I have a civilization in my story structured around the idea of worshiping the sun(s) as gods. The Church is the ruling body of this interstellar civilization and ensures that the "Blessings of the Gods" (technology) are only operated by Priests and the Chosen Few. Anyone caught violating the Blessings of the Gods by daring to disassemble, examine, or question their operation is immediately put to death for having the hubris to believe they could understand the Gods' power.

In this way, anything more complicated than a pocket communicator or simple power bike can only be operated by a member of the Church, keeping the normal populace in check and reliant on the Church for the continuation of their way of life. Access to the Divine Heart (fusion power), Protectors from the Great Void (spacecraft), and Portals of the Gods (computer networks/internet) are strictly controlled by the Priesthood.

That's the easy part.

The hard part is, how do I keep the Priests themselves from knowing how their technology works, while still letting them a) operate, b) repair, and c) build it?

The technology itself was designed many thousands of years past by a now long-dead, more secular, previous iteration of this civilization. Further R&D by the Priesthood is unnecessary, but they need to be able to repair existing Prayer Vessels (deep-space comms) and build new Fists of the Almighty (laser guns).

The trick is that the Priests believe in the Divinity of the Stars just as much as the populace: to them, their operation of these Holy Devices is a god-given right, not the result of superior technological understanding. How can I impose some social rule strong enough to keep a curious Priest from disassembling a Star Shard (light bulb) one day and figuring out how it works?

There are two explanations I'd like to avoid using:

  • They don't do it because faith. I'm looking for a way to keep some of the more skeptical priests in check; faith is enough to keep most in line but I'm looking to scare the outliers here.
  • They don't do it because the original designers made the technology un-understandable. This seems like a cop-out to me, and doesn't fit with the story of the previous civilization.
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    $\begingroup$ It would be worth your time to read the original Foundation trilogy by Isaac Asimov. At one point in his story, the advanced technology is managed by a priesthood, though I don't believe the priesthood itself failed to understand the tech. Nevertheless, the idea's been broached by one of the masters of science fiction. Joe Bob says check it out.... $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Feb 13, 2018 at 2:36
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH Foundation is actually one of my favorite series, and in part this was inspired by that exact chapter (section?). It's exactly that difference, getting the priesthood to administrate without understanding, that I'm looking to find. $\endgroup$
    – enpaul
    Commented Feb 13, 2018 at 2:43
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    $\begingroup$ Compare and Contrast the Adeptus Mechanicus of Warhammer 40,000. The Machine Cult operate technology ranging from light-switches to teleportation based almost entirely on cargo-cultism and superstition. The upper echelons have a good understanding of technology as they're initiated into greater mysteries, but the knowledge is partial and incomplete and grows thinner as time goes on. They stagnate constantly. They keep the more innovative types in check by threat of excommunication and death, and when they absolutely must innovate it's swept under the rug as quietly as possible afterwards. $\endgroup$
    – Ruadhan
    Commented Feb 13, 2018 at 11:50
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    $\begingroup$ Good read about this: 1d4chan.org/wiki/Standard_Template_Construct Even soldiers don't really know how their guns work, but they are taught the necessary invocations and rituals of firing and reloading it. Times are grim so they don't want to know anything that isn't absolutely needed to save their lives. Also, there's AI (the Machine Spirit) in almost any device, and it might get angry if not handled with correctly. $\endgroup$
    – Sinthorion
    Commented Feb 13, 2018 at 17:54
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    $\begingroup$ We already do this. Do you know how you iPhone works? Facebook? What do you do when it breaks? That guy behind the counter at the Apple store, he doesn't know anything more than you about how it actually works (hint: he's the priest). $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 14, 2018 at 0:04

6 Answers 6


This might actually be easier than you think. Just use a list of instructions for every 'build' or 'operation' and a checklist for every 'repair'. In point of fact, we're already doing this.

In Australia, we have a bakery franchise called Baker's Delight. You don't have to be a baker to buy into it; they give you a set of instructions (and all the tools) to bake a range of different bread products. They're great! Lovely bread all the time, consistently made.

My father (who was a baker by trade) once showed me a minor defect in a bun, and said something like 'it wasn't proved enough' but I don't know enough about bread for it to matter to me and as far as I was concerned, it tasted just fine.

The point being, you don't have to know 'why' if you know 'how'.

I've also seen this in office environments all the time. People follow blindly a list of instructions for producing a (say) monthly report that was designed by the person who sat in the role 3 people ago. The current person doesn't know that the data has been moved and they've been using old archived data for the last 2 years, and his or her manager has been making decisions on this without realising. The beauty of instructions and checklists is that they're ideal for lazy people; and there's a LOT of lazy people out there. Not always by character, some people are just plain busy and don't have time to investigate further.

Sure, you're going to get the odd curious soul out there who's going to want to poke around with the process and experiment a little bit, but a crippling workload will crush that out of most of them soon enough. If you catch someone playing with the formula, just double their output quota for the year.

Ultimately, you're going to get some people finding out what's really in the kool-aid and that will have to be managed, but by having everything done by rote and rewarding adherence to the instruction list (and punishing curiosity with more work) the vast majority of your clerical (no pun intended) workforce will fall into line.

  • $\begingroup$ I agree 100% with this answer. I also think that setting different levels for access will prevent lower-ranked priests from meddling too much. Of course, someone will have to know the inner workings . . . - DDM $\endgroup$
    – user47438
    Commented Feb 13, 2018 at 2:15
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    $\begingroup$ Absolutely. Clerical organisational structures are already deeply hierarchical in nature so this shouldn't be so much of a problem. It might also serve as a sweetener for the curious; 'We're doubling your workload, but if you get through it you can advance to the next level'. If they remain curious but are still loyal, they eventually reach the inner circle that knows the truth. Very much like Inner / Outer party mechanics in 1984 by Orwell. $\endgroup$
    – Tim B II
    Commented Feb 13, 2018 at 2:17
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    $\begingroup$ A crippling workload and a definitive accusation of sin that guarantees immediate judgement and punishment. Enforced ignorance has been a staple of religion for thousands of years. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Feb 13, 2018 at 2:31
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH - Couldn't agree more. Wielding both the carrot and the stick gives you far more power than most people understand. I didn't dwell on that part in my answer but it's an important point to remember in a religious authoritarian state. $\endgroup$
    – Tim B II
    Commented Feb 13, 2018 at 2:38
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    $\begingroup$ This is how Warhammer 40,000's Tech-Priests work, they have no idea how any of the great machines of mankind work but they know the ritual motions to go through to get them to do what is needful. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Commented Feb 13, 2018 at 12:09

It seems to me that by the time technology reaches this level, it will primarily be all 'black box' technology. Even our modern technology is pretty much indecipherable by even engineers, it is so miniaturized. It takes microscopes approaching electron microscopes to be able to reverse engineer our integrated circuits.

Add to this, our reliance on lithium ion batteries for energy. Take a lithium ion battery apart, or even try to, pretty much means an instant hot, intense fire if not an explosion. I would expect that, at this high level of technology, power sources would be fully integrated with the circuitry, the way they are integrating lithium ion batteries right into the circuit boards today.

Combine these, and you don't need the threat of death, it would pretty much be automatic. Remove the protective coverings, and the energy store of the device goes 'phytzzz' in sparkensenbominsenflamesenzen.

So the people, including the priests, have an innate fear of what is inside. That 'there be dangers herein' would not be hard to convince people thereof. 'Repair by authorized personnel only' would be more than just an idle warning.

And even if they did get them apart safely the insides would just be solid black masses of technology. Let's face it, even computers of today reveal absolutely nothing about their function. The innards just sit there, no obvious physical changes to reveal function. Remove all of the labels on the chips, and one has absolutely no idea of what the circuitry does until it is hooked up to inputs and outputs. A cob light is pretty much just layers of stuff that somehow emits light. Absolutely no movement that can be seen.

So how do these devices get repaired? Probably they do not. There would be 'no user-serviceable parts inside'. Swap out components. Replace, not repair. No one does board-level repairs on our technology today. If it doesn't work, trash it.

Okay, how do they get replaced? I suggest that their manufacture would be completely automated. Not just robots, but micro-robots. 3D printers on steroids. Put in the raw materials, and the automatic control systems print out the product, completely finished. All circuitry, layers, connections, components automatically built up, layer by layer. The assemblers just feed in the raw materials, and take out the final product. They don't need to know anything about how it works, any more than an assembler on a smart phone line needs to know how the smart phone works. Everything is automatically controlled by computers, and the programs would all be embedded. Inaccessible. No re-programming allowed. The original programmers would have 'burned' the 'programs' into the 'chips', and future 'upgrades' would have been by swap-outs of the 'chips'. The 3D printers automatically embed the 'code' when they print the device, 'hard-wired' into the 'circuitry'. Everything is in air quotes, because it would probably not look anything like our technology, but would be quantum computers, quantum effects, quantum memory, quantum technology that we have no terminology for.

Everything is a black box in a black box surrounded by a black box, manufactured and assembled in a black box by completely automated black boxes.

Even if someone could see what the 3D printer is doing, they would never comprehend why it was doing it. Even today, we can see a smart phone being assembled, without having any idea of how the components work together. It is not deliberately making the technology unknowable, it is an artifact of how it is manufactured.

It sounds like your civilization has not advanced in technology for thousands of years - it pretty much seems like they have completely forgotten what is inside the black boxes.

And opening one up would be inherently really, really dangerous.

  • $\begingroup$ Windows now has a 'toubleshoot' button on most error messages, if someone gets that idea to work or even make it just download the techsupport call center's 'help' script to make users read it to themselves it would go a long way to achieving this. $\endgroup$
    – user25818
    Commented Feb 13, 2018 at 18:45
  • $\begingroup$ This doesn't explain the need of priests: "Anything more complicated than a pocket communicator or simple power bike can only be operated by a member of the Church, keeping the normal populace in check and reliant on the Church for the continuation of their way of life." $\endgroup$
    – Sinthorion
    Commented Feb 13, 2018 at 18:57
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    $\begingroup$ if 3D printer breaks, who will repair it? If it's another machine that will repair 3D printer, who will repair the said machine? $\endgroup$
    – Devstr
    Commented Feb 13, 2018 at 19:35
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    $\begingroup$ @Devstr Any 3D printer can print out any part for any device. 3D printers print out the parts for other 3D printers. Just like the 'replicators' on Star Trek - punch in what you want, it pops out. Swap the part into the malfunctioning device. As long as they ALL don't malfunction, you are always up and running, $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 13, 2018 at 21:18
  • $\begingroup$ @Sinthorion An engineer by any other name is still an engineer. The 'priests' are the trained engineers who know how to push the right buttons, load the right materials. Calling them 'priests', does not change the job description. I remember as an engineering undergrad in the 80's, working for IBM was equated to entering the priesthood - they always took first year students so they could 'indoctrinate' them into the IBM culture. It would be like the 'guilds' of ancient lore, or 'unions' of today. It's all about restricting the necessary training to the select few. Think 'medical doctors'. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 13, 2018 at 21:27

I have spent some time in extremely impoverished 3rd world nations and the mindset towards technology in such places is pretty much to consider it as magic already. If you are poor and desperate you stop thinking about things that don't put food in your belly. You aren't making plans for the future, you are farming because if you don't you will starve. The struggle for daily survival consumes your entire waking life and to ponder how those airplanes overhead are able to fly never even occurs to you. They just do, everybody knows that, what good would knowing how do you? It doesn't fill the hole in your belly or get those crops planted. It doesn't keep your aggressive and dangerous neighbors away. It doesn't make the rain fall sooner. So it doesn't matter. Illiteracy is also a massive shove in the direction of making tech into a superstition. If they cant read even if they wanted to learn how that airplane works they wouldn't be able to.

If the majority of people's time is spent scrabbling for the most basic life necessities (food, water, shelter, and security) they tend to naturally not even worry about how learning how to read, let alone studying engineering, physics, and tech. The fact that our present culture is populated by literate people all heavily educated in how the world around them works is really a monument to how much free time and extra resources we have. In ages past only a very very tiny portion of the population could read and write, it was such an exclusive talent for a while that it practically put somebody into a different caste during the medieval ages. If You take our modern free time and surplus of material wealth away and in a generation they might not be worshiping tech, but they will certainly have abandoned trying to figure it out. Keep it that way for a century or two and suddenly its pretty easy for whoever wants to manipulate the people to essentially tell them whatever they want the people to believe.


Something I have not seen yet is the point about how dangerous a lot of that technology is. Many humans are reckless in our use of guns, cars, and many other things. If these things are new to us though, we tend to be careful and not use them too much.

To be a priest is to have proven yourself to be capable of handling that danger, much like a police officer proves to those who hire them that they are worthy of the badge or a Knight their position. They are the ones who get taught how to handle the dangerous stuff, and the more distinguished ones among them can go farther in and learn how to do the more complicated making and repairing of the dangerous stuff. The intricate aspects would and probably should be handled by factories that maintain themselves, as kinds of Black Boxes.

A space faring civilization is likely to have some factories that are almost fully automated that survived, and the Priests just do the rituals that request of the factory to turn raw materials they put in into the finished products. The factories kick out people that are in the assembly line because they are obstructions endangering themselves and the machines, so the Priests can never learn how to build from scratch, but basic repairs could be learned by trial and error plus reverse engineering. Those who do so are the bravest of priests who sacrificed themselves to learn how to tame the machines when they go out of control so that others could do so without dying.

After decades of this, while they don't know everything about the black boxes that are the automated factories, they would certainly have learned how to do basic repairs. The vast record of individuals dying while using the devices would scare away non priests, because everyone knows that if you don't know what your doing, your probably going to get killed by it, especially since countless experts who dedicated their lives to it have been killed by them.

The only thing remaining would be to do something similar for the communications arrays and computers. Both of those use electricity to dangerous levels. They say the 2 things on a computer you should never mess with are the Power supply and the Monitor. If its not widespread, you could easily convince the masses through rumors that they too are dangerous and have killed priests investigating how they work. They also are super complicated, so much so that priests who spend their lives studying them only know part of how they work and what they do, which is true even of modern day individuals. No common layman would ever want to mess with a strange device that can kill them and is so complicated that they could only learn a few basic things without a teacher. Priests only teach other priests, so an average person would be much like an elderly person today who has never used a phone or computer trying to figure one out without someone to help them.

This kind of method also lets you limit what tech is available, stripping out modern conveniences that you don't want on the basis that there are no factories that build them or their components. Sure the Priests could build the guns from the components with a guide, but if no factory exists to build the fundamental parts for washing machines, they are probably out of luck.

With all that, and a bit of hand waving that the story went in a specific way, its very realistic to believe that most of the population knows from rumors and stories from Preists themselves about how dangerous and complicated technology is. Most people will be afraid of it, many who try to understand it will kill themselves on accident, and most of it is otherwise restricted to Priests. Those who do make it or are interested may be try to or be invited to become priests. Thus, any talent or desire to understand tech will steadily remove itself from the villages to become priests or die trying.


If you think about it, cows and chicken perfectly satisfy your requirements. Create alive evolving technologies and you are done. We had no idea how they work until recently (and still largely don't). We know how to make them reproduce though.

Anyone caught violating the Blessings of the Gods by daring to disassemble, examine, or question their operation is immediately put to death for having the hubris to believe they could understand the Gods' power.

I think that's exactly how anatomy studies were treated not too long ago


In the future every machine may be able to communicate through means which would seem magical even to us. Interstellar, FTL communication provided by microscopical components may be ubiquitous in machines and you can handwave the technical explanations (no one questions those in Star Wars/Star Trek as well).

So, supposing your machines are connected to a sci-fi network, some IoT may be just what you need. It could work in the following ways - you can even combine them as you see fit:

  • Megalomaniacal AI: there is an AI connected to every device and it either thinks it is a god, or is impersonating one or more gods (suggested read: Count Zero). In order to use machines, one must worship the gods - hence the need for a priesthood. Diffetent rituals may be needed for different levels and modes of access to technology.

  • Fragile things: machines need the network in order to function well, and the comms circuitry is very fragile. Trying to disassemble a machine is a sure way to break the comms, and then you brick the device.

  • Stupid bug: the machines used to be more helpful and would answer all technical questions, or at least point to manuals and documentations. However after civilization fell long ago, machines suffered from a bug similar to the Year 2000 Problem. They flipped their calendars from year 9,999 (or 99,999, or 999,999) to a negative year at some point and this caused an astronomical quantity of bugs. Questioning a machine, or failing to recite a set of commands in a long-dead language and in a very specific order (which could be seen as a form of prayer) will cause a device to crash and/or reboot.

  • Strong DRM: machines were built by governments or corporations that did not want them reverse engineered. Any detected attempt will cause the machine to brick on purpose. The civilization that built them this way is gone, but the DRM measures are still in place.

Last but not least, using any machine may require authentication and authorization. Thus the rituals of innitiation are actually a long-held secret of how to create a user account, and the high clergy may be able to deauthorize a church member until they attone for their mistakes. This works well regardless of how much understand and faith the priesthood has when it comes to the ways that the machines work.

Last but not least, I cannot help but think of Blur's 2112 while typing this. The song is not part of an answer per se, but I think the tone of the story connects very well to the question and helped me think about the suggestions above.

We are the Priests of the Temples of Syrinx
Our great computers fill the hallowed halls
We are the Priests, of the Temples of Syrinx
All the gifts of life are held within our walls


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