John Donne wrote that no man is an island. Following that line of thought, just how many people does it take to make a nation? What makes a culture? Terry Pratchett’s novel Nation asks these questions and even tries to answer them.
It takes place in a parallel world, with some significant differences to our own (yet somehow still manages to come up with Austen, Shakespeare and Darwin). Europe has been ravaged by a plague and the search is on to find the heir to the throne. He’s a bureaucrat in this world’s version of the Pacific Islands. And he’s looking for his daughter, Ermintrude (who prefers to be called Daphne), who has been shipwrecked during a tsunami onto an island nation whose population consists of Mau, the only survivor of a vibrant culture destroyed during the same tragedy.
So, clearly, it’s also about rebuilding. Which is what cultures are constantly doing, anyway. But Mau has a problem: he doesn’t think that he believes in his nation’s gods. Or, more accurately, he doesn’t believe that they deserve to be believed in, after allowing their people to be destroyed in the tsunami.
So here we have the setup for a classical thought-experiment of a novel: what happens when a society is redesigned from the bottom up by people wanting to follow their beliefs. It’s a recipe for disaster, according to the genre, but things don’t automatically go pear-shaped for Mau and Daphne…
Look, this is a novel with weaknesses: I don’t believe the threat at the climax is foreshadowed clearly enough or has enough genuine build to it and it feels like it was tacked on from a different novel altogether with different themes. I don’t believe the differences between this world and ours are clearly enough delineated.
But this is the rare novel that tries to explain where people get belief from and how a person can become an atheist. This is the only occurrence in literature (that I’m aware of) that explains why atheism can be a logical and reasonable response to life in a way that isn’t didactic and mawkish.
It’s my atheism.
Because I really wanted to believe in God. When I was younger. Up until I was about 19 or 20, I envied people who had a strong faith, and I tried really hard to emulate it and find it in myself. But I kept running into walls.
Not the usual, stereotyped walls: I didn’t stub my toe and declare that God didn’t prevent it, ergo he didn’t exist; I didn’t see the endless misery and suffering of people for no real reason and declare that God didn’t exist; I didn’t see vice triumphant and virtue ignored.
I just kept finding things out that interfered with the worldview that there was a creator. Through my meandering reading and following up things that I didn’t understand by getting someone to explain them to me, or by trying to find out as much as I could from books, I came to a worldview that didn’t deny God so much as explain God’s absence. Try as I might (and I did), I couldn’t see a plan, just a long haphazard collection of inefficient occurrences that led to the world we have today and the futures we are making for ourselves.
And that there was no overarching purpose to my life save what I imposed upon it. Which was the big kicker.
Because I’m not really a raging individualist: I love being given structure and told what to do. I’m a klutz and making my own way has led to some colossal mistakes. I’d rather have a safe, easy, organised life with plans and outcomes. Religion offers that to a lot of people.
But not to me, unfortunately. I don’t know why, but I just kept on finding philosophical and moral reasons why this couldn’t work, or history kept throwing up embarrassing reasons why something had happened, or that it happened before or differently than was being related.
So I became an atheist because it was the only thing that made sense to me. I don’t know about other people – I have never really known about other people and how they work, to be honest, despite spending my life also trying to solve that problem – but the “god-shaped hole” was filled in for me. I respect belief, but I’m not going to trust in it.
And neither do Mau or Daphne. They don’t really stop believing in gods by the novel’s end. They just don’t believe that they are as important as living people. And they don’t stop others believing in them, either. That’s not fair. And while fairness and justice are human inventions, they require more faith and belief to keep them going than gods do.
You can buy Nation here: https://www.amazon.com/Nation-Terry-Pratchett/dp/0061433039