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Daemons are malevolent spirits that inhabit the astral plane. This religion views these spirits as divine beings and worship them as gods. They are heavily revered in the faith, and are considered higher life-forms that are superior to humanity. The ultimate goal of any practicioner is to become a daemon host, in which a spirit inhabits the body of an individual to create a perfect union between man and spirit. Few achieve this status, and those that do are regarded as saints, or holy beings to be emulated by others and aspired to.

However, while praying to these spirits as gods, the religion also involve practices that include enslaving daemons. Cult members summon daemons and bind these spirits to themselves as familiars. This involves breaking and torturing the daemon to subject it to their will. Once broken, the daemon must follow the orders of their master under penalty of harsh consequences. This comes across as contradictory, worshipping spirits as holy while also using them as servants that are beneath you. It is like being christian and accepting Jesus as the messiah, and then torturing the holy spirit to do your bidding.

How can a religion justify these opposite beliefs?

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    $\begingroup$ not quite answer, but perhaps a hint of an inspiration: Gods are created by human belief, so being dependent of faith, they will be slaves of humans (read Terry Pratchett: 'Small Gods') $\endgroup$
    – j4nd3r53n
    Sep 24, 2021 at 6:57
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    $\begingroup$ @j4nd3r53n when submitting a question here, perhaps we should present the user with a dialog box: Have you checked for a Discworld precedent? [Yes] [I'll do it now]. Also The Last Continent has an unworshipped example $\endgroup$
    – Chris H
    Sep 24, 2021 at 12:30
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    $\begingroup$ Ah, yes, the god of evolution. $\endgroup$
    – j4nd3r53n
    Sep 24, 2021 at 14:07
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    $\begingroup$ Related, real life bear worship involved hunting and capturing bears. $\endgroup$
    – ojs
    Sep 24, 2021 at 15:16
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    $\begingroup$ See also the tv trope of the shipwrecked hero, washed up on an island, worshiped by natives, and sacrificed to the volcano. $\endgroup$ Sep 24, 2021 at 18:38

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They lack the notion that “worship” = “obey”

They revere the daemons, they praise them, they’re in awe of them, they’re grateful for the power they bring, they want to share in their glory… but none of that means they have to do what the daemons want.

They are, in a way, like business executives who heap praise on their workers. They may genuinely believe it when they say the company’s success belongs to everyone and they’re so grateful for everyone’s hard work… but that won’t stop them taking home a fat salary, ten or a hundred times what those workers get.

Or a better analogy: they’re like a horse-riding culture that puts horses at the centre of their religion. Your horse is a holy, praiseworthy being, full of grace and nobility, with whom you strive to have a meaningful, cooperative relationship… once it’s been broken and properly trained to do exactly what you want.

This is a fairly alien mindset to most religions/cultures, where respect, honour, gratitude, etc. are expressed by service, or at least by reciprocity. But I don’t think it’s inconsistent, nor insurmountably weird. And maybe there is some degree of reciprocity—you do something nice for the daemon that’s been obedient and served you well. Just be careful not to go too far and water “worship” down into something like pet ownership.

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    $\begingroup$ Yes, this. Plenty of religions down the years have placed certain animals in holy positions, often precisely because they are so useful that they are critical to a civilization's survival. This society may be dependent on daemon-magic, so of course you would bend want to bend the daemons to your will as much as possible, but at the same time acknowledging and revering their power. $\endgroup$
    – K. Morgan
    Sep 24, 2021 at 10:17
  • $\begingroup$ The last sentence? Seriously, there are plenty of people who worship their cats! :-) $\endgroup$ Sep 24, 2021 at 12:48
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    $\begingroup$ @R..GitHubSTOPHELPINGICE “Cats” and “subservient” don't go together. $\endgroup$
    – wizzwizz4
    Sep 24, 2021 at 12:58
  • $\begingroup$ What worshipping is for? So to attract the demons into the trap? $\endgroup$
    – Anixx
    Sep 26, 2021 at 10:25
  • $\begingroup$ @Anixx No, they worship them because they find them worshipful. Do we admire horses so that they’ll be easier to catch? Do we appreciate art because our praise tricks artists into making more? Do you admire the sunset because it might not come back if you don’t? $\endgroup$ Sep 26, 2021 at 12:35
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When in Rome...

Or perhaps that should be, "When summoning Romans, do as the Romans do."

You describe the demons as "malevolent"; I'm going to assume that means they have many of the traits we normally associate with "demons". Their own culture is one of the strong dominating the weak, one of vicious cruelty and oppression. If given half a chance, demons will enslave humans and treat them terribly, so the humans are keen to do the same when they have the upper hand - because the demons are right, you see. They are the divine beings and therefore this is the way, the proper and ordained model for society. It is only right that their disciples follow in their footsteps.

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Power

There are, in fact, religious texts in Egypt where the person trying to obtain something from the gods threatens them if he doesn't get it. Indeed, there is a strain of magic, the belief that one can coerce the gods, or God, into doing as you wish, in any religion, though many will denounce it ferociously as superstitious and impious. Being more in the manner of the Egyptians who wrote those parchments will shift it.

Hierarchy

There are greater and lesser beings among the daemons. Just as a merchant will treat a foreign king with all respect while treating the unskilled labor he hires in the kingdom as untrustworthy riffraff, a wizard sees no conflict between honoring the great daemons and enslaving the lesser ones.

Punishment

The church teaches that the holy spirits are protected from mortal impiety by their holiness. The mere fact that a daemon can be summoned and coerced is proof that it fell from holiness. Some schools hold that such daemons are irrevocably tainted and humans are doing Heaven a favor by keeping them out; others, that their suffering here purges them, and so they are doing the daemons they enslave a favor by letting them cleanse themselves.

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They are "weeding out" those unworthy of worship

While there are many spirits, not all are worthy of worship or reverence. Some are weaker than others while still being useful. The weaker ones are enslaved, but are clearly unworthy of reverence; after all, how could they be worthy of worship if they can be broken and enslaved? Hence, becoming a vessel for a worthy spirit, too strong to be enslaved and broken, is an aspiration; becoming master to an unworthy one is opportunistic.

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Inner Circle, Outer Circle

The vast majority of the religion doesn't know daemons are enslaved. The inner circle need the "sheep" to offer up their bodies as hosts thus require the worship but the inner circle enslave the daemons for their own power and control out of sight of the rest.

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Humility and service are virtues in this religion

Many real world religious figures are known to have done service for the poorest in their societies, to lead by humble example that helping others is virtuous.

Many cultures define service to others as an inherent good in some way, "contributing to society" being a modern example.

As divine figures in their religion, your demons are simply displaying the virtues of humility and service when they humble themselves to help a mere human. The demons are paragons of these virtues, and this is how they show their benevolent love to their worshippers, not unlike a parent helping a child.

At least that's what the people tell themselves.

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Man's ability to find excuses is unbounded

The suffering demon:

  • Is just putting up an act to test the determination and holiness of its prospective vessel. "Don't fall to this trap, just to what's necessary. With determined compassion."
  • "Needs to be cleansed from impurities" and will be grateful once bound. (Doesn't expect gratitude after being bound, or disobeys? "Cleanse" some more. We all strive for perfection, but even the holiest vessel may overlook some hidden speck on the demon's soul, actually greet any insubordination as an opportunity to make your demon even cleaner.)
    Sure we revere the demons in their unbound form, because we revere their holy aspects, but we accept that they, like us, have lower selves in them. "In this never-complete journey to perfection, we're a perfect couple, the spirit and me."

Some people are just cruel and manipulating

It's these that are invited to bind to a demon (others being "not strong enough").
The fact that the demons are being tortured into submission is just never told to laypeople; when a future saint it selected, they are closely monitored for signs of compassion to the demon, and those deemed "not strong enough after all" simply have an unfortunate accident.
This isn't perfect, sometimes people get second thoughts after a while. Well... saints can become heretics and be punished harshly. Or they can be derided - "St. Idiota was a saint alright, but he just didn't fully understand the nature of the binding and actually believed his spirit wasn't willing, and nobody could talk him out of that nonsense - but we was a really kind soul".

Examples of all of this can be found in the reports on Gulag and KZ personnel.
Also, in the way how inevitable moral crises were handled: Those who couldn't stand it were excused and removed from the process, and either would keep quiet or be sent somewhere they could die a heroic death, and quickly, please.

These scenarios can be combined

Even the cruel and manipulative can have compassion, and to silence that, they will invent excuses. From "the demon is weak and fully deserves it" to "I'm just helping the demon become a better being".
Also, these rulers can be nice to the laypersons and cruel to demons, provided the cult establishes a clear ideology why cruelty to humans is not okay; in that case, you'll get a hypocritical saintly elite that may or may not rule, and a significant fraction of them will have a measure of guilt, sometimes conscious, sometimes subconscious. This would make for a very interesting setting if the story is told from a layperson's perspective, because the different saintly people that they encounter will react oh so differently and leave the layperson (and the reader) wondering what's making the saints so different.

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Manipulation and betrayal

The cult members worship evil demons. What kind of person would worship an evil demon with a hope of essentially becoming one? A kind of person that would bend a knee to those, they cannot cross and backstab those, they can use to get ahead. Worship is a form of acknowledgment that you are a lesser being, not worthy to contest the heavens above. Because those who don't show humility in the face of a greater power pay for their insolence with their life... or worse.

Real life example

Believe it or not, deities being both worshiped and enslaved are common through history. This is somewhat different to what you are asking, but maybe it could be a point of inspiration.

Most emperors from the ancient times and some even up to modern times were seen as gods on earth. They had absolute reign over their domain but at the same time they were bound by religion and tradition, dictating almost every daily activity and severely limiting their mobility. Most famously, emperors of China and Japan were ruled by bureaucrats and imperial institutions, yet those same institutions gained their legitimacy by acting as executioners of the will of the emperor. The emperor had to exist within this system, least they will be rejected as an impostor, acting against the benefit of gods and people.

They were seen as gods, but ultimately they were human, having as much power as their followers and those, whom they benefited with their reign. This turned out to actually be an immense amount of power during a Meiji Restoration. But it was also incredibly volatile, as exemplified by fall of despised Yuan or incompetent and corrupt Qing in China.

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Sounds Like Chaos

I would look into the Chaos/demon worshipers of the Warhammer universe for ideas, as this seems very similar to how that universe handles demons.

Essentially each demon is a fragment or aspect of a "Chaos God" which is both a unique and hugely powerful demonic entity and something entirely made up of human thoughts/emotions which create the god's various demons which are just aspects of that god's will. In that setup a practitioner worships a Chaos God, but is happy to bind/enslave that god's demon, even though that demon is in a very real sense part of their god.

In your setup you can have something similar. Demons are worshiped as a pantheon. Well and good. But because there are SO MANY demons the most well-known (always the most powerful, because they do the most impressive things!) are the ones that get most of the worship. Plus they're powerful, which means they're harder to bind/enslave/control! The "lesser" demons on the other hand CAN be enslaved and controlled. Your people might have a certain amount of respect for them, but they're not actively "praying" to poor little Nurgling that Tim the Enchanter just bound. it's the demonology equivalent of Worshiping The Great White Whale but still being perfectly fine with hunting the whales small enough for you to spear, along with everything else in the ocean. Obviously if your bound demon was on the same level as the Worshipful Ninety-Nine it wouldn't have let itself be bound!

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Religion is for the peasants. Power is for the clergy

The religion is developed for the people to worship the daemons and the "vessels" they possess. They have no clue how the union is formed, just that the "priest" is now bonded with the power of a god.

In reality, the priests have found a way to harness daemons by enslaving them. the clergy know well the true nature of the relationship between man and daemons. The people are oblivious.

The religion is created as a tool for the powerful to keep the people in line and not summon daemons themselves.

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It is in its core a cult to the power and freedom these demons possess, as well as their ambitious and reckless nature. Demons are not kind or merciful, they are self centered, just like the faithful are meant to be, and by forcing their will over demons, like demons themselves do over lesser creatures, they become closer to the ideals demons represent

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"Worship" in the pagan sense is very different to worship in the Christian or broadly monotheistic sense.

In pagan religions, the relationship between human and god is opportunistic, as the gods are more like immortal super-humans. Gods have the ability to deal out death, destruction, gifts and favour to humans, so the relationship between human and god is more about power dynamics.

So even if your cult member worships his enslaved daemon, it's not going to look like the same kind of worship you see with Abrahamic religions.

Your cult member will probably try to bribe or placate his daemon, promising his release in exchange for something. Your cult member might also parlay with other daemons for protection (in case the enslaved one breaks free).

It also stands to reason that any cult member capable of binding a daemon would be worshipped with god-like status, because the daemon's powers now fall under the dominion of the cult member.

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For their own good

They are not being enslaved they are being civilized. If we didn't treat them this way, to make them more compatible with human life, they would be off killing each other or wreaking havoc on the world. Instead, by teaching them to be subservient humble to those who control worship them, then they are made worthy to be worshiped.

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Let's assume the daemons have the mentality "the weak deserve to be enslaved." In this case, if their own are captured by the worthless life force that is humanity, then those daemons captured have failed their kind and deserve their suffering.

On the flip side, the truly powerful among the daemons would enslave humans without batting an eyelid if they felt like it. But the humans have proven themselves worthy:

  • They worship the strong.
  • They enslave the weak.

Ultimately, they still do the bidding of the higher ranking daemons.

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Japan in the Tokugawa era came pretty close to this.

The emperor was venerated as a deity, but he had no political power whatsoever. The commander of the military, the Shogun, ruled in his name, and the emperor was practically a prisoner in his castle. He was allowed to dress like an emperor and have nice things, but had zero control over the country and didn't even make public appearances.

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To put it simply, it is only worship for lack of a better term for the relationship. Maybe, the worshippers see themselves as a society of Gods in their own right, stronger than the daemons, and resultantly among them as divine beings. They are superior to Humanity, yes, but it is Humanity that put them in chains and achieved apotheosis as a people through the submission of the daemons. They 'worship' them less in the way that a sick and starving man in Athens might worship Zeus, and more like a young student might 'worship' a wise teacher. The daemons have knowledge and power and true divinity, and it is Humanity that has the strength to claim it, the knowledge to use it, and the raw power to maintain it.

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