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There are 390,000 self-identified followers of the Jedi faith in Britain, according to the new census. Setting aside the question of what an army of British Jedi means for international security, also setting aside the question of what a truly practicing Jedi would look/act like, and setting aside the question of whether or not Jedis are a little bit fascist, let’s focus on this: what’s the difference between a fake religion and a real one?

First, the difference between a cult and a fake religion: not all fake religions are cults. It’s the difference between the Jedi and the Heaven’s Gate crowd. A cult might be a fake religion, though. Or it could be a young religion that doesn’t have an evolutionarily sustainable strategy. Like having all your members kill themselves every time a comet passes near Earth.

One way to separate the Jedis and the Scientologists from the Christians and the Muslims would to require religious sources to be separate from science fiction literature. If a danger of young religions/cults (they’re generally indistinguishable at the beginning, which is not to say they’re the same thing) is that they are marketing schemes concocted by charlatans to make a lot of money, then that criticism is particularly potent when the religious founder has established herself as a talented storyteller and marketer.

This criticism is different from Hume’s attack on religious belief, which was that the likelihood of a mistaken perception or a lie is always greater than that of a miracle (defined as breaking the laws of nature, which have been tested by centuries of human experience and experiment). I’m afraid that Hume’s argument boils down to: miracles are inordinately unlikely, and it’s not good policy to believe that inordinately unlikely things are true. I have problems with the mechanics of this argument and its implications. The talented storyteller/marketer criticism focuses more on the problem of being used instead of the problem of believing a false proposition.

Let’s take a Wittgensteinian tour of religious propositions just to show why I would focuse on used-ness rather than truth. First off, lots of religious language isn’t propositional, it’s imperative. Peace be with you. God bless you. Love your neighbor. Such sentences are meant to influence lives, not to describe the world, and so they don’t have truth values. Of the relatively few religious claims, like Christ is risen, Jesus loves you, We’re all God’s children, or God set the universe in motion, some look like historical claims, but I believe that, properly understood, they are actually extra-scientific. Like expressing views on the origins on the universe, or moral attitudes. Areas where science has no methods for generating truth.

This isn’t to say that religion and religious language are always properly understood by believers. People who claim that the earth is really 6,000 years old or that Jesus rode dinosaurs are offering claims that land squarely in the jurisdiction of science/history, and claims that happen to be contrary to all kinds of evidence. That is an example of religion overstepping its bounds. But when religion is within its bounds, discussing human dignity and the good life, judgment, and c., there’s no direct way for science to contradict the statements, because they’re more generating and sustaining attitudes than describing states of affairs. And then all’s right in heaven and on earth.

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3 Comments

  1. Couldn’t we say, however, that imperative claims have implicit truth claims? I.e. the answer to the question why should we love our neighbors?

    The whole “Jedi” phenomenon reminds me more of Discordianism and the Church of the SubGenius than the Church of Scientology.

    • I don’t think simple imperative statements have implicit truth claims, except that all referred entities exist. I guess this links to my skepticism of the existence of moral facts. I don’t think there’s a bedrock answer to why we should do anything any more than there’s a bedrock answer to why we should believe something. Wittgenstein said something like, “Eventually we just throw up our hands and say: ‘it’s just what we do!'” Excuse my pragmatism.

      I hadn’t heard of the SubGenius Church or Discordianism. It’s hard to tell how many of the Jedis’ allegiances are satirical. If it’s a lot, then the whole thing changes. Discordianism… I don’t know what to say. Drug-addled minds dabbling in nihilism.

  2. Simple imperatives definitely don’t have much in the way of implicit truth claims, but I think many religious imperative statements do. Many religions teach that why you do something is as important as how you do it.

    And while it’s definitely satirical, I wouldn’t necessarily classify Discordianism as nihilistic. In many ways I think it’s a lot less nihilistic than what passes for “serious” or “mainstream” religion.


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