Torchwood: Small Worlds, Medium-Sized Gods

The Torchwood episode “Small Worlds” focuses on “fairies” – which are viewed not as alien entities but as ones that are native to our world and have been around for as long as or longer than humans have. Indeed, they once were human children, but have been transformed into immortal beings who can flit in and out of and backwards and forwards in time. Some think of them as lovely and benevolent, but a close look reveals that they are capricious and do not care about harm done to others.

Even Jack, who has encountered them before, has no way of dealing with them. He emphasizes that it isn’t a matter of police work or science, and one might add that there is no Doctor to come up with some clever solution.

These “fairies” are powerful beings who treat everything as a game, live forever, and are unstoppable. The only thing one can do, Jack concludes, is give them what they want and hope that they will reciprocate by leaving you alone.

It struck me hard as I thought about the episode that this is exactly how gods were understood, and what religion meant, throughout most of human history.

And so I strongly recommend “Small Worlds” as a discussion-starter on religion and science fiction. It also provides a good starting point for discussion of religion and science. The progress of our scientific knowledge has eliminated the mythological element to forces of nature. That makes them intelligible, and slightly more predictable, but not necessarily less terrifying, since there is no personal entity behind them that we can appease to keep them at bay. But presumably just understanding that offering sacrifices will not keep tornados at bay is progress, and reality is preferable to comforting falsehoods.

There is a lot of updating that any viable religious viewpoint must engage in if it is to seem plausible to present and future generations. As Carl Sagan wrote, “In fact a general problem with much of Western theology in my view is that the god portrayed is too small. It is a god of a tiny world and not a God of the galaxy, much less of a universe… I don’t propose that is a virtue to revel in our limitations. But it’s important to understand how much we do not know. There is an enormous amount we do not know; there is a tiny amount that we do. But what we do understand brings us face to face with an awesome Cosmos that is simply different from the Cosmos of our pious ancestors.”

Our cosmos is bigger than many ancients realized, and more rational and intelligible too, and less full of capricious spirits. And so the really interesting theological questions are not about the attempts of fundamentalists to maintain the same ideas of God today. Rather, the crucial debate is about whether our progress in understanding the world leads to a bigger God, or none at all.

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  • ConnorO

    The only thing one can do, Jack concludes, is give them what they want and hope that they will reciprocate by leaving you alone.
    It struck me hard as I thought about the episode that this is exactly how gods were understood, and what religion meant, throughout most of human history.

    If we’re talking about Mediterranean pagan antiquity, I disagree. Gods were the patrons of orderly and peaceful civil society. One “gives them what they want,” sure, but in the hopes that they will reciprocate by continuing to uphold the conditions that made city life possible. The absence of calamity and disaster was not perceived in the slightest as being “left alone” by the gods, but as clear evidence that they were acting in good faith in their role as sustainers of the cosmic order that was reflected in the continuance of civil society. Actions of everyday piety that may appear self-interested in an almost crassly transactional way to modern eyes really were not. Making a small offering at a roadside shrine or participating in civic cult activities was a community-directed act of trust in a powerful patron, not a quid pro quo. That one might also hope for good fortune or better health on an individual level again reflected trust, not solicitation. You went to the traditional upholders of your way of life in times of trouble as a sign of confidence in their participation in that order. The attitude you suggest is what a pagan elite of the Hellenistic and Greco-Roman periods would have called superstition. A free man did not cower in fear or take a position of servility toward a patron more powerful than himself, he operated from a stance of mutual respect and obligation.

  • Anonymous

    Indeed, for a culture based on city states, these would be the gods that you would be looking for.  A hunter gatherer context would be more susceptible to discrete events – floods, disease, accident – so that capricious spirits would need to be placated in addition to those that bring the rain and ensure the return of game.

    So, how does our current societal structure mesh with the gods we have provided ourselves?

  • James F. McGrath

    I don’t disagree, ConnorO , but I do wonder whether popular piety even in the Greco-Roman era was more like what some members of the elite thought and advocated, or what they denounced as superstition.

    • ConnorO

      Yes, that’s sort of always the problem, isn’t it? Our sources so neglect the lifeways and attitudes of such a large portion of the ancient population that maybe the best we can do is try to correct for elite biases.

  • James F. McGrath

    Indeed. But I do appreciate your point, and certainly the Greek era is an important stage in the evolution of religion from what the Greek elite considered superstition into forms that acknowledged an increased amount of order and regularity in the cosmos.

  • Shawn McNulty

    I don’t think you need to limit yourself to the greco-roman cosmology to see that there was more to the worship of gods than appeasing them so that they would leave you alone. Fertility goddesses (and gods) in numerous cultures were petitioned not in the hopes that they would leave you alone but in the hopes that they would actively assist you with your crops, your hunt, your livestock or your own procreation.

  • Beau Quilter

    The Greco-Roman gods may have been noble and orderly at times, but the surviving literature tells us that Zeus was an insatiable adulterer, that his jealous wife Hera cruelly persecuted the mortals he visited and their children, and even the goddess of wisdom, Athena, was driven by jealousy to war against Troy.

    There may have been some order and purpose in the worship of the gods, but their capricious nature is undeniable. 

  • David Coulter

    I have this theory that under Constantine, the Greco/Roman civil religion basically cannibalized Christianity and turned it into a host body. It changed from being a religion of “women and slaves,” as Pliny calls it, to fulfilling exactly the same civil function as the old pagan gods.

  • ConnorO

    It’s not so much that the Greco-Roman gods were considered noble and orderly by nature; simply that their patronage was an essential condition for noble and orderly civic life. It’s also important to realize that educated elites in these societies considered such stories about the gods fictions, possibly edifying, possibly frivolous, but that they also continued to believe in the gods. Beliefs about their essential natures were not necessarily congruent with the myths and legends told about them. 

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