Never Quote Discworld to an Atheist

The other day, I found this article from a Google alert: an essay on the religious website First Things by the author and Catholic apologist Elizabeth Scalia (who also blogs as The Anchoress).

The post was about Terry Pratchett, the celebrated fantasy author and secular humanist. Since his personal beliefs come through clearly in his writing, I was surprised to find out that Scalia’s a fan of his Discworld series. She quotes with approval the following passage from one of the Discworld books, Carpe Jugulum, which features a dialogue between the Discworld’s greatest witch, Granny Weatherwax, and the Omnian priest Mightily Oats:

“There is a very interesting debate raging at the moment about the nature of sin, for example,” said Oats.

“And what do they think? Against it, are they?” said Granny Weatherwax.

“It’s not as simple as that. It’s not a black and white issue. There are so many shades of gray.”

“Nope.”

“Pardon?”

“There’s no grays, only white that’s got grubby. I’m surprised you don’t know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.”

“It’s a lot more complicated than that—”

“No. It ain’t. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they’re getting worried that they won’t like the truth. People as things, that’s where it starts.”

“Oh, I’m sure there are worse crimes—”

“But they starts with thinking about people as things…”

It’s interesting that Scalia didn’t mention that Omnianism is a satire of Christianity. But in any case, she approves of this passage because, as she reminds us, Pratchett is suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s and has announced his intention to end his life on his own terms, when the time is right, rather than wait for the disease to rob him of himself. She thinks that Pratchett’s own characters would counsel him against that course of action:

I wonder if Granny Weatherwax would agree with Pratchett, or if she would tell him he was making a thing of himself — placing his life within the context of a simple stop-start mechanism without regarding the inborn transcendence that, regardless of origin, is demonstrated so ripely in his own inventiveness. She might wonder what that ripeness might yet become — for others, if not himself — if allowed to remain on the vine rather then be plucked early. Perhaps she would warn Pratchett that he risks thing-nifying the people surrounding him and loving him, by turning them into mere markers and bystanders.

This sounds like a challenge, and I accept it. I’ve been a fan of Discworld for a long time, and I’ll be damned if a Catholic apologist is going to tell me that Terry Pratchett’s wonderful cast of characters is on her side. And as it happens, I remembered another passage from the very same book, one which bears far more directly on the topic, which Scalia’s post didn’t mention. Here it is:

Granny Weatherwax was airborne again, glad of the clean, crisp air. She was well above the trees and, to the benefit of all concerned, no one could see her face.

….There was a story under every roof, she knew. She knew all about stories. But those down there were the stories that were never to be told, the little secret stories, enacted in little rooms…

They were about those times when medicines didn’t help and headology was at a loss because a mind was a rage of pain in a body that had become its own enemy, when people were simply in a prison made of flesh, and at times like this she could let them go. There was no need for desperate stuff with a pillow, or deliberate mistakes with the medicine. You didn’t push them out of the world, you just stopped the world pulling them back. You just reached in, and… showed them the way.

There was never anything said. Sometimes you saw in the face of the relatives the request they’d never, ever put words around, or maybe they’d say “is there something you can do for him?” and this was, perhaps, the code. If you dared ask, they’d be shocked that you might have thought they meant anything other than, perhaps, a comfier pillow.

….She’d been a witch here all her life. And one of the things a witch did was stand right on the edge, where the decisions had to be made. You made them so that others didn’t have to, so that others could even pretend to themselves that there were no decisions to be made, no little secrets, that things just happened. You never said what you knew. And you didn’t ask for anything in return.

When I pointed this out in a comment, Scalia responded with the following. I invite you to judge how plausible an interpretation of the above passage it is:

I think I interpret that very differently, along the lines of both the death of JPII and my own brother’s passing…”reaching in and showing them the way” through love and presence to the end.

I strongly suspect that Granny Weatherwax, far from siding with Elizabeth Scalia, would regard her as one of the people who “pretend to themselves that there were no decisions to be made”. As many times as I read it, I can’t understand her argument that ending your life on your own terms is degrading to the people around you by treating them as “mere markers”. (Why doesn’t this same argument apply to offering yourself as a substitutive sacrifice? Why doesn’t it apply to the willing martyrs whom the Catholic church exalts? If anything, aren’t they the ones who treat others as markers of their deaths?)

Insofar as this definition of sin is a useful moral standard, the Catholics are the ones who are guilty of transgressing it. If treating people as people means anything at all, it means recognizing their right to self-determination, allowing them to make their own choices even when we disagree. Yet it’s the Catholics who think they have the right to control others’ decisions; it’s the Catholics who regard a person’s happiness or suffering, their independence and autonomy, as unimportant, and it’s the Catholics who advocate keeping a person alive, even against their own expressed wishes, to suffer the disintegration of self and the ravages of terminal illness. Terry Pratchett saw these people for what they are long ago, so I’ll let him have the final word, by way of one more apt quote from Granny Weatherwax:

The smug mask of virtue triumphant could be almost as horrible as the face of wickedness revealed.

Atlas Shrugged: The Hippocratic Oath
Atlas Shrugged: The Post-Scarcity Economy
Atlas Shrugged: One Steve Limit
Atlas Shrugged: The Colossal Contradiction
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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