‘So much universe, and so little time’
Terry Pratchett, who died this week aged 66, was not one of those aggressive ‘new atheists’ Christian fundamentalists are constantly shrieking about.
Strange, really, that he never became a key target for their whinges and poisonous barbs because his humorous approach to theology – to my mind – did as much, if not more, to expose the idiocy of religion as any serious critic of supernatural beliefs. And for that we owe this remarkable man a great debt of gratitude.
In 1993, Third Way magazine (motto: “The modern world through Christian eyes” – ran an excellent piece on Pratchett by Martin Wroe, entitled “The Reluctant Theologian”.
Wroe began by pointing out that Pratchett, who, by 2010, had sold 65 million books translated into 37 languages, is “not a Christian”.
Later in the article, Wroe observed:
If occasionally Pratchett is accused of literature, mainly he is accused of humour. ‘It’s hard to think of any humorist writing in Britain today who can match him’, wrote Dominic Wells, editor of Time Out. But with the publication of Small Gods, he might even start being accused of peddling serious ideas.
It tells the tale of the lowly Brutha, chosen by the formerly great god Om to become a prophet. This is difficult for Brutha to accept because Om has come to him incarnate as a tortoise and in a constant state of fear that he is about to be plucked off for lunch by hovering eagles.
Brutha, for his humble part, doesn’t want much: peace and justice, to get rid of a corrupt Church, the end of a holy war, and freedom from persecution. But most of all he wants his god to Choose Someone Else. Sounds familiar?
Small Gods is an intriguing satire on institutionalised religion corrupted by power. It crackles with funny one-liners, while obliquely suggesting that maybe gods are only as powerful as their followers’ beliefs.
Small Gods (1992) was the first Pratchett book I read – and it whetted my appetite for all that he had written before and after. And he wrote a lot!
But, as Wroe pointed out:
Small Gods is not the first sign of Pratchett’s intrigue with belief and religion, with gods and their followers. Good Omens, a collaborative novel with Neil Gaiman, took as its starting- point the idea central to The Omen, in which the Devil’s child is exchanged for the child of a US senator.
Unfortunately, owing to a mix-up, Mr and Mrs Average of Tadficld, West Midlands, get the son of Satan by mistake. The book is as funny as anything he has written: it discloses the adventures of a devil and an angel who are on earth in disguise as mere lowly mortals, trying to avert the end of the world after discovering by accident that the Almighty Powers That Be have decreed it is only 11 days to Armageddon.
Along with the rest of Pratchett’s devotees, I was saddened by the news that he’d been afflicted by a rare form of Alzheimer’s disease, but was pleased to learn that, in 2009, he began a passionate campaign for the legalisation of assisted suicide. In the same year he was awarded a knighthood for services to literature.
The following year he was chosen to give the BBC Richard Dimbleby lecture entitled “Shaking Hands With Death”.
The words had to be delivered by the actor Tony Robinson as the disease had affected Pratchett’s ability to read. He described the later-to be knighted Robinson as his “stunt Pratchett”.
• The heading for this report is a Pratchett quote. After his death, the Guardian published 15 of his best quotes. My favourite, from Monstrous Regiment, is:
The presence of those seeking the truth is infinitely to be preferred to the presence of those who think they’ve found it.