May the force be with you

ln0001-star-warsBoston University religion professor Stephen Prothero asked his Twitter followers this week if atheism was a religion and whether it should be protected under the First Amendment clauses dealing with legal protection. I thought of those questions when coming across coverage of how the founder of the Jedi Church was treated at the Tesco supermarket.

Here’s the Telegraph‘s treatment and here’s the Guardian‘s. From the Telegraph:

Daniel Jones, 23, who created the International Church of Jediism, claims he was “victimised over his beliefs” by staff at the supermarket in Bangor, North Wales.

The religion, inspired by the sci-fi films, is practised by 500,000 around the world and requires believers to cover their heads in public places. But Mr Jones, from Holyhead, said that staff ejected him from the store over security fears when he refused to remove his hood.

Mr Jones, also known by his Jedi name Morda Hehol, told The Sun: “I told them it was a requirement of my religion but they just sniggered and ordered me to leave.

“I walked past a Muslim lady in a veil. Surely the same rules should apply to everyone.”

The Guardian has some choice quotes from the Tesco chain, including:

“If Jedi walk around our stores with their hoods on, they’ll miss lots of special offers.”

It’s all good for some laughs but it leaves the distinct impression that Jediism isn’t a legitimate religion. And it may not be, depending on one’s definition of what a religion is. The reader who submitted the story says more questions need to be answered — “Is there more to the religion than head coverings? Do they have sacred texts? Are the movies considered authoritative? How does one convert? Do they have services, clergy, dogma?” I might also question what it means that the founder claims 500,000 members.

Stories like these are fun but they also require some serious answers, too.

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  • Stoo

    To echo what i said last time this came up, we need consider the difference between those who might seriously be seeking some spiritual jedi path, and those who just put it down in facebook for a laugh.

    So, yeah, that 500k should have been questioned in such a manner.

    Also I wonder if, despite being flippant, the Tesco guy had a point. Does this head-covering directive have a basis in the movies or did Jones add it in himself? Another question to ask.

    The broader question of course is indeed what makes one faith more valid than another when it comes to regulations like “no hoods in the shop”. Although unfortunately a case like this probably won’t prompt many to seriously consider that.

  • Stephen A.

    I distinctly remember Jedi going about in the films without their hoods up, but that’s neither here nor there.

    Considering the likelihood that there is NO organized “Church” and that, further, that there is no centralized organization that decrees church polity and practices (and do they even meet?) it’s very unlikely that this would hold up in any court in the UK, the US, or elsewhere.

    Religious groups of a far more serious nature have long pumped up their membership figures and in this case, it should be looked at very critically, especially since a vast majority likely put this answer on the UK Census forms as a joke, or simply to mess with “the system.”

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    I doubt you can convert. I think this is one of those predestined religions. PS: what is “sniggering?” Crazy blokes.

  • Stoo

    We need to do a blood test, check for midichlorians.

  • Dave

    Since enough people have signed the British census forms as Jedi as to force them to list it as a British religion, I would suggest that the government and tradespersons err on the side of respect, and that we not make assumptions about the motives of those who so subscribe themselves.

    The movies portray a definite code of conduct and a sketchy idea of a deity, the Force. What the movies don’t reflect is any kind of liturgy beyond the blessing “May the Force be with you,” which devolves into a devout farewell.

    Yes, there are more questions than answers in this story.

  • Allen

    There are sacred texts in the Jedi religion if you count the movie screenplays. The question I would have is whether or not Scrolls I, II and III are considered canon or if one must rely only on Scrolls IV, V and VI?

    More importantly for GetReligionistas and journalists everywhere: Is this person a DEVOUT Jedi?

  • Jerry

    Considering the likelihood that there is NO organized “Church” and that, further, that there is no centralized organization that decrees church polity and practices (and do they even meet?) it’s very unlikely that this would hold up in any court in the UK, the US, or elsewhere.

    It’s worth remembering that for quite some time in the early days there was no centralized Christian church that decrees church policy and practices. And some denominations today have much the same issue. And many Christians today are unaffiliated with any church.

    So I have two questions: are people who claim to be members of a religion serious about their beliefs or are they espousing a parody religion such as the pastafarians do? If they’re serious then they can be said to be following at least a “new religious movement” even if not recognized as a formal religion.

    So the question becomes what form of reasonable accommodation should be made? This case reads to me like one of someone enforcing a bureaucratically derived rule with no business justification. And, assuming that is really the case, why not just accommodate those who call themselves Jedis?

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    How about just neutral rules? For example, U.S. federal employees can get extra time off to attend religious services, but that time’s not available for any other purpose, which obviously excludes atheists. It’s a benefit only extended to the religious.

    How about just have a pool of ‘personal time’ which can be used for whatever purpose? The religious could use it for attending services, the atheists could get some extra sleep.

    Regarding “Jediism”, the point that veiled Muslims are allowed but other customers aren’t allowed makes it pretty clear that religious discrimination is going on. Muslims get a benefit that others don’t. Why not just have one policy? If it’s really a security issue, why do the religious get to ignore it?

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com MattK

    Jerry, said “It’s worth remembering that for quite some time in the early days there was no centralized Christian church that decrees church policy and practices.”

    Nope. See Acts 2:42, Acts 15

  • Jerry

    MattK,

    Your point is well worth considering but I was thinking of the period where the Bible as a set of canonical scriptures had not been put together. There are no doubt very much better Biblical scholars reading this than I am, but from my reading there was a period where various groups used whichever documents they had available.

  • Bill

    No centralized Christian Church that decrees church policies and practices? Hmm… what was Paul writing in all those epistles that became part of the canon?

  • Dave

    Paul was writing recommendations for how particular churches should handle particular problems, plus inspirational words that still have resonance. Paul’s words have been given ex post facto status approximately to that of the words of Jesus, but that is a later construction.

  • MJBubba

    Dave, not ex post facto. See 2 Peter 3:15,16, where Peter ascribes scriptural authority to Paul’s letters. Also there are several passages where the later New Testament authors quote earlier New Testament works as scripture.

    The Jedi religion is a deliberate joke to lampoon serious religion, especially Christianity. It works, because I had a couple of good laughs from the comment thread above. Likewise the Pastafarians seek to ridicule the religious. They take their atheism, deism, pantheism, universalism, or whatever as an unimportant trivial detail of life. Aside from the joke religions there are serious-minded atheists, deists, pantheists, and universalists who should be taken seriously. How is a shopkeeper or a journalist or a bureaucrat to tell the difference ? Does one of those practitioners have the right to be either joking or serious by turns at his own whim?

  • Lymis

    MJBubba,

    I think you missed Dave’s point that anything in the Bible can’t really be considered to have been canonical prior to the Bible itself having been established as a Canon. It doesn’t mean that it doesn’t reflect beliefs that were held at the time, but it can’t be used the way you seem to be using it.

    People who accepted Peter’s authority would certainly have respected his opinion on Paul’s authority, but not because it was in a Bible that didn’t exist yet.

  • Dave

    How is a shopkeeper or a journalist or a bureaucrat to tell the difference ?

    Just my point, MJ. The shopkeeper is in no position to diagnose whether a customer’s religious claims are devout or jocular (let alone sound or deluded). It’s good civil practice to accommodate all religions in a particular way if one accommodates any religion in that way — eg, accepting a claimed requirement to wear headgear in public, whether Moslem or Jedi.

  • Stephen A.

    Well, it’s intriguing to think of Jediism as a “New Religious Movement” and it may indeed be that in the future, but words have meaning and one cannot simply call a social phenomenon a “religion.” Legally – and shopkeepers like the rest of us must rely on the law – a religion must fit some rather stringent parameters before being “officially recognized” or at least socially recognizable as a New, organized Faith System, as NRMs actually are.

    For example, some call the “New Age” a religion, but it actually is not, since it has no form, no clergy, no worship services and no holy book. It has beliefs, but they are many, varied, unsettled and sometimes contradictory. It’s unlikely a “New Age Church” will ever be formed, though like-minded people surely see it as a Movement, and important, and it surely is influential. But again, not a single, established and bona fide Religion.

    Of course shopkeepers may indulge the whims and whimsy of its customers voluntarily. But the first time a “Jedi” in full regalia shoplifts and the store cameras can only see a brown robe covering the face of the suspect, the indulgence will likely end there.

    As far as reporters are concerned, as we’ve discussed with others who claim to be this or that religion (i.e. Womenpriests, etc) they may, like those others, also indulge them in their belief, but I suspect we’ll see a lot of tongue-in-cheek reporting even then, since many seem to be having a bit of fun with us, surely.

  • Stephen A.

    Re: the “what is scripture” side debate, when Jesus spoke of “The Scriptures” he definitely didn’t mean the Gospels, since they weren’t written for decades. So they’re out, until much later, anyway.

    Not to say that they weren’t considered scripture by many before the official Canon took form, though. Confusion as to what WAS scripture was obviously why the Canon was made “official” in the first place.

    For some reason, it’s easy to believe Paul thought he was writing scripture, since he was seeing Christ in visions.

    Still not sure what the Jedis consider scripture, though. Let alone the Pastafarians.

  • Dave

    Stephen @ 16:

    Certainly there are practical considerations for a shopkeeper in terms of identifying who comes into the shop. That is not a premise for a cavalier attitude toward what is a religion. You started out talking about legal requirements but didn’t cite any, then shifted over to social requirements — firmer ground, I daresay — but didn’t cite any of them either. It might be interesting to query scholars who study New Religious Movements about what they think constitutes an NMR.

  • Stephen A.

    Dave, to have a long discussion of the legal requirements would be way off-topic here, but the IRS puts out a document on this very thing, which reads, in part:

    “Certain characteristics are generally attributed to churches. These attributes of a church have been developed by the IRS and by court decisions. They include: distinct legal existence; recognized creed and form of worship; definite and distinct ecclesiastical government; formal code of doctrine and discipline; distinct religious history; membership not associated with any other church or denomination; organization of ordained ministers; ordained ministers selected after completing prescribed courses of study; literature of its own; established places of worship; regular congregations; regular religious services; Sunday schools for the religious instruction of the young; schools for the preparation of its ministers. The IRS generally uses a combination of these characteristics, together with other facts and circumstances, to determine whether an organization is considered a church for federal tax purposes.

    “The IRS makes no attempt to evaluate the content of whatever doctrine a particular organization claims is religious, provided the particular beliefs of the organization are truly and sincerely held by those professing them and the practices and rites associated with the organization’s belief or creed are not illegal or contrary to clearly defined public policy.”

    http://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/p1828.pdf

    As for what NRMs, I’m sure there’s a greater latitude shown than the IRS shows here, but from what I’ve read, the term, while loose, isn’t without definition. In Japan, where the term gained currency after WWII, it definitely applied to a religious body, although outside the mainstream and perhaps had very few followers. Most seem to be bona fide “religions.” The spontaneous creation of Jediism – stemming from a prank played on Census-takers – would seem to be far out of that definition.

  • Dave

    Stephen:

    Wicca is recognized by the military, but it doesn’t have Sunday schools (there’s a culturally limited term in itself) or organized ordained clergy. The IRS is talking about churches, not religions, in your excerpt — for which, I must say, many thanks. I have a friend on the Pagan lists who is always ranting about how Christian-oriented the IRS is; you have explained why.

    I would not be too cavalier about something that may have started as a prank (for which, regrding the UK Jedi, I have only anecdotal claims by others). So did the Discordians, but they are part of the Pagan fold by now. What the fate of the Pastafarians will be, only the Flying Spaghetti Monster knows. ;-)

  • Stephen A.

    Dave, a part of the IRS document I didn’t quote says it uses terms like “minister” when it knows very well there are priests, Imams and rabbis, so no, it’s not “Christian-oriented” per se. But it does use these GENERAL guidelines I cited to determine if someone has, frankly, set up a “church” to avoid paying taxes. It’s happened.

    I’m not at all cavalier about these new expressions of faith. Frankly, if they’re serious, I’m wholeheartedly in favor of recognition – official or unofficial. As a student of small and obscure religions, I really enjoy learning about them and their practices. (In fact, I’ve written a book about some of the more obscure ones.)

    But I have yet to see evidence that the Jedi faith is practiced by anyone (in this galaxy, anyway) and that they meet, have a priesthood and have a series of beliefs, even if they’re still being formulated. Please present that evidence if you have it.

  • Stoo

    Dave @5: Jedi was not categorized as an officially recognized British religion, despite its showing in the census. Which I contributed to (student humour…)

    As for actual practitioners, there’s these guys:
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/wales/7200531.stm

  • Dave

    Stephen and Stoo: The reason I’m not ready to write off UK Jedi as a joke goes back to the first Pagan event I ever attended, before I became Pagan myself. It was open to anyone. We all sat in a circle and each spoke briefly of where they were coming from. One woman talked about “the Force” in her work. I went up to her later and pointed out that Star Wars is fiction. She replied that the description of the Force in the movies was so accurate relative to her own spiritual experience that she’d adopted the term. So I retain an open mind as to whether there are serious Jedis in the self-proclaimed UK cohort.

  • Stoo

    Dave, I’m willing to believe there are some spiritual types out there seriously using Jedi ideas. Indeed That item I linked points to a few. Just, I doubt there are many, seriously nowhere near the census count.

  • Stephen A.

    Dave, I have no doubt that people have found the spiritual elements of Star Ward moving and inspiring. So have I. But words have meaning, and “religion” – even broadly defined – has specific meanings.

    While that woman would likely have said she felt that the spiritual term “the Force” was something she could relate to, asking her if she submitted to a council of Jedi Masters who would put her through an intensive training course teaching her how to manipulate her internal mitochlorians before adopting it, or the title “Jedi,” (that is, if she had ENOUGH of them inside her body to qualify for training at all) would have elicited quite a different response, I suspect.

  • Dave

    Stephen, I suspect we’re on the verge of repeating ourselves. My position is that respect is a good default.

  • Stephen A.

    You’re right, Dave. We’re repeating. Suffice it to say that respect is rarely the wrong approach, but having the wisdom to recognize a joke and not be made a sucker is worth its weight in gold, as well.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    The unsourced claim that it is “practiced by 500,000″ is almost as bad as using the passive voice. I suspect that what they really mean is “Jones claims that his religion is practiced….”

    And what happens when the United Orthodox Jedi proclaim that Jones is a heretic, and hire the Dorsai to eradicate him?

    Of course, we are wondering why he did not just intone “I am not the shopper you are looking for… nothing to see here.”

  • Stephen A.

    Will, based on the fact that unless they were deliberately concealing themselves while on a mission, Jedi in all the films almost always removed their hoods when entering buildings (as Ben Kenobi did consistently from when in the Mos Eisley Cantina in Ep3 to Padme’s chambers in the later films) Jones doesn’t know his own religion very well. Unless he’s a part of a breakaway faction of some sort.

  • Dave

    Dorsai

    Now there’s a series I’d love to see made into a movie franchise. If the cinema can revive C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein, why not Gordon R. Dickson.

    Shai Dorsai!