We can make all the jokes we want about how many real people list “Jedi” as their religion on government census forms, but… well, what exactly does that mean? Can the Jedi Code be counted as a religious doctrine? What does it mean if it can? It’s an odd question to pose perhaps, but one that might demand a revisitation as a renewal of Star Wars Fever is already underway…
A note before we begin: In this piece, I will be referring to various religious texts as mythology. This is because I personally adhere to no specific faith, and am not comfortable suggesting that one particular religion is “true” above all others. It is not meant as a disrespect toward anyone’s beliefs, or judgement against any person’s religious leanings.
The easiest way to have this discussion, I suppose, is a simply matter of compare and contrast with religions across the world. Where do they meet with this fictional society, and where do they part ways? What tenants do they share?
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, religion is typically defined in these three ways:
- The belief in a god or a group of gods
- An organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods
- An interest, a belief, or an activity that is very important to a person of group
Here are words from Lucas himself in the Phantom Menace Scrapbook:
I wanted a concept of religion based on the premise that there is a God, and there is good and evil. I began to distill the essence of all religions into what I thought was a basic idea common to all religions and common to primitive thinking. I wanted to develop something that was nondenominational but still had a kind of religious reality.
As we all know, there’s intent in creating something, and then what grows from that intent. So how does the Force play in the Star Wars universe on religious terms?
Looking back at the creation of the Jedi by George Lucas, there are plenty of religious filters one might apply. Lucas admitted to mining aspects of Taoism and Buddhism in the construction of Jedi philosophy—which is more pronounced in the prequels when considering their condemnation of attachments. There are connections to be made with Zoroastrianism when considering the separation of the Force into “sides” alongside the duality of Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu. You can also find shades of the Force in the concept of yin and yang, Brahman in Hinduism—and these are honestly just a fraction of what we might infer. The result in the films is an order of warrior monks who forgo most material possessions save their primary weapon, and devote their lives to the service of others. (Provided politics don’t get in the way, that is.)
The life of the Jedi revolves around the energy binding the galaxy, which they call the Force. Their ability to manipulate this energy is what grants them access to the Jedi Order. One cannot become a Jedi without this ability. There are many religions that have similar prerequisites or familial considerations, at least. On the other hand, most religions allow those outside the faith the option of conversion, at various levels of difficulty. There is no such ability among the Jedi. You either “have” the Force, or you do not.
Are there people who worship the Force outside of the ability to use it? There are cultures shown to do this within the Star Wars canon, and the Expanded Universe (now referred to as the Legends canon) also showed occasions where non-Force users might invoke the Force in exclamation rather than a god, i.e. “By the Force!” For beings in the Star Wars galaxy who do fold the Force into their religious beliefs, the Jedi might seem a step above the rest for their connection. Or conversely, they might seem blasphemous for attempting to access the primary powers of the universe. “Meddling in powers they cannot possibly comprehend,” as Marcus Brody would say.
It’s particularly ironic that Lucas claimed he wanted the Force to be “nondenominational” because one glance at both canon and Legends sources show a slew of denominations surrounding it, all with vastly different ideas about how the Force operates and how living beings are meant to connect with it. There is no sense in preventing these denominations from existing; one of the most constant aspects of religion is how many perspectives exist in any given sect or school.
But the faith element to religion, for both the Force-sensitive and everyone else, is harder to peg in the Star Wars universe for a very simple reason—the Force is proven real. Perhaps it is not understood as well as the Jedi or anyone else might think, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Force is an actual something that can be manipulated, its output catalogued. Faith in the Force has nothing to do with belief in its existence, but rather with belief in its affecting the galaxy for an array of reasons. The idea that the Force has a balance to maintain, that the future has a vague shape that can be sensed through the Force, that it guides the universe to any end (let alone a positive one) is pure belief. In that, the Jedi—and even their natural opponents, the Sith—are adhering to some form of seemingly religious doctrine.
Can the Force be called a god of any sort? Insofar as it has a “will,” the answer would seem to be in the affirmative. Whether or not the Force is considered a being in its own right, the idea of this “energy” having plans that it guides others to execute indicates belief that the Force has the designs of a deity. Whether those designs work toward achieving balance or the triumph of good over evil is all in the mind of the beholder. What the Jedi and Sith all operate on is faith, pure and simple. The same is true of any group that looks to the Force for power or guidance, from the Nightsisters down to the Bendu.
In that capacity, Star Wars adheres to most mythology that the human race has put forth throughout history. Countless cultures create tales of heroes who survive their trials because they are beloved by gods, who have their devotion and strength tested by gods. That is exactly what happens in Star Wars. That is why the Jedi are central to the narrative—because theirs is a story humanity takes comfort in. The Jedi looking to do the bidding of the Force is exactly the same as a lost hero looking to the sky and asking to be shown the way to victory. The only difference is that the Jedi are further validated because the Force is a fact in their universe. Han Solo can roll his eyes all he wants, it doesn’t change the fact that Yoda can pull a starfighter out of a swamp by using his mind to manipulate permeating galactic energy juice. Whether or not the Force is bidding him to do it is another story entirely, but it’s hard to remind yourself of that when you’re watching him do it.
When you pull back on the Star Wars narrative, this becomes even more relevant. As a single story encompassed in the first two trilogies, Star Wars is a mythological arc about one family that essentially fixes what’s wrong with the universe via the mystical Force. It’s all pat and compact and works out great. But when you take the long view of their galaxy? This essentially happens all the time. The Jedi and Sith have done battle for millennia. They will continue to do so down the line. There will always be a prophecy, or some vision of the future, or a Force ghost giving you flack about your destiny. There will always be old men raving about midichlorian counts and arguing over the “correct” manner of accessing the Force.
By that token, the Force has plenty in common with a religion. It has disciples, factions, followers and zealots, and philosophical discourse. It means a great deal to many beings, but not to all of them. It can be used for great good or evil. But what does that mean about Star Wars? Should someone be writing a treatise on the prequels as the culmination of a religious war? Are Jedi holy beings? Does the Force truly have designs? And if it does, is it then granted the status of a god? What about sentience?
More importantly, how does this contribute to the Star Wars experience? Fans have dissected the tale under a variety of lenses, from the mythical to the political. There are conspiracy theories about how stormtroopers can shoot straight (but choose not to), how no one can read, or perhaps they’re all bees. Does Star Wars have anything to gain from consideration under this lens?
I’d argue that it does. If the Force can be viewed as a religion, then Star Wars has some very interesting things to say about faith. About its manifestation in culture, about how it can be abused by the powerful, about its role in giving people hope for their future. It also informs our perspective on characters and objects in different ways. Han is a skeptic, Yoda is a guru, Obi-Wan a protector of the traditions that comprise Force-immersed culture. Luke is their newest conversion. Holocrons are the equivalent of gospels, set down by various masters. Lightsabers are considered so highly by their Jedi wielders because they are holy weapons that only they are meant to use.
Considering these parts of the myth also goes far in explaining why Star Wars endures in pop culture to the point where some fans are comfortable writing in “Jedi” as a religion on a census form. It fulfills a need for a certain kind of story, for certain types of heroes. But next time you say “May the Force Be With You” to a friend, you might want to ask… what exactly are you wishing for them?
Presumably, you want them to be able to change a tire without touching a carjack. But there are still other things to consider.
Happy May the Fourth!
Check out all our Star Wars coverage, including essays, rereads, and news on Episode VII!
This article was originally published November 3, 2014