So, like I was saying earlier – this Jedi walks into a Job Centre…
Because it’s a British Job Centre and we’re the proud world leaders in intrusive CCTV surveillence, the staff ask our hero to lower his hood. (Of course he’s in hood and robe – Jedi, remember?) He politely refuses, on the grounds that doing so is against his deeply-held beliefs.
So they chuck him out. And he sends a letter of complaint.
A couple of weeks later, the Job Centre send him a formal apology for disrespecting his faith.
This delightful tale of modern manners is interesting to me for many reasons.
For one thing, it hit the news a couple of weeks before the finale of another case of alleged religious disrespect, one where the complainant didn’t get the result they wanted. In this case, it was a Christian woman, a nurse, who was asked not to have her crucifix-on-a-chain visible at work. She sued the hospital and lost.
The parallels are notable. For one thing, both complainants were making a fuss about a display of their faith which is not defined as either a right or requirement of their belief – the Bible has no “Thou Shalt Have Jesus On A Stick Swinging Around Thy Neck” commandment and the Star Wars films have many examples of Jedi doffing their hoods in a variety of public and private settings.
The major difference, the thing that really interests me, is that the believer in a completely fictional faith actually got more respect and better treatment than the one from the long-established, allegedly historically-based one. That’s a first, I think.
And it’s a game-changer.
What happens when belief systems which cheerfully admit they are based on fiction get the same recognition in society and law as the ones that claim they’re not?
So far, the established religions have a hard enough time admitting any other faith deserves the same recognition or rights they they have. The case of Patrick McCollum in the US offers a sad example of the situation as it stands. McCollum is a Pagan priest who wants to be a prison chaplain. So far, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is refusing him permission to do so. The reason they offer – which is supported by a Xtian protest org perfectly named The Wallbuilders – is that there are two tiers of religious belief under the US Constitution. The First Tier consists of the so-called Big Five faiths – Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and Native American – who have all the rights and privileges. The second tier – everyone else – simply don’t.
Needless to say there’s a lot of pressure from pagan groups, and people who seem to have actually read the Constitution, against this opinion. The case is, to date, unresolved.
But now we have this precedent, that Jedi-boy has all the rights and privileges of any other believer.
I use that word ‘privilege’ carefully. Its original meaning, ‘private law’, seems more than a little significant under the circumstances. One rule for the First Tier… and there’s nothing so galling to the privileged as being made to share with the rest of the group.
There is of course one New Religious Movement that’s managed to secure itself all manner of rights and privileges – the Church of Scientology. Suffice it to say that recognition of your faith’s status is fairly easily enhanced by having access to lots of expensive lawyers. (Though it doesn’t seem to have helped them any in their home state of California, as noted above. Maybe there are some things money can’t just buy?)
(Interesting to compare this to the UK situation. As I understand it, members of any faith, including pagan, can be prison chaplains in Britain. I don’t know if anyone’s tried to be a Jedi chaplain yet, but I do know that all of the 139 prisons in England and Wales and many of the 16 prisons in Scotland have the equivalent of their own Scientology chaplains and spiritual services… and there are precisely three Scientologist prisoners in the whole system.)
So – how does society decide which beliefs should be respected? Who decides? On what basis? Who gets to choose what is called real?
Obviously, the belief systems which hold the current monopoly of privileged status aren’t going to give up their exclusive specialness without a fight – which, judging from previous displays of their intentions towards anyone disagreeing with their beliefs, will involve everything from whiny protests to inciting murder. So there’s that to look forward to.
Meanwhile, my position is this:
I honestly believe all religions and beliefs are, at best, stories. Possibly stories with some level of truth to them, but no less mythological for all that. We can debate the degree of ‘truth’ at the core of each ’till the cows come home – but it seems to me a politeness for all beliefs to meet on an equal playing field. Certainly, the hard core believers will insist that their faith deserves privilege above the others because theirs is the Real True Truth… but after the first fifty or so different flavours of believer stating that with a straight face, it gets real old, real fast. Either raise all beliefs up to the level of the most-favoured… or bring them all down to the lowest. No special pleading, no tax breaks, no exemptions from civil law on grounds of belief. Everyone gets the same treatment. From the Jewish Anti-Defamation League to the Na’vi one. From Sunni and Shia to followers of Sol Invictus and Satan and Scooby-Doo.
Then, finally, perhaps we can all compare notes about what we believe, and how we see the world, like civilised people.
(Next time on Guttershaman – looking deeper at the ‘Hyper-Real’ religions via the work of Adam Passamai, who coined the term.)