ‘mortals first’ — neither an accurate nor complete representation of our philosophy, but as I implied, there are worse terms. We believe in the gods, naturally.” He nodded to me. “But as the Bright has shown us, the gods function perfectly well whether we believe in them or not, so why devote all that energy to a pointless purpose? Why not believe most fervently in mortalkind and its potential? We, certainly, could benefit from a little dedication and discipline.”
“I agree wholeheartedly!”
(Note that all text here is subject to change or deletion; book 3 is basically in 0th draft mode right now.)
I’ll confess that I’m not an atheist myself. I read a Dawkins book or two, and saw his point, but I’m content with accepting intuitive evidence of the existence of God or god or gods. I don’t need a burning bush to pop up in front of me to marvel at the complexity of our universe, and think — hope, really — that Something did it this way on purpose. I’m also not wedded to any particular religious tradition; I don’t need a pastor to tell me that God is in me when I feel a profound awareness of creation every time I walk through the woods, or every time I really get into a writing zone. So lump me in with the “spiritual but not religious” crowd.
That said, I think I understand atheism, especially in light of the way religion has been used lately in my country (the US) to justify horrific behavior and questionable political agendas. Given how the same thing has happened in the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms for the past two thousand years (the time known as “the Bright”), I would be surprised if there weren’t many people in this world who are a bit jaded and unhappy with the gods’ presence and meddlesome behavior.
However, since the gods are kind of there and in your face it’s hard to believe they don’t exist. (Especially by the time of The Broken Kingdoms, but I’ll stop there for fear of spoilers.) Instead, what an atheist can do is refuse to believe in the gods’ primacy and importance, as the character explains above. And they feel affiliation with/loyalty towards no god in particular. I think that in our world we’d call such a person a rationalist, or maybe a human supremacist, or maybe just an agnostic. But in our world it’s possible to say “there’s probably no god”, so we need that extra layer of differentiation, which denizens of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms don’t.
Note that being an atheist in that world carries some of the same consequences as it does in this one. During the Bright, the Arameri were ruthless in persecuting heretics — heretics being defined as “anyone who doesn’t believe what the Arameri believe” — so even some of their fellow Itempas-worshippers had problems because they worshipped Itempas in a different way. Atheists were high on the list of people to be hunted down and slaughtered. Times change, though, and by the time of book 3, heresy is marginally acceptable — but, as the character in the above passage implies, most people still wouldn’t let their child marry one.
As for how the gods react to atheists — well, Sieh’s reaction is typical. They find all mortal variations and peculiarities endlessly interesting.