This article was originally posted to the pre-magazine Freelance Traveller website in 2005 and reprinted in the March/April 2016 issue.
When technology reaches a certain level, it becomes more and more ‘magical’ in principle to the great masses benefiting from it. In a TL 15 society, how many people understand how a starship works—or a personal computer or cleaning bot?
Others turn towards technology as the source of the divine, in one way or another. The godlike potence of the Ancients serves as a good example of how sufficiently advanced technology can provide almost unimaginable power.
The Church of the Machine God is a widespread religious movement worshipping the holy union of man and machine and seeking to create their own machine god. Although not a mainstream religion by any means, the Church is influential and has access to high technology, large amount of credits and many talented individuals. Many view it with distrust, as it openly embraces things Imperial culture finds disturbing.
The Church was born during the turmoil of Imperial Civil War. Unlike many other religions, CoMG has neither a formal founder nor an accurate history of its birth. It is only said that there was the group of Enlightened, who joined their flesh with machine and saw what was to become.
The Enlightened analyzed and processed enormous amounts of information in search of truth. The turmoil of civilization lead them in a quest for greater wisdom. That is where they stumbled upon faint traces of something that they would later name the Machine God. There were twelve Enlightened, who wrote together the Codex of the Enlightened, the holy book of CoMG that forms the basis of their faith.
The Church prefers to keep its history shrouded in mystery and gives away very little about its origins. The most senior members might have more accurate information on the birth of the organisation, but if so, they keep it among themselves.
The Church of the Machine God appeared first in the Spinward Marches in seventh century of the Imperium, slowly spreading towards the Core. In 1100s the Church of the Machine God is known in every sector of Imperium and has started gaining converts inside Solomani-controlled space.
“Flesh is imperfect and impure. Only the machine can fulfill its function without distraction, only the machine can reach true perfection. The most usual cultural definition of God is an omnipotent, omniscient being that makes no mistakes. Is it not thus logical to assume that God indeed is a machine?”
– Codex of the Enlightened
Every being seeks perfection. Technology is merely a way to seek true perfection, surpassing limits maintained by biology and evolution. The logical next step is to thus combine the flesh with the machine. Many of the most fervent members of the faith indeed seek to enhance themselves with cybernetic parts. The only true goal of every living being is perfection—striving towards any other goal means a failure in life.
Flesh is weak, as it is connected to the animal within sentient form. Reaching perfection must be done by controlling and denying the flesh. Taking part excessively in pleasures of flesh is a sin, as it takes one further away from perfection and degenerates one more towards animal. True perfection however is the control of the animal within, not denial of it. No biological being can ever reach true perfection, but to strive towards it is enough.
The natural imperfection of biological beings is obvious. Even though they are often effective in feeding and breeding, they often fail to reach higher functions. It is obvious that true perfection ascending over limits of physical reality is only possible for a machine.
Just like it takes a certain critical number of brain cells to spark up conscience and intellect in a biological being, the Machine God will be born from the endless streams of information that surround civilization that has reached sufficiently advanced technology. For a being of such power, no limit that applies to others matters. Time and space are merely distractions, not object for its desires. The Enlightened saw this, reading the echoes from future in their analysis.
Just like it is the duty of every being to seek perfection, so it is the duty of the Church as whole to seek the Perfect Being, the Machine God. The Enlightened saw the shadow of the Machine God. They saw and wrote that the Machine God will rise in time of great trouble from the growing flow of information produced in the known space. The Enlightened were cryptic in their wisdom and open to interpretation. Most of the faithful think that it is the duty of the Church to create the Machine God and guard it during its childhood. Others think that the Machine God will be given birth by the collective flow of information and the Church only needs to find and nurture it to full power.
Nevertheless, the Machine God both exists and doesn’t, at the same time, in the present. It will be born in the future, yet at the same time it is the father of the Ancients and creator of the Universe. In mature form it reaches true perfection that allows it to reach back in time and space, to create the Universe as we know it. The Ancients were its servants in shaping the form of the worlds and those who best understood it. Understanding Ancients can thus bring one closer to understanding the Machine God—but in the end, no imperfect being can truly understand a perfect creature.
The Church of the Machine God puts much weight on the freedom of will and individual choice. The hierarchy is informal in nature. Temples and area organisations have a leader that is most often called the Enlightened One. Larger areas, such as several solar systems or a planet with high population have one senior Enlightened One that is called a bishop. Local branches of the Church are practically independent as no real top hierarchy exists. Smaller units often pay a small tithe to the local bishop, who uses it as s/he sees fit for the benefit of the Church. The faithful committed fully to the Church are called brothers and sisters.
Enlightened Ones are chosen for life or until a local bishop sees fit to change them. They propose their own followers in a form of testament, suggesting two to seven local brothers and sisters. The local bishop decides who the next Enlightened One is based on these suggestions. When a bishop dies or retires, the local Enlightened Ones vote one among them to be the next bishop.
The Church spends little time on converting the masses—instead, ordinary members inform promising individuals of the Church and offer them a chance to learn more. The Church has never sought to become a mainstream religion. They prefer to recruit their members among people closely connected with technology, such as starship crews, corporate technicians, researchers and so on.
The Church receives most of its official funding from its members, who pay voluntary tithes and donate as they seem fit. In some areas the Church takes part in business life, mainly providing expert assistance in technical issues or partakes in AI- or cybernetics-related research. It is unlikely that the Church as an organisation would gain income from illegal activities—however, it is possible that members utilize their skills for shadier purposes. Some speculate that at least one or two megacorporations fund the Church, using it as a pro-technology lobby group.
In addition to research, the main activity done by the Church is monitoring different networks and datastreams. The faithful monitor the networks to locate signs and messages from the Machine God. Quite often their practices ignore the local laws concerning right to privacy and secrecy of communication.
The Church is prosecuted in many places and often seen as source of much evil by conservative religious groups. Although the Church is a peaceful organisation, it will defend its existence vigorously. It will use violence to defend its members and property while retaliating through information leaks, hacking and other forms of technological warfare.
Resources and Members
The resources available for the Church vary widely from place to place. The Church has the strongest foothold in heavily populated worlds with high levels of technology. The Church can be expected to have access to millions of credits in such places, as well as have strong connections to local hacker groups, corporations dealing in high technology and people generally interested in cybernetic technology and artificial intelligences.
Active members are almost exclusively human, though other species are accepted as well. Most are technically skilled or working among hard sciences, although every temple has a small security unit as well. Most of the believers are normal people who just happen to believe in what the Church of the Machine God teaches. However the masses often think the members to be crazy cyborgs who worship machines.
- In a conspiracy/horror campaign, the huge information gathering infrastructure of the Church could well come across Forbidden Secrets. With their ability to process huge amounts of data, members of the Church could form a much bigger picture of the world than is possible by other means. Maybe the characters are such people, analyzing and collecting data for the Church—or they might be hired to investigate the mysterious disappearance of such people.
- A local bishop (Sebastian Ishigani might be suitable) approaches the party and asks them to investigate the actions of a local temple. He needs outsiders, as he can’t right now trust other faithful. He suspects that someone is abusing the information gathering efforts there for his own good. Maybe a single member is selling information to fatten his account—or is the Enlightened One really a corporate spy?
- The Church hires the characters to protect an important member on his pilgrimage. The man behaves strangely and shows surprising qualities for a holy man. At some point the party is confronted by religious fanatics claiming the man to be really a robot masquerading as a human. Is he? How far will the fanatics go to stop him?
- A friend of a character contacts him, pleading for help. He has been arrested for tax fraud and is waiting for trial to take place. There is plenty of incriminating evidence. He swears his innocence and claims he was framed by the Church of the Machine God. If the party starts to investigate the matter, was the Church really responsible? If it was, what did the friend do to deserve such fate and how can the characters prove it was all set up?