The assembled deities fell into a respectful silence.
Kui-Xing, the Chinese god of paperwork, was pleasantly surprised. It wasn’t as though he normally commanded such obedience over thousands of unruly omnipotent beings. He had barely any divine kudos at all these days, and was often mocked by the more muscularly depicted gods for being “nerdy”.
But today, at this meeting of the gods, taking place once every ten thousand years, it was his turn to be in charge. Some customs mattered to the gods, and respecting the role of divine chairman was one.
“Right,” said Kui-Xing across the deathly hush. He took a moment to enjoy himself, looking out at the thousands of gods all obliged to defer to him. It would be a long time before he got to enjoy this privilege again – Fate only knew how many aeons it would be before his name came back around on the rota. But he was here now, and he was determined to make the most of it. He was putting on a passably booming and resonant voice, even if he’d never be able to carry off the gravitas of someone like Zeus. He cleared his throat, and began to speak.
“Gods and goddesses, deities and divines, almighty all,” he called out across the multitude. “We gather at this time, as we have gathered countless times since the dawn of existence, since before there was nothing. We, the true lords and masters of all that is, have come to revel and rejoice in the wondrousness of our glorious selves. This is the occasion on which we gather in this place, so that the very fabric of the cosmos itself may pay us homage, and offer forth divine truths and holy wisdom. Let us proceed and hold forth with THE CARNIVAL OF THE GODLY.”
His voice cracked a little as he rose to a roaring crescendo with the final words, and for a moment the lord of holy provenance over official documentation flinched in fear of ridicule, but the silence continued. The others’ respect for the protocol was too great. He tried not to let the agenda and list of announcements rustle in his hands, as he prepared to deliver unto the multitude the holy proclamations. Whatever celestial wisdoms he was about to impart would guide the course of all the gods’ actions until the next carnival, in another ten millennia.
“Right,” said Kui-Xing, a little hesitantly, the official script having taken him as far as it could. He took a deep breath and prepared to set the ball rolling.
“Carnival of the Godly,” he boomed, “announcement the first: It has been observed by The Barefoot Bum that atheism is under no obligation to provide alternative explanations for the state of the world than those provided by religion; religious ontology can be adequately rejected by scientific epistemology, and accusations of intellectual procrastination are baseless for this reason.”
A silence followed his words, as the assembled gods and goddesses processed and considered their meaning.
“Um,” said Minerva after some moments. “That doesn’t sound very godly.”
A burst of muttering broke out among the crowd, relieved that somebody had said what they were all thinking. Kui-Xing swallowed nervously. As chairman of the carnival, he was in no possible danger of usurpation, and nobody would dare to disobey if he ordered them all into silence. But he’d never been the type for the “iron hand” style of rule – and, although he hated to admit it, he couldn’t help thinking that the goddess of wisdom had a point.
“Nevertheless,” he cried, trying not to let his voice quaver with uncertainty, “it has been spoken, and it is so decreed.
“Announcement the second,” he pressed on before anyone had a chance to do too much thinking. “Tatarize, of the God Snot blog, has observed a scientific hypothesis about cognitive dissonance being overturned by a basic error in probability that went unnoticed for years; a valuable reminder that any cherished belief must be abandoned if the facts are against it, lest we stray into dogma and irrationality.”
The silence that followed this time was even stonier than the last.
“But… but the entire basis of my worship is built around dogma!” cried Zeus. “And fear! If we start encouraging people to stop believing things because of evidence, where are any of us going to end up?”
The holy avatars standing near to the lightning-god looked down at their feet and shuffled nervously. None of them wanted to be seen as acting carelessly toward carnival etiquette, but Kui-Xing could tell that uncertainty was spreading, and would risk turning into dissent if things carried on like this.
“The words I speak are of infallible provenance. The messages imparted here are, as ever, open to wide interpretation,” he bluffed, “and no doubt there will be time for much discussion on how we should best act in compliance once this meeting is dissolved.
“Announcement the third,” he continued, hoping against hope that the crowd would remain mollified. “Dr Vitelli’s Providentia blog describes the curious case of Mary Bateman, the Yorkshire Witch of late 18th and early 19th century England; her cons included eggs inscribed with announcements of the second coming of Christ, and selling people passes that would allegedly get them into Heaven.”
“Oh, hell, I remember her.” Eyes turned to locate the source of the interruption, as Jesus continued. “Loki took the piss for centuries because of that mad bint. I still think it was him who wrote on those eggs and shoved them back up those chickens, just to mess with me and make me think I was late for an appointment.”
The mischievous giggling that followed could only be Loki’s, and Kui-Xing knew he had to bring things back under control quickly, before the trickster god made some wisecrack about Joanna Southcott’s box and it all dissolved into chaos.
“Regardless of any alleged past indiscretions,” he insisted weakly, “the announcement has been made, and must be acknowledged by the gathering. Now, may I continue with the next announcement?”
There was a rumbling of dissatisfaction, but Kui-Xing decided he must press on, and hope that whatever else was coming up would get them back on side.
“Announcement the fourth: Raithie has examined the expected characteristics of good and evil beings, and concluded that the immorality of the Biblical God is unavoidab-” He choked on his own words here, even before the deathly silence gave way to an outraged roar from the middle of the crowd.
“WHAT??” came the mighty yell, predictably enough, from Yahweh. “Who dares to question the perfect splendour of my good name?”
Although he was familiar with the Christian godhead’s bluster, Kui-Xing still flinched at the sound, and tried to pull himself together enough to respond and keep order. Fortunately, he was saved the task.
“Oh, give it a rest, Dad,” sighed Jesus. “People are always saying that about your old ways, and centuries of genocide can build up a fair amount of resentment in a species. I did try going down there to explain that you’ve mellowed out since then, but-”
“Can I jus’ say,” slurred Dionysus, “that thish – ‘scuse me – thish is the strangest Carvinal of the Godly I can rem’m’mber. Are you sssssure we’ve got the right – *hic* – the right set of, y’know, wossnames? Notes?”
“Man’s got a point,” muttered Ares. “We’re supposed to be celebrating our eternal glory and dominion over all things, and this jumped-up desk-tidy here” – he waved a hand carelessly at Kui-Xing – “keeps trying to do us down. I say we go to WAR!”
“That’s your answer to answer to everything, Mars, darling,” said Venus, stopping all the other gods dead in their tracks with the loveliness of her voice. “Please, be peaceful, and let the gathering continue.”
Ares trembled for a few tense seconds as he tried to control himself, then relaxed. “All right,” he mumbled, “fine, let’s get it over with. But don’t call me that name again. The Greeks were the only ones who really understood me. If you call me by that Roman name again… there will be WAR!”
“Announcement the fifth,” shouted Kui-Xing desperately, with no idea what else to do but continue while things were still almost under control, “is provided by someone called the Anti Chris – no, not you, I said ‘Chris’, sit down – and is about the comfort and reassurance provided by atheism in times of-”
This time there was chaos. Protocol was forgotten, and the fury of the gods was bellowed across the cosmos.
“They seek comfort by denying the obvious truth of our all-powerful wrath?”
“Always with their critical thinking and compassionate secular benevolence…”
“How can there be reassurance without the looming threat of our capricious and ever-lasting judgment?”
“I’ll show those secularists who doesn’t exist…”
“Ah, there’s actually a point about that here,” interjected Kui-Xing, going almost unnoticed amid the background noise of a bewailing pantheon. “Er, announcement the sixth is about American secularism, and the way its meaning is often subverted to demonise it as an anti-religious ideology…”
But no-one was listening. It had all fallen apart. Kui-Xing slumped to the floor and sagged hopelessly. The biggest debacle in carnival history, and it had to happen on his watch. He looked again at the list of announcements he still held in his hand, and wondered if Dionysus had been right. Maybe he had been reading material meant for another carnival entirely. Once things calmed down, the others would get billions of years’ worth of entertainment out of the god of paperwork being the first one to make such a huge administrative cock-up.
There was one announcement left, which he read quietly to himself while thousands of gods continued to scream their outrage all around him. Atheists needn’t be offended or troubled by the prayers of others, it said, when they are simply a manifestation of an underlying compassion and benevolence. Except in some cases, where prayer is used as a substitute for practical action, it’s the feelings that lie beneath the prayer that matter. And most people were good, and would do good deeds, and could be relied on to be practical and to care about people in many other ways than this largely harmless act of faith.
Looking around him at the fury and bickering the gods were capable of on their own, Kui-Xing had to wonder if it was really such a bad thing that the humans were starting to find them all unnecessary.