What is Religion? Why the Charity Commission is Wrong to Say Jediism is Not a Religion 24 December 2016
This article was written to be a script for a On Religion VoiceNote, but grew too long, and rather than publish a 30 minute lecture as a podcast, I thought I would just upload the script as it stood.
“I find your lack of faith disturbing”, one of those classic lines that everyone knows. Darth Vader says it while force choking a sceptic, the first time we’re introduced to the iconic villain. The classic line has taken on a bit of a new meaning since the UK Charity Commission issued their judgement that Jediism was not, in fact, a religion. The judgement came, a bit conveniently, around the same time as the release of Star Wars: Rogue One (or is it Rogue One: A Star Wars Story?).
This case is in fact a really interesting one, because it raises the question, “what is a religion?” How did the charity commission make their decision, and did they make the right one?
Now I’ve written about this, that Star Wars is a bit of a modern myth, a reaction against the growing secularism of the era in which it was released. For George Lucas, there is something out there beyond technology, Lucas decided to call it the “force”, a vague term intedned to appeal to a wide range of religious perspectives. Ancient religion wasn’t easily dismissed, as Darth Vader and Jedis made abundantly clear. But the Charity Commission’s ruling isn’t about the Jedism of the Star Wars universe, but a different movement altogether.
So first of all, what is Jediism? Well, if you are old enough to remember, because I’m not, 2001 was the first time that a religion question was placed on the census in Britain. It was the result of campaigning by minority religions, particularly Muslims, who wanted to ensure they weren’t being under-represented, in parliament and elsewhere.
Not everyone was particularly open to the idea and some felt it was an intrusion by the government. And so as a protest, many people put down “Jedi” as their religion. Between England, Wales and Scotland, about 405,000 registered Jedis – making it the fourth largest religion in Britain (after Christianity, Islam and Hinduism, ahead of Buddhism, Sikhism and Judaism). It ranked higher than some global world religions.
The numbers dipped in the 2011 census, as you might have imagined, but still a pretty healthy 200,000 or so registered themselves as being Jedi. While most of these no doubt considered Jedi here to be simply a way of registering their objection to the question about religion, some took it more seriously, arguing that Jediism offered something a bit more substantial to their lives. These are the followers of the Temple of the Jedi Order (TOTJO), who applied to be a charity in March 2016, leading to the charity commission’s rulings.
Now, it’s not complicated to be a charity. The Temple in this case could have quite easily applied to be a different type of charity, but they wanted to one that reflected their religious character. There is not really any advantage to this over being a different type of charity, but it does mean that the government is viewing you as a religion. Britain has generally had an open door policy to religions, its not like in Germany where being an officially recognised religion afforded significant benefits, but is also a complex and difficult process.
So I’ll make my position clear now. I think the judgement is wrong to exclude Jediism as a religion. I think the definition of a religion the charity commission is using is flawed, and there may in fact be problems as a result of this in the future.
For now, let’s take a look at the definition of religion (based on previous cases, including one involving Scientology) according to the Charity Commission…
“religion in charity law is characterised by belief in one or more gods or spiritual or non secular principles or things, and a relationship between the adherents of the religion and the gods, principles, or things, which is expressed by worship, reverence, and adoration, veneration, intercession, or by some other religious rite or service. In addition, that it must be capable of providing moral and ethical value or edification to the public and characterised by a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion, and importance.”
Now from where I am coming from, as a religious studies scholar, rather than a lawyer, much of this seems arbitrary. But let’s remind ourselves what the charity commission is actually arguing is a religion.
1 – A belief in “something”
2 – A type of worship
3 – Capable of providing a moral value
4 – Cogency, Coherency, seriousness
Within religious studies, the debate about what religion is has been had numerous times, and the discussion has moved on considerably from where the Charity Commission seem to be at the moment. For a start, most religious studies scholars have entirely given up on the idea of “defining religion”. More on that later.
The Charity Commission, perhaps unsurprisingly, began with belief. Where does this idea that belief is central to religion come from?
Well, for a start, there are scholars like E. B. Tylor (died 1917), who wrote that religion is “belief in spiritual beings”. His ideas, which he outlined in a book titled Primitive Culture, were that all religions are based on a dualism in the mind of the early prehistoric caveman. This savage philosopher presumed, according to Tylor, that humans were both physical but also spiritual, they had a soul. This theory, animism, was based on observing death, sleep, and dreams. All modern religions, with their more complex ideas, were simply a reflection of this.
Or you might take someone like James George Frazer (died 1941) who argues religion is, more than anything, explanatory, aimed at “managing the world”. Religion is “bad science”. Science explains the world, how to utilise it, control it. Religion tries, by appealing to a creator in charge of it, and fails. He includes magic in this too. Magic is an attempt at controlling the world through a type of mimicry, it fails. So people turn to the belief that there must be a creator in charge of the world, but religion fails too at controlling or explaining the world, and so people turn then to empirical science. The final chapter in the development of humanity. That is Frazer’s definition of religion, bad science. You see it with modern New Atheists today.
There are other definitions of religion too, such as religion as being a mental illness, replicating a father figure from childhood and projecting on the world. This is Sigmund Freud’s big idea – religion is an “illusion” and “neurosis” according to him (inspiration for Dawkin’s God Delusion).
Now what do all of these have in common? These defintions of religion primarily see religion as belief. They’re primarily Western ideas, and still are. And they’re all wrong. Not completely wrong, but partial truths. They are reductive, cutting religion down to something less than it is in order to define it. So I’ll speak more about the problem with defining religion later, but for now, remember that first, belief is only one component of religion. In some religions, it is foremost in importance (for example, Christianity, particularly Protestant Christianity), in other religions, it is less significant to practice (Judaism being a typicial example). Religion is about belief, but not only or even primarily about belief.
There are other ways of viewing religion too. So for example, Emile Durkheim, looked at religion not as a set of beliefs, but as a function. What is the function of religion? Durkheim argued it was to unify community, to create a social coherence. So when people worship totems, or a sacred animal, the reality is that in fact people are worshipping the idea of the community, the idea of a unified whole. You can see a modern application of this with the notion of civil religion, an idea by Robert Bellah. If you think about things like the American flag, the way it is revered, then it really has all the same sacredness as religious symbols. Or national rituals, like Armistice Day in Britian. These things bind the community and the nation together with a sense of shared identity, one expressed through religion.
Or you have very unsympathetic definitions of religion, such as that of Karl Marx. Many people know his quote, “religious is the opium of the masses”. Marx saw the world as a clash between the working class, exploited by a ruling elite. The elite used religion to placate the masses, and the masses used religion to soften the horror of their daily lives. Religion, by teaching “suffer now, but enjoy heaven after death” simply supported, ideologically, capitalism. Likewise, it helped prevent the necessary and inevitable revolution against the capitalist system by teaching that divine justice would come in the next life, rather than this one. This Marxist critique is still heard in many places today, and many see religion as little more than a crutch for humanity.
There are also definitions of religion that argue, as Rudolph Otto did, that at the heart of the religions is the experience of a terrible mystery, an experience with the divine that overwhelms and fills the person with equal amounts of awe and terror. This mysterium tremendum, or numinous experience, as Otto called it, is the heart of religions in his view.
The problem is, a lot of these definitions are a bit reductive. So yeah, religion is about belief in spiritual beings certainly, but not just that. Tylor’s definition ignores the complex ways religion is also about relationships, people, law, culture, history, myth. And Frazer isn’t wrong that religion has an element of explaining how the world came about, but not all religions are concerned with “how”, but many are focused on “why”, providing purpose and meaning. Durkheim is right that religions have a social function, but there are also individualistic expressions of religion (such as New Age spirituality, or more antiquated isolated monasticism).
As of yet, every “definition” of religion is either so narrow it fails to comprehensively define religion, or so open, it offers no analytic insight.
The question then arises, why even try and define religion in the first place? This is what Talal Asad, a sociologist, argues. He provides a very thorough critique of how trying to define religion was actually something that served a wider secularising project of Europe.
First, it often reduced religion down to belief. Religion becoming synonymous to belief, faith or worldview, is an example of how these Western expressions have become embedded in our language. Asad claimed this was a problem because it forced religion to be privatised. If religion is belief, than it is easy to keep your beliefs private, and any expression of religion in the public sphere is an unwarranted display. The problem of course is what if your religion isn’t just about belief, but practice. A Jewish man wearing a kippah or a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf is now, simply by being religious, challenging the modern secular state. And it all starts from a reductive definition of religion, according to Talal Asad.
Indeed Bruno Bauer (died 1882), a contemporary of Karl Marx, writing on the “Jewish question” argued that Jews must abandon their religion to become citizens of the modern nation state. Almost identical comments are made about Muslims in the contemporary West. The problem in fact is not with Judaism, or Islam, but a stunted Western definition of religion that seeks to compartmentalise religion.
Talal Asad was also keen to stress how defining religion also blinded people to how religion was anything but “secularised” here in the West. After all, you might say “well why can’t Judaism and Islam follow the Christian route and becoming secular”. Except, as Asad notes, our inadequate definitions of religion often blind people to how religion – Christianity in particular – is anything but secularised.
It’s something Karen Armstrong has argued before, removing politics from religion is like removing gin from the cocktail. So Western society, Britain and the United States for example, forget how strongly embedded Christianity is in the legal systems, in privileging Christian voices (such as Bishops in the House of Lords), or through the culture that allows Christian expression to be facilitated (so Muslims and Jews must awkwardly observe their holy days around the working week, but Christians have Sunday off). So it’s so much easier to be a “private” Christian than a private Muslim or Jew.
Likewise, religious violence is easily ascribed to other religions (most commonly at the moment, Muslim terrorists). But British or American citizens don’t see the violence of their respective nation states as a representation of “religious violence”. They see the state as secular, and so it’s violence is disentangled from a particular religious expression. For those on the receiving end of Western bombs however, the particularities of a secular constitution are largely irrelevant. They see a largely Christian nation, with elected Christian leaders, and a Christian history, dropping the bombs. This fundamental difference in perspective is only achieved through a reductive definition of religion, the type Asad criticises.
So many religious scholars have thankfully given up trying to “define” religion. Because definitions aren’t useful, and that includes Charity Commission’s definition too. It’s almost entirely arbitrary.
Take point three of their definition. A religion should be “capable of providing moral and ethical value or edification”, but this is incredibly subjective. In a way, it goes back to a debate about a cult is. Some people see a difference between cults and religions, and usually it is that a cult is harmful and exploitative, and a religion isn’t. But it is a fine line. So a cult might be accused of financially exploiting its members, straightforward right? But recently there was a case of a Christian couple who gave up their life savings for a house in order to buy a refugee a home. Now that is an incredible act of generosity and charity. But an outsider, let’s say a New Atheist, may see it not as altruistic but exploitative, and counter-productive to a healthy society. So are we certain we want to now have a situation where the Charity Commission can dictate who isn’t a religious group according to such a subjective definition? We’ve already seen, at times, the Charity Commission be used to further political agendas and even weaponised by politicians. This does seem a dangerous precedent to set.
Second is the issue of “cogency, coherency, seriousness”. Religions are often anything but coherent, they can be contradictory, sprawling, and even non-sensical. Some scholars of religion say “Hinduism” isn’t a real religion, it is in fact a variety of religious traditions found in India but incorrectly described as a single religion by orientalist British scholars. It is, in their view, a fiction invented, and covers the incoherency of the diverse Hindu traditions. But many Hindus and others would disagree, despite the diversity, it’s important to them that they are seen as a single tradition. The Hinduism versus Hindu traditions debate isn’t straightforward, but it does show us how complex it is to argue for a particular model of what a religion should look like.
The law has often failed to adequately understand religion. There is a nice neat example from Richard Gale, a geographer who looked at planning permission and mosque controversies in Britain. He cites one example where a mosque was given planning permission, but on the condition it did not hold any activities in the early morning or late evening (preventing a number of the five daily prayers from being worshipped). Effectively this legal definition prevented the mosque from being a mosque, forcing an Anglican Christian expression of religion on to it. The law needs to be flexible enough to encounter the diversity of religions out there, and it could learn a thing from religious studies and quite with reductive definitions.
The first word I learned for religion was dhormoh, a Bengali word related to the Sanskrit dharma. Everyone had a dhormoh, it was the widest possible combinations of belief, practice, worldview, racial and social identity. The second word I learned for religion was the Arabic din, all people had a din. It was a way of life, an all-encompassing word.
It is a particularly Western phenomenon to try and reductively define religion, and an incredibly unhelpful one. I find the Charity Commissions lack of faith in Jediism disturbing. Sorry. Terrible joke. I’ll go now.