Star War and Religion

In the little book Star Wars on Trial, in the chapter “Charge #2″ (to whit: While Claiming Mythic Significance, Star Wars Portrays No Admirable Religious or Ethical Beliefs”. The witness for the prosecution (John C. Wright) attacks this in part by pointing out that Star Wars borrows more from boy-fiction Flash Gordon &etc than anything pretending to be religion. Mr Wright suggests:

A real religion addresses metaphysics, spiritual powers, martyrdom, ethics, salvation, miracles, and life after death.

And no, all world religions necessarily evidence all of these. What he argues, point by point, is that Star Wars “Force” as religion is a calisthenic, it is

an atmosphere, a spooky hint of mystic powers and hidden forces meant to lend an air of exotic super-naturalism to the proceedings. The Force is there for the sword fights. The Force is meant to explain why a kendo fencer can perform amazing leaps, parry laser bolts or make a single one-in-a-million bull’s-eye shot into a ray-shielded thermal exhaust port with a proton torpedo and blow up a space station the size of a small moon.

The Force isn’t learned by credoa nd ethics, it’s something you learn by practice, “by doing one handed handstands while levitating crates on Swamp Planet.”

What, for example, are the doctrinal differences between Obi-Wan and Mr Vader?

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17 comments

  1. Boonton says:

    It would seem the first never attacks, only defends. Yet the odd fact is Luke only ever seems to win when he gets pissed and goes on the attack. Yet Luke’s role is to ‘bring balance to the force’ so it might be that he is supposed to combine the best of both worlds, so to speak….. (this analysis works if you consider the story to be over with Return of the Jedi and ignore all the comics, books and so forth that continue the story beyond that….) Sadly Star Wars never really presented a real argument by the dark side of the force….it got kind of close with the Sith movie where it hinted that the Jedi were too dogmatic, too arrogant with their own ‘goodness’ to see the truth yet it never really gave us the case for the dark side beyond it simply being the default preference of Pure Evil Villians(tm).

    An interesting aspect of the Star Wars universe IMO is that science is static but religion is not. There are no new discoveries w/science in Star Wars. All the tech that exists today existed 50, 100, even 1000 years ago. Religious innovation does happen with prophecies, saints returning from the dead and so forth.

    As for whether Star Wars has *useful* religious beliefs…hard to say. Jedi’s seem to dedicate a lifetime to training and meditation, which means swoard fighting would be a rather rare diversion….yet Luke seems like he got a crash course in it over a weekend in a swamp. Again an interesting take on it is that The Force achieved justice in the galaxy by wiping out both of the organized religions dedicated to it.

  2. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    The defender of “Star Wars” ethics and religion does go to the point of setting Obi-Wan, the nasty green toaster, and Vader/Emperor as the evil that must be combated.

    Citing religion as non-static means capitulating the point that the what was shown in Star Wars was religion. We’re not to that point.

    A real religion addresses metaphysics, spiritual powers, martyrdom, ethics, salvation, miracles, and life after death.

    Which of the above was evidenced in Star Wars. I noted Mr Wright offered an argument against each point and demonstrated that Star Wars religion did not evidence any of these. Which of these do you think Star Wars religion offered to its adherents? Let’s start there.

  3. The big difference between Star Wars and our universe is that religion is factually correct in their universe. It’s basically a subset of science.

    Therefore, there is little use for doctrine since truth does not have to be believed, it can be experienced. Vader and Kenobi don’t have doctrinal differences, because both can experience the Force for themselves. Instead, their difference comes down to how they use it.

    In our universe, of course, religion is largely made up (there are some truths to be found in meditative practices, etc., but the big things like God and magical powers) so what matters is BELIEF.

  4. Boonton says:

    Citing religion as non-static means capitulating the point that the what was shown in Star Wars was religion. We’re not to that point.

    I’m not sure what you’re trying to say here. Are you saying religion by definition must be static? Historically we know there are periods where major new religions were formed, clearly they were not static periods.

    Which of the above was evidenced in Star Wars

    Life after death, check. Martydom, check (see Obi-wan letting Vadar kill him after he sees Luke escape), ethics check. Metaphysics, well you do have what appear to be metaphysical doctines regarding the nature of the force, ascribing a will to it, prophecies and so on.

    JA
    Therefore, there is little use for doctrine since truth does not have to be believed, it can be experienced. Vader and Kenobi don’t have doctrinal differences, because both can experience the Force for themselves. Instead, their difference comes down to how they use it.

    Well there is a doctrinal difference, is Anakin ‘the promised one’ and what does that mean that such a one will ‘bring balance’ to the force? The Jedi seem to assume this means he will defeat the Sith and end the dark side. The Sith, if they have an opinion, seem to hold the reverse. The reality seems to be Anakin will be greatly good and then greatly evil and will produce balance via his son, Luke….something neither side seemed to anticipate. This faintly echos the Christian idea that the messiah was expected to be a great leader who would overthrow the Romans but in fact was quite different.

  5. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    The document I linked costs a whole $1 for an e-doc (kindle). It is amusing. In the meantime …

    Life after death, check. Martydom, check (see Obi-wan letting Vadar kill him after he sees Luke escape), ethics check. Metaphysics, well you do have what appear to be metaphysical doctines regarding the nature of the force, ascribing a will to it, prophecies and so on.

    As I said. all the points mentioned were eloquently rebutted. I’m not going to reproduce the whole thing, as I’ve not figured how to cut/paste out of kindle docs. Pick one. I’ll precis the argument given on that point.

    JA,
    No. The big difference is the religion in Star Wars is half baked and non-existent because of half-assed world building efforts on the part of the authors. Most of the story holes could have been easily patched, with the help of an editor or conversation about the same. Religion in Star Wars is merely a wrapping to give an air of mystery to amazing sword fighting moves in a boys story.

    We’ve all experienced gravitation from birth. Strange that there have been different theories about it. How can that be? After all, it seems to me that you’ve clearly implied that which can be experienced will lead to no theoretical disputes.

    In our (actual) Universe, there is no large distinction between science and religion. Both are in the same enterprise, believing in the truth of a thing with a consciousness that we might be in error.

  6. Boonton says:

    We’ve all experienced gravitation from birth. Strange that there have been different theories about it. How can that be? After all, it seems to me that you’ve clearly implied that which can be experienced will lead to no theoretical disputes.

    The difference is theories fall apart when experience comes into the picture. For example, the theory that gravity is all in the mind and you can fly with Superman-like focus will fall apart pretty quickly a few moments after I push you off a not-too-high ledge.

    In Star Wars, granted its ‘half baked’ religion, religion is experienced directly in some respects. Few seem to debate in that universe that the Force exists, only what it means. The closest you get to atheists in that universe are those who seem to think the Force is just a set of parlor tricks (i.e. ‘old Jedi mind trick’).

    Let me just note, though, that you’re moving the goal posts here. The original discussion was whether or not a lot of mainstream fiction was atheist and did that mean atheism was explicitly mentioned in the plot or characters or did the fiction just neglect religious belief. Star Wars clearly does not fit that example as religion does play a role both in the plot and the characters of its universe. The question of whether it has anything especially insightful to offer on religion is a different topic.

    To see this, imagine the claim was that fiction did not have much sword fighting. Clearly Star Wars would not support that assertion at all. It would be goal post shifting if you then pull out a master swordsman to report that the fighting in Star Wars represents totally amateurish techniques that no member of any style of sword fighting would consider anything but laughable.

  7. Boonton:

    Well there is a doctrinal difference, is Anakin ‘the promised one’ and what does that mean that such a one will ‘bring balance’ to the force?

    Yes, good point. I’m more of an (overtly atheistic) Star Trek man myself, so I’d forgotten about that.

    Mark,

    No. The big difference is the religion in Star Wars is half baked and non-existent because of half-assed world building efforts on the part of the authors. Most of the story holes could have been easily patched, with the help of an editor or conversation about the same. Religion in Star Wars is merely a wrapping to give an air of mystery to amazing sword fighting moves in a boys story.

    Well, yes. I agree with all of that!

    We’ve all experienced gravitation from birth. Strange that there have been different theories about it. How can that be? After all, it seems to me that you’ve clearly implied that which can be experienced will lead to no theoretical disputes.

    Theory is different from doctrine, as I’m sure you know. We believe theories because they seem to explain the evidence. We believe in doctrines more or less because we are “supposed” to.

    In our (actual) Universe, there is no large distinction between science and religion. Both are in the same enterprise, believing in the truth of a thing with a consciousness that we might be in error.

    I disagree. A large distinction is that science is built from the ground up as a way to minimize and correct belief errors. Religion (with some small exceptions) does not place a priority on empiricism.

  8. Boonton says:

    Come to think of it, there is a pretty big difference between different theories of gravity and different religions. Different theories of gravity compete only in areas where experience has not clearly been experienced. For example, the question of whether Einstein’s theory is valid at the quantum level may not be resolved unless we can make observations along the rim of a black hole’s event horizon. But on most other levels of experience, there is no competition. GPS satellites, for example, use only Einstein’s theory as ‘the truth’, possibly falling back on Newton’s only for computational ease.

  9. Mark says:

    Boonton,

    Few seem to debate in that universe that the Force exists, only what it means.

    Mr Solo did until demonstrated. He’s probably not in a minority.

    those who seem to think the Force is just a set of parlor tricks (i.e. ‘old Jedi mind trick’).

    It is a parlor trick of sorts. Not a religion.

    The original discussion was whether or not a lot of mainstream fiction was atheist and did that mean atheism was explicitly mentioned in the plot or characters or did the fiction just neglect religious belief.

    Yes. And this is a digression because I had recently read an amusing “trial” in which convincing arguments were made that the Star Wars “religion” wasn’t a religion at all.

    Star Wars clearly does not fit that example as religion does play a role both in the plot and the characters of its universe.

    Again. The claim has been made and arguments to support it that Star Wars “force practice” had none of the features of a religion.

  10. Boonton says:

    Again. The claim has been made and arguments to support it that Star Wars “force practice” had none of the features of a religion.

    Many of the features listed were indeed ‘checked off’ by Star Wars. The goal posts were quietly shifted to “Portrays No Admirable Religious or Ethical Beliefs”.

    Note also that the newer films do depict a greater discussion of the Force as religion. The meaning of prophecies is debated, regular silent meditation seems to be a common practice, characters have private consultation with teachers where they bring their spirtual concerns (a bit like a confessional relationship it seems), while a biological/scientific connection to the Force is given (mitachlorians sp), it’s clear that they don’t base their decisions on strictly scientific measures (note that there was great reluctance to accept young Anakin as an apprentice….he certainly didn’t sail into the Jedi Temple based on the results of a blood test alone). One does get the sense that ‘off screen’ a lot more stuff happens in the Jedi Temple than sword play and moving rocks with the mind.

    Mr Solo did until demonstrated. He’s probably not in a minority.

    He does clearly recognize it as a religion, though, just not one he subscribes too or cares to know much about. That in itself is pretty interesting given that the Jedi were driven to extinction either before he was born or when he was a young child. ‘Off camera’ he no probably grew up never seeing any of the ‘tricks’ that a Jedi would do (and since it seems like there weren’t that many Jedi to begin with, the odds of seeing one in everyday life doing ‘force stuff’ would have been pretty low). No doubt the Empire also did what it could to scrub out any positive public record of the Jedi and did not seek to replace them with a religion of ‘Dark Jedis’….Vadar seems to be considered a religious relic among his more secular Empire military men.

    This means that Solo is a product of a culture where stories about the Force are common as well as a background belief that the universe is guided by an invisible force that has some type of intelligent awareness and agenda, which would certainly be a religious belief.

    This would mean that Star Wars does not fulfill your definition of atheist fiction which was fiction where characters had no religious beliefs of any type. You did not require that non-atheist fiction make theological issues a major plot point. You were happy enough with fiction that might, say, be centered on some major business deal but casually mention some characters who go to Church on sunday.

  11. Boonton says:

    And just another reminder, in Episode 1, the film does state that knowledge of the Force is faciliated by mitachlorians, but it doesn’t state that they are the force themselves. You may recall there’s a brief but real religious debate over whether Anakin was the chosen one AND whether his very conception was the will of the Force. You’ll recall the instincts of the ‘orthodox Priests’ (i.e. Yoda and the others on the Jedi Council) are to reject Anakin because he is too old and they sense too much fear in him. His sponsor (identified as a respected but somewhat rogue Jedi who has clashed with the orthodoxy) argues that these usually sensible rules should be set aside because it is the will of the Force should come first. To me that seems to be a rather clear echo of the debate the high priests had over Jesus, whether he might in fact be who he claimed or if he was just another person guilty of blasphomy.

    This view then clearly makes The Force a religious belief in the Star Wars films. It’s not simply a type of science that can be exploited by those with a gift or training in it (which is the premise of mutations in X-men, Superman’s powers, magic in Harry Potter’s universe and Spiderman’s gifts) but something that acts of its own will and is superior to the will of its practioners.

  12. Boonton says:

    So since we got a Star Wars thread, here’s a bunch of side questions for anyone who wants to take a stab at it:

    1. (Ja) Think its possible Star Wars has some Jewish influence? You have basically a Jesus figure (right to the virgin birth) but instead of saving the world he ends up ruining it. Might this be a mildly subconscious idea that Christianity was one huge error in judgement that just took off?

    2. Star Wars, off the top of my head, is the only example of a universe of technological stagnation. Not stagnation because science has fallen into a ‘dark ages’ of unreason. Stagnation because almost everything that can be discovered has in t his universe. There is no new technology, only rearrangements of existing technology that has been going on for thousands of years. I can think of only one other example from popular sci-fi, Q from Star Trek who’ve literally reached the ‘end of the line’ and are essentially very bored gods who can do anything they want in the universe, and already have many times over. What are the chances that we aren’t going to hit a Singularity, Moore’s law and other curves of tech advancement will flatten out and we will begin veering towards technological stagnation?

    3. The original plan for Star Wars was episodes two or three eisodes *after* Empire. Luke would have a real sister (not Leia) who would have become a major character in the expanded sequals. This is why Obi-wan seems totally unaware that Luke has a sister in Empire, even though he was there for her birth! It also might have been much darker and more serious in terms of sacrifice and martydom. Luke’s decision to do the ‘quick and easy’ and break from his training to save his friends might have ended up becoming a true blunder making things worse as Yoda warned. It might have been revealed that the right course of action was really to sacrifice his friends as Yoda advised… Would this have made for a better series than the prequals Lucas decided to go with?

    4. Do you want to live long enough to see the series ‘rebooted’ the way they have done with Batman and twice with Spiderman?

  13. 1. (Ja) Think its possible Star Wars has some Jewish influence? You have basically a Jesus figure (right to the virgin birth) but instead of saving the world he ends up ruining it. Might this be a mildly subconscious idea that Christianity was one huge error in judgement that just took off?

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen any Jewish takes on Christianity that resemble that.

    Virgin births (and demigods) are very common themes in religions and stories since prehistory, of course. It’s not like Christianity was the first to come up with the idea!

  14. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    Goal posts were not shifted. The “trial” proposed the chapter heading (“Portrays no admirable …”) the prosecutor however, chose to make this case by demonstrating that in fact there was no recognizable religion at all in Star Wars. As I said, the list of features of a religion were given, and the prosecutor demonstrated that Star Wars had none of them.

    This would mean that Star Wars does not fulfill your definition of atheist fiction which was fiction where characters had no religious beliefs of any type.

    I said that almost no science fiction has any recognition or evidence of religion at all. This led you to mention Star Wars and I brought up a recent book I read which suggested that Star Wars had no religion at all that was recognizable as such. I’ve offered to detail one of the points. You’ve declined that and go on pretending no argument was made.

    He does clearly recognize it as a religion,

    No. He recognizes it as a technique. Not a religion. \

    You’ll recall the instincts of the ‘orthodox Priests’ (i.e. Yoda and the others on the Jedi Council) are to reject Anakin because he is too old and they sense too much fear in him. His sponsor (identified as a respected but somewhat rogue Jedi who has clashed with the orthodoxy) argues that these usually sensible rules should be set aside because it is the will of the Force should come first

    Ah. Interesting you’ve identified the massively illogical and stupid thing engineered by the evil green toaster as doctrinal? He is “too dangerously powerful, so therefore let’s not train him” pretending as a good move.

    This means that Solo is a product of a culture where stories about the Force are common

    The “Hashashim” (spelling?) (drug inspired assassins) are a background story in the Middle East. The existence of such stories doesn’t make them a religion. Knowing of a group of martial artsy types doesn’t make the martial arts group a religion.

  15. Mark says:

    Boonton,

    Star Wars, off the top of my head, is the only example of a universe of technological stagnation.

    Tech stagnation is a staple of space opera.

  16. Boonton says:

    Ah. Interesting you’ve identified the massively illogical and stupid thing engineered by the evil green toaster as doctrinal? He is “too dangerously powerful, so therefore let’s not train him” pretending as a good move.

    Not quite, Yoda’s reasons were that he was too old and had too much fear. In other words, he didn’t meet the usual qualification the Jedi used. Qui-gon(sp)’s counter argument was that the Force had willed Anakin to be trained as a Jedi therefore the normal rules should be set aside.

    Clearly that’s a religious argument, as to whether or not it was a ‘good move’ is another topic. (Note the Emperor wsa already manuvering himself to take over the galaxy at that point so it’s not clear to me that keeping Anakin out of the picture would have changed things for the better…this isn’t like the hypothetical of killing Hitler as a baby).

    The “Hashashim” (spelling?) (drug inspired assassins) are a background story in the Middle East. The existence of such stories doesn’t make them a religion. Knowing of a group of martial artsy types doesn’t make the martial arts group a religion.

    The Jedi had been extinct by almost a generation by the time Solo made his comments in the original movie and his comments are not about sword fighting:

    Kid, I’ve flown from one side of this galaxy to the other, and I’ve seen a lot of strange stuff, but I’ve never seen *anything* to make me believe that there’s one all-powerful Force controlling everything. ‘Cause no mystical energy field controls *my* destiny. It’s all a lot of simple tricks and nonsense.

    Clearly Solo has grown up in a culture where the Force is a common religious belief. He says nothing about Jedis or sword fighting. In fact, I don’t think he ever actually witnesses Luke or Obi-wan doing any fighting except for the brief period of practice abord the ship.

    Tech stagnation is a staple of space opera.

    Really? I was thinking maybe Dune would also qualify…although I would group that with the new Battlestar Galactica as an example where tech was being retconned. Namely because both cultures got in trouble with AI, they both had to pull back on tech and try to redo it without using as many computers.

  17. Boonton says:

    I said that almost no science fiction has any recognition or evidence of religion at all. This led you to mention Star Wars and I brought up a recent book I read which suggested that Star Wars had no religion at all that was recognizable as such.

    So how about the film Doubt? Certainly you’re going to say there was a lot of recognizable religion there. You have a nun and priest as the lead characters, several key scenes take place during a mass!

    Yet as I was thinking about it, it might be pretty hard to gleam much religion out of the film if you weren’t already primed with at least a little knowledge of the Roman Catholic Church from your culture. It might be interesting to imagine what the film would look like to an alien who has no cultural knowledge of the Catholic Church.

    He might recognize the nuns and priests live together and wear distinctive outfits. So do Jedi and he might assume the outfits are due to their status as educators. There’s a lot of talk about vows of obiedience and such yet secular organizations like military branches, fraternities and so on take various vows. There’s a class depicted but the subject is secular American history. The priest gives two or three sermons, all of them kind of fuzzy and often emphasizing topics that could fit in as good secular advice (i.e. ‘beware of gossip’). A very attentive alien viewer might pick up that these characters attend private ‘confessions’ and have a keen sense that they should avoid wrong things (aka ‘sin’). He may also pick up on the word ‘God’ but, and it’s been a while since I saw the film, it’s used in a rather vague way, not quite unlike ‘the force’ as defined in the Star Wars films.

    An alien viewer of the film would probably be forgiven if he checked ‘no’ to many of the critiera listed for a religion. Metaphysics, spirtual powers, martydom, salvation, miracles and life after death are nowhere to be found in the film. Ethics are indeed touched upon. If all the alien had to go on was the film, he might very well pen an essay to his planet’s sociological journal arguing that this Roman Catholic thing that is found on the planet earth may be an educational association, may be some type of fraternal society like the Masons but isn’t a religion!

    Of course we know he would be wrong, there’s a lot of metaphysics, spiritual powers, martydom, salavation, miracles and life after death when it comes to the Catholic Church…yet it’s quite possible to produce a very coherent story that takes place almost entirely inside of it that yet gives us few, if any, direct glimpses of any of those things. Religion plays a large role in the story and film, yet if you knew nothing about the religion it would be almost impossible to reconstruct it from just the film alone.

    I would say Star Wars is the same. The religion is clearly there but we only see a handful of glimpses of it as the story is centered on the action adventure stuff. If you think about what would have to coherently happen ‘off camera’ in this universe, then the case for religion being there becomes much stronger. Now I’ll agree the films themselves have little useful to say about religion itself, that is a different standard.