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All right I’ve been trying to find an answer to this question for a while, even fell down quite the rabbit hole without much success and I decided to post it on here. This is for a sci-fi novel series that I started a while back, never finished, shelved for a couple and now I want to work on it again. Strap in because this one takes a bit of explaining.

The series takes place on a planet roughly on the 16th century level of technology with a few notable exceptions but I’ll get to that later. In this world, there is a polytheistic religion with two sides currently engaged in a holy war.

One side is the Holy Oracle’s Church, an authoritative, militant theocracy, that claims to 'teach' the will of the gods and adheres to a doctrine called “the Unwavering Path.” They preach that all actions and events are predestined, and the job of the Oracles is to help those find their place on the Path. They believe any choice made by mere mortals cannot change the path, and they readily hunt down and execute those who say otherwise.

On the other side, you have the Free Peoples, a ragtag bunch of pirates, mad scientists, and outcasts, who firmly believe that the Unwavering Path is a lie meant to keep the Oracles in power and the populace beneath their boot heel. They are lead by the Nine Lords, champions chosen by the gods to end the tyranny of the Oracles.

Now here is the interesting part, and the part that lead me down quite the rabbit hole.

The ten gods of this religion (who I shall call the Ascended for simplicity) were once flesh and blood mortal beings who terraformed this world as part of an effort to set up a seed colony. But something goes wrong, their location was taken out from orbit and their minds ended up digitally uploaded in ten crystal artifacts, nine of which were later found by survivors, while the tenth was lost presumably forever and held responsible for the fall. Since they are locked out of the main system, thereby limiting their powers (they can still heal the sick and smite the wicked but only within their direct vicinity) they set out to guide the survivors back to their previous technological level. But of course, something goes wrong, again, and the Oracles sequester the now digital beings away and take power for themselves leading to a couple of rebels stealing the crystals, learning that the Oracles has lied to them and starting this holy war that has been going on for a couple of centuries. And each of the Ascended has been serving as a personal Cortana for the one of the Nine Lords ever since.

Now herein lies the problem I have been having. The Ascended understand that they are not gods, this isn’t a Goa’uld or Ori Ponzi scheme, and aside from someone falling to their knees and begging for forgiveness when ever they show their faces, they don't really get anything out of it. In fact, I have a scene in mind when a human explicitly says they are not gods and is then given the equivalent of, “Yes! Thank you! Finally, someone who gets it!” And anytime they are not explicitly saying it, it’s not in the “I am conning you for power” kind of way it is in the "I was tired of correcting you two centuries ago,” kind of way.

And I do have a scene in mind where the missing tenth Ascended being found, is caught up to speed on how this all had happened and is lost in thought about it. And it is explained that the Ascended had tried to explain that they were not gods only to lose the argument by conceding that yes they created the world (through terraforming) that they fathered and mothered those that came after (through embryonic storage) taught them their laws and morals (because what else could they do) sacrificed themselves for good of the world and returned from the dead to guide them (as Digital beings) and still be heralded in their positions. Not to mention the newly returned Ascended is an ancestor worshiper and she now fits her definition of an Ancestor.

And even though they themselves don't want to be worshipped, they cant just get rid of the faith, for two equally important reasons. First, because that faith is so entrenched in this society that making any effort to remove it root and stem impractical, and second that even if they succeeded it would leave a populous that had already lost so much to war and tyranny, that telling them that they have been fighting and dying for millennia all for Nothing, would leave them irrevocably broken.

So they are stuck in a role they neither want nor can escape, as part of a faith that they can’t remove, fighting against an enemy keeping these people in a dark age to maintain power with limited resources thanks to being locked out of their system.

Naturally, the actual story happens when humans arrive and one of them is chosen to be the champion of the missing Ascended, who both might be able to help turn the tide. But this new development might actually be an opportunity to reform the faith in a better direction.

Here is the question I need answers for.

Which methods and strategies the Ascended could use to pivot and reform the faith (of the free peoples) into something benign and closer to the truth?

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    $\begingroup$ At first: I really like the idea of your setting and your ascendands. But: This question is much to broad and in fact a set of multiple questions. Please edit that so we can answer one question at a time. $\endgroup$ – Charisturcear Jun 17 at 6:30
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    $\begingroup$ As that's a problem to complex for the comment section I would recommend you to prepare your questions here: worldbuilding.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/7183/… $\endgroup$ – Charisturcear Jun 17 at 7:35
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    $\begingroup$ First, the question "how to reform a religion" can have two very different meanings: on one hand, it can mean "what aspects of the religion should be reformed, and what should the reformed religion look like"; on the other hand, it can mean "how to plan and execute the reformation of the religion". Second, the question does not say which of the two religions mentioned is to be reformed. Third, the question does not say what, if any, aspect of the religion to be reformed is to be reformed. Fourth, the two competing religions are not described with sufficient detail. Fifth, ... $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jun 17 at 8:51
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    $\begingroup$ Isn't this a question for your plot to answer? (How do my characters do X?) $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre Jun 17 at 12:11
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    $\begingroup$ A little piece of advice, Please try to keep your question short. It's just too long, Most people don't read such long questions. Anyways, I just tried to read it, and by the time I reached the end of it, I had too much info on my hand that left me confused. It will be great if you can edit your question and make it as short as possible, maybe, break it further into multiple questions. $\endgroup$ – V.Aggarwal Jun 17 at 12:47
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There are a few steps your Ascendants (or any everliving digitalised person in an equivaltent situation, I will use your name for these beeings here for simplicities sake) can take to influence the religion around them. As they seem to care about those beeings worshipping the Ascendants (you didn’t define them in detail but gave a hint they are like humans as we know them so I will call them humans from now on) they can’t rush to much with that as humans tend to react defensive to hard changes in what they believe the truth is. It would break their community what is not in the interests of humanity neither of the Ascendants. (This will be the biggest problem as you want to have this development in a rather short timescale, I don’t think your storyline shall cover hundreds and hundreds of years, but on the other hand the Ascendants could have started these changes a long time ago.)

Enlightenment and science
It is in the best interests of Ascendants (and humans alike) to develop, not just in classical technologies but in philosophy and psychology also. Open minded persons with a scientific oriented mind will sooner or later question the kind of existence of their gods. They want to learn what their gods really are, especially when they develop more and more technical understanding of what happened at the time of their creation. (There are some highly religious scientists even today who research to ‘learn more about god by studying his creation’.) This will not be a fast development of any kind, but as you stated the humans are at technological level of the 16th century there is some base to work on.

Accept their own existence
Sounds silly, but the Ascendants seeing themselves as humans makes it nearly impossible for their followers to accept them as non-deities as those can’t see them as humans. If the Ascendants begin to see themselves as a higher developed being (not especially as deities, but as a being which overcame his human boundaries and got something else) they can tell the humans around them a tale they are able to believe. I don’t know what the religion of the free peoples says about future, but implementing a prophecy of a time coming where every human can reach the point of overcoming the limitations of their bodies and can make a step to a higher existence (by reaching the same point the Ascendants reached a long time ago), you don’t just give the humans a good future to believe in, but you give them the opportunity to slowly accept the fact that even their gods have made this step a long time ago, so even if they are gods now they wheren’t gods ever.

A new prophet
Someone obviously choosen to proclaim the will of the gods can influence a religion strongly. You didn’t state how the Ascendants communicate with those who worship them, but a kind of communication has to be possible (or else they couldn’t have lost the argument about divinity). On the other hand this can’t be identical communication as humans speaking with each other, else they would have had too much opportunities to tell the truth, there had to be anyone who would think about wat they tell. Their religion would have made at least a strong development along the ‘enlightenment and science’-line. So possibly they have to take time to find someone who understands them better then others and is charming enough to transfer the knowledge he gets to humanity. This prophet could even be used to tell the prophecy I mentioned the step before. In your special case there could be a connection to the humans newly arriving (but that part is especially for your story and not for the general problem an involuntary deity has to face).

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  • $\begingroup$ I will say this answer was good, in fact the response to this question was better than I hoped for. I will say the Accept their own Existence part was very fascinating and I actually think opens up a lot of opportunities for character growth. Thank you. $\endgroup$ – Jacob Badger Jun 17 at 19:24
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    $\begingroup$ I think the key here is "Accept their own existence". Disproving thier own divine nature when everything about them seems otherwise would be like Jeff Bezos trying to convince people he is poor. No one would ever take that as anything but a tasteless joke, but people can accept that he used to be poor, and now he is not. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki Jun 17 at 19:25
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  • "Since they are locked out of the main system, thereby limiting their powers (they can still heal the sick and smite the wicked but only within their direct vicinity) they set out to guide the survivors back to their previous technological level. [...] And each of the Ascended has been serving as a personal Cortana for the one of the Nine Lords ever since."

    Isn't this the setup of David Drake and Eric Flint's Belisarius series, and of David Drake and S. M. Stirling's The General series? (Well, in those two series there is only one —in The General— or two —in Belisarius— supernaturally technological being serving as the personal Cortana to the main characters, but surely that's not such a great difference.)

    At least in The General, religious reformation is explicitly one of the goals of Center, as the technologically supernatural digital being calls itself. (Its counterpart in Belisarius, Aide, knows that religions and short-lived superstructural phenomena and doesn't even bother.)

    And isn't the struggle to escape the tyranny of a false religion the most important plot driver of the 10-volume Safehold series by David Weber?

  • "Which methods and strategies the Ascended could use to pivot and reform the faith (of the free peoples) into something benign and closer to the truth?"

    The goal can be (1) to get rid of religion altogether, or at least to make it ineffective in public and political life; or, (2) to replace the current religion with a new, better and shinier one; or, (3) to amend the current religion transforming it into something else entirely while preserving the name and some of the less important aspects.

    1. If the goal is to get rid of religion altogether, or at least to render it ineffective, then I'm not sure why the well-known historical examples are not sufficient.

      In our own history at least five different societies, with five very different levels of technological and societal development, have shown five different paths to achive nonreligiousness: the late republican and early imperial Roman society, the Chinese society, the Japanese society, the Soviet society and the modern western European society.

      Since we have quite a few real-life historical examples, all you have to do is pick one way of doing it, or maybe mix and match the examples to obtain an original composition.

      It is not even possible to make a summary of general conditions, as the dissolution of a formerly dominant religion into a powerless shadow has happened in such a diversity of situations that all we can say is that may this is the general fate of any religion which somehow manages to live long enough.

    2. If the goal is to replace the current religion with a new, better and shinier one, then I'm not sure why the well-known historical examples are not sufficient.

      In our own history we have quite a few luminous examples of religious upheaval, when a bad, stale and decrepit religion was replaced by a good, new and more attrative one. It can be done by a grass-roots movement; it can be done by a visionary prophet; it can be done by conquest; it can be done by a revolution.

      • Consider the Roman empire in the 2nd century CE: the old, useless and largely ineffective Roman state religion was replaced wholesale by Christianity. It was mostly a grass-roots movement, helped by the foudation set by Paul. And if it wasn't Christianity, it would have been Mithraism, or Gnosticism -- there were multiple concurrent movements which all sought to fill in the void left by the effective death of the state religion.

      • Or consider the fulminant rise of Islam, attributed to the fervor of Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him.

        (And for that matter, consider the importance of Moses in setting up the Hebrew religion.)

      • As for religion change by means of conquest are too numerous to count. How come that the Americas are (mostly) Christian? How come that northern and eastern Europe is Christian? How come that the Near East and northern Africa and Persia are Muslim? They became Christian and Muslim by iron and blood.

      • Finally, revolutions are excellent occasions for religious change. It can be a revolution from above, as in the replacement of Catholicism with Anglicanism in England; it can be a revolution from below, as in France or Russia.

    3. If the goal is to amend the current religion, preserving the name and some eye-catching but finally less important attributes, while radically altering it's essence, then you can look at successful reformers. It's not as if they are rare, or unknown.

      • Paul the Apostle took a provincial Hebrew sect of minor importance and transformed it into (the embryo of) a powerful universal religion, while ostensively preserving the centrality of the Hebrew Holy Writ.

      • Martin Luther and Jean Calvin took Christianity into a new and unexpected direction, by replacing the triple reliance on scripture, tradition and hierarchy with the supremacy of each individual's personal neuroses relationship with the God, whatever that may be. And yet, Evangelical and Neo-Evangelical sects consider themselves Christian and are (more or less) recognized as Christian by the Apostolic churches.

      • Joseph Smith took reformed Christianity into a completely new and totally unexpected direction, by doing away with the entire pretence of monotheism; and yet most Mormons consider themselves Christian, and are even recognized as Christian by some of the American Neo-Evangelical churches.

All in all, it is not as if literary and historical precendents are rare, hidden, or poorly known.

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Kill one of their own.

Or two, or more. The quickest way for gods to fall off their pedestal is for them to die, to be wrong, to loose or otherwise display the kind of ineptness and/or frailty usually associated with mere mortals. The reason your Ascended are failing to convince people they're not gods is because they're godlike in every aspect, so much so that they are too wise to admit it. They showed godlike powers, they where always right in what they said and most importantly: They never died.

Let the "Holy Seven" come up with conflicting stories on how they couldn't save the other two. Let them be petty and vindictive over it, show how their existence isn't a divine miracle but rather a cosmic frak-up. Have them create doubt in their believers minds and let their believers pick sides, because whenever there are sides to choose there is always someone who says: "neither" and now there is yet another school of thought. Make sermons become politics.

But have them all agree on a common theme: "The Holy Oracle’s Church is worse". So whatever fraction they and their believers belong to, they are still in an alliance to further their common goals.

This is all a ploy set up by the Ascended of course, the other two never really died and they have been working together all along, but there you go.

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  • $\begingroup$ hmm. Interesting. $\endgroup$ – Jacob Badger Jun 18 at 16:58
  • $\begingroup$ Although being dead doesn't automatically mean your not a god-a good example being Baldr-and a lot of fictional religions showed that even when the gods are dead their followers still worship them. But since number ten of the Ascended is a sea godess in the faith and MIA (before the humans show up) the rest of the Ascended could morn her loss while everyone else thinks of her like Cthulhu, dead but still dreaming somewhere under the dark abyssal sea, waiting to bring about the end. Though I do like the idea of others playing dead as a way to hide, and having to be found by our heroes,. $\endgroup$ – Jacob Badger Jun 18 at 17:17

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