Today, millions of people all over the world will take part in a collective ritual. They will be contemplating the same story, an epic myth about the fight between good and evil, father and son, love and fear, about the nature of the universe and how we relate to it. Millions of people who have never met and never will meet will share in an experience of collective catharsis and release around a common set of “symbols and metaphors”, as Reza Aslan calls them. Millions of people will come together around this narrative, united in an experience of wonder that this narrative instills in them, informing their lives and shaping their view of morality.
No, I’m not talking about a religious service. I’m talking about Star Wars.
Star Wars is an almost perfect example of epic narrative by design. George Lucas was very open about taking the work of Joseph Campbell, perhaps the most famous scholar of mythological archetypes, slapping on stormtrooper uniforms and sending it into space. It very blatantly takes many of the features of ancient religious myths Campbell talks about, including conflict between father and son, oracles, prophecies, temptation away from the path, apotheosis, and more. And it worked. Star Wars has ascended into our culture as a meme among memes, using perhaps the oldest concepts of form and structure devised by artists over centuries of human civilization.
If this sounds familiar to you, it’s because it is – Star Wars, no more factually truthful than religion, has all of its power. Whole communities spring up around it, in both the real and virtual worlds. Families have been joined and babies have been born over a shared love of this narrative, thanks to the numerous conventions and gatherings that are centered around it. I have no doubt that many of us, on a first date, found great satisfaction and relief to learn that our date too loved Star Wars, opening up all kinds of areas of commonality and understanding. The symbols and metaphors it provides have entered into all other areas of popular culture. If you compare someone to Darth Vader an we automatically know what they mean. “Turning to the Dark Side” need not be explained by almost anyone to understand how one may be poking fun at you or being deathly serious, depending on the context of your conversation.
But I would go one step further. Star Wars isn’t just as powerful as religion – it’s superior.
Why is Star Wars better than religion? Because we get all of the benefits, with none of the encumbrances. Yes, we can take away much meaning and catharsis, but we never have to believe any of it is true. And nobody is even pretending that it’s true. No holy wars will be waged over the death of Obi-Wan Kenobi, nor will preaching the virtue of the Dark Side be declared apostasy and be punished as such. Star Wars is truly a religion of peace, because we do not have to believe it’s actually true. Not even the craziest fans preach it as such, nor has even the fringe of the fringe even tried to argue that belief in Star Wars be forced upon others by the point of the sword.
Many have said that we’ll never fully replace religion, and the history of the 20th century shows that very often other narratives *do* take religion’s place and function in much the same way. To move forward, perhaps giving our narratives the “Star Wars Treatment” is the real solution. Not only would “The Muhammed Trilogy” make for great cinema, it would expose the story for what it really is – just a story – without removing the meaning and hope it gives to so many billions of people. It could still offer all of the catharsis and release and collective experience that religion does, but without being encumbered by any illusions that a literalist interpretation is still a reasonable one.
Why do certain narratives take hold over a culture while others don’t? Why do old ones fade and pass away while others grow stronger? I am not exaggerating when I say that understanding this is critical to solving the problems we are grappling with today. The encumbrances of religions narrative aren’t just silly, or inconvenient, they are in many cases outright deadly. The terrorists in the San Bernardino shooting were not part of any formal terror cell, nor did they have any formal contact with the Islamic State – coming into contact with ISIS propaganda was enough to override all of their brain’s default functionality geared towards self preservation and unleash deadly violence upon a center for disabled children. To defeat terrorism, it is this narrative we must defeat. And to defeat it, we need to consider aspiring to understand the entire process of narrative to an extent that has never before been considered.
As of now it is almost impossible to really understand viral information in an even remotely scientific way. Our understanding of the brain and how it interacts with information is too infantile. But when considering how one could approach this, I can’t help but be reminded of the summers I spent at Harvard University doing X-ray crystallography, the process by which we learn the biological structure of proteins, viruses and more so as to understand how and why they function. Very often it is structure that determines how and why a virus manipulates our bodies for its own purposes – can you imagine a world where we could understand the ‘structure’ of information or narrative in as clearly a scientific, quantifiable way? Imagine being able to quantify exactly how information interacts in our neural networks, understanding more completely what it is about certain powerful structures that make them spread through a human culture like wildfire. What would this understanding look like? How could we go beyond humanistic, pseudo-scientific speculation regarding why certain types of information like literature, oratory, music, film and more are able to affect the brains of so many human beings? Could we begin to really understand how powerful orators could inspire stadiums full of people either to embrace their fellow man or throw them into gas chambers?
I have absolutely no answers to this, but I firmly believe that it is only when we learn to understand and harness this power that we will begin to turn the tide against religious terrorism and oppression. Until that day comes, the process will be, for lack of a better expression, “more art than science.” We will have to keep engaging in the very unscientific process of simply imitating past models that happened to work, and throwing things at the wall until something sticks.
Perhaps one day, a vision of a truly diverse, peaceful world really will be as powerful as Christianity or Islam, and sell far more tickets than Star Wars. Until that day comes, may the force be with you.