NEW YORK — Draped in a brown robe, neon lightsaber in hand, the Star Wars Jedi is an iconic movie image. But not all Jedis come from a galaxy far, far away. Some are a bit more local: from Alabama, Utah and Alaska, to name a few.
For some, it’s an organized religion known as Jediism; others adopt it as a philosophy of life, called Jedi Realism. Both share a central outlook on life.
“Being a Jedi is saying to the world that I am on a quest to become the best person I can be,” said Matthew Vossler, author of “Jediism: Philosophy and Practice,” who runs the online Maryland Jedi Order and goes by the self-chosen Jedi name Zindel. “It’s like saying I’m going to hold myself to this standard, and I’m going to try my best to stay on this path.”
George Lucas coined the term “Jedi” — for those who fight for justice using the Force, “the energy field that binds the galaxy together,” according to the Star Wars figure Obi-Wan Kenobi — when the first Star Wars film was released in 1977. But it wasn’t until the 1990s, with the advent of the Internet, that Jediism caught on.
The Star Wars spiritual following made headlines in 2001, when 390,000 citizens of England and Wales — or 0.7 percent of the population — claimed Jediism as their religion, making it the fifth most popular faith behind Christianity, no religion, Islam and Hinduism. Jediism even dwarfed Judaism, which had around 260,000 members.
The U.K. Office of National Statistics hypothesized that people chose “Jediism” for humor or political protest, after a controversial campaign against the religion question on the census. The numbers dropped significantly by the 2011 census, with just 177,000 writing in Jedi as their religion.
While the U.S. census does not include questions about religion, thousands of Americans do identify themselves as Jedi.
The Temple of the Jedi Order, founded in 2005 by John Henry Phelan in Texas, is the first international church of Jediism. An online congregation, its website gets an average of 5,000 hits per week and hosted than 290,000 visitors in the past year. Of those, at least three quarters are in the U.S., said Michael Kitchen, the church’s spokesman, who is also a shop clerk in London.
The church ordains its own ministers, who can ascend clerical ranks through deacon, priest, bishop and archbishop. They listen to confession and perform wedding ceremonies. A minister posts a written sermon online every Sunday, and once a month, the Temple’s website streams a live sermon.
“Does it really matter how I or you as a Jedi believe?” asks Patricia Bolcerek, a minister who calls herself Master Neaj online, in a sermon from mid-April. “Simply, no. My choices and beliefs can and will differ from the next, because you are not me and I am not you. But we are in consensus that we believe in a path that is the same.”
This path follows “peace, justice, love, learning and using our abilities for good,” according to the Temple’s website, but stipulates no religious belief. Jedis can be Christian, Wiccan, atheist or anything else.