According to a recent Telegraph article, “Jedi” is the largest alternative faith in England and Wales (trailing behind Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Judaism, and Buddhism). Many have been surprised by this sudden spike of a faith derived from the popular Star Wars franchise. I doubt that there’s been a massive rise in midi-chlorian counts or a revival of sci-fi fideism in the Force. Instead, more people simply don’t care about religion.
There is a popular narrative in evangelical circles (perhaps the result of the Cold War and the Scopes Trial) that militant atheism has arisen within the hearts and minds of common people—all led by secularist media elites. Although the latter group definitely exists, the average Joe—in America and in England—is not necessarily a bleeding heart atheist (the UK census revealed that only 30,000 described themselves as agnostics and atheists, though I certainly don’t doubt many Jedi are of agnostic bent).
No, people don’t hate God or religion—at least not as they perceive such topics. In fact (at least in the U.S.), belief in God and reported “relationships” and “experiences” with Him remain quite constant. Instead, people follow what Ross Douthat calls “bad religion.” They are active members in the Church of Benign Whateverism (to use the words of Kenda Creasy Dean). Moralistic therapeutic deism—the dogma of many Baby Boomers that has been passed on quite successfully to their offspring—instructs its adherents that there is some god out there who provides psychological comfort and intervention during times of difficulty. All this spirit requires of humankind is simple: don’t be a jerk. The revocation of the institutional church, orthodox creeds, and Christian teaching in Western countries points to entire nations of heretics.
Even more troubling (as this graph clearly illustrates) is the rise of the “nones.” More Englishmen and Welshmen throw away the cultural-Christian façade by honestly checking off “no religion”—around 13.8 million, according to the official census. God forbid that He would demand anything of us. Again, no need to war against the Church in a militant Dawkins style, except maybe when she acts like a “jerk” for refusing women bishops and same-sex marriage.
The rise of “Jedi” affiliations is perhaps the most honest portrayal of what is really below the surface here:
According to an increasing number of human beings, the realm of the divine is not to be taken seriously. Faith itself is funny–not simply what we are in light of it. God’s nature and demands on us are the stuff of jokes.
While it is certainly true that people still get mad and uncomfortable when the issue of God comes up (especially regarding any sort of limits He puts on one’s desires), they generally do so when someone tries to release the Deity from the little mental room they have tried to lock Him in. In such instances, one’s own notions about God—generally inventions culled from personal experiences and select common conceptions—trump the claims of revelation (whether they be pagan, Christian, Islamic, or otherwise). We haven’t even gotten to the supremely disconcerting dogmas of the Incarnation and the Trinity. According to us, what we think matters is more important than what God says matters. We use the name of God and His will to sprinkle over our true master: desire.
This is hubris—a pernicious kind of arrogance or pride. It is, quite literally, as old as sin. Looking into humanity’s past, we see that one of classical drama’s main concerns was hubris. What is tragedy but pride coming before a fall? Generally, the protagonist said or did something to incur the wrath of the divine. What is comedy but the prevention of hubris? That form of theater proves Shakespeare’s point that “man is a giddy thing.” He is rather small and insignificant. He is most definitely not the center of the universe; God is. We must laugh at ourselves because we cannot honestly take ourselves seriously. To do so would be pure pride and folly.
Now, that does not mean that we don’t take anything seriously. Again pulling on Shakespeare, this is the difference between the jester and the demon. Those who paid attention in English class (and had a good teacher) will remember that in Shakespearean drama, the Fool was actually the character who knew the fuller reality—he knew what was really going on. Indeed, the pied courtesan could mercilessly mock the vain king himself since the jester knew the nature of things. The Fool knows who and what to take seriously, including Who is really in charge. If you read the Bard’s works, you will notice that, when matters role around to the affairs of the divine and the order that emanates from that realm, the laughing jester becomes deadly serious. The Fool is Wise. (Yes, thank Christianity for that one).
On the other hand, there is something diabolic in laughing at everything. When we take ourselves more seriously than God, we have made the choice of Lucifer and not of Christ. Some things really are serious; they demand piety, reverence, awe, and fear.
So, why are there “real life” Jedi on the rise in Wales and England? Because spiritual pride has overcome the West.
Bart Gingerich is a research assistant with the Institute on Religion and Democracy. You can follow him on Twitter at @bjgingerich.