Is Star Wars a Religion?

02/02/2016 05:34 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

(Image from Patrick King Art)

It took me several days to admit on social media that I was not a fan of the new Star Wars movie. But, with every outlet extolling the brilliance of the film, the iconoclast in me couldn't resist adding my unsolicited opinion to the fray. I won't repeat in full what I wrote on Facebook, but at one point I did refer to the film as "Girls in Space."

As soon as I hit the "enter" key, I braced for impact. I knew my position was anathema. Short of politics or religion, it's rare to see so clear a line between orthodoxy and heresy in the public sphere. As a professor of Religious Studies, this naturally raised a question I often pose to my students: how do you know when something is a religion? Given the investment people have in the Star Wars franchise, its characters, plot lines, cultural significance, and the ways in which fans use knowledge of these elements to identify insiders versus outsiders, could you argue that Star Wars is a religion?

The short answer is: yes. Many of today's major religions began with central figures and stories that people found inspiring or otherwise useful. From origin stories that offered explanations for the human condition, to the teachings of moral exemplars to help adherents distinguish virtue from vice, to seemingly supernatural actors in the natural world (like the light and dark sides of the Force), Star Wars appears to tick many of the boxes we might identify as part and parcel of a religion (including, as Junot Díaz recently noted, a certain measure of androcentrism). Fast-forward a few hundred years from now and who knows whether Luke Skywalker might replace Adam in the pantheon and iconography of popular practice? Star Wars wouldn't even be the first movie to transition into the realm of the religious. Even I have signed myself up to be a Dudeist priest although, admittedly, this so-called tradition is much more consciously tongue-in-cheek.

Not yet convinced? Let's go back in time to 2001. Several countries discovered during routine census taking that a portion of their citizenry identified religiously as Jedis or Jedi Knights. In Australia, there have been at least 50,000 members of the Jedi order the last several censuses. New Zealand discovered there were more Jedis than Hindus or Buddhists in their midst. In Turkey, there were protests in favor of building a Jedi church given that, as CNN recently reported, adherents struggle with the fact "... the nearest [Jedi] temple [is] billions of light years away"--thus leaving the people of earth sorely in need of a dedicated space for their religious Jedi rituals. Today there is a Jedi Church that offers a mission statement as well as a plea right on its home page to include it once more in the 2018 New Zealand census.

Simply skimming the language of the Jedi Church's mission statement evokes association with other kinds of religious rhetoric we see in more commonly accepted religious traditions.

So are these people serious or did a meme just get out of hand? For the sake of argument, let's assume at least some of these people are sincere. When you break down the tenets of this "church," we might charitably say that it appears to be in its infancy. The church does not promote a particular doctrine. It expresses ambiguity on the subject of a deity. The practices that "count" for determining that you are part of Jediism are somewhat murky. One of my students in a class on death contacted the church to ask them what the believed about the afterlife and she received a decidedly vague response.

The sociologist Rogers Brubaker cautions against uncritically adopting the "folk categories" used by our objects of study. In other words, taking someone's word for it is not sufficient for figuring out how someone or something should be analyzed. In this case, just because someone tells you they are a Jedi, that alone doesn't make them one. Likewise, many scholars of religion insist that we need to be clear about our definitions for categories like religion, identity, or experience. These terms might seem intuitive, but try to sit down and write a sufficiently flexible definition of religion (that can encompass a wide variety of traditions and time periods), and the task is more challenging than it initially seems. But, without clear definitions we risk talking past each other, or we might find ourselves adding football and baseball to our World Religions textbooks. This means we need to be clear what we mean by 'religion' before we can really begin to analyze whether Jediism qualifies.

One notable scholar of religion, Stanley Stowers, defines religion this way:

"Religion consists of variously linked social practices (involving arrangements of entities at sites) that carry understandings involving the existence and activity of gods, ancestors, and various normally unseen beings, and that shade off into other anthropomorphic interpretations of the world." (Stanley Stowers, "The Ontology of Religion," in Introducing Religion Essays in Honor of Jonathan Z. Smith, eds. Smith, Braun and McCutcheon, Equinox Publishing, 2008: 442)

This is the kind of sufficiently broad definition of religion that can be a good starting point for analysis. Rewording Stowers slightly, this definition proposes that a religion consists of (a) certain practices in particular locations; (b) involving extra-human or non-obvious entities; (c) that are sometimes understood in terms that make them seem human-like. To reword this even further, you might say that a religion involves people doing something specific somewhere specific that has to do with stuff they can't necessarily or concretely prove is real.

So how does Jediism measure up? Evidently there are people in various places around the globe who are gathering together to practice some version of Jedi activity. But, until these practices are defined and more established, it's hard to call them organized. Whatever these activities are, they appear to involve at least one non-obvious entity ("the Force"). Beyond these elements, however, the line between the fictional characters of the franchise, its imagined cosmos ("a long time ago" and "far, far away"), and its relevance for our present world is fuzzy at best. I personally wouldn't call Jediism a religion... yet.

This doesn't mean it might not become one. In some sense, it is impossible to predict where our religious inclinations will lead us as a society. Setting aside any truth claims about the validity of any specific religious tradition, when a set of practices and beliefs coalesce to "become" a religion in the eyes of society, it happens gradually. It took generations after the death of Jesus, for example, for Christianity to develop into something we might recognize as an established religion. So, one can argue that it's plausible that a beloved narrative like Star Wars could develop into a more concrete set of practices and beliefs.

It is also possible future generations will misunderstand us. I often conduct an exercise in my classes where I pretend that it is the year 4016. I proceed to present a description of life in 2016 that is intentionally full of misinterpretations. The goal of this exercise is to show my students how easy it can be to misunderstand or overestimate our evidence from the past, particularly when it is incomplete (which it always is). Among some of the misjudgments I manufacture are that Kanye West eventually revealed to us that he is the true Messiah, and that we have found fragments of a text called Star Wars that provides an origin story for the moral order of the cosmos. Archaeological data demonstrates that Star Wars was widely cherished in the 20th and 21st centuries by a great number of people with those followers deeply invested in the stories of figures including Luke Skywalker, Leah Organa (Skywalker/Solo), Han Solo, and Darth Vader. The devotion of these followers is evidenced, in part, by the small votive statues, images, and clothing in their domestic spaces. In areas of the world now covered by oceans as a result of global warming, we find submerged evidence of large pilgrimage sites where people would go to worship the Star Wars deities as well as several anthropomorphic animal gods, including a large mouse named Mickey, his consort Minnie, and a figure who appears to be their human priestess, Elsa. You get the idea.

So, in the end, it's plausible the Jedi among us today might be the early prophets who usher in a religious tradition more powerful than any we can possibly imagine.