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Hey Australia: It's alright if you want to stand up and be counted as a Jedi

Who would have thought the universe's greatest attempt to stamp out followers of the Force — well, after that whole thing with Emperor Palpatine and Order 66 — would take place in Australia?

As Aussies scramble to get in their census forms on Tuesday, they're being met with stern-faced admonitions from atheist groups. You see, last time the census came around Down Under, in 2011, some 64,390 people proudly marked their religion as Jedi. 

Atheists point out this gives authorities a skewed vision of how religious the country is, which in turn affects public policy in nebulous ways. They claim that everyone who writes in "Jedi" should really tick the box for "No Religion." (Not coincidentally, this could be the first census in which "No Religion" wins; it was on 21% last time around, beaten only by Catholicism on 25%.)

"People shouldn't waste their answer," Kylie Sturgess, president of the Atheist Foundation of Australia, told the Brisbane Times.

But is it really a waste, or an expression of something genuine? Should governments simply assume that all these thousands of so-called Jedi are really atheists in robe-and-lightsaber disguise — or is there something else, something more subtly spiritual, going on here?

No, I'm not arguing for the existence of Jediism. Even in the darkest depths of obsessive Star Wars fandom, this is not a thing. George Lucas designed the Jedi and their relationship to the Force to be as vague as possible, and had no desire to found a real-world religion. An L. Ron Hubbard he ain't.

But as I discovered in researching How Star Wars Conquered the Universe, there is a large group of people researchers have called "Jedi Realists." These are people who are simultaneously aware that Star Wars is fiction, but also find the universal nature of the Force as described in the movies to be quite appealing.

Jedi Realists tend to layer their spiritual understanding of the Force over their regular, everyday religion. They find it complementary, not in competition. They believe the notion of the Force is God by another name — but a concept of God so loose that anyone can get behind it. 

"It's an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us, penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together." That, amazingly, is all we're ever told about the Force in Star Wars, by the venerable Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness). As for the rest, you're deliberately left to decide for yourself.

There are Jedi Realist Christians — the very first Star Wars book by someone not hired by Lucasfilm, The Force of Star Wars (1977), was a Christian tract arguing that the Force and the Holy Spirit are effectively the same thing. But there are also Jedi Realist Hindus (the word "prana" is Sanskrit for "Life Force"), Buddhists, Muslims. We have plenty of Jedi Jews. 

Jedi have popped up in their thousands in censuses in Canada, Croatia and the Czech Republic. You will find them in Ireland and in the current world record holder nation for number of Jedi, the UK. If the U.S. Census asked for religion, you can bet there'd be a large and official American contingent of Jedi too. 

Sure, plenty of people have written Jedi down on their census form as a joke. Maybe they're even a majority. (Sturgess admits to being one of them in the previous census). Still, this has been going on too long, too consistently, for it not to represent something more.  

The Jedi in Oz thing began thanks to a viral email in 2001. The email and the concept was actually imported from New Zealand, where 57,000 people had been encouraged to write in "Jedi" with barely a week's notice by the still-anonymous email writer. 

Aussies embraced the idea, and 70,000 wrote "Jedi" on their forms despite threats of fines from the government. The number actually dropped in the 2006 census, to around 54,000, before climbing again in 2011.

One thing we can conclude from this: The Jedi fad may rise and fall, but it isn't really going to go away. 

Calling themselves Jedi "inspires within them a deeper commitment to the godhood identified within their traditional faith," Dr. Jennifer Porter, a religious studies academic in Newfoundland who has logged hundreds of interviews with Jedi Realists, told me.

In today's world, is it really surprising that people might have some disdain for established religions and all they have given us — but still be spiritual? In the absence of any fresh religious force worth an actual damn — sorry, Scientology — is it fair to say they might have good reason to appropriate a description of spirituality from the most repeatedly-viewed story ever committed to celluloid? 

So no, Australian Atheists, you don't get to automatically claim Jedi as your own. But don't worry if you yourself decide to put the J-word on your census this year. It is entirely your right to do so. 

You can be making a point about the ridiculousness of a personal religious question in the first place; you can be expressing something spiritual, or using it as an agnostic or humanist placeholder because you find some atheists to be surprisingly intolerant, (looking at you, Richard Dawkins.) 

But what you are not being in any of these cases is stupid or wasteful. In this endeavour — as in others that remind us that on a very basic level we are all ineluctably bound together on this rock spinning through space — the Force is with you.  

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