Harrison Ford is getting sick of the growing number of Star Wars fans camping outside his doorstep. The Hollywood actor - who plays Han Solo in the hit sci-fi franchise - claims he is hounded by a group of wacky film fanatics praying to him as the leader of the Star Wars-inspired Jediism religion outside his Wyoming, home. He says, "It's flattering, but I can't accept their prayers.
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How do religions get started? Most have been around so long their origins are shrouded in legend. The newer ones are also shrouded in legend but may still offer clues to their beginnings. If Harrison Ford’s troubles with overzealous “Jediists” are any indication, the distinction between at least some religious movements and celebrity worship is not always clear-cut. George Lucas may be surprised to learn that the cult following surrounding his Star Wars films has evolved into an actual cult. Inspired by mythologist Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, Lucas admittedly indulged in a bit of deliberate myth-making while crafting his Star Wars scripts, albeit for a galaxy far, far way. However, his purpose was never anything more exalted than selling movie tickets.
Lucas is not the only purveyor of science fiction to inspire a religious movement, however inadvertent in his case. L. Ron Hubbard, who got his start cranking out pulp science fiction, went on to become the founder of Scientology, whose Hollywood trappings have less to do with celebrity worship than with recruiting celebrities as worshippers. Then there are the various flying saucer cults that have arisen since World War II in response to UFO sightings and reports of alien abductions. The most notorious was Heaven’s Gate, a millenarian sect whose members committed mass suicide in 1997 in the belief that their souls would be transported to a higher dimension by a spacecraft hovering behind the Hale-Bopp Comet.
Arthur C. Clarke, another purveyor of science fiction, once observed that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic to those who are less advanced. Aborigines on isolated South Pacific islands during World War II watched American military aircraft unloading supplies at airstrips carved out of the jungle and evolved elaborate rituals to persuade the gods to drop more cargo from the sky after the war ended and the troops went away.
One can see evidence of a similar phenomenon at work long before there was any advanced technology to wow the natives. The New Testament reports an incident in which the apostles Paul and Barnabas visit Lystra in Asia Minor and heal a crippled man there. The locals mistake them for Greek gods and want to offer sacrifices to them, whereupon Paul and Barnabas try to explain that they not gods but men “of like nature with you.” However, they may inadvertently have opened the door to such confusion by preaching about a savior who was of like nature with men but who was also worshipped as God.
“People fashion their God after their own understanding,” as Oscar Wilde put it. Our tendency is to idolize those perceived to be more intelligent, more glamorous or more powerful than ourselves. Children start out worshipping their parents before eventually discovering within themselves all those qualities they assumed belonged to the gods of the grownup world. We outgrow such infantile adulation but rarely the tendency to ascribe to our gods those same powers that also lie dormant within ourselves. We fail to grasp the true meaning of our religious myths, which tell us we are created in God’s image; instead, we are content to worship gods who are created in our own.