“We are not your Sith. We are something new, a chance to do something right. A new tribe.”
—Lost Tribe of the Sith: The Collected Stories (Star Wars Legends)[Note: This is post #1 in a series of posts.]
The Light Side of the Dark Side: Lightsided Sithism as a Path for Good will be a series of posts about how to use and apply Sith aesthetics and symbolism from the Star Wars mythos for the purposes of productively harnessing the single greatest source of challenge, without exception, for all living human beings: that which we traditionally call the negative emotions. More precisely, the idea is to take something which is usually seen as undesirable, and yet is inevitable (i.e. negative emotions and feelings) and channel them towards the purposes of becoming more productive and, ideally, going beyond mere productivity and doing some good on this earth. In so doing, negative can be transmuted into positive.
“Doing good? But aren’t the Sith evil?” one might ask. Well, essentially, yes, if we are limiting ourselves to official Star Wars canon as depicted in the films and other media. But as we shall see, the mythology of the Jedi and the Sith is one that has long cried out for greater complexity and nuance (though, at the same time, it’s understandable why Star Wars creators haven’t exploited this). Certain works from the Star Wars Legend body of works have managed to explore shades of nuance to varying degrees, though they are regrettably no longer canon.
Regarding this idea that Sith aesthetics can be harnessed towards good, all will be explained in due course. But first I’d like to start by making a claim, a claim that I make with no small measure of sincerity, which is that the culture of Star Wars has, and for quite some time, virtually reached the level of a religion in the way it inspires fanatical devotion among its legions of fans. This is, of course, notwithstanding the fact that to take something that is not typically considered a religion by mainstream society (the way, say, Christianity and Islam are) and to call it a religion is intrinsically going to be controversial in that even scholars of religion have never been able to reach a universal agreement about what, exactly, religion is.
Certainly, there are components present in most of the major world religions that are absent in the culture and fandom of Star Wars. For instance, I think I could reasonably assume that most Star Wars fans probably don’t believe that any of the god-like beings that exist in either the canonical or Star Wars Legends universes actually exist. Many fans likely already have a real-life religion that they officially identify with, or a god or gods that they believe in the existence of.
But when we look to some of the classic theories of religion, the idea that Star Wars is a religion can actually hold some weight.
Let’s start with the philosopher of religion Frederick Ferré, whose ideas sought to shift the foundational axis of religion away from one of belief to one of valuing. “Not all valuing is religious,” he wrote, “but all religious phenomena, I believe, can be shown to spring from a valuational root.” While his predecessor, theologian Paul Tillich, believed that a religion must comprise one’s “ultimate concern”—that is, it must be so important that everything else is ultimately insignificant—Ferré only believed that one must value the object of one’s religion “most intensely.”[note]Ferré, Frederick. “The Definition of Religion.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, vol. 38, no. 1, 1970, pp. 3-16[/note]
You could say that based on this conceptualization just about everyone is “religious” since just about everyone values something “most intensely” and Ferré himself acknowledges this. But there’s more. For an object of valuing to be religious, it must not only be valued most intensely, but the concern must be one of widespread pervasiveness. Again, this is different from Tillich’s conception in that this doesn’t mean other things in life are deemed insignificant in comparison. It just means that the object of valuing—in this case, Star Wars—infiltrates just about every area of one’s life. Using the example of a man devoted to a hobby of collecting model trains, he writes:
“The key question, then, to ask of our model-train devotee is whether he conceives the object of his intensive valuing as also full comprehensive [emphasis mine]. If he admits that he does not, then his peculiar form of life-orientation is not to be confused with a religion. If, on the other hand he professes to find in model electric trains something supremely and inescapably relevant to the universe in which he lives, we have grounds for argument with him.”[note]Ferré, “The Definition of Religion.”[/note]
So a valuing that could be considered religious according to Ferré is one that is both maximally intense and comprehensive, essentially amounting to how you spend the bulk of your free time, money, and energy. At the same time, this definition of religion does not cancel out other things in one’s life from sharing the same level of importance. One could be a devout Christian or Muslim and also a fanatic of Star Wars to a near religious degree.
Going beyond Ferré, the influential anthropologist Clifford Geertz (whose work, when I was in college, almost single-handedly made me want to become an anthropologist) provided a five-pointed definition of religion:[note]Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures. Basic Books, 1973.[/note]
- A religion is “a system of symbols […]”
- This system of symbols “acts to establish powerful, pervasive and long-lasting moods and motivations […]”
- It does so by “by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence […]”
- It also does so by “clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality […]”
- And it does so in such a way that “the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.”
Of these points, at least the first two apply absolutely to Star Wars fandom. The subsequent three points may perhaps apply partially, depending on how you interpret Geertz’s writing, how you interpret certain elements of Star Wars fans’ behaviors, and also depending on the particular fans in question. So if we’re to use a broad, liberal definition of religion, such as Ferre’s, then Star Wars as it is enjoyed and appreciated by a sizable portion of its fan base would most definitely classify as a religion. If we’re to use a more specific, pointed definition such as Geertz’s it could still be at least partially considered a religion at least part of the time.
Let’s return, though, to Ferré’s points about the required intensity and comprehensiveness for something to be a religion. It’s supremely obvious to even casual observers of popular culture that the love that Star Wars fans have for their mythology is both extremely intense and comprehensive—intense in the degree of their fervor and comprehensive in the degree to which Star Wars colors the various spaces and dimensions of their lives: their recreational lives, their work lives, even their love lives. Then there’s the merchandise. Oh, and is there ever. Star Wars tie-in merchandise is a gargantuan industry, globally accounting for even more revenue (about $32 billion as of 2015) than the combined box office tally of the so far-eleven theatrical releases.[note]Taylor, Chris. How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: The Past, Present, and Future of a Multibillion Dollar Franchise. Basic Books, 2015[/note]. Given that Star Wars fans are nine percent more likely than the general population to be making $70,000 or more a year, and given that they statistically also spend more money across multiple product categories than the average American ($4,300 vs $4,100 annually), marketers are eager to dangle as many tantalizing products in front of them as possible and fans continue to eagerly fork over their cash. Toys and collectibles tend to make up the bulk of coveted Star Wars merchandise, but the Star Wars brand presence is virtually omnipresent in just about every product category from electronics to apparel to food to personal care.
But there’s a dark side to such passion, not across the board but among segments of the fandom. Something that isn’t in itself an intrinsic part of the definition of religion and yet is a frequently recurring element is the subcurrent of fanaticism. Here too, in this less savory aspect of religion, Star Wars fandom again frequently reaches quasi-religious levels. We saw this as recently as the summer of 2018 when actor Kelly Marie Tran deleted her Instagram posts and account as a result of months-long harassment—much of it racist in nature. A defining characteristic of fanaticism is a fierce intolerance for anything that doesn’t fit the fanatic’s rigid mental constructs. If, in the minds of racist Star Wars fans, Asian people do not exist in the Star Wars universe, then any attempt by anyone—even by the official creators of Star Wars canon—to depict a vision that goes against that mental construct will be vehemently opposed. Such is one of the defining traits of religious fanaticism.
While I could go on with this kind of analysis (and would certainly be happy to because I find this kind of stuff endlessly fascinating), The Light Side of the Dark Side isn’t intended to be a history or analysis of Star Wars fandom nor will it argue in detail for whether Star Wars can or cannot be considered a bona fide religion. There are valid arguments both for and against this claim, and my personal stance on the matter is simply the statement that I opened this article with, which is that there are definitely aspects to the culture and fandom of Star Wars that at least resemble religion in certain ways. And if fans wish to frame their relationship to Star Wars mythology as would devotees frame their relationship to a religion, then that is certainly their right. This brief discussion of existing scholarly definitions of religion (just two among many), and the ways that Star Wars fandom meets these descriptions, is simply intended to be a lead-in to my true thesis, which I will get to shortly. But before I do, there’s one more facet of religion that needs to be acknowledged.
If Star Wars is a religion then there must inevitably emerge, due to interpretive schisms, varying branches and sects from within the overarching tradition. Thus you have within Buddhism, for example, the three primary branches of Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. And within these there are many more sub-branches. Within Mahayana alone there are sub-traditions so different they hardly resemble each other in either theory and practice.
Such branching has already begun for religious or semi-religious approaches towards Star Wars. Taken as a whole, the term that’s taken hold for any and all religious or spiritual approaches to Star Wars is Force Realism. And the first branch to clearly emerge from Force Realism is Jediism.
Interestingly enough, Jediism started largely as a prank when, in 2001, a large number of Star Wars fans in English-speaking countries urged other fans to write “Jedi” as their religion in their respective national censuses. While the motive may have been for laughs, the result was nothing short of remarkable in its own way. About 390,000 people in England and Wales combined declared themselves as “Jedi,” making Jediism, making it the fourth largest “religion” in these countries. Roughly 14,000 people in Scotland, 53,000 people in New Zealand, 70,000 in Australia, and 21,000 people in Canada declared the same that year. As far as pranks go this one was pretty epic. But it seemed to have planted the seeds for what would become a sincere movement. Over the next decade, there emerged several movements to establish Jediism as a legitimate religion. In 2003, the Jedi Church was founded in New Zealand. In 2005, the Temple of the Jedi Order was founded in the U.S. in Texas. And in 2007 the Church of Jediism was founded in the U.K. There are other groups but these are the largest, most visibly active ones. Some of these groups, such as the aforementioned, Texas-based Temple of the Jedi Order, are legally recognized as religions, largely due to the systematic thoroughness with which the founders have established a formal “doctrine.” Others, like the UK-based Church of Jediism, are only registered as non-profit organizations but still proudly wear the aura of religiosity.
It is not just the Jedi from the Star Wars mythos that have inspired the founding of numerous groups that aspire to be either actual religions or quasi-religions. Perhaps as a logical counterpoint, there have begun emerging a number of groups inspired by the Sith and seeking to relate to it as one would relate to a religion or philosophy. Among these are the Sith Academy, Sith Holocron, Sith Ministries, and one other site whose title I can’t remember which was the best of the bunch but which has since disappeared. I remember last visiting this latter site maybe about two years ago. At the time I thought that of all the sites I had seen, this one had the best chance of generating some public interest the way the Jediism groups had due to a systematic presentation of its “doctrine” similar to the Temple of the Jedi Order’s. But it has since disappeared and I can’t seem to find out why or what happened to it. As I recall, it was a for-profit operation and the founder was charging money for access to the material (perhaps appropriately, given the ambitious nature of the Sith in Star Wars canon), so perhaps it was simply that whatever money the founder was making no longer justified his expenses in terms of cost, time, energy, or some combination thereof. The other mentioned sites seem to be heading that way as well. The Sith Academy site seems to offer far less navigating options than I previously remember, now serving mostly as a portal to their book being sold on Amazon. And the Sith Holocron site seems to be in a state of disrepair, perhaps to soon follow the way of the aforementioned site which has disappeared. (And, by the way, since there is no agreed-upon term for it yet, for my own purposes and for the sake of convenience I’ll henceforth use “Sithism” as an umbrella term to include any and all movements seeking to turn Sith mythology into a religion, quasi-religion, or philosophical system.)
I have been keeping an eye on these Sithism groups and their websites for the past several years and while there does seem to be a level of public interest, it hasn’t been as much or as consistent as the interest in Jediism. Without doing some journalistic legwork it would be hard to know what the reasons for this are, precisely, though I suspect that one reason may be the aforementioned association of the Sith with evil, an association largely cultivated by the films themselves—though, as mentioned, some of the Star Wars Legends stories did explore the shades of grey.
If I’m correct in my guess that the affiliation of Sith with evil is at least part of the reason that Sithism has not taken off the same way that Jediism has, then I think this is unfortunate. It’s unfortunate because, first of all, whether we’re talking about Force Realism and Jediism as bona fide religions or just quasi-religions, either way I find them exciting in the sense that they offer the promise of invented religions as sincere spiritual movements that can serve as viable alternatives to traditional religions. Heretofore, most invented religions based on pop cultural properties have been largely tongue-in-cheek, the Church of the Spaghetti Monster and Dudeism being two representative examples. Dudeism at least contains shades of sincerity, and at its core is driven by positive intentions that could be considered spiritual, but in both form and function it is largely a facetious movement. Force Realism and Jediism, on the other hand, flaunt an aura of solemnity characteristic of the major religious traditions of the world when practiced by devout followers. It is a vast understatement to say, however, that the major world traditions all bring with them certain socio-cultural problems, not through any intrinsic fault but simply due to the way that human beings have historically gone about interpreting their religious beliefs. This too is unfortunate, particularly for non-religious people, because there are numerous benefits to well-being that religions—or at least a consciously spiritual value system of some sort—can offer to people. This isn’t to say that people should force themselves to be religious or spiritual even if they aren’t naturally inclined to be. It’s simply to say that for those who are attracted to spirituality but are reluctant to convert to any particular religion, alternative spiritual traditions offer some promise. They offer promise in that they can serve as ways to reap some of the same benefits to well-being without, potentially, some of the problems that have plagued traditional religions. And since not everyone is drawn to the sanctimonious image of the Jedi, the Sith offer a natural alternative to Star Wars fans who are spiritually-minded yet attracted to a darker aesthetic.
And so I now arrive at my true purposes for writing The Light Side of the Dark Side. There are three of them and they are as follow:
- To discuss Sithism as a valid and viable quasi-religious, spiritual, or philosophical tradition (though not so much a true religion in the traditional sense), one that is both sincere and yet playful in nature and that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
- To propose a new “sect” of Sithism, one that disassociates the aesthetics and symbolism of the Sith—and, by extension, the Dark Side—from something that is by nature “evil,” as depicted in canonical Star Wars media, and that is on the contrary motivated by the desire to do good. I will call this Lightsided Sithism to differentiate it from other forms of Sithism that have been created by Force Realists in the past and that may be created in the future. (I do not, by the way, identify myself as a “Force Realist”).
- To suggest a number of basic principles and practices that could serve as lifestyle “accessories” of sorts to spiritually or philosophically inclined fans of Star Wars, or to anyone attracted to the notion of incorporating Sithism as part of a contemplative life (either in conjunction with or as alternatives to traditional religions and philosophies).
But before I delve into these things, I want to preemptively clear away some possible misconceptions.
First, in Lightsided Sithism, there is absolutely no need for beliefs in things that are metaphysical or supernatural in nature. There is nothing wrong with having such beliefs; they just don’t play a part in the philosophy that I’ll be presenting. Therefore, if you are religious, there’s nothing about Lightsided Sithism that would conflict with your religion, though it might offend your sensibilities. By the same token, if you are agnostic or atheist there’s nothing about Lightsided Sithism that would conflict with your beliefs either, though you too might find that it offends your sensibilities. And if you’re wondering why I would spend the first half of this article discussing Star Wars as a religion if I’m not going to promote Sithism as an actual religion, that’s because I believe that the conventional understandings of religion in our society are long due for some revising and reconceptualizing. Religion, in my personal view, is more about the subjective creation of meaning and less about literal beliefs in speculative phenomena. Again, there’s nothing wrong with believing in speculative phenomena (unless you try to impose your beliefs on me or use them as justification for controlling me), but it limits the ways in which we can conceive and talk about religion in our society. I believe that religion can and should be more than what we typically think of it as being, and I also believe that it is possible to liberate religion from many of the problems that have historically afflicted it.
Second, I have no interest in turning Lightsided Sithism into some sort of official organization or religion along the lines of The Temple of the Jedi Order or the Church of Jediism. I like ideas, I like creating ideas, and I like taking existing ideas and fusing them into a new, syncretic whole. That’s all this is, a set of ideas that I’m sharing.
And finally, even as the creator of what I’m calling Lighsided Sithism, I don’t take it too seriously. Much of this is intended in the spirit of fun. It’s a form of fan fiction in a way, albeit fiction that is livable and that can be practiced as opposed to simply read. At the same time, this is not satire either, not in the way that the Church of the Spaghetti Monster is. Lightsided Sithism is driven by equal parts playfulness and sincerity. I wouldn’t bother to spend time and energy on this if I didn’t believe that some of the ideas that I’ll be discussing can actually enhance people’s lives in a real, perceivable way. And these ideas themselves will be 100% serious and substantial ideas. It’s just that the clothing I’ll be draping these ideas in are intended to make the ideas more fun and palatable, especially if you’re a pop culture geek and most especially if you’re a devoted Star Wars fan in particular. So approach my method of delivery with the spirit of fun that it’s intended for. But know that the ideas themselves are serious and have been inspired by ideas that exist in old, revered traditions in both religion and philosophy. And many of them are now being supported by recent studies and findings in psychological science as well, which is always a bonus.
If this sounds interesting to you, then I invite you to come explore the Dark Side with me, though I remind you that my motives for doing so are not the kind that are canonically associated with the fictional Sith: unchecked ambition, cunning, and the ruthless willingness to do anything, even compromise and sacrifice one’s supposed values (as does Anakin in Revenge of the Sith) for the sake of getting what one wants (which Anakin doesn’t anyway). If such things are what drive you then you’ll have to stick with Randian Objectivism for now, or perhaps wait for the right sub-branch of Sithism to eventually go mainstream.
But if, like me, you are attracted to the dark aesthetic of the Sith but you are also someone for whom being a good human being is very important, then Lightsided Sithism just might be something you’ll enjoy. And you just might find it useful.
I close this introductory post, then, with the Lightsided Sith Creed, which is my own revised version of the canonical Sith Creed:
Peace is not a lie, it is real.
But the path to it is long and arduous.
Meanwhile you are beset by passion.
Rather than fear, hate, or repress this passion you can use it.
Through this passion, you can gain strength.
Through this strength, you can gain power.
Power not over others but over yourself.
Power to create, power to transform.
Through this power, you can gain victory.
Through victory, your chains shall be broken.
The path of the Dark Side must be tread with wisdom.
But when illuminated by knowledge and wisdom,
When the Dark and Light Sides dance and merge as one,
Therein lies freedom.
(To be continued in the next post…)