The Story Geeks host Jay Sherer explains the religions of The Force in Star Wars. What do the Jedi and Sith believe? Plus, what we do and don’t know about the concepts like light side and dark side, and ‘balance’ in the Force.
FIRST, WHAT IS THE FORCE?
Before we go too far, what is the Force? Is it a spiritual entity? A physical thing? How should we define what the Force is?
The best definition comes from Obi-Wan Kenobi in A NEW HOPE when he tells Luke that the Force is:
“…an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.”
All living things are connected to the Force and simultaneously creating it. In fact–though we don’t hear much about it in the films–Qui-Gon Jinn differentiates between the Living Force and the Cosmic Force. The Living Force is the part of the Force that is created by all living things. It in turn feeds the Cosmic Force, which binds the galaxy together.
Many believe that the Force has two different and distinct attributes as well–a “light” side and a “dark” side. But let’s put that aside for now until we dig deeper into the religious perspectives that surround the Force.
We should also pause here to acknowledge that a foundational belief in the existence of the Force is not universal. Earlier in his life (as seen in A NEW HOPE), Han Solo said that he’d never seen anything that would suggest that the Force actually exists. While Solo develops a belief in the Force over the course of time (as he tells Rey and Finn in THE FORCE AWAKENS), the point is still valid: not everyone within the Star Wars universe believes that the Force even exists.
What is the Force?
- Those who believe in it say that it’s an energy field created by all living things that simultaneously binds the galaxy together.
- Not everyone in the galaxy believes that the Force actually exists…
- …which indicates that it’s both a scientific explanation (i.e., description of how the universe works) and a spiritual perspective (i.e., something to believe in or not believe in).
- There are different interpretations of how people should interact with it–including teachings about the light and dark sides of the Force (more on this later). Which, in turn, gets even deeper into seeing the Force as a spiritual entity or instrument.
That last point is critical, because it indicates that even if a character does believe that the Force exists, that doesn’t mean that they also agree with others on a singular scientific explanation or spiritual perspective. To the contrary, we witness multiple interpretations of how sentient beings should interact with the Force.
While Han Solo turning to Finn in THE FORCE AWAKENS and saying, “That’s not how the Force works!” is used for humor, it actually has an interesting truth behind it. Not everyone agrees on how the Force works or how sentient beings should interact with it. A character could turn to another character and say, “I believe the Force exists, but I don’t think it works the way Qui-Gon Jinn thinks it works.”
IS THE FORCE REAL IN STAR WARS?
Before we jump into the major religions that have a core belief in the Force, what are we–the audience–led to believe about it? What do the storytellers want us to think and feel about the Force? Is there compelling evidence showcased in the overarching story that would lead us to understand and interpret the Force in a particular way?
Well, the wisest characters in the story all believe in the existence of the Force–Yoda, Qui-Gon, Vader, Palpatine, Luke, etc. All those characters believe that the Force exists. Plus, characters who don’t initially believe in it often turn into believers later in their character arcs. Han Solo goes from unbelief to belief. The same could be argued for Finn and Rey. And, when the chief of the Imperial Navy, Conan Antonio Motti suggests that the Death Star is more powerful than Darth Vader’s “sad devotion to his ancient religion…” Vader proceeds to Force Choke him.
If the Force doesn’t exist, how is Vader doing that?
It’s pretty clear that George Lucas (and the storytellers who have come after him) want us to believe that the Force exists. We see characters “use” the Force. And, The Jedi Order has even developed ways to measure it–most notably by measuring the number of Midi-chlorians in an individual’s cells, which is used as a proxy for Force sensitivity (i.e., a sentient being’s ability to feel and interact with the Force).
My conclusion (which I’m guessing aligns with the readers’): We are supposed to believe that the Force is real and that the descriptions of what it is and how it works are reliable. What we’re told about it is at least partially true if not entirely so.
Basically, in the Star Wars universe, the Force exists.
RELIGIONS BASED ON THE FORCE
Now that we’ve established that the Force exists (or at least “most likely” exists) in the Star Wars universe, what religions exist based on that core belief?
First, let’s define the word “religion” so that we have a shared understanding of what we’re looking for. Google’s dictionary defines “religion” as: (1) a belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, (2) a particular system of faith and worship, and (3) a pursuit or interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance.
In the Star Wars universe, there are three main religious affiliations that show up frequently and are tied to a core belief in the Force. (Of course, there are other religions that don’t believe in the Force, but those haven’t been a point of focus in the main storyline thus far, and we won’t go deeper into those here).
Here are the three religious perspectives in Star Wars:
- The Jedi
- The Sith
- Neither Jedi, nor Sith, but still believe in The Force.
NOT JEDI OR SITH, BUT STILL BELIEVE IN THE FORCE
The third bullet point is a catch-all, but it’s worth addressing because there are a wide range of religious beliefs tied to the Force. Han Solo was an Atheist in A NEW HOPE (i.e., he didn’t believe the Force even existed), but becomes far more agnostic later in life. He eventually acknowledged the existence of the Force, but he never turned that into a personal relationship with the Force. He saw the Force work in those around him, but as we see in THE FORCE AWAKENS, he wasn’t actively pursuing a greater or deeper knowledge in the Force or a more personal relationship with the Force. He seemed far more agnostic about it.
Contrast Han’s perspective with Chirrut îmwe’s. Chirrut, who appeared in ROGUE ONE, believed that The Force guided everything he did. His belief in The Force prompted him to behave and act in ways that showcased his full trust in the Force–not as something that just exists (like Han), but that interacted with him daily.
Despite not being a Jedi, Chirrut still strived to let the Force flow through him. He even prayed to the Force, something we had never really seen before from a Star Wars character. We saw Jedis meditate, but we never really saw them pray. And, based on what we saw on screen in ROGUE ONE, the Force did appear to influence and even direct Chirrut’s actions.
While Han was content to believe, Chirrut took his faith a step further to let the Force work through him. In retrospect, then, Han seems more agnostic whereas Chirrut’s perspective feels more faith-driven and personal.
Thus, even amongst those who believed in the existence of the Force, we saw very different religious stances based on how their faith or belief impacted their behavior.
THE TWO MAJOR RELIGIONS OF STAR WARS
But the primary focus of the Star Wars canon surrounds two competing religious perspectives: the Jedi and the Sith.
Both the Jedi religion and the Sith religion believe in the Force, and the importance of how characters should interact with it or behave because of it. But both religious groups interpret how the Force works and how one should interact with it or behave because of it in very different ways. The concept of what the Force is remains the same (or at least similar), but how sentient beings should think and act based on the existence of the Force is very different.
THE SITH RELIGION
According to Star Wars lore, the Sith were formed by a Jedi who believed that exploring the dark side of the Force was a path to true understanding (i.e., discovering the purpose of the Force and an appropriate response to that purpose). The order that rose up around that Jedi’s teachings was called the Sith. The Sith took the Jedi Code (which we’ll get to) and formed their own religious perspective around a very different code. Let’s take a look at that code:
Peace is a lie. There is only passion.
Through passion I gain strength.
Through strength I gain power.
Through power I gain victory.
Through victory my chains are broken.
The Force shall free me.
Preeminent in the Sith Code is the concept of self. The emotional state of the individual is paramount. Thus, the essential religious tenet of the Sith is that the Force exists to be used. The Sith manipulate the Force, bending it to their will in order to take power. Their objective becomes trying to free themselves from oppression (I would argue specifically fear-based oppression). But, as we see time and again, they use their power to produce fear in others.
The Sith embrace emotion (e.g., fear, anger, etc.) in order to force others to bend to their will. The Sith believe that they are intended to rule the galaxy, including all other sentient life. And, as showcased in the extended universe (i.e., supplemental books, comics, and even games), Sith armies of the past tended to turn against one another because all Sith are supposed to want to shape the galaxy in their own image, which makes teamwork challenging… If the individual’s will is meant to rule, then each individual should strive to supreme leadership.
For this reason, Darth Bane (a Sith Lord) instituted the Rule of Two. Each Sith Lord would have one apprentice (e.g., Darth Sidious and Darth Maul, Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader, and Supreme Leader Snoke and Kylo Ren, amongst others). The Rule of Two essentially cut down on the backstabbing inherent in the Sith religion.
The process or methodology relative to the Sith Code called for manipulating the Force rather than allowing the Force to manipulate them. As such, the Sith began to refer to their use of the Force as “the dark side of the Force.” But, this raises an interesting question about the Force itself… Does the Force have a dark side and a light side? Does the energy field contain or embody two different kinds of energy? I’m not sure, but it feels like the dark side is more a reference to how the Force is used rather than something inherent in the energy field. More on this later…
Before we get into that, let’s recap the basics of the Sith religion:
- Its objective is to shape the galaxy by ruling it.
- That objective is defined by the individual’s own passion.
- A Sith believer draws on emotion in order to gain strength.
- Emotion leads the individual to conquer what they fear.
- Once the internal fear and the external embodiment of that fear have been conquered, the Sith devotee sets up his or her own desired rule of law and attempts to extend that rule of law across the galaxy.
- The Sith manipulate the Force, bending it to their will in order to achieve their objective.
- Using the Force to pursue individual freedom and dominance means manipulating the Force in a “dark” way, and/or seeking to tap into the “dark side” of the energy field’s power.
Notice that the last bullet point is somewhat speculative. Some sources in the extended universe describe “dark side energy” as if it exists within the Force. Other perspectives seem to indicate that the Force doesn’t have a dark side or a light side, but that specific individuals use the Force’s essence in light or dark ways. At least to me, the lore isn’t concrete. Does the Force have a light side and a dark side? Or are those terms used by the religions to describe their own morality regarding their use of the Force?
Whatever perspective you side with, the basic implication is that Sith morality defines individual strength as “good.” The Sith seek power in order to free themselves and rule the galaxy. How will they choose to rule the galaxy? That will depend entirely upon their personal passions. And in the end, they’ll mold the galaxy into however they want it to function.
THE JEDI RELIGION
Contrast the Sith religious perspective with the Jedi Order’s. The Jedi Order was birthed first, and rather than seeking power, their objective centered around communing with the Force. Let’s take a look at the Jedi Code:
There is no emotion, there is peace.
There is no ignorance, there is knowledge.
There is no passion, there is serenity.
There is no chaos, there is harmony.
There is no death, there is The Force.
Where the Sith seek to manipulate the Force in order to create their ideal, individualized reality, the Jedi seek to allow themselves to be used by the Force in order to bring about that which the Force wants. Since everything is bound together by the Force, the objective should be the greatest good for the largest number of living things.
The Jedi Order has, at its core, a central belief in the denial of self. Jedi meditate in the Force to better connect to the will of the Force. In this regard, the Jedi see the Force more as a guiding entity than do the Sith. The Sith believe in their own passion, whereas the Jedi believe in the overarching will of the collective Force.
A significant portion of a Jedi’s religious devotion involves the gathering of knowledge, attuning oneself to the Force, and at all times seeking internal peace and serenity. Because of this, the galaxy at large began to see the Jedi as guardians of peace and justice, which resulted in the politicization of the Jedi Order itself (as seen in the prequel-era stories).
In the Star Wars universe, we’ve seen many Jedi seduced by the power of the dark side. And that makes sense. The Jedi are consistently seduced by a desire to act in their own self interest as opposed to acting on behalf of the greater good. THE FORCE AWAKENS–and subsequently THE LAST JEDI–indicated that Kylo Ren was being seduced by the light side (i.e., a desire to seek peace, serenity, and harmony over personal passion), which is a fascinating reversal of the dynamic between personal self-interest versus the greater good.
And finally, despite a long history of devotion to the Force and consistently fighting (successfully) against the urge to shape the galaxy into their desired image, the Jedi Order did finally fail. In the Prequel Era, the Galactic Republic’s fall was (at least in part) due to the Jedi Order trying to retain their political influence rather than seeking guidance from the Force.
Here are the basics of the Jedi religion:
- Its objective is to allow the Force to shape the galaxy.
- That objective is defined by the will of the Force.
- A Jedi denies her or his own emotion and desire in order to seek inner peace and serenity and to promote a broader sense of harmony throughout the galaxy.
- The Jedi’s inner state manifests itself in his or her ability to bring about the will of the Force across the galaxy.
- The Jedi let the Force flow through them, becoming one with the Force and allowing the Force to use them in order to achieve the Force’s objective.
- Letting the Force flow through them means behaving in a “light” way, and/or seeking the “light” side of the energy field’s power.
Just like with an analysis of the Sith religion revealed, that last bullet point can be interpreted in multiple ways. Regardless of how it’s defined, more people in the galaxy seem to view the Jedi as beneficial and positive while seeing the Sith as evil or negative.
CONCLUSION AND… CONFUSION?
We have explored:
- A working definition of the Force.
- Several religious perspectives about the Force.
- More specifics on the religious perspectives of the Sith and the Jedi.
We haven’t taken the time to look at any of the other religions that appear in the Star Wars universe, nor have we haven’t tested these ideas to see how well they work in practice. But, we do have a framework for how the Force and the religions surrounding the Force operate.
Before I close out this (now very long) article, let’s take a look at some of the bigger, unresolved questions that consistently arise in the Star Wars fandom:
What does “balance” in Star Wars actually mean?
This concept appears throughout the Star Wars universe, and it has caused a lot of confusion. Some take balance to mean that the Force wants to make the light side and the dark side equal–almost like a Yin and Yang sort of philosophical approach. But does balance refer to the light side and the dark side, or does it refer to a Jedi’s desire to seek inner peace and serenity? Or both? The debate about balance relative to Star Wars rages on…
Are the light side and the dark side actually attributes of the energy field? Or are they religious perspectives and/or terms relative to the Jedi and the Sith?
Would it make sense for a Jedi to believe that the Force was calling her to use dark side powers? Wouldn’t doing so promote the individual’s will above the collective will of the Force? This debate rages on after the deconstruction of Luke Skywalker’s character in THE LAST JEDI and the realization that the Jedi Order in the prequel era were overly political. And, since this question relates to balance… even more confusion results.
Which perspective is the correct perspective?
At the heart of all these debates is the real question: what should we actually believe? And, because stories remain our brains’ primary way of understanding and interpreting the world around us, these debates often become heated and impassioned. This question also assumes that the storytellers intend to come to a conclusion, and that’s not always the case.
Ultimately, the storytellers will define a reality for the environment. But, because our brains are constantly looking to find meaning and truth in stories, we won’t always agree with where the storytellers land. And that’s okay, we can still enjoy the stories without having to ascribe to the exact same beliefs the storytellers weave into these stories.
In the meantime, let’s keep debating, but maybe in a non-toxic, less Sith-like kinda way…
Listen to our new 14-episode Star Wars Podcast Series!
If you want to have more deep, meaningful, and productive (non-toxic) discussions about Star Wars, subscribe to The Story Geeks podcast (on Apple, Stitcher, Podbean). Let’s get hyped for The Rise of Skywalker!
- Nov. 12, 2019: The Last Jedi – Dig Deeper
- Nov. 13: Make It Better – The Sequel Trilogy (Aftercast)
- Nov. 19: Does The Force make for a good religion?
- Nov. 20: The Jedi & The Sith – Dig Deeper (Aftercast)
- Nov. 26: Pitch a New Star Wars Trilogy – Nerdfight!
- Nov. 27: Stories we want to see after The Rise of Skywalker (Aftercast)
- Dec. 3: Character Focus: Anakin Skywalker
- Dec. 4: Top 10 Star Wars Characters (Aftercast)
- Dec. 10: The Women of Star Wars
- Dec. 11: Most Powerful Star Wars Character – Nerdfight! (Aftercast)
- Dec. 17: Redemption in Star Wars
- Dec. 18: Legends/Extended Universe – Dig Deeper (Aftercast)
- Dec. 24: Star Wars: Episode IX Reaction
- Dec. 25 (Merry Christmas!): Character Focus: Emperor Palpatine (Aftercast)
May the Force be with you!