They say you should never talk about religion in polite company, so instead let’s talk Star Wars. For all their flaws, the prequels reveal something that is worth considering about the Jedi Order. It gives us a glimpse of a rigid dogmatic organization that finds itself being tested by new challenges and new ideas. So much so, that when the Jedi do eventually fall to Palpatine’s machinations, you have to wonder if it is not so much because of the careful planning of Darth Sidious, but more because of the Jedi’s failure to adapt and change with the times.
Currently, there are 804 million declared Christians in the Americas, which is the largest Christian population on any continent, but religion all over the West, especially in the eastern United States, has been in a steady decline for decades. Yet, for this past week it has been impossible to get anywhere in New York City as the streets have become clogged with faithful followers trying to catch a glimpse of his holiness, Pope Francis, as he completes the American Run in less than 12 parsecs, in what we are going to call Pope-a-palooza??
All week New York and the east coast have been bracing for the Pope’s visit, like an approaching Imperial invasion. Streets are being blocked off, stadiums are being prepared for capacity seating, and in Philly 4.5 miles of Center City are being cordoned in preparation for Sunday mass. Catholics and non-catholics alike are clamoring for a view of the Pope, even at a time when according to a Pew Research Survey, the normally steady ranks of American Catholics have dropped by 3 million followers in the past 7 years. It could be that there is still some tendency in us all to recognize religious authority, even if we do not always believe in religion?
After all, after the destruction of the Jedi Order, Masters Yoda and Kenobi no longer had a basis for any sort of political power. Yet, both Luke and the audience found themselves in awe -and not just because of their super-mind powers. According to Dr. Andrew Newberg, the human brain might be programmed for religion. A common thread among mystical, spiritual, and religious practices is that for people who are engaged in them there is a tangible and powerful emotion created as all the areas of the brain work together. This Jedi mind trick, combined with cultural pressures, scientific uncertainties, and good-old fashioned superstition, may contribute to why we still flock to see an old man in a funny hat, and why we can claim it as a tangible “religious experience.” A part of us is still hardwired to believe in “hokey religions,” -which may or may not be a match for a good blaster. Yet, we are also hardwired to reproduce as much and as often as possible, and according to a myriad of surveys both birthrates and religious attendance are declining.
External forces caused the downfall of the Jedi, but there was evidence of cracks in their organization beforehand. Anakin Skywalker, for instance, was driven to do what he did partly because of the intractable rules of the organization. The Jedi have rules against their knights being able to marry or fall in love, much like another unreasonable monolithic powerful religious organization you might know. Of course, Anakin was also a bit of a jerk, so maybe he is not the best example. Count Dooku, however, was a well respected Jedi Master, and according to Wookiepedia he lost his faith in the Order after a disastrous battle he was forced to fight with no support from the Jedi Council. After leaving the Order he fell to the Darkside, but there is plenty of other evidence in Star Wars lore that the rigid Jedi doctrine drove as many people to the Darkside as it raised people to the Light.
The decline of religion in our times is not a result to some hidden order imprinted in the DNA of clone troopers, and yet attendance for organized religions, and Christianity especially, are at all time lows. A 2009 American Religious Identification Survey found that 86% of American adults identified as Christian in 1990 but only 76% did so in 2008. In England, the number of Anglicans -THE Church of Britain- fell from 40% in 1983 to 27% in 2004. Some estimates say that by 2033 the Anglican Church will be gone completely, which may explain why so many English have started listing their religion as Jedi, on their census surveys.
America has always been something of a Death Star of Christianity, an impregnable bastion of religion the size of a small moon. However, we still have one or two exposed thermal exhausts ports which are proving to be an undoing. Millennials are becoming less and less affiliated with organized religions, with 34% of people between the ages of 25 and 34 no longer associated with a church, mosque, or temple. For young adults, twice as many people, between the ages of 18 and 22, said they never attended religious services in the 2010s, as opposed to the same age groups in the 1970s. 75% more 18 year olds said that religion was “not important at all” in their lives as opposed to forty years ago. In fact, when you break it down by numbers, 23% of all Americans no longer affiliate with an organized religion, which has surpassed the number of Catholic Americans (21%) and mainstream Protestants (15%). Even “spirituality” has declined, with 20% fewer college students claiming they are spiritual as opposed to the same age group in the 1990’s.
The Apathy Strikes Back
There are many reasons for this decline, and most people’s knee jerk reactions may be to blame technology, or Dark Lords of the Sith, or “these padawans today,” and though some of those things may be a factor they are just part of a larger picture. Religion suffers in societies that have a high value on individualism. Like the Jedi Order, adherence to organized religion requires that followers put their faith in the larger organization and follow the rules and tenants set before them. If you have someone who thinks and acts as an individual, such Anakin, then the entire structure is threatened. In essence, individuality is a mark of the Sith. The Jedi believe in freedom, but not freedom of thought or belief for their followers. The Jedi philosophy sees individualism as chaos, and the church is no different.
Religion requires respect for authority, but that is also at an all time low and for various reasons. After all, it is hard to have respect for the authority of an organization that puts itself above others. Religions and the Jedi separate the chosen from the non-chosen, the Jedi from the non-Jedi. Religion promotes a specialness that is not always attainable by those who do not have the right Midi-chlorian count. That also means that religion does not have any respect for the rule of civil law, because it was made by non-special people. In Revenge of the Sith, the Jedi literally plot to take over the government when they discover Palpatine is a Sith Lord. Mace “L.” Windu says that the Jedi need to cease control of the government to ensure a “smooth transition,” because obviously it can’t be left to lowly unspecial people to handle the job. Only the chosen are capable of creating a stable rule of law.
This arrogance combined with a rising level of individualism has driven people away from organized religion. Baby Boomers, Generation Xer’s, and Millennials have all shown an increased focus on the self over the community, which has led to less interest in social organizations, apathy for the political process, and feelings of detachment from the community and the church. Of course, it has also led to a higher tolerance of diversity, respect for others’ opinions, and the ability to question the status quo. Not all those things are good, but neither are they all bad, but this rise of individualism has fueled by a distrust of the government, politicians, the media, the medical establishment and other large organizations, the church included. Now, thanks to technology we are connected like never before, and this democratization of communication and information has taken even more power out of the hands of religious and secular rulers. Social media has even given us a platform to proclaim our own specialness, outside of the context of being a member of a chosen people. Yet, all of this has happened before… a long time ago.
The Great Force Awakening
Whenever it seems that religion is in decline some new evangelical movement whips up and reignites the passions of the American Christian. In the past, America has had Three Great Religious Awakenings, plus several other smaller revivals, because like the swing of a lightsaber, growing religious apathy cuts both ways. It may cause more people to leave the church, but it often invigorates those that remain. That is why, unlike other denominations, evangelical Protestants have experienced less decline and even net gains in some areas between 2007 and 2014. In fact, for every person who has left an evangelical Protestant denomination 1.2 people have converted or joined, slowing their decline from 26.3% to 25.4% in the past seven years, which maybe less of a revival and more of a cauterizing of a wound.
Any new Great Awakening would need to come with compromise. Religion -and Christianity especially- are now seen by many as narrow-minded and even bigoted. Rules about homosexuality, science, premarital sex, the changing nature of the family, and other modern concepts have left them behind. A need to adhere to past dogma has hindered many people’s enthusiasm for organized religion, especially in Catholicism. Religion would need to become more humble and more accepting, because when an organization becomes only about black and white, sin and saviors, Darkside and Lightside, it also becomes about immutable beliefs that make it unable to accept change.
Revenge of the Secular
There is a moment in Revenge of the Sith when Yoda is fighting Palpatine, and in the movie version it appears as if Yoda just gives up and abandons the fight. However, in the novelization the reader learns that Yoda has a revelation during the battle. He realizes that he and the Jedi Order cannot win, because unlike the Sith they failed to adapt with the times. The Jedi were stuck in practices and ideas that were no longer relevant to a modern galaxy. The Sith on the other hand had changed and adapted, and they become stronger for it.
We cannot predict what the next episode of this saga will be, whether organized religion will go the way of Jar Jar Binks, or if the Force Awakens. “Clouded the future is,” but there is evidence that much like Yoda, Pope Francis, has come to understand the downfalls of his organization. The Pope has become known as a reformer. There are hints that his Holiness sees that the times are changing and is trying to get the Catholic Church to change with them. It is not about abandoning core values -service, forgiveness, love, generosity- but core dogma. The Pope has touched the excitement of the religious and non-religious because he does things that are both more humble and more Christian than any Pope in modern memory.
Maybe that is why so many people are excited to see him, and also why we had to sit in traffic this morning.