# How can you prevent a theocracy from being inevitable when religious leaders have power over nature?

In this world, religious leaders of a world religion practice a form of ritual magic that is essential to human existence. Certain rituals must be performed at certain times for nature to function properly. The sun must rise and set, seasons must come and go, rain must be delivered to places that need it, souls of the dead must be transported to the afterlife, etc. All of these natural cycles must be activated by rituals at specific intervals. One must become a religious functionary of this faith and study for many years to be able to perform these rituals. This church equivalent is very selective of its members, preventing just anyone from joining.

When this magic isn't performed, you get a situation like Westeros. Seasons are unpredictable, and could last for several years. The sun and moon don't operate on their regular cycles. Souls may not ascend when they are supposed to and get trapped on the mortal realm. Things get completely out of wack when religious leaders don't do their job.

This clearly makes religion essential to the planet and puts practitioners in a powerful position. How can I prevent the formations of complete theocracies, where religious leaders control government and all aspects of society?

• If it actually has a real, measurable effect, is it still religion? (insert thinking emoji here) – Fabian Röling Jan 8 at 14:44
• Garbage collection is necessary for the functioning of cities, but we don't have an oligarchy made of garbage collectors anywhere that I know of (except possibly in New Jersey) – Paul Jan 8 at 15:38
• @FabianRöling It's worshipping a greater entity, so it's a religion. However it is not a "faith". The OP has made the classic mistake of assuming that "religion" and "faith" are synonymous. In our world they are, because there has never been proof of the existence of any supernatural entity or event, and therefore all religions require faith. In a world where gods clearly exist, it is still possible to worship them, but no faith is required. – Graham Jan 8 at 15:42
• @Graham Didn't the Nazis also kind of worship a greater entity? Or some North Koreans? Or does that only count if that entity is not a human? What if someone worships superheroes? Or a concept? – Fabian Röling Jan 8 at 15:49
• One error I think the question makes is to assume "religious leaders" (as a category) being important automatically translates to [specific] "religious leaders" being powerful. But certainly there's just as much bickering and political partisanship within a religious institution (especially a large and ancient one) as there is outside of it. Just because the religion on the whole is powerful doesn't mean any particular leader or group can "wield" that power. – workerjoe Jan 8 at 20:58

## There are simply too many things on your plate

Do you know how hard it is to make seasons change? How delicate the process is to make the souls ascend? You mispronounce one syllabe and grandpa ends in void. Like forever.

And you want me to collect taxes? Write laws? Take care of the military? Meh. Nothing for me. And excuse me now. I need to meditate to have good mindset for beautiful sunset of today...

• Nothing prevents these busy people from delegating those tasks to others, while threatening to withhold or deliberate mishandle their exclusive, difficult tasks if they're not allowed to do so to the desired degree. "My job is hard enough as it is" only limits the honest, dedicated folk who would not want to compromise on it (that would bring us back to the "mindset" solution of elPolloLoco). This could be a factor, but it's not good enough on its own. – Jeroen Mostert Jan 8 at 14:19
• While true, it can also boil down to system as Great Britain. Sure, the clergy nominates the King / Prime Minister / Protector, but that role actually has all tre ruling power – Pavel Janicek Jan 8 at 14:36
• Might also consider that it has already happened, it hardly matters how much power a person or group has if other people are willing to sell their lives to counter that power. It doesn't even require that a group rile the general population, just enough people with enough dedication to kill them despite their power over nature. Stories often occur with background calamities used to explain why the world is as it is now. Think of the doom of valyria and rebelling slaves. One group had power, used it to enforce an exploitative position over other people and the other people rebelled killing them – Giu Piete Jan 8 at 18:38
• If the story goes such that the pride and exploitative society that came before almost brought doom upon the entire race, it would be a story all people (including those eventually recruited into the church) grew up being told...and whilst it is the nature of people to take what they can from others, the organisation would likely self impose limits. (Many churches and millions of faithful supported separation of church and state when it was apparent what abuses and injustices other churches(even if they did not believe it of themselves and their own) could visit upon people. – Giu Piete Jan 8 at 18:41
• Such is true of nigh every 'evolution' of society. – Giu Piete Jan 8 at 18:42

Can anyone perform the rituals needed? Or do they need some set of magical abilities?

If anyone can do it, then in being the one who does it has no true power. Just like we need farmers to produce our food, but everybody who is willing to learn the needed skills can do their job, so they can't take us all hostage.

If you need to be born with some special magic powers, then you can bind these powers to a special mindset. Only those with a gentle, caring mind who have no interest in ruling over the others can perform the magic.

• Alternately, bog them down with trivia so that they don't have the time to take over the world – nzaman Jan 8 at 12:20
• @AlexandreAubrey: "The church controls the supply of people able to perform the rituals:" only until Mohammed or Luther set up alternative churches. Large supposedly monolithic hierarchical organisations are know to split up from time to time, and the rival descendent organizations to compete fiercely. – AlexP Jan 9 at 3:00
• I like the second part of the answer. Membership of the faith requires the ability to perform the rituals (core tenet). Only a person of pure heart can perform the rituals. So, if power or greed or ??? seeps into a mystic's heart, the can no longer perform magic and are cast from the sect. How this works is not understood. – UnhandledExcepSean Jan 9 at 17:56
• @AlexP: But those examples also show how the monopoly on religious power (even perceived) did lead to theocracy — theocracies that had dominated for centuries before their splits, and, indeed, kept much of their power afterwards, while the new offshoots expanded to power over even wider areas…. – Peter LeFanu Lumsdaine Jan 9 at 23:56
• The fact it takes years of hard work and discipline to learn the rites is why they don't become leaders. Programmers in theory hold ALL the power in our modern world because they control everything, but they have relatively little influence because the kind of person who would dedicate that much energy into accademia, does not have the same mental profile as a person who dedicates that much energy into becoming a leader. Theocracies exist in our world because religious success is all about leading people. Technocracies don't exist, because success comes from a certain level of isolation. – Nosajimiki Jan 11 at 18:15

Well, what define a religion compared to a simple belief is the dogma.

Have it written in their religious text and prayers that political power is bad and that they are only servants to the people (or ruling class).

Of course, you're not totally free from a few religious leader having some real power and maaaaybe a bit corrupt but that's the job of your strong ruling class to keep them in check.

One of the good way is to declare that your true political leader is chosen by the gods and that he IS the ultimate religious reference. Just need to explain that his bloodline is sacred or that the way he was elevated is (sacred popular election, sacred fighting competition, sacred coup d'état,... whatever float your boat).

And I'm not inventing anything. You state that in your world, the priests have a "real influence on the world". Well, so are the priests in most believing countries (present or past) in the real world. In all countries where there is a state religion, people really believe that priests will help them communicate to their god, save their souls or other. So why did priests not seize power in all of these countries ? (This is an open question, if you want to search for other real world examples)

• Curiously many of the current existing religions claim that they are to care only about the spiritual part of the human being, yet that does not prevent them for trying to amass power or to get political influence... why did priests not seize power in all of these countries They did, we even have a word for it (theocracy). It is only that nowadays in most countries we no longer allow them to act this way. And even in the current situation, they try to pressure the political power to bend to its will, even if by indirect means (through public pressure). – SJuan76 Jan 9 at 9:37
• Having power is different than ruling a country and the OP didn't ask about religion having no influence at all. Moreover, you're disagreeing with while repeating what I said in my answer : "It is only that nowadays in most countries we no longer allow them to act this way". Precisely. – Echox Jan 9 at 13:07
• This. Divide the institutions as a matter of the religion itself. It only took one rambling ex-monk harping on about the scriptures to trigger a huge reduction in the Roman Catholic Church's political power. You could even take it further: maybe the religious leaders lose the ability to perform the rituals if they break this rule. – jpmc26 Jan 10 at 5:25

# Religion does not imply Theism / Theocracy

By paraphrasing the old expression "Correlation Does Not Imply Causation", I will simply say that you have no problem here because religion does not imply theism/theocracy.

• The-ism is doctrine (-ism) based on religious faith (the-)

• Theo-cracy is government (-cracy) based on religious faith (the(o)-)

Now granted in real life there is a strong connection between faith and doctrine because the religious institutions claim that the ethics and morals that are in their religious doctrine are valid for all people. But their only ground for claiming this is "Because our holy texts say that these ethics stem from the highest authority, i.e. the divine creature(s) to which we have pledged our faith". Without that, they have no basis for claiming that their doctrine should be universal.

So in your world, things do not have to be like in our real-life world, because you make no reference to having divine entities that claim ultimate authority to dictate doctrines. So whatever doctrine needs to be in place in order to not screw up the world Westeros- or Broken Earth-style is not at all related to ethics or morals. The fact that you need to perform a certain ritual in a specific way at a specific time, does not in any other way imply things like the ten commandments or the eight condiments.

In fact, one could argue that what you have here is not a religion at all. What you have is unexplored reality; physical science waiting to be performed. Unexplained does not mean mystic. And with a lack of mysticism, any measurable, explorable part of reality is just that: plain old unexplained reality, not religion.

Compare real life; we have no idea why gravity exists or what the fundamental causes of it are, but we none the less know how to deal with gravity because we know how it works because science has explored gravity and found out good models of gravity that fit the measurable reality.

In the same way, your fictional characters know how to deal with the threatening calamities in order to keep them at bay. They have no idea why they have to do it the way they do, but they know that if they do not, things become messy.

Hence...

## There is no problem here

...because your religious leaders do not claim ultimate authority over every aspect of life. They are experts in warding off calamities by knowing the rituals and being in tune with what the great unknown demands. But unless they claim ultimate authority over everything simply because they desire power, there is no issue here.

Ah, what if the religious leaders decide to play dirty and start claiming they do have authority? That to me sounds like a great plot generator. Is this something for you as the author to be worried about, or to use as an endless well to pour from?

Since you can dial the religious leaders' ruthlessness and ambition back and forth as much as you like, and seeing that you can dial the people's skepticism back and forth as much as you like... you simply need adjusting these to whatever levels you need to create the right kind of discord needed to make a good setting/story.

Also let me point out that if the people of your world have never before had to endure deistic/theistic kinds of religions, then they are not at all used to the notion of cults where someone claims someone or something has ultimate authority over everything. If you set it up this way, the notion of an ultimate authority will be as alien to them as the cult of personality of Kim Il-Sung is alien to you and me.

• This. All of this. I was going to answer similarly, but I'll just tack it on here: in the same way that professions usually attract groups of people with similar personalities (teachers are often similar to other teachers, doctors, engineers, etc.), people attracted to this vocation would probably be somewhat similar, and the tendencies of these people seem to lean toward the altruistic (want to maintain the weather, etc, for the benefit of all) and thus most don't have the desire to govern, rule, or dominate. – John Doe Jan 8 at 19:05
• If what they do (and if they have to do it; not god doing it) is "essential to human existence" it is by definition not based on (faith) theism. – Mazura Jan 9 at 22:04

Having the power to hold the world hostage by simply not doing your job is a terrifying prospect. Therefore it is a given that the church must do its job of keeping the world in balance. The moment it pauses its practices to achieve an end, all faith on its integrity will be lost. Therefore they'll want to appear altruistic and not go the "bow before me or suffer eternal undeath" route.

But there must still be some consequences for this loss of faith. If there is only a single system, then the loss of faith from its followers is of no consequence to it, as all people just bend to its rules.

Instead, have multiple religious bodies, each having its own belief systems and doctrines, but all employing their mages/shamans/priests/etc. to achieve the same end. A religious body exploiting its believers will quickly lose its body of followers, and even if they stop their practices, there are others to take over. If someone tampers with the systems, there are others to put an end to it. Competition keeps each organization in check.

This will open up a more varied system where other forms of governments can emerge. There will still be theocracies, or have religious organizations as shadow rulers (subvert methods like blackmailing existing monarchs with conditions like denying their family afterlife, causing unfavorable weather conditions during a battle, etc.) but they won't be so blatant.

• "Having the power to hold the world hostage by simply not doing your job is a terrifying prospect" ... hmmmm - wink ;-) – Mawg Jan 8 at 14:39

While religion will obviously be important, it doesn't inherently become all-powerful.

Doing their job is in their interest

If the seasons don't change, the crops will fail, and eventually, the priests will starve. If the souls don't ascend, then tripping down the stairs can potentially leave their soul stuck on earth.

Having the power to change the weather is nice, but you're still powerless against a couple of thugs. So a threat if you're not doing your job is a good incentive. You enjoy a position of power, but there are many willing to replace you.

It is very taxing, time consuming or otherwise hard to do

Try ruling a country when maintaining the weather alone takes 15 hours a day. So you have an agreement with local government providing for you. You can of course train more priests to lessen your load, but then you become replaceable.

Competing factions

It's not a single church, it's many competing religious sects. The Worshippers of the Sun want eternal day, while the Brotherhood of the Moon want everlasting darkness. So the day-night cycle is largely the two factions competing to get their way, and have essentially reached a unspoken agreement of roughly 50/50.

Different factions or religions could also have exclusive powers. Doesn't matter if it's day, if there's a perpetual storm cloud covering the sky. So each group don't have absolute power over anything.

It also become a military tactic of trying to kill your enemy's priest or mess up their weather. Messing up their day-night cycle might be a bit tricky, without affecting your own as well...

• +1 for the "Sun and Moon" approach. It might be useful if we're go for the Might&Magic-series-like world, for example... – Cerberus Jan 10 at 3:06
• I like the factions idea. – Willk Jan 10 at 5:20

Enslave them

The people who perform the magic rituals need not be leaders of any sort. They could be doing so at the will of others, under threat of bodily harm or death.

Secret cabal

Maybe the ritual performers do not wish to control everything openly. Maybe they control from the shadows. Their wisdom has allowed them to see that they should instead have a figurehead/scapegoat that appears to be in control, while they control the figurehead. This isn't exactly what you asked for but maybe the suggestion is still of value to you.

• The obvious counter to being enslaved is that the ritual-doers go on strike. That's going to be a really hard strike to break. – DJClayworth Jan 8 at 15:25
• @DJClayworth if the ritual-doers go on strike, their family members will start running out of body parts or simply disappear. – dissemin8or Jan 8 at 15:44
• @djclayworth that's always a problem with tyranny. It would be hard to break such a strike if they are all willing to die. And it would be hard to keep them from striking if you have to let them cooperate and assemble. Perhaps the best would be to keep them in two separate groups where each group is told they will be killed if they do not perform. – Osthekake Jan 8 at 15:47
• Two groups is the bare minimum. Keeping them in as many separate groups as possible (given a number of trained practitioners and a number required to perform the ritual requiring the most people), and keeping even ritual-groups separate when they aren't ritualing is a far more optimal procedure. – Gryphon Jan 9 at 1:56

Priests of nature have little interest in political affairs. Indeed, getting them to pay attention to the affairs of humanity at all is a challenge. Watching a single creature from egg, catterpillar, chrysalis, adulthood, until its passing is as engaging and important as keepingthe seasons in sync for the crops.

And politics or wars? Those are incomprehensible aspects of humanity that have no bearing on the priests.

The priests may be powerful, but to the average person they are unreadable and unpredictable.

Same way it's been done many times historically, control the priesthood. Inca, Aztecs, Egyptians and a bunch of others spring to mind even the Romans in some ways.

Whoever controls the army controls the priesthood, with some the ruler assumes divine status, with others they have an integral part in the rituals to play, sometimes both. But at the end of the day it's not a theocracy because the priesthood can and sometimes was massacred wholesale by the army.

The only difference from our third party view is that the rituals truly make the World go round.... from the Aztecs view of things, they believed the same, so it was true for them which is all that matters.

• in those cases religion had no measurable or tangible effect. In this case, killing a bunch of priests would be devastating. – Incognito Jan 8 at 14:53
• Yeah, but they didn't know that, so no difference – Kilisi Jan 8 at 15:00

While you can spend time explaining this, you don't necessarily have to spend time explaining this.

An example of a system very close to what you've described can be found in My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. It's shown that the weather and seasons are explicitly and completely dependent on the actions of the ponies, but this is treated as one more chore rather than a religion.

Where it gets sort of religious is with the Alicorns, which are basically physical gods: immortal, implied to be unkillable (or at least absurdly durable), and each in charge of a particular aspect: the Sun, Moon, Dreams, Love, Friendship, and Magic.

Ponies swear by them ("sweet Celestia!"), and a few times seem almost to pray to them by calling for Luna when beset by nightmares.

With that background out of the way, it's interesting that while Celestia rules Equestria jointly with Luna, and Cadence rules the Crystal Empire, this is treated as coincidental.

Luna barely participates in government, as her sleep schedule is inverted, and Celestia tolerates governing with something very close to ennui. The only really engaged ruler is Cadence, mostly because if she disengages her country comes immediately under existential threat from eternal winter.

Additionally, dignitaries from other nations occasionally visit, and are clearly autonomous equals rather than tributary nations or protectorates.

In training to become a priest of this church able to perform these rituals, a person becomes one with nature, meaning that their own health is tied with the balance of the nature around them and the earth as a whole. This gives them an incentive to keep the world in balance: if they don't do it, they will get extremely sick and may die.

This means they won't be able to just go on strike and get whatever they want, since they harm themselves more than anyone else - this mechanism will ensure that it isn't a viable strategy for them to gain power.

• How does people having "an incentive to keep the world in balance" ensure that a theocracy doesn't form? You might have the beginnings of a good answer here, but it seems you've stopped typing about half way through... – a CVn Jan 8 at 17:48
• @aCVn OP implied that they could rule by essentially going on strike and getting whatever they wanted, this mechanism will ensure that this isn't a viable strategy for them to gain power. – Alexandre Aubrey Jan 8 at 18:23

The same way western government and military interacts

In a western democracy, government and military are separated, despite the absolute ability for the military to take control of the government by force.

The reason that this works is embedded in the culture of the military and the constitutional powers granted to the civilian government. For example, at any time, the US military could take over the US by force, if the entirety of its leadership wished to do so. They certainly have the resources to achieve that goal.

That they do not is for a number of reasons, mostly to do with the culture of the military, which includes the oaths they swear.

In a similar way, this religious group could swear oaths to serve and protect the civilians of the world they inhabit. They could believe that it is their divine calling to keep the rains falling on time. That their own life is not worth the devastation that would be caused by staging a coup, because their entire job is to protect the civilians that they have sworn to protect. Their goal is not to rule, their goal is to preserve the structures that enable the prosperity of their society.

And if any of their clergy betray the faith, they are put through a court-martial type system, where they are tried for their crimes and thrown in jail or executed (execution would probably be more thematic since that would also destroy their dangerous knowledge).

• Side note: I believe this would require that the priest's culture be more independent than dogmatic. If the generals of the American military decided to attempt a coup, they would have to deal with a very large number of soldiers who said "no." If it were Catholics with that kind of power, the pope would be much less likely to face opposition from his own forces, since he is believed to speak with divine authority. – Josh Jan 14 at 20:31
• Not just soldiers, other generals. This works more easily the more people you add to the top of the structure. The pope is a single person but there are many generals. In the US the president acts as the de jour head of the military. In other western democracies, the parliament acts as the de jour head of the military. Having the "outsider" or "commonner representative" as the de jour leader of this particular religion could work in a similar way. – Stephen Jan 15 at 1:54

Democratisation

Anyone can do it. That is anyone can actually perform the activities required to balance cosmic energy. Every man, women, and child is born with the ability. Sure its underdeveloped a lot because there are a lot of things that this skill cannot do. ie. it does not fix the hole in the roof, or stop earth quakes, or prevent that person with a sword from ... oouch.

That being said, people who have the inclination to learn how to do it are respected, because it makes life overall easier. A farm by itself won't have such an individual, but a small town or a successful bandit band? They might be able to afford the services of a minor practitioner. Someone skilled enough to forecast impending issues like drought, because forewarned is prepared, or maybe to sway the mist to hang around a little longer so that you can make the surprise attack and get away.

Of course there will be a few who are naturally skilled, or trained hard in the presence of masters. These individuals can push and pull the seasons around, rot fails to appear in the grain silos they are near, steel always is a bit sharper around them. Warlords would seize such individuals, states would erect schools to train them, and the clergy would attempt to induct them. At times one type of system would establish itself, but it would fall when the next genius trained themselves, or when the establishment in their own overconfidence, pushed nature around too much, and nature pushed back causing famine and disease, shortly followed by war.

The ritual for season control could be performed by one well trained, perhaps messiah level individual, but a group of 10 decent, or 30 capable practitioners could do the same. Maybe it would exhaust them for months, but given the choice between three years of winter and feeding and caring for 30 bed ridden acolytes for a few months I can see what any town would do. Some towns might even do it even if it meant actually killing those people.

The gods get annoyed and upset if people abuse the power. It can be as simple as losing your magic abilities if you don't wield them for the common good, or as complex as making spells backfire, crops fail, earthquakes shatter cities...

It’s not the church who choose its priests; it’s the gods.

If you want to serve the world (church, gods, whatnot) you must be a devoted person and, if you are deemed worthy, the god(s) will pay you a visit in a vision telling you the password to open the door of the temple where you can train. So you go visit the temple, say “mallard” to the guards, and they will happily open the door for you. But if you didn’t get a vision and say “goose” instead; well, the priests inside will humbly accompany your precious soul to the otherworld.

Now, if the gods don’t want their priests to be dominant leaders, they will select their chosen ones with that in mind. And if, after your training, you do try to get to a leading position, these very same gods will have some tricks up in their sleeves to prevent that. And then again, your best friend during your training years will humbly accompany your precious soul to the otherworld.

The training necessarily involves a large spiritual component (one of the reasons the church is picky about who it trains - most people just don't have what it takes). Anyone who can actually perform the ritual is one with nature and simply won't have any desire for dominion. Anyone who does won't be able to get mind and soul into the proper state. (This is one reason the church seems very picky about trainees - most people wouldn't be able to get to the right spiritual condition even with lots of training.)

There are several training centers in the land, since when there was one the people running it attempted to seize power by controlling the adepts. These holy men and women can create another one - after all, they do know the path to oneness. If one of the churches tries to seize power, it will become unattractive to the adepts, who will want to go somewhere else.

Overreach. Historically, theocracies did, in fact arise. In every case they would not settle for simply performing the necessary rituals, but felt compelled to Make Things Better. The result was, predictably, disaster. The echoes of those disasters continue to be heard, and nobody is willing to let the priests run things. They are honored parts of the power structure, but never allowed control.

Heresy Theocracies have arisen, but the underlying religions always toss off heretics and factions. The resulting convulsions always result in interference with the needed rituals, with the same result as above.

The priests keeping nature's balance does not automatically make them political and military leaders, but will likely put them into an important advisory position. Any ruler would need their approval, unless they have the 'inborn' right to be chosen in the eyes of your church as the rightful leader, such as a pharao was a direct descendant of the gods in ancient Egypt and thus always above the priesthood.

If you want to look at a historical example, I would also recommend ancient Egypt as your best one. According to egyptian belief, if the priests would not perform their rituals, Nile's floods would not return every year to provide the soil desparately needed for their crops. If the dead were not properly prepared during burial rituals, which included adding simple amulets, embalming or mummifying the body or even sacrificing sacred animals and embalming their bodies alongside their dead who they should accompany and protect to lend him favour in front of the gods. Even if imagined and not actually 'real' their believes were as real to the ancient Egyptians as they are to the inhabitants of your world.

Farmers provide necessary food for humans here on Earth, yet they don't rule society. Scientists and engineers can change nature, yet they don't rule society. Military leaders can put a gun to your head, but military dictatorships are relatively rare in the world today.

People don't rule by being necessary, by threats of violence, or by going on strike. Your world would be ruled by a managerial class: kings, governors, and bureaucrats; just like they do in this world.

How can you prevent a theocracy from being inevitable when religious leaders have power over nature?

In this world, religious leaders of a world religion practice a form of ritual magic that is essential to human existence.

Just to call this out explicitly, although others touched on it:

# Have them separated from the world.

A good example of this is in Anathem by Neal Stephenson which has a number of interesting ideas in it.

I bought Anathem because I like Neal Stephenson, but if I had to do it again I would get it from the library because I'll never re-read this one.
The shut-off from society in Anathem is a neat concept (both the who and why) and that's why I bring it up to you - the annoying part of the book to me is that he made it hard to read to no purpose (using saecular and avout instead of secular and devout makes no sense to me).
To be clear: while I admit didn't like the book overall, there are a lot of interesting ideas and for those, I'm glad I read the book.

Separating them completely (mentally, if not physically) leaves you room for them to do to do weird things for plot reasons that you don't have to explain in the book.

If your first book is successful, those weird things could provide plotlines in the same world for a new book about the religious leaders themselves (like Anathem) or vice-versa if that is already your focus.

You can't. As you wrote in your first sentence, their rituals are ESSENTIAL.

You can't live without them so they have huge power.

They would basically be treated like gods.

I don't think a Theocracy would be the prevailing government, it would probably be some sort of tyranny/dictatorship with the entire society centered and working for the benefit of the few people who can perform these rituals.

Seems like this scenario itself answers your question: religion relies entirely on faith while this is a scientific(ish) endeavor. There is absolutely nothing that can be proven in religion while, in this world, this style of mysticism must have been founded, created, and maintained through a scientific method of hypothesizing and experimentation with real consequences. Therefore the world would never develop into a theocracy.

Most likely the practitioners of the "mystical" arts would be more akin to celebrity scientists or possibly even sports stars.