Atheism in a world of gods

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.

6 thoughts on “Atheism in a world of gods”

  1. I’m not sure you do understand atheism, if you view it as a “reaction” against oppressive religion. To be sure, there are atheists who become atheists solely as an act of defiance against religious parents, or because they hated going to Sunday School, or because they just hate religion, period, but that’s an attitude most grow out of. In our world, most atheists are atheists because they have decided (rightly or wrongly is a matter of opinion, of course) that there’s no evidence that any gods exist, and thus no reason to believe in them.

    Which is why I still can’t see anyone calling himself an “atheist” while admitting that gods do exist and that he’s talking to one. People who refuse to worship the gods because they’re not happy about the fact that they exist or they don’t like the way in which they’re forced to worship them would not be atheists. Heretics, yes, but not atheists.

  2. I love this scene, with its sense of an embodied god who has seen, and is amused by, all the philosophical/theological permutations of human thought.

    But I do think that the actual word ‘atheist’ has WAY too much 20th-21st c. Western baggage to work here. You point out that the term doesn’t mean quite the same thing in your world as in ours (“what an atheist can do is refuse to believe in the gods’ primacy and importance”), but I’d go further and say that the word is as problematically culture-specific/anachronistic as someone calling Yeine ‘biracial.’ For my two cents, you’ve got a great concept/history here that needs its own terms.

  3. Amadan,

    I’m not sure you do understand atheism, if you view it as a “reaction” against oppressive religion.

    That isn’t how I view atheism, and that isn’t what I said. :) I’m fully aware that atheism isn’t always or wholly a reaction against religion’s excesses — though I do think that’s part of it, especially for modern atheists. There’s definitely some of that in Dawkins’ essays and books, for example, though of course that’s not the be-all and end-all of his belief set. But historically and generally, yes, atheism is simply believing that there’s no god (or gods).

    Except that’s not the only way to interpret the word, etymologically (or sematically, if you prefer). At its core, atheism is belief in no deity — i.e., a being, or beings, who are worthy of worship by dint of being supreme. The people of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms can certainly see that the gods are superior beings in some respects — powerful, immortal, knowledgeable, etc — but that doesn’t make them supreme. In fact, there’s not much difference between the gods of the Inheritance Trilogy and, say, technologically advanced aliens, or the magically advanced (and older/wiser) Elves of Tolkien. Should these aliens or elves be worshipped? Or — as they are in most science fiction, and in LotR — should they be treated as simply fellow people, who simply have better resources/skills/tech/health?

    Ergo, people who believe that gods exist, but that they should be treated as equals and not worshipped, are not theists. They are atheists.

    People who refuse to worship the gods because they’re not happy about the fact that they exist or they don’t like the way in which they’re forced to worship them would not be atheists.

    That isn’t what I said, either. :) And I agree, people who fell into that definition wouldn’t be atheists. Such people are clearly theistic in that they believe in the existence of gods, and they clearly consider these gods worthy of worship (you can’t resent being forced to worship if there’s no worship to resent). But they oppose the particular gods who are to be worshipped, or the religions built around those gods. So I would call them anti-theists. Or heretics, yes, though that’s a relative term — technically heretics believe in a different god or belief system from the person doing the accusing. A person can’t be a heretic unless there’s someone else around with different beliefs who thinks of her that way. A person can be an anti-theist regardless of what others think.

    There are plenty of anti-theists in the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by the way. Yeine falls into that category herself by the end of the book. She was raised to respect all gods, which is why she addresses the Enefadeh as “Lord” or “Lady” and capitalizes Itempas’ pronoun for the first half of the book. He stops being Him and becomes him when she loses respect for him. She still sees him and other gods as deities worthy of worship, but she’s no longer sure they should be.

  4. Yes — I’m debating whether to even use the word “atheist”, and may edit the scene later to just have Shevir (the character Sieh is speaking to) explain primortalism and leave it that that. I think you’re right (and the analogy of “biracial” really drives it home — no one would use that word in this society) in that the word is too “our world” and breaks the immersion. But that’s something I’ll decide when I get to the editing phase. :)

  5. I LOVE the choice of the word atheist. What is fantasy writing for if not to challenge traditional realities. Fantasy take us to places offering new ideas, concepts and perspectives. If the word atheist feels correct while writing, that is exactly the word that will evoke the desired reaction.
    *not that you need anyone to tell you! haha Loved the book!

  6. Huh, I remember using the word atheism in relation to my reading of a scene in 100K, but I’m not sure whether it feels coherent for a character in the world to say it. And actually, “spirituality” is one of those words that feels to me very, very 20th century and very much New Age coded. Maybe just my own experience, but the number of times I’ve heard people saying, “I’m not religious, but I am spiritual” has driven that meaning home for me.

    And for the record, regarding the exchange with Amadan above, I think some people who are raised in religion actually pass through a phase rather like the one embodied in this scene: they aren’t quite ready to let go of the idea that a deity might exist, but are coming to terms with the fact that this doesn’t necessarily mean such a being would want or need or demand to be worshipped… which is a way of stepping past the inhibitions learned in brainwashing that keep one scared of walking away. It can be a painful process and take years to actually go through, and along the way it’s helpful to have some kind of philosophical position to hold on to that admits that while the proposition of deities’ existing might be true, this doesn’t say anything about whether one ought to continue to be a member of the organization that claims a special pipeline to their opinions or demands on humankind.)

    Often, when talking to theists who baffle at my atheism — which happens from time to time — I will note that it simply isn’t in my nature to believe in or worship gods, and that if this is true, and they’re right about their particular god being real, then by implication I was “created” this way, presumably for a reason. The brighter ones get it, the less bright ones clamour to tell me I need to try to believe harder.

    While the image seems to me no more “believable” than the idea that somewhere in the multiverse Frodo is slogging his way towards Mordor with the ring hanging on a chain round his neck, their reaction to it tells me whether or not I can expect to get along with a given individual, or or whether their beliefs will get in the way sooner or later.

    By the way, I love that the minor character focuses the locus of his godless belief on mortalkind… this fits what atheists I know have done too, quite well.

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