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The society of an island nation is led by a religion known as "The Church of the Eternal Mother", it is an ancient faith that adheres to a fertility goddess. This faith is led by five elderly women called Mannas Natau, at least one of whom will regularly become spontaneously pregnant. These immortal elders are worshipped as avatars of the Eternal Mother: mortal vessels of the goddess's power responsible for creating life and growing the numbers of the community. Children born from the goddess are biotically immune to all illnesses and live longer than other humans, but are not immortal. The goal of the community is to ultimately build an empire by conquering its neighbors.

Although the elders have the ability to immaculately conceive, the vast majority of children produced, about 90%, are stillborn. This has prevented the community from growing their numbers rapidly and to a large extent, even after thousands of years. As this would put a kink in the eventual goals of the nation, it would be natural for people to become disenchanted with their leaders. With a god that is metaphysical and unknowable, it would be easy to rationalize negative outcomes and bad events. People can dismiss these occurrences as "God works in mysterious ways", or that he doesn't interfere in the lives of mortals directly. However, these elders are considered the Eternal Mother made of flesh and are thus living gods. Their failures are actively seen in real time, making them difficult to ignore. It would be like Jesus trying to perform miracles and failing, or having them have negative results (Lazurus coming back as a zombie and eating people, three loaves of bread and two fish multiplying but turning poisonous, etc.). Such outcomes would damage the credibility of those claiming to have a special connection with some deity. Loyalty would be diminished, turning their followers against them at some point.

How can the church maintain its influence among the community despite its repeated and visible failures?

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    – L.Dutch
    Aug 6 at 3:01

12 Answers 12

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We have seen this in many cults and religions, so you case will be no different.

Since the deity is infallible, any observed failure is to be caused by some imperfection of the humans performing the rituals, no matter what they are. The imperfection can be evident or the failure of the ritual is the way the deity uses to declare its being displeased with the humans.

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    – L.Dutch
    Aug 4 at 6:08
  • $\begingroup$ This could also include the fact that why the pregnancies fail will be explained in the afterworld (or whatever). In one word: just follow current religions and pick the best practices. $\endgroup$
    – WoJ
    Aug 4 at 12:07
  • $\begingroup$ The Mannas Nattau are avatars of the godess. The Eternal Mothers infallibility would necesitate the Mannas Nattau infallibility, they are the same being. You could decide that the deity is fallible, but failing to execute one's own rituals cannot possibly be good for worship. $\endgroup$
    – Poseidaan
    Aug 5 at 0:24
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This has been studied empirically (although admittedly contentiously), as reported in the classic book When Prophecy Fails.

enter image description here

In essence, don’t underestimate the power of people to create powerful rationalisations to reduce their cognitive dissonance. In this case, a UFO cult believed that aliens would spirit away the faithful to avoid the impending end of the world. When neither the aliens nor the apocalypse arrived, the most faithful rationalised that this was in fact due to their own diligent prayer: they thought that they had saved the entire world from the cataclysm and hence the aliens no longer needed to arrive. Those who had made the strongest prior commitment to their beliefs, such as by giving away their worldly possessions, were said to be those whose faith was most strengthened.

In your case, the opposite rationalisation could be made: the gods would be able to do all that they promise, if only the people would hold up their end. There must be some way in which the people aren’t sufficiently devoted, or adhering to the exact prescriptions of the religious law. This would likely result in the people becoming even more strict and dogmatic, and more likely to persecute errant community members in order to be perfectly adherent to all of the gods’ demands.

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Trials of the womb

Humans have it easy. When they first come into existence, they appear often unnoticed, soak up nutrients and chillax for a couple of months. When they do get noticed, no matter - more chillaxing. When they no longer fit inside another human, they move outside - but they still chillax. At some point, they get to travel from one place to sit in to another. It's not until much later that they have to actually try. And if they're lucky, they can go like that for the whole of their lives.

Avatar's life is a different life altogether. Even before they have a physical presence, they need to find a host. And there are very few available, or none at all sometimes. And even if they do find a host, the host's body makes it clear that they have to try. They don't just grow into a perfect body, they have to actively steer its development from the inside. And if they fail - out they go, and another ghost gets a try. And those who succeed - more trials, both in the form of physical combat and in the spiritual realm.

That is, of course, the official version.

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  • $\begingroup$ Does the word chillax exist (outside your answer)? Are there here five different ghosts of the god in the avatsrs? $\endgroup$ Aug 4 at 4:05
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    $\begingroup$ @DescheleSchilder Yes, chillax exists, even if only in slang. $\endgroup$
    – Tim
    Aug 4 at 9:11
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    $\begingroup$ @DescheleSchilder A former Prime Minister of the UK used the word quite often in public speeches. Yes, it exists. $\endgroup$
    – alephzero
    Aug 4 at 19:25
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    $\begingroup$ @alephzero Prime Ministers using the word would make me even more suspicious... $\endgroup$ Aug 4 at 19:52
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Engage the community. Each pregnancy is a fight against evil spirits and it will succeed only if there is enough spiritual support from the worshippers.

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Yeah, it baffles me too, but people do it all the time.

I think the trick is, many people don't believe in empiricism. That is, if you give them a persuasive argument why something OUGHT to be true, they'll believe that argument over actual "experimental evidence" (whatever sort of experiment is relevant) that proves it false. Philosophy often beats science. That is, "your argument sounds convincing" beats "when we tried it, it didn't work in practice".

People make excuses why the experiment was invalid. "That wasn't really a fair test because our side was not given an opportunity to ..." "The experiment was invalid because this other factor biased the results." Etc. Or if it's really hard to refute, just insist that the experiment never really happened, that it's a hoax.

Any real world examples I give will likely ignite debate. But for example, consider socialism. It sounds great to say "everybody should work for the common good and all wealth should be shared equally". But in fact every time it's been tried, it has resulted in tyranny and poverty. Advocates of socialism explain this away by saying things like, "REAL socialism has never been tried." "Socialism failed in this case because the leaders were corrupt", or "... because the people were too selfish", or "... because the price of their primary export fell", etc. We could discuss why but my point is not to debate socialism but simply to point out that millions of people continue to believe in it despite its repeated failures. Why do they believe in it? Because the IDEA just sounds so good. It just HAS to work. It just HAS to be better than competing economic systems. The fact that it repeatedly fails ... it must be that it just wasn't done right.

I can think of numerous other examples but that will probably ignite enough hostile posts.

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    $\begingroup$ While I totally agree with your position and general thesis, don't forget that conducting reliable repeatable experiments with unambiguous results is quite hard to do. I'm sure you know the old joke "If it moves it's biology, if it stinks it's chemistry and if it doesn't work it's physics." $\endgroup$
    – Peter Wone
    Aug 4 at 3:51
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    $\begingroup$ There is a huge difference between trying something and learning from it then just brushing stuff off. The first "working" steam engines were made in ancient Rome, but didn't become useful until XIX century. Mere fact something failed often says nothing about the idea itself (even in terms of economics as there have been lots of failed attempts at capitalism and there have been a few attempts at socialism that run till today or failed due to external factors like war or the fact most worked for over 40 years). Anyway one thing is trying and failing and other is hoping it'll work this time $\endgroup$
    – Miku
    Aug 4 at 8:45
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    $\begingroup$ God, of course you had to rant about socialism in there. I swear this anti-socialism nonsense is a cult. Our current economy is full of terrible problems too, we just handwave them away because "at least it's not socialism". $\endgroup$
    – user253751
    Aug 4 at 9:28
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    $\begingroup$ @user253751 And it's used by certain political ideologues as justification for shooting down almost any measures to increase social mobility or that have any "aspects of socialism" in there at all, as though there aren't numerous examples of successful economies that have mixed capitalist and socialist elements (yup, even the USA. And I'm willing to bet that there are some "socialist" aspects of their economy that even the most die-hard of right wing Americans wouldn't want to give up). $\endgroup$ Aug 4 at 11:50
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    $\begingroup$ I would suggest to swap out socialism for the far-less polemical "flat-earther" movement. We have way more solid evidence against that than socialism. $\endgroup$
    – Mermaker
    Aug 4 at 12:37
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The joy of cognitive dissonance

You’re starting from a false premise. People don’t approach belief in the utilitarian, consumer-experience manner that you expect - even in our hyper-indivdualistic society, let alone a more communal one like the one you describe. There are many examples of cults that have consistently failed in specific, empirically testable ways and yet retained (many of) their followers. I recommend this podcast for a striking example.

Once established that evidence of failure isn’t actually going to necessarily make your believers lose faith, what elements can strengthen belief, reduce disillusionment, and increase cohesion among your followers?

  • Evidence of supernatural intervention: you have semi-immortal superhumans. This is about 1000% more successful than any extant Earth religion.
  • Sunk cost of belief: people who believe obviously fake bollocks are less likely to change their mind when faced with evidence, because they would have to admit to having been duped before, and having shaped their lives around a falsehood. See reinforcement theory.
  • Blame shifting: stillbirths are obviously caused by lack of faith. This puts doubters under the double pressure of internal guilt and external censure. You can’t openly express doubt in the faith, so individual agnostics can’t support each other in their doubt, which could have given momentum to splinters in the community.
  • Ingroup/outgroup demarcation: being persecuted for your beliefs can make you more attached to them. For example, certain current Christian denominations put a lot of focus on proselytising. This is only minimally to acquire new converts (there are other much more effective routes), but to make (often young and callow) missionaries experience rejection and mistreatment from the secular world, so that they will only feel safe within their religious community.
  • Lack of competition: some of the polytheistic pantheons of Europe have been supplanted by Christianity in part because their open nature allowed “competitor” deities to be tolerated; this was not true in reverse. Your society would not make this mistake: any foreign deity would be treated like a harbinger of evil and its worshippers very publicly punished. I am a jealous G*d, etc.

As you can see, most of this list leverages human weaknesses, flawed heuristics, cognitive biases and so on. These are remarkably resistant to utilitarian reasoning - in fact they are largely defined by their failure to lead to optimised behaviour. So your objective observable failures will do very little to dislodge them.

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Any failure can be explained away by sufficient application of Apologetics. While the proper definition of the term differs, the real-world application of Apologetics is fundamentally tied to explaining why the claims of religion fail to fit the observed reality.

With a god that is metaphysical and unknowable, it would be easy to rationalize negative outcomes and bad events.

Yes. Even if the Goddess was physically present and routinely interacted with the population, the same is true. It's even simpler if She doesn't claim to be all-powerful and incapable of failure... but as modern religions adequately demonstrate, even failure isn't enough to dissuade people from belief.

On the plus side, your church has a few manifestations of the Goddess' power that demonstrate Her divinity: spontaneous pregnancy, longevity of the elders and disease immunity of the offspring. These are observable and testable, and clearly (for some definition of 'clearly') only possible through divine providence.

The only failure you've listed is the fact that 90% of the pregnancies are not carried to term. In the SCP article you linked the stillborn are fed to the Temple (Kiraak), giving us a perfectly good excuse. These aren't a failure of the Goddess, they are the result of the Goddess' will.

In fact it seems to me that it would take significant effort from the Goddess Herself or Her representatives to weaken the faith at all. Constantly making claims, predictions and promises that turn out to be wrong will weaken the trust of the flock... but even that isn't necessarily fatal if every now and then something goes right. Maybe they don't trust the Goddess to always deliver, but they know that She can deliver. Sure it's a crap-shoot, but She comes through often enough for people to keep believing just in case.

Modern humans display a frankly appaling lack of rationality when it comes to religious matters, and it's unlikely that your people will do significantly better under the circumstances. Again according to the SCP entry, they're a single large, inbred family. Rarely do such people form highly rational populations with a significant degree of scepticism.

I'd suggest that you look into the stories of rural myths and legends around the world. Old morality plays and cautionary tales, passed from mouth to ear for generations, twist into stories about mythic powers that all fail to show even the slightest hint of existing in the real world, but people believe in them anyway. Doesn't matter if the stories are about gods or devils, witches or fairies, there's always someone who believes.

And that's just the "uncivilised" people of the world. What about the first-world citizens, educated and supposedly rational, who flock to the site of miracles of such stunning power as the appearance of a religious figure in the toast of some back-woods townsperson? The Catholic Church with their phenomenal miracles, like the time a cafe in Santa Fe was spared from flood damage or that girl who dreamed of being batised a few days before being killed in a terror attack.

Belief is easy. We're apparently programmed that way. To stop believing, no matter how compelling the evidence appears to outsiders, is the hard part.

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How you explain this depends on your people's view on god(s)

The Polytheist Explanation: There is not one, but many gods and the problems of the world can be explained by the conflicts happening between them. You worship your patron god in hopes that he/she will take care of you, but you understand that your god is not all-powerful. Because your god is in conflict with other gods, rival gods may interfere to your detriment. Since parthenogenetically conceived children are at the root of your god's powerbase, these unborn children are the ultimate targets for rival gods who wish to undermine the Eternal Mother.

The best example of this is probably the Norris Pantheon. Not only did the Norris believe that their gods could not always save them, but they believed that at the end of time, their gods would all be defeated and killed by the forces of chaos. Despite this belief, their gods were worshiped for over 1000 years.

In polytheistic religions, you do not worship your god because he/she can always save you from ruin, but because without any god to have your back, ruin is assured.

The Monotheist Explanation: To the monotheist, God's plans are his own; so, he may just choose to ruin you.

The best example of this is probably early Judaism. The book of Judges talks about a time in Jewish history where their people continued to be conquered over and over again. Each time the Jewish people fell into ruin they blamed it on themselves for failing to perfectly observe God's laws. But they continued to worship God anyway because they believed that with enough loyalty they could redeem themselves and that God would send them a hero (called a Judge) to lead them back into a favorable state. To the monotheist, there is no other God to turn to; so, the best you can hope for is to regain the favor of the one and only god.

Following this model, you could say that the still borns are because of a lack of faithfulness. So, the elders could use the miscarriages as evidence that the goddess in unhappy with the faithlessness of her people. Perhaps every time a baby is still born, the elders send out inquisitors to cull the non-believers from your community until only those faithful enough to be deserving of a parthenogenetic conception in their community are left. This may curb population growth a bit, but it also ensures that everyone who is left is blindly loyal. A small fanatical army can be far more effective than a massive one with no resolve.

The Enlightened Explanation: Enlightened religions try to merge science and philosophy with religion; so, they would look to science to find meaning in the Goddess's plans.

Interspecies reproduction is known to have a higher failure rate than normal. It can be seen in all sorts of species; so, the higher rate of failure is actually evidence that these women are reproducing with something distinctly not human. The very fact that a spiritual being like the Eternal Mother can reproduce with a human is nothing short of a miracle since she does not even have DNA to work with; so, even a miscarriage coming from parthenogenetic conception is a wild display of her divine power to anyone wise enough to understand how incredible it is for things to get that far.

So, she is either impregnating more people than she needs because she needs to according to the laws of nature, or just as a constant reminder of her presence to show everyone that she can do it.

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The one answer here (so far) that points out your incorrect starting assumption is the one from Guest: once a social group reaches a certain size the problem is not convincing them to continue believing something that is obviously wrong (when examined rationally), but convincing them to change their beliefs no matter how wrong they are.

There are plenty of examples of this happening; a fairly obvious one from recent history is the anti-vaccination movement in general and in particular the very recent COVID-19 anti-vaccination movement. Even if one is suspicious of the accuracy of the "99% of all people hospitalized for COVID-19 are unvaccinated" figure, anything near that is, along with its low risk compared to activities such as driving a car, clearly such weighty evidence for taking the vaccine that any strictly rational analysis based on that alone would have most people taking it.

But humans, being social creatures, need to take into account their relationships with those around them as well, and so it can in fact be rational to at least appear to believe what those around you do, especially when open disagreement with those beliefs can have its own adverse real-world consequences. As explained in a recent article in The Atlantic, "The Anti-vaccine Con Job Is Becoming Untenable":

[People] want to save face within the very specific set of social ties that sociologists call “reference groups”—the neighborhoods, churches, workplaces, and friendship networks that help people obtain the income, information, companionship, mutual aid, and other resources they need to live. The price of access to those resources is conformity to group norms. That’s why nobody strives for the good opinion of everyone; most people primarily seek the approval of people in their own reference groups.

In Missouri and other red states, vaccine refusal on partisan grounds has become a defining marker of community affiliation. Acceptance within some circles is contingent on refusal to cooperate with the Biden administration’s public-health campaign. Getting vaccinated is a betrayal of that group norm, and those who get the shot can legitimately fear losing their job or incurring the wrath of their families and other reference groups.

This is why even those who want the vaccine will sometimes try to hide that fact:

A hospital in the state, Ozarks Healthcare, had to create a “private setting” for patients afraid of being seen getting vaccinated against COVID-19. In a video produced by the hospital, the physician Priscilla Frase says, “Several people come in to get vaccinated who have tried to sort of disguise their appearance and even went so far as to say, ‘Please, please, please don’t let anybody know that I got this vaccine.’” Although they want to protect themselves from the coronavirus and its variants, these patients are desperate to ensure that their vaccine-skeptical friends and family never find out what they have done.

As well as the potential for bad real-life results from disagreeing with others in your group, there is also of course simply the emotional side of discovering you believed someone who misled you, and handling this can result in an overall strengthening of the incorrect belief within a group:

The seminal text in the field—Erving Goffman’s 1952 essay “On Cooling the Mark Out”—observes that all targets of con artists eventually come to understand that they have been defrauded, yet they almost never complain or report the crime to authorities. Why? Because, Goffman argues, admitting that one has been conned is so deeply shameful that marks experience it as a kind of social death. The victim, he writes,

has defined himself as a shrewd man and must face the fact that he is only another easy mark. He has defined himself as possessing a certain set of qualities and then proven to himself that he is miserably lacking in them. This is a process of self-destruction of the self.

Goffman notes that other life events, such as being fired or dumped, can evoke similar feelings of humiliation. But people targeted by con jobs can save their pride by denying the con as long as possible—or claiming they were in on it the whole time. This saves face and cheats social death, but allows the con to continue unchecked, entrapping others. In doing so, marks prioritize their self-image over the common good.

My suggestion for your work is that you explain to your audience just how people find it better to maintain their belief in the church despite the obvious failures. The best way to do this would be to show the bad experiences of those who attempt to dissent and compare those to the good experiences of those who don't. To do this you need to "get into the head" of those who continue believe and really understand why they do continue to believe (and promote the belief!) despite understanding the evidence against their beliefs. If you can do this for yourself you'll be able to bring your readers along on the journey and it will make sense to them, too.

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"How can the church maintain their influence among the community despite their repeated and visible failures?"

The mere fact that the elders are so long lived and immune to disease is enough to make an impression. There have been many claims of immortal people in the past and they have been revered to some extent. But the fact remains that they just lied and time tells the truth. Those that doubt the goddesses chosen may live their lives in disbelief but as they get older they'll notice that the immortal elders are in better shape than them. They may be too proud to admit they were wrong though.

Another thing i've noticed is that religious women tend to prefer the emotional side of religion as opposed to the logical side. This makes their claims of godhood and salvation complete baloney to some and life saving inspiration to others. Being women themselves the elders would get a following of mostly women from unfortunate circumstances, those would be the most devout believers. The rest would be horny men lusting after the goddesses chosen. Because lets be real, nothing beats the power of sex appeal.

Stillborn children may not be a problem, they may just be considered the price for living long healthy lives. You can just shift the blame on someone or something else. And it is worth noticing that while a 90% death rate is quite detrimental to rapid growth of a population, let's not forget that they live VERY long lives and each child is only about nine months of commitment. That added to the fact that the children also barely age and you've pretty much counter acted the disadvantages. The immunity to disease is just cream on top, just look how badly a virus messed up our lives. They may even use this as a way to get more followers by promising they'll be cured.

Finally the issue of mistakes building up disillusionment over time. The best way to mitigate this is to say and do very little to appear wiser and more intelligent, as people often project their ideals on what they can't see. To prove my point, a vailed woman may be more mysterious and enchanting than a beautiful woman with no vail. All you have to do to avoid embarrassment is have others do everything for you. If they fail or made mistakes than they simply weren't up for the task.

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  • $\begingroup$ This answer reminds me of the empotor of Japan after the war. No one had actually seen or heard him. Untill he had to tell his people by radio that Japan had surrended. The god emperor could speak! $\endgroup$ Aug 4 at 4:13
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You do it the same way you convince people to vote for consistently failing political leaders. Spin.

What you're seeing isn't a failure on the part of the goddess, and it's not a punishment inflicted on the people. This is something the goddess is doing to benefit the people.

The goddess' goal is to elevate humanity to a state that is unhampered by the weak mortal flesh we're currently trapped in. Her desired state is seen in the people that she creates directly. They live longer, and their bodies are more resilient to disease and decay. When the goddess detects that one of her followers is carrying a child that is weak or that carries undesirable traits (the conception might be immaculate, but the development was biological and fallible), she culls the child early to avoid the society wasting resources on it and to give the parents a chance to try again. Those that survive to birth have essentially been pre-screened by the goddess to ensure that they are progressing towards her goal of a perfected species, not drifting away from it.

This is a blessing the goddess only bestows on her faithful. Heathens living in foreign lands do not worship the goddess and thus are not subject to her discerning gaze. She allows those heathens to keep their undesirable young, causing those cultures to drift farther away from the perfect state that her followers will eventually reach.

The faithful will become what is essentially a separate, superior species and the unfaithful will be conquered and fade into extinction. This might seem like an odd way to go about it, but it's a time-tested process that has proven to work. The goddess was able to perfect her followers beyond their previous Neanderthal form (and multiple forms before that), and she will continue to do so until humanity has has reached its fully-perfected state.

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How can the church maintain its influence among the community despite its repeated and visible failures?

That's done by hiding the immortal avatars from sight. Their stillbirths must be invisible for the community ( I wondered if the community is constituted by avatar offspring but let's assume the community came into being by Natural evolution). A carefully thought system has to be set up to avoid contact. Situations that appeared in Japan after the second worldwar have to be avoided. The Japanese emperor was virtually considered a gid. Nobody knew how he looked or where and how he lived. He was urged to make an announcement on the radio to broadcast the fact that the nation had surrendered. So his voice was heard for the first time, which dwarfed him considerably. There was somebody to blame now too!

The last must be avoided at any cost. The avatars can become deities by themselves and stories can be made up. The church can turn the stillbirths into their favor even. Distribute them as the partial worldly incarnations of the mother fertility god and your case is won.

Trouble will arise if someone discovers some truth. By whatever means. But the truth can be turned into lie if the church is powerfull. If factions arise in peacetime, which dont want to follow anymore this can cause internal stress in society. During warfare the deity can ensure a strong cohesive force for the community though. To be dissolved if defeat is there and confessions have to be made. Like the Japanese emperor did.

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