Jedi - the Growth of a 'Religion'
Created | Updated Apr 11, 2013
Try not! Do or do not. There is no try.
– Master Yoda
Not many religions in the world are the product of a popular film series and an Internet hoax. Such credentials normally undermine an upstart faith. One such 'religion', though, has overcome the odds with a surprising degree of success. If nothing else, the modern-day Jedi have the effect of making us stop and wonder if there's more fact behind the fiction than the authors intended.
May The Farce Be With You
Around the beginning of March, 2001, an email message surfaced in New Zealand asserting that if 8,000 participants claimed to adhere to the Jedi religion in the forthcoming census, then the country would have to recognise it officially. The message was aimed at those who did not connect with conventional religions. It is apparent that the targets of this email were willing to try something new because 53,715 people in New Zealand identified themselves as Jedi in the 6 March, 2001 census. Ironically, 'size matters not' - the email was a hoax, and the Census Bureau confirmed that response to the question on religious affiliation does not determine what religions are recognised by the state. In fact, the bureau was so concerned about flawed census data that a $1000 fine was created for anybody who provided false information.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the negative government reaction in New Zealand, the hoax gained speed internationally. In the Australian census, held on 7 August, 2001, 70,509 respondents (0.37%) indicated 'Jedi' on their census forms. What's more, on 29 April, 2001, over 390,000 people in England and Wales (0.7%) identified with the fictional force users. That made Jedi the fourth-largest 'religion' in the UK, after Christianity (71.6%), Islam (2.7%) and Hinduism (1.0%)1. What's more, Jedi was allocated its own code for the UK census. Officials maintain that this does not constitute official recognition.
Does having half a million members globally give weight to the claim that Jedi is legitimate as a religion? Not necessarily. The regional breakdown by the UK Office of National Statistics indicates that most of the 'Jedi' are located in areas with high student concentrations. However, providing that perhaps one percent of those who wrote 'Jedi' on their census forms are true believers in the Force, that's 50,000 members!
'The Force is What Gives a Jedi his Power'
It is not surprising that the Jedi philosophy is attractive today. When writing Star Wars, George Lucas was heavily influenced by one Joseph Campbell. Campbell's book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, is a study of the hero archetype and its ability to change the way people think. Campbell studied ancient hero epics such as The Epic of Gilgamesh and came to the conclusion that all epic stories are built around the same basic form, or archetype. Furthermore, he believed people were naturally drawn to stories that fit this model. Lucas built his films around Campbell's archetype, giving them an 'instant classic' feel.
One ingredient of Campbell's hero archetype is that a hero must receive divine assistance, with another requirement being special powers. In the Star Wars films, the Force fills both of these roles. Lucas designed 'the Force' as a non-specific combination of many religions and philosophies, including Christianity and especially Taoism. Said Lucas:
I put the Force into the movie in order to try to awaken a certain kind of spirituality in young people — more a belief in God than a belief in any particular religious system. I wanted to make it so that young people would begin to ask questions about the mystery2.
His open-ended approach has made the Force very adaptable to post-modern spirituality.
'Luminous Beings Are We...'
What specifically makes the Force so attractive to modern spiritual seekers?
In A New Hope (Episode Four of the saga), Obi-Wan Kenobi describes the Force as 'an energy field created by all living things' that 'binds the galaxy together'. This non-sentient power bypasses the many difficulties of a personified deity. For example, it is not possible to 'offend' the Force, and the Force does not 'pick favourites'.
In The Empire Strikes Back (Episode 5), Jedi Master Yoda tells Luke, 'always in motion is the future'. In the Force, choices made by individuals determine the course of history. This not only gives the individual a sense of control over their own life, but over the path of humanity as well.
Every belief system has memorable phrases that make day-to-day life simpler. The Force is no exception; in addition to the Jedi and Sith Codes (see below), the films are a veritable well of quotable wisdom.
Choose Your Path
Those who believe in the Force 'choose their own path'. They may adapt the religion to their personal convictions and background, while still feeling like they are a part of something greater than themselves.
The Light Side
The Jedi order and the light side of the Force offer a variation on traditional western morality without institutionalised duties. They highlight patience, self-control, harmony, knowledge and preservation of life, while discouraging anger, hatred, fear and aggression. In addition, the Jedi feel that the Force has a will, which attempts to guide the events of history. To be in harmony with the will of the Force brings peace and enlightenment. This option upholds virtues found in western Christian morality and many popular eastern religions.
The Jedi Code:
There is no emotion, there is peace.
There is no ignorance, there is knowledge.
There is no passion, there is serenity.
There is no chaos, there is harmony.
There is no death, there is the Force.
The Dark Side
The Sith and the dark side of the Force emphasise the harnessing of emotion. They teach that passion is a source of power, and that power is the most certain path to success. The Sith take a social Darwinist approach to social organization. They believe that only allowing the most powerful people to survive is for the good of the species in the long run. Unlike the Jedi, Sith do not believe that the Force has any will; instead, it is a tool, to be used by anyone with the capacity. As a result, this choice is well suited to practitioners of counter-cultural beliefs such as modern Satanism, or anyone who believes the universe is inherently chaotic.
The Sith Code:
Peace is a lie, there is only passion.
Through passion, I gain strength.
Through strength, I gain power.
Through power, I gain victory.
Through victory, my chains are broken.
The Force shall free me.
Life After Death
Religion has long sought to soften the blow of mortality. Star Wars is no exception; death in the Force seems to simply usher in a new phase of life. There is no literal paradise, nor any place of eternal punishment. Instead, those Jedi who are highly attuned to the Force peacefully 'become one' with it. For a time, they can appear as spirits in this universe. Eventually all contact with the physical world is severed. What lies beyond remains an enigma.
Followers of the dark side have their own apparent immunity to kicking the bucket. Not only do they seem to have a knack for evading death by regeneration3, cloning4, draining another's life force5 or usurping another's body6, they have also been known to appear as ghosts after death, staying close to a 'tainted' possession or location from their life.
There is no mention of what happens to people who are not attuned to the Force. It seems the worst they can get is oblivion.
In the films, the traditional weapon of the Jedi is a sword with an energy-beam instead of a blade. The extended fiction describes the lightsaber as depending on multiple focusing crystals and a powerful electromagnetic field. Unfortunately for fans, there appears to be no way to construct a real working lightsaber.
But seriously, who doesn't want one?
'Hokey Religions and Ancient Weapons...'
There is a great irony to the question of the Force: those who are experts on Star Wars know that there can be no Jedi on Earth. The recent New Jedi Order series (New York: Ballantine Books) reveals that the Force (at least as it is depicted in the movies) is unique to a single galaxy. Everybody knows that the modern epic took place 'a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away'... so according to Star Wars, the Force is not with us.
If such official denial does not deter you, The Jedi Creed is a great resource for the faith behind the Force.