A few weeks ago, I spotted Tim Hickson – of whose work I am a great fan – talking about cyberpunk. Specifically, about the religiosity of the genre, as it stands on the threshold of transcending the human condition and building tyrannical machines to rule over us like uncaring gods.
Now, cyberpunk is not a genre with which I am terribly familiar, and when I next have some holiday, I intend to acquaint myself with some of the books to which he refers and to consider his proposition more carefully than a brief interaction on Twitter can permit. Likewise, Hickson has been talking about world-building for far longer than I have been typing about it.
However, as some of you may have spotted, talking about gods and religion is, as all the fleek cats are saying today, my jar of jam. So here is a quick overview of gods in fiction and why I think Mr Hickson is over-stating his case.
Non Credo in multos deos
Defining what counts as a god is quite tricky. Even superficially similar religions – such as Judaism and Christianity – are divided from one another specifically because of their understanding of the divine. Likewise, Buddhist deities and the kami of Shintō are difficult to pin onto a single, unifying system, because there will always be subtleties of conception which, if they cannot be resolved by scholars in lengthy articles, certainly cannot be resolved by a blog. Consequently, the defining terms given below are very rough sketches, and of course there will be exceptions. We might even mention some.
The first defining characteristic of a god is that a god is the object of worship, whether that be located to a single individual, a small group or cult, or an entire religion. Worship can take almost any form, but it must be something which is done because of the existence of the god. Something which just happens to be associated with the god, or the god’s concerns, is not worship.
The second defining characteristic of a god is power. Gods are amongst the most powerful beings in existence. In historical religions, gods were occasionally bested by mortals, but these occasions – and the exceptional nature of the mortals involved – are the point of the stories. Arachne besting Athena would not have made for an exciting moment in the tale if failure is what is expected of the gods.
Thirdly, a god is transcendent. That is, in some way removed from reality; supernatural. Gods might dwell in unearthly realms and have miraculous powers, but are always in some way contrasted with mundane life, even if they are embedded in it in some way.
Fourthly, a god is not contingent. That is, gods are not dependent upon some other thing for their existence. This might be the most challenging rule for readers of fiction, who are likely accustomed to the opposite, but this is actually quite a recent notion and it has become popular in fiction for specific reasons, which I will explore below. Crucially, it must be borne in mind that although the notion of contingent divinity abounds in fiction (often for the worse, in my opinion), it is very difficult to find any such examples in real-world religions.
So, here are our four general parameters: worshipped, powerful, transcendent, and non-contingent.
The astute amongst you may have noticed that my criteria above all make it look as though my golden rule for defining what counts as a god is suspiciously Biblical, and there is a reason for that. I am, however, most familiar with these concepts as a means of definition and, as I wrote above, this is a very rough guide. Simply bear in mind that when I discuss other real-world religions below, I am intending to define them by how they deviate from these four points, (that would imply that the Monotheos below is the historical norm and others have strayed from that norm) but rather to show how they differ by using my (more familiar) starting point for reference.
The Monotheos – one-god – generally fits all four of my criteria. The creator divinity as depicted by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is the most obvious real-world example of a transcendent, omnipotent, and non-contingent entity who is worshipped. Other examples include the Aten of Atenism, and (arguably) the Ahura Mazda of Zoroastrianism and Brahma of Hinduism. The latter two are not necessarily monotheistic religions, but nevertheless have a supreme deity or something which can, more-or-less, fit that description.
Examples of the Monotheos in fiction include Lord Ao from the Forgotten Realms and Dragon Age’s Maker. both of which are vaguely deist palette swaps of the God of the Bible, right down to the nomenclature: Ao, for example, is worshipped, in a sense, but largely ignores his worshippers, whereas the Maker has mostly or even completely abandoned his creation (if he ever existed in the first place).
That said, despite the name, a Monotheos need not be the only god in a setting. We are never given a particular reason to believe that there are limits on the powers of Din, Farore and Nayru, for example, and it is only the fact that it is unclear whether or not they are technically worshipped which makes me hesitant to put them in this category.
Entities which are powerful, transcendent, and non-contingent, but are not worshipped, also appear in fiction. They are often more powerful than the alleged gods of a setting, but shun the moniker. Nevertheless, they are also, often, effectively gods, right down to having areas of interest and divine realms of their own, such as Dream and, well, dreams. There might well be gods of dreams in the Sandman universe, but if the gods have to acknowledge the power of one greater than themselves, to say that that individual is not a god is a bit dubious. These gods-in-all-but-name are often more detached than the gods officially designated as such, having neither the need nor the desire to worry about worshippers or, indeed, mortals at all. When they are interested in mortals, it is usually as some sort of learning curve, because the adventures of Edge Lord the Invulnerable God of Action and Brooding are not likely to lend themselves to an interesting story.
Note that Not-A-Theos is not the same thing as a false god/False God, because the emphasis here is on terminology. In short, Not-A-Theos looks like a god, and quacks like a god, but is emphatic that he is actually some sort of incredibly gifted stegosaurus.
The Missing Link
It is very difficult to find examples of gods who are not, in some way, transcendent, which leaves us with an awkward category. Powerful, pseudo-divine entities in speculative fiction are generally mighty wizards or incredibly advanced/weird aliens, such as Star Trek’s Q. These are beings which could be mistaken for gods, if it were not for the fact that they (generally) are explicitly denied as being such, which is usually the thrust of the story. That leads us neatly to…
The most common way in which my criteria above are contravened is by the False God, which is probably also the most common god in fantasy fiction of the last few decades. False Gods are contingent, which means that their existence is dependent upon something, which is sometimes a place or concept, but more often it is belief and worship, the so-called Gods Need Prayer Badly trope. Beings called gods, which have mystical powers (sometimes only a little, as in Small Gods, and sometimes a great deal, as in Forgotten Realms) and live in transcendent realms but nevertheless require belief have become popular because it establishes a source of tension and conflict and a sort of Nietzschean undercurrent to stories when heroes can literally tell a god where to shove it and be justified, a notion taken up to eleven by Warhammer’s gods of Chaos.
The trope has largely been popularized by authors like Pratchett and Gaiman because it is a way of making a philosophical point: as a secular humanist, Pratchett (and possibly Gaiman, although I feel less confident making that assertion) would have denied the existence of any god except insofar as people believe in them, and the fact that people believe that gods exist and behave as though they exist lends them a sort of reality. This is the point which Pratchett (and possibly Gaiman) is (are) making by such a device, a point which is often lost on readers. In other forms, the trope also allows for vaguely Lovecraftian stories of slumbering and forgotten gods, not really alive, but too powerful to die, as executed with narrative style and game-breaking bugginess in Mask of the Betrayer.
However, taking this to its logical conclusion, it becomes apparent that these “gods” are more like symbiotes or parasites in a metaphysical ecosystem. Powered by its energies, they can do things within their spheres of influence, but without it, they are nothing. In that respect, it is only a matter of scale which separates Great God Om from Augustus Caesar and the pharaohs. Given that the latter were clearly not gods, it is hard to argue that Om and Kelemvor are gods except by convention. Likewise, despite Tim Hickson’s assertion that an all-powerful AI would be a god, it would not be, because it would not be all-powerful, it would simply be more powerful than those whose lives it controls. Is government a god? Is bureaucracy? No. And eventually, without the material or energy to sustain itself, the AI will break down, because it is not really all-powerful. It is simply a contingent construct. The compelling nature of the trope and the sweeping exaggerations which it encourages cannot be denied. The False God is an effective tool of storytelling, even if it bears the least resemblance to its real-world antecedents.
The massive umbrella afforded by a word like god can often lull us into a false sense of security in our writing, but world-builders must always be alert. The conventions which have sprung up have done so for a reason, and simply declaring powerful entities gods (rather than merely god-like) is a narrative shortcut which must be avoided. Moreover, despite the name, False Gods are often truly active in their settings in a way in which the other kinds are not, making for a very different kind of story. The trick is to know which form of deity one is using and why.