This week, quasi-mystical nerds everywhere were dealt a serious blow when the UK government made a ruling that, in essence, said that calling yourself a Jedi was not a real religion.
For some time now, people all over the western world have been, often as a joke or in an act of anti-government rebellion, listing their religion as "Jedi" on government forms that asked for religious affiliation, especially census forms. In the UK in particular, where it is allowed to list yourself as "Jedi" (or anything else), past census-polling have shown that while more more than 1000 people listed their religion as 'heavy metal' or 'satanism', and "wicca" got over 10000 responses, "Jedi" managed to get over 175000 in the last census!
In fact, Jedi was the 7th-largest listed religious affiliation in the United Kingdom, beating the pants of off older and more legitimately-viewed religions like paganism, Rastafarianism, or Jainism. And it's not just in the UK. Over 20000 people listed themselves as Jedi in the last Canadian census, and over 70000 did so in Australia (narrowly defeating 'road warrior', I presume).
The new ruling won't stop anyone in the UK from calling themselves "Jedi" on a census or other official form; but it refused to recognize Jedi as a real religion for charitable and tax-exempt purposes. Specifically, it was a response to a group identified as the "Temple of the Jedi Order". This group, which is not affiliated in any way with George Lucas or the current owners of the Star Wars Franchise, already have tax-exempt status in the U.S.A., where the rules for being recognized as a religious organization are much less strict than in the United Kingdom.
They were founded years ago, have a website and forums. They also have a doctrine, sermons (which are posted on the website) and even have a system of rules as well as a curriculum of teaching to become a recognized 'apprentice' or become an eventual member of the Jedi 'clergy'.
But this was apparently not enough for the UK Commission which judged them not a real religion. Their reasoning, laid out in their final report on the matter, rested largely on two points: the first was that the Jedi did not seem to actively engage in real religious activity as a community outside of the internet. The second was that they did not appear to necessarily believe in a transcendent spiritual element. In the UK, a belief system does not need to necessarily believe in a god or gods in order to qualify for religion status (some forms of Buddhism or Jainism do not believe in any gods, for example), but it is necessary to have a coherent set of spiritual ideas which could be defined as going beyond the secular.
Ultimately though, it seems pretty obvious the commission just decided that the Jedi thing was a joke, or that it wasn't worthy of being classified as a real religion because it was based on a series of sci-fi movies.
But is that fair? Are the Jedi Temple a real religion? As Break.com's resident expert on the religion, I've been called on to give the REAL final ruling on the matter!
And to answer that, we have to examine just what really defines a 'real' religion.
So for starters, it's obvious that the vast majority of people who put "Jedi" as their religion on government documents or on their Facebook status or anywhere else in the world are NOT doing it seriously. Or at least not seriously in the religious sense. They're doing it as a joke or a kind of protest-vote at being asked the question in the first place.
But then we have to look at the Temple of the Jedi Order (and some other groups like it), more specifically. The Temple of the Jedi are clearly not just doing this as a joke. They really believe in something. On their website they explicitly state that they believe in a 'metaphysical entity' which they define as 'the Force'; they also note that they are NOT just a 'fan site' of the Star Wars movies nor do they pretend to teach Jedi powers or build light sabers.
On their website they do have rules, holidays, and try to make references to elements from Taoism, Shinto, Zen, and Campbellian myth. These are all real life religious-philosophies or mythological concepts that would be immediately recognized as a 'religion' by the UK Charity Commission. Of course, they're also the inspirations from which George Lucas got his idea for the Force from in the first place. The Force is not something that just came out of nowhere, it was inspired and took from, albeit in an extremely shallow and superficial literary way, some significant and real concepts in spirituality. Except midichlorians. Those are just total bullshit which shouldn't even be canon.
On the Temple of the Jedi forums, you have people actively engaging in discussion on religious matters. There's topics like "Jedi discipline", "do you want to be a Jedi or do you want to pretend to be a Jedi", "how to resist the call to the dark side", "how to embrace our imperfections", or "is hierarchy the way of the force". And this all may sound insanely silly to any of us who don't actually believe in Jedism, but consider this: I could show you any number of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist forums online which would have incredibly similar discussion topics. I have literally seen threads on Christian forums with topics like "religious discipline", "do you want to be a Christian or do you want to pretend to be a Christian", "how to resist sin", "how to embrace our imperfect natures", or "is the church the real way to god"!
It's really easy to laugh at the Temple of the Jedi guys when they look like this:
It's hard to distinguish them from cosplayers. But really, there's a ridiculously fine line between 'sincere spirituality' and 'cosplaying'. It's largely about intention. I know, from my own personal researches into religious studies, enormous amounts of Pagans, western Hindus and Buddhists, or even Christians who seem to be way more about dressing up or putting on an act to show everyone how 'magical' or 'meditative' or 'holy' they are, than about anything else. People in religion, even really sincere ones, do 'cosplaying' of a sort all of the time.
That picture above only seems more silly because to us the context is a movie, that we know to be fiction. But this here:
...is just as much a kind of 'cosplay'. And for that matter so is this:
Now, you might argue with me that whether or not individuals in those other religious trappings were doing it for the stylings, at least the religion itself wasn't based on a work of fiction. Some Atheists might disagree, but the question is valid: some people might think the Bible or the Dhammapada are fiction, but that's not the same as Star Wars. With Star Wars, we all KNOW it's fiction. The Force, even if it's based on other religious concepts, is something that was explicitly created for fictional purposes. Surely that makes a difference, right?
Well, maybe, or maybe not. There have been other religions founded on texts that were explicitly fiction. Just like there have been 'churches' that were explicitly founded by people who in no way believed what they were claiming.
Consider on the one hand the Church of All Worlds. I mentioned them before in my article on Sex Cults. They based their religion on the novel "Stranger in a Strange Land" by Robert Heinlein. They know the book isn't real and the spiritual teachings in the book were thought up by a Sci-fi writer; but they've still chosen to believe in those teachings, as a spiritual philosophy and way of life. Just like the Jedi Temple guys.
There are other religions, including ones that venerate the Cthulhu-monsters from Lovecraft's horror stories, or who venerate saints that are known to have never existed, but do these things with real sincerity. There's also people who I wrote about in another article that worship real-life normal people like Prince Philip, Bruce Lee, Elvis, or even TV-economist Raj Patel, all of whom we know aren't gods or messiahs (in Patel's case, he's pleaded with them insisting he's not their messiah). But if THEY think these people are gods, doesn't that make what they're doing, their beliefs, a legitimate religion?
The occultist and comic-book genius Alan Moore worships the Roman snake-puppet Glycon not just knowing that he was a fake, but specifically BECAUSE Glycon was a fake. His argument is that "some of the most important things in the material world start out as fiction".
As an occultist, I don't stick to one single deity; but I really love the Indian God Ganesh, the one with the elephant head. I have venerated him for years now, made offerings to him, performed magical rituals with him. He has performed wonders for me.
Ganesh is crazy, he's totally absurd! But I love him so much because he is absurd. Because there's no way you can rationalize or use science to justify or make a credible argumentative defense of the literality of a deity that got his head cut off and replaced by an elephant's head. His ridiculousness forces you to just not worry about whether it makes sense or not, and tap into deeper and more primal things, like trance, and bliss, and wonder, and devotion.
That might sound odd to some Christians reading this. But the early church father Tertulian said the exact same thing about Christ: "Credo Quia Absurdum"; "It (the son of god, crucified, died and resurrected) is to be believed, because it is absurd".
So whether a religion is "real" is not about the credibility or even the seriousness of the symbols or the origins of the doctrine. It's about whether or not the people in the religious organization are being sincere about engaging seriously with it.
The "Church of Satan", who recently got in the news for trying to put up a statue of Satan in front of a courthouse and for starting up an "After School Satan" program in public schools that have "good news" bible clubs are NOT a "real" religion. Not because of whether or not Satan is a myth, but because, as my article link points out, the members of that 'church' are not actual Satanists. They're not sincere about worshiping Satan (like some other Satanic organizations do), they're just using 'Satan' as a way to annoy the fundamentalist Christians who want to infringe upon the separation of Church and State.
Likewise, the "Pastafarians" who claim to worship the "Flying Spaghetti Monster" are not a real religion, because they are just using the analogy of the monster and the various dogmas and rituals they made up as a way to try to argue for the absurdity of all religions. They're atheists, trying to make a point.
If anyone really did take the Pastafarian dogma seriously, though, it would be a real religion. Just like those Satanists who (unlike the Church of Satan) really do think of Satan as a real metaphysical force are a real religion, however silly their idea may be.
This is ultimately the only way we could possibly try to define a 'real' religion in a civil society based on Enlightenment values (as opposed to some kind of repressive theocracy or anti-religious state). If someone is approaching a religious idea and structure seriously, sincerely engaging in it as a spiritual philosophy and not as a joke or as a political statement or for some other ulterior motive, then we pretty much have to accept that religion as a 'real' religion. By that standard, while most people who put 'Jedi' on their driver's license or census form are not really part of a Jedi religion, the people of the Temple of the Jedi Order definitely are.