From Vedas to Vader: Is the “Jedi” faith a religion, a cult, or a bit sad?

The Jedi Faith

In the last New Zealand census, approx. 20,000 people listed “Jedi” as their religion. The NZ Census bureau refused to count this as an answer, although “Wiccan”, “yoga” and “Satanism” were all deemed acceptable. Were the bureau correct to reject “Jedi”, bearing in mind it’s the professed religion of 2% of Brighton’s population?

Star Wars has entered the national bloodstream in such a way that people’s efforts to establish themselves as “Jedi knights” were pretty much inevitable, especially when one considers the abundantly obvious theological seam that can be mined from the saga. But what does it actually mean, if anything, to profess oneself a “Jedi”?

For many people, I would imagine this amounts to no more than “I really like Star Wars, and am going to pretend that I am personally involved in it in some way.” Nevertheless, even if many of those who put “Jedi” on their census meant it insincerely (or not!), this should not of itself render the religion illegitimate. After all, there are plenty of Christians who don’t actually know what Christianity is really about.

What do Jedis believe?

It sounds like cheating, at least initially. According to the home of the Jedi Faith (www.jedichurch.org), the church has no official doctrine, but “believes that there is an all powerful force that binds all things in the universe together. The Jedi religion is something innate inside everyone of us, the Jedi Church believes that our sense of morality is innate.” These vague assumptions sound borrowed, and are hardly unique to the faith. At a glance, it confirmed all the natural assumptions I had made of how the Church came to be established, which was like this:

1) I really like Star Wars

2) I wish I was personally involved in it in some way

3) Conveniently, there’s a lot of vague metaphysical talk in Star Wars about the Force

4) I’ll pretend I believe in that and then I can actually claim to be a Jedi!

However, on further perusal of the website’s claims I found I’d been as wrong to hold this view as Han had been to trust Lando. According to the official website, the beliefs of the Jedi existed some time before the films, and it is the terminology alone that is derived from the films. I think this is reasonable, and deserves the benefit of the doubt. After all, no-one (as far as I know) is professing belief in the historical Chewbacca. Similarly, a Christian may well argue that it doesn’t matter whether one believes Adam and Eve were real people; what matters is that they have a narrative to embody their beliefs. It is a universal phenomenon to latch onto icons and narratives as embodiments of fundamental beliefs, as anyone who has a Che Guevara fridge magnet ought to be able to tell you. The faith is not therefore derived or legitimized by the films, but the films do give the faith a way of expressing itself, and conveying its values; the fact of their popularity only adds to their effectiveness in this regard. Furthermore, since Star Wars is itself allegedly based in part on a wide range of religious mythology from Hindu scripture to Arthurian legend, there is a pleasing symmetry to the fact that, via terminology derived from the films, these myths and traditions are being fed back into society in a popular way.

A Force for Good

The image conveyed is one of peace, where men, women and children adorned with dark robes and plastic lightsabres can join together in reverence and awe at the unifying, binding force of the cosmos. No mention is yet made of Siths; presumably they’ll come about during the Church’s reformation. The Dark Side is present, as a necessary axiom of the Force, for good and evil must be present together if we are to have free will. Furthermore, Jedi is all-inclusive: anyone willing to fork out money for a certificate can join. To sum up, this is a (so far) peaceful religion that makes no great leaps of faith, marvels at the wonder of the universe, gives full moral responsibility to the individual and gives no heed to colour or race. Dress all this up with space-wizard terminology and we have ourselves a religion ideal for the 21st century. The sceptical may be unconverted, but even die-hard atheists love Star Wars, and I would suggest that if you’re the sort of religious window-shopper who thinks that they’re in touch with Eastern spirituality just because they’ve got a yin-yang tattoo, you could do a lot worse than think about becoming a Jedi.

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