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My science-fantasy series is set in a rapidly industrializing galaxy where a group called the Ishgas are dominating militarily, culturally, scientifically, and economically (overall, it's a similar dynamic to our world at the height of the British Empire). Two planets (although never directly ruled by Ishga) fall into the Ishga sphere of influence, with cultures radically different from that of the Ishgas. One practices essentially Aztec-style human sacrifice, and the other practices gladiatorial combat in massive amphitheatres (similar to the Romans). Both practices horrify the Ishgas, who view them as senseless murder, while the society practicing human sacrifice views what they do as necessary to placate the Gods, and the second society views gladiatorial combat as basically just a sport. How could these cultures remain in the Ishga sphere of influence while holding onto these traditions?

Notes about the galaxy's approach to religion:

  • The Gods have been proven to exist and records of them and their actions can be found in well-accepted historical records of every inhabited planet. However, over the past few thousand years, they have taken a backseat to interfering in mortal affairs, prefering to stay in their home dimension (which is not accessible to mortals) and occupy their time with parties and orgies.
  • All of the galaxy's religions worship this set of Gods (although they have very different interpretations of things like how they should be worshipped, which Gods are more important than others, and the will of the Gods). The afterlife has been proven to exist and is shared by all religions, although different religions have differing opinions on how exactly to get to the pleasant one and avoid the unpleasant one.
  • The Gods have never really made their feelings towards human sacrifice known to the mortal public in the past 10,000 years. However, it is known that victims of sacrifice are rewarded for it in the afterlife, and sacrifice is usually done with the victim's consent (although this culture has been known to sacrifice POWs during the Tatian War as revenge for the Tatians' genocide of their people).
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  • $\begingroup$ We already have gladiatorial combat, just without the fight to the death, which wasn't normal practice anyway. $\endgroup$
    – Kilisi
    Jun 5 at 2:06
  • $\begingroup$ What is boxing if not gladiatorial combat? $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jun 5 at 7:10
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    $\begingroup$ Professional (and college) football. Mixed Martial Arts. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Jun 5 at 18:18
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How would the proven existence of gods affect the setting?
Especially if they do not provide clarification to mortals?

In a science-fictional setting, I'm a bit uneasy about calling these extradimensional beings gods. Aliens with different power levels are not necessarily divine. But that's just my own, 21st century Earth, viewpoint.

For the people in your story, being certain that the gods exist greatly strengthens the power of religious dogma. Especially with the afterlife you mention. At the same time, interpretations vary wildly. So the Ishgas will be used to dealing with populations with strong and idiosyncratic feelings about proper moral behaviour. Some believe that you shall not wear a hat on Mondays. Others believe that one gender shall stay in the home and serve meekly. Yet others believe that witches need to be driven out with torches and pitchforks.

So if the Ishgas rule dominate a large empire, either they have a cultural tradition of spreading their own religion or they have found a tradition of not meddling with local traditions unless the locals wage war without permission, violate patent laws, or take those pitchforks mentioned above to Ishga merchant factors. The second approach would be kind of like the Roman empire.

Compare the galdiator games you mention with the tradition of bullfighting. It has been greatly diminished by changing cultural expectations, yet it lingers on. The difference, of course, is that the bullfighter is supposed to live; only the bull dies. You get deadly accidents in mountain climbing, sailing, motor sports, and so on. Key to the grudging acceptance by the Ishgas might be

  • making sure that the gladiators are really volunteers, and not coerced by economic circumstances,
  • making sure that each gladiator has a close-to-50-percent chance of surviving each deathmatch.

The Aztec-style sacrifice might be harder so sell if my understanding of the Aztec traditions is right. Can they get enough volunteers? Are those volunteers really volunteering?

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  • $\begingroup$ In the real gladiator games, most gladiators, on both sides of the bout, survived. Many of them survived an entire career, and indeed by imperial times, there were free men who voluntarily became gladiators for pay. $\endgroup$
    – Mary
    Jun 5 at 14:37
  • $\begingroup$ @Mary, those free gladiators did not have the freedom of economic choice we take for granted in the West -- and the present-day situation looks pretty coercive to people who live from paycheck to paycheck. $\endgroup$
    – o.m.
    Jun 5 at 16:43
  • $\begingroup$ @o.m.: There are (per Google) 1696 football players in the NFL, average pay 860K/year, average career length ~3.3 years. (Probably similar numbers for other pro sports.) OTOH, there are 3.4-4.4 million software engineers, average pay 107K/year, and a career (if you include going into management) of 30-40 years. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Jun 5 at 18:26
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They definitely could continue sacrifices

Although O.M. has many good points, I think some things are missing.

This is a culture with a proven afterlife. This will increase the religious fervor, but this will also make many subcultures of the religion arise.

Most religions have an afterlife, making it a focal point in many ways. Living your life correctly and such prepares you for the afterlife. Some of them go much further, dictating also how you die is important.

In Aztec society they sacrificed people for many reasons. To perpetuate the universe, liberation of the spirit, attunement for sins and more. They did this, according to them, for good reasons.

As your culture knows about the afterlife, it isn't a stretch to say that their lives here don't matter. All they do is live their life, preparing for the afterlife, with some people having the honor of being sacrificed. Like a short-cut to hopefully eternal glory.

Gladiatorial combat can be another way to honor the afterlife. It can be s sort of sacrifice, going into an arena where one or the other will be cut down. A battle of the best, allowing the loser to go out in glorious fashion. Especially if a violent (or valiant) death is important, but war near eradicated, gladiatorial combat can be a great way to solve this problem in a 'civilised', well organised way.

How to stay in the influence

To stay in the influence, they can simply be a part of the economic system. Even better if they deliver exceptional service or quality resource, or just have something in abundance. A gas cloud in their vicinity, metals on the planet, a drug that is in abundance. You don't throw advantages away willy nilly. It can even be advantageous to the planets as a form of population control.

Otherwise it can be viewed that each planet is allowed some leeway in their own doings. Romans conquered lands, improved infrastructure and added facilities, but allowed the previous culture to persist. As long as they were loyal to the empire, little did matter. Your Ishga culture can do the same. Some horror is accepted for loyalty.

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This question assumes that morality will trump economics and politics. In human experience, that has rarely, if ever, happened. In human experience, local customs have been tolerated when economic and political alliances are what the dominant group wanted.

The Ishgas may be horrified, but tolerate such actions. This happens because when those actions happen, they are few and they are surrounded by large crowds of locals. Unless one has overwhelming military power at that moment, it is far better to keep silent and tolerate "local customs".

So, how did a dominating culture take over? If we look at the Spanish conquest of the current Southwest, they sent a few people north from Mexico. They tried to change the local cultures and succeeded in putting in some missions. (Santa Fe started in 1610.) However, they got thrown out in 1680. It took several military campaigns to reconquer New Mexico and in that process, the locals regained control over their culture. It was simpler to allow the local culture to continue as long as the political allegiance and economic control happened.

Today, while the dominant culture appears to have taken over, the individual pueblos still have their own culture, language, and customs. While we outsiders can visit most days, there are days when outsiders are not allowed into those towns. (Technically speaking, they are still independent countries surrounded by the United States.)

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Even on their homeworld, the Ishiga rulers are a tiny minority.

It is the cultured aristocracy which leads the Ishiga nation, and it is their moral sensibilities which are held forth as that of the Ishiga empire generally. This aristocracy is descended from the group (the Ishiga) who conquered and unified the various peoples of their home planet. The Ishiga are high minded and have been civilized for many millenia.

But there are large populations on the Ishiga homeworld who are part of the empire but who are not culturally Ishiga. They vary greatly. Some who have long been in the Ishiga sphere have similar languages and their cultures are much like that of the dominant people. Others are different and some much different. On the Ishiga homeworld you can find rural people in remote countries who speak to each other in old languages and whose cultural norms include bloodsports, mutilating punishments, strange religions and other things which are extremely distasteful to the aristocracy.

Distasteful, but tolerated. The Ishiga are good at what they do, and an iron fist is the antithesis of empire. Holdings are held loosely, and the backwards antics of the provincials are understandable - those people are backwards. Their ways keep them happy. Happy subjects make a peaceful empire.

The Ishiga emperors bring this same attitude to their extraplanetary conquests. If offensive habits tolerated in their own homeworlders, there is no good reason to enforce Ishiga fashion and cultural norms on barbarian outworlders. If the outworlders fulfill their obligations to the Empire, that is enough.

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Human sacrifice seems to arise via very specific social circumstances. Namely research has found that the more stratified a human society is, the greater the likelihood it will practice intentional human sacrifice. This is mostly done for several reasons, most notably creating a greater social divide between classes and serving to keep the masses in line through fear and terror. It is also more likely to arise in societies where the worth of a single individual is very low, and people are seen more as a resource than groups of individuals with unique value. E.g., one thing I've heard is that Mesoamerican societies developed a more extreme sacrificial tradition in part because in the absence of pack animals or other labor-saving devices, it was more useful for rulers to treat their subjects as menial laborers rather than being of value for individual skills. Other cases are known, for example Carthaginian leaders were known to sacrifice their own children during times of crisis as a demonstration to the people that the elites too were suffering from some crisis.

Human sacrifice throughout history is typically not consensual, using the Mesoamerican city states as an example yes there was a lot of social pressure treating sacrificing ones' life to the gods as a noble goal but at the same time the people being sacrificed were often prisoners of war. When human sacrifice was at its height, under the Aztecs, city states were forced to participate in butterfly wars (basically mock wars where the Aztecs captured would-be sacrifices) or else the Aztecs would march in and take people as sacrifices anyway. Butterfly wars, widow burning, the sacrifice of children by Carthage, the infrequent mentions of human sacrifice in the Greco-Roman world (mostly the Minoans, early Greece, and the Roman Republic), sacrifice in Austronesian cultures, etc., are almost all characterized by the person being sacrificed not wanting to die. In this sense it's almost less sacrifice in a traditional sense (that is, the willing relinquishment of something for later gain or a greater good), and more of ritualized murder.

In fact, speaking of widow burning, history gives a good example of why these kinds of practices would not survive in a modern setting. As most probably know, India was conquered and colonized by the British (which as you mention are the main inspiration for Ishigan culture). The British found out about the practice of widow burning and were horrified, and banned it across India for being immoral. Same with the Spaniards and Mesoamerican sacrifice, to the point that most Mayan and Aztec books were burned because the Spaniards thought them to be evil upon seeing how widespread Mesoamerican practices of human sacrifice were. Depending on how the Ishigans run their empire, it is likely they would do the same. The banning of "barbaric" practices by a conquering power is written in the biographies of rulers around the world throughout history.

Human sacrifice also tends to fall apart in societies that value critical thinking or have place value on individual merit and have some form of class mobility. Mostly because someone will start questioning the system and notice that human sacrifice doesn't work unless the gods themselves appear in the flesh and clarify that they demand it. In which case, again, its debatable whether it's really a religious ritual, or no different from a tithe of human lives being demanded by a sufficiently advanced being, because it's a coercive act not based on faith.

It's hard to see how that much blind faith could be maintained in a space-faring setting (your not-Aztecs have to maintain their spaceships too) unless you're going for full Warhammer 40k in which the barbaric maintenance of blind faith and anti-intellectualism in the face of a space-faring future is part of the point. Either that or your not-Aztecs don't actually build their ships but use slaves to do it, but then you get into the question of why a slave doesn't just invoke Niven's law on the not-Aztec homeworld and sterilize it. Regardless, a major difference in your setting is unlike the Imperium of Man in Warhammer 40k, the not-Aztecs have competing human ideologies to deal with, who demonstrate very well that one does not have to perform sacrifices to the gods in order to thrive.

Critical thinking destroying human sacrificial traditions isn't just a Western thing, Chinese administrator Li Bing eliminated the sacrifice of young maidens to a river god during the conquest of Sichuan pretty quickly, and it's thought he did so because he figured out the people involved weren't doing it to appease a river god, but rather because they just wanted to get rid of their daughters they didn't want to take care of.

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