A New Atheist and a Fundamentalist Walk into a Bar

January 8, 4042 (the future)

A so-called new atheist and a fundamentalist walk into a bar discussing a passage from the fundamentalist’s new Bible on “Richard Dawkins, the one and only true Messiah, who lived about 2000 years ago (at the dawn of the 20th century)”.

Richard Dawkins, the Enlightened One sent by God, had been severely persecuted during his lifetime by “the unenlightened peoples of the world”, but eventually his Spirit lived on. The story of his life had been written down by some of his later followers. None of them, however, had known Dawkins personally. They were all dependent on what eye witnesses had told them. No accounts by Dawkins himself or his immediate followers, the first Dawkinsians, were known.

Richard Dawkins Cult

Fundamentalist Dawkinsian: “It says here that he navigated many dangerous waters in his lifetime. So he was a skipper. This Book comes from God, so I know this claim to be true!”

New Atheist: “Archaeological research reveals that the very first manuscripts of your so-called Holy Book originated in the middle of the desert, among a group of so-called second generation followers of Richard Dawkins. Today researchers generally assume that the movement around Dawkins and the supposed Dawkins himself barely saw any waters at all. So that claim about “navigating many dangerous waters” and Dawkins being a skipper is just bollocks! Moreover, many elements of the stories around Dawkins are present in stories about famous figures of the time as well, like that Moses guy. Some of those celebrities are even completely fictional characters, like Bart Simpson. The story about Richard Dawkins seems assembled from other stories. So if Richard Dawkins ever existed at all remains to be seen!”

Fundamentalist Dawkinsian: “God’s Holy Book contains the true knowledge and science, He can’t be lying. It would be against God’s very own nature to deceive us! You’re an arrogant sinner not to accept the divine truth!”

New Atheist: “Go on then, you idiotic arrogant Dawkinstard, trust those ridiculous revelations! I’ll go with real scientific evidence, though!”

Richard Dawkins The Atheist Evangelist.jpg

In comes a Dawkinsian Biblical scholar.

Dawkinsian Biblical Scholar: “Hey you guys, 2000 years ago that expression in that context meant that Dawkins encountered many complicated situations during his lifetime. So it is a metaphorical way to express something about a historical experience. Your whole discussion about whether or not Dawkins was a skipper is off-topic. That’s what the science of historical critical research tells us. The writers used the idiom of their time and the stories people already knew.”

Fundamentalist Dawkinsian: “You’re not a true believer, you sinful corrupted traitor! You’re heir to the Catholidical Church of Dawkins, which is the Church of the Devil!”

New Atheist: “You’re a rationalizing apologist, stupid enough to waste your time on fairy tale nonsense. No one read the Bible that way at the time!”

In comes an atheist Biblical scholar.

Atheist Biblical scholar: “I must say my colleague, the Dawkinsian Biblical scholar, is right. He presents the scholarly consensus.”

Fundamentalist Dawkinsian: “You’re a sinner too, you arrogant know-it-all!”

New Atheist: “Well you’re kind of an arrogant prick to claim the truth, you corrupted pseudo-scientist! Of course you defend the scholarly consensus, your career depends on it!”

Ban AtheismAfter which the fundamentalist Dawkinsian and the new atheistBan Religion continued their mimetic battle. It gave meaning to their lives as it provided them with a sense of superiority over their “stupid, stubborn and evil enemies”. However, as mimetic doubles they eventually became each other’s idiots, hurling similar insults back and forth. It seems every human being becomes that idiot from time to time. They accused each other of being the source of many evils in the world, and therefore saw themselves justified to promote politics that would eliminate the other’s world view.

The Dawkinsian and atheist Biblical scholar, on the other hand, went for a beer together. Or so the story goes…

Mimetic Doubles Fundamentalism and New Atheism

 

 

The Gospel in Star Wars

1. The Myth of the Hero’s Journey in Star Wars

Much has been written about the mythological nature of the Star Wars movie saga. Indeed its creator, George Lucas, is heavily influenced by the writings of mythologist Joseph Campbell. Campbell even became a mentor to Lucas, helping him to create this new mythology for the blockbuster and pop culture audience. Bill Moyers interviewed Lucas about the mythology of Star Wars:

Joseph Campbell became famous for his concept of “the hero’s journey”, one of the main patterns inJoseph Campbell George Lucas Meme mythology, observable in stories throughout the world and recaptured by George Lucas. An exhibition on Star Wars at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney focused on this theme. Here is some explanation from the teachers notes to this exhibition (click here – pdf):

Joseph Campbell, one of the world’s foremost students and scholars of mythology, studied thousands of myths from around the world and discovered that the majority of them shared many common characteristics. In fact, he saw all the stories as variations of one overall tale, which he named the ‘monomyth’. The subject of the hero is no exception. While the heroes of various cultures may be defined as heroic for different reasons, nearly each one fits the stages of the hero journey as developed by Campbell.

According to Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949:245–246) we can summarize the hero’s journey into three main stages.

Departure

‘The mythological hero, setting forth from his common day hut or castle, is lured, carried away, or else voluntarily proceeds, to the threshold of adventure. There he encounters a shadow presence that guards the passage. The hero may defeat or conciliate this power and go alive into the kingdom of the dark (brother-battle, dragon-battle; offering, charm), or be slain by the opponent and descend in death (dismemberment, crucifixion).’

The Hero's Journey 1Initiation

‘Beyond the threshold, then, the hero journeys through a world of unfamiliar yet strangely intimate forces, some of which severely threaten him (tests), some of which give magical aid (helpers). When he arrives at the nadir of the mythological round, he undergoes a supreme ordeal and gains his reward. The triumph may be represented as the hero’s sexual union with the goddess-mother of the world (sacred marriage), his recognition by the father-creator (father atonement), his own divinization (apotheosis), or again — if the powers have remained unfriendly to him — his theft of the boon he came to gain (bride-theft, fire-theft); intrinsically it is an expansion of consciousness and therewith of being (illumination, transfiguration, freedom).’

The Hero's Journey 3Return

‘The final work is that of the return. If the powers have blessed the hero, he now sets forth under their protection (emissary); if not, he flees and is pursued (transformation flight, obstacle flight). At the return threshold the transcendental powers must remain behind; the hero re-emerges from the kingdom of dread (return, resurrection). The boon that he brings restores the world (elixir).’

The Hero's Journey 5Other researchers and scholars have made similar observations regarding this universal mythological and archaic cultural pattern. The pinnacle of the initiation stage is always the “death and rebirth” or, in other words, the “sacrifice and resurrection” of the hero (or heroine). According to Campbell and others, the hero “has to die to his old self” through a supreme (series of) ordeal(s) and return as someone who has the skills to renew life, prosperity, order and peace for his community. It is no coincidence that initiation rituals take the same pattern. In short, archaic cultures defend the idea that a sacrifice (of a hero or his enemy, of a beast or a monster) is necessary to save communities from potentially or ongoing destructive crises. Already James Frazer in his classic study The Golden Bough (click here – pdf) described the necessity of periodic sacrifices as an essential belief underlying myths and rituals throughout the world. The creatures that are sacrificed or sacrifice themselves turn out to be somewhat ambiguous: sometimes they are presented as “bad” as they are considered responsible for all kinds of evil; sometimes they are presented as “good” as their death will save the community; often they are presented as both bad (“monsters” while alive) and good (“saviors” when dead or cast out).

Together with scholars like Frazer, René Girard observes that the above mentioned mythological pattern shows up in the Hebrew Bible and in the Gospels as well, especially in the story of Jesus Christ’s Passion. However, unlike Frazer, Campbell and the like, Girard does not believe that the story of Christ’s Passion is “just one more myth”. The structural pattern might be the same, but the content of this story’s message is very different. The Gospels do not justify the sacrifice of Jesus of Nazareth. They show how this victim is innocent of the charges put against it. They reveal Jesus as a scapegoat in the way this word is understood nowadays: as someone who is accused of things he is not responsible for. Eventually, the Gospels thus fundamentally question the necessity of violence to build peace and order. From the perspective of the Gospels, there is no “good” vs. “bad” violence, nor “justified” vs. “unjustified” sacrifices. Violence in itself is considered “evil”, even “satanic”.

In light of these considerations, it is interesting to once again take a look at Star Wars and ask the question whether this saga is purely mythical or if it also contains some of the criticisms on myth by the Gospels. As it turns out, Star Wars Episode III, Revenge of the Sith, seems the key to answer this question.

2. The Tragedy of a Violent Cycle in Star Wars & The Gospel’s Alternative

The Hebrew Bible and the New Testament reveal a cycle of events that shows up again and again in the history of mankind. In a first stage, on a psychological level, humans always reinforce each other’s anxious desire and greed for things like prestige, riches, honor and power. From this comes competition, rivalry and violence, resulting in a second stage: a social crisis. The third stage, the political solution to this crisis, is usually found in the expulsion or destruction of a common enemy or victim – an individual or a group –, which restores order, peace and unity within a human community. The leaders of the newly found order justify that sacrifice as well as their own leadership by presenting the sacrificed victims as creatures who had to die in order to prevent further disorder. The recollection of this sacrifice results in a fourth, cultural stage: (sacrificial) rituals and mythological stories gratefully reenact or retell the events that kept (and still keep) the community together, while all sorts of taboos remind the community of the dangers of certain objects and actions associated with crisis situations. Of course this whole cycle of events starts again when a mutually reinforced desire for things like power resurfaces: as those in power increasingly fear they might lose their status, they more anxiously will hold on to it, thus making their status more desirable for others and thus (tragically and ironically) reinforcing the rivalry they wanted to prevent…

The principle of disorder coming from a rivalry based on mutually reinforced desires for things like power, as well as the principle of order coming from the elimination of those who are presented as mainly responsible for that disorder, is personified as “Satan” in the Gospels. Satan is the “prince of this world”, the personification of the murders and the lies people in power use to solidify and justify their position. “The kings of this world” indeed often refer to all kinds of possible threats in order to present themselves as “saviors” of their community, providing safety and security. The tragic and ironic truth, of course, is that they can only secure their own position for as long as their citizens don’t feel safe but fear those possible threats.

Palpatine and Julius CaesarThe Star Wars saga reveals the satanic cycle in its own way. Senator Palpatine is the politician who takes advantage of political and social turmoil in the Galactic Republic to eventually gain absolute power. He first becomes Chancellor and then, finally, Emperor of the newly found Galactic Empire. In this respect Star Wars is reminiscent of what happened to the Roman Empire with the arrival of Julius Caesar. Both Senator Palpatine and Julius Caesar were given extended rule and power for the sake of the safety of their respective Republic, in the midst of civil wars. However, they both stayed in their position much longer than they were supposed to be, their dictatorship eventually destroying the democracy they were supposed to protect. Moreover, they both were involved in the wars that threatened the stability of their Republic. Senator Palpatine even secretly organized the political turmoil and he provoked the wars in the Galactic Republic. That way he could present himself as the “savior” who was desperately needed. This trick was also used by Syrian dictator Assad (and other dictators in the Middle East, for that matter) when he released Islamist extremists from prison so they could join the rebels who fought against his rule – watch the following clip from 00:50-01:04:

“Extremists from Syria and around the region start traveling to join the rebels. Assad actually encourages this by releasing Jihadist extremists to tinge the rebellion with extremism, make it harder for foreigners to back them.”

Palpatine is able to sell the illusion that he is the one who can bring peace to the Galaxy. Of course he will, ironically, violently suppress every possible “enemy” or threat, thereby feeding the rebellion he is trying to prevent. Once hailed as a savior Palpatine becomes the evil Emperor who needs to be sacrificed himself.

In short, in Star Wars the first stage of the satanic cycle is represented in Palpatine’s reinforced desire for power. This eventually results in the social crisis of the second stage. Then comes the third stage of provisional peace, based on the sacrifice of Palpatine’s and his Empire’s so-called enemies. The cultural order of the fourth stage is only briefly kept. Palpatine’s position almost immediately becomes the object of the ambitions and desires of others.

Palpatine turns out to be Darth Sidious, a Sith Lord. The so-called “evil” order of the Sith is the age-old enemy of the so-called “good” order of the Jedi-knights. However, as Episode III of the Star Wars saga makes clear, the line between good and evil cannot be so easily drawn.

Anakin Skywalker is a young Jedi apprentice who gradually becomes a puppet of the seemingly inevitable “satanic” cycle of events. In a first psychological stage Anakin becomes the victim of fear (of rejection), jealousy, pride, anger, hate and greed. In other words, he suffers from those characteristics which the Christian tradition has identified as “cardinal sins”. Master Yoda, head of the Jedi Council, warns Anakin against the dark forces of fear (from script number 77):

YODA: Careful you must be when sensing the future, Anakin. The fear of loss is a path to the dark side.

ANAKIN: I won’t let these visions come true, Master Yoda.

YODA: Death is a natural part of life. Rejoice for those around you who transform into the Force. Mourn them, do not. Miss them, do not. Attachment leads to jealousy. The shadow of greed, that is.

ANAKIN: What must I do, Master Yoda?

YODA: Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.

Of course this is rather a Buddhist way of handling things (as, in Buddhism, attachment is seen as the source of suffering and “nirvana” is the state of bliss where one is free of suffering and therefore of attachments). But Yoda’s warning against jealousy also refers to the story of Cain and Abel, where Cain gets an advice from “the Lord” when Cain becomes jealous of his brother Abel (Genesis 4:6-7):

The LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”

Cain, feeling rejected, nevertheless ends up killing his brother. The warnings of Yoda too go in vain. Anakin rather takes advice of Chancellor Palpatine, “Darth Sidious”, who – like the (“hidious, hissing”) snake in the Genesis story of the Fall – feeds Anakin’s feelings of jealousy, greed and resentment (from script number 88 & 118):

ANAKIN: You wanted to see me, Chancellor.

PALPATINE: Yes, Anakin! Come closer. I have good news. Our Clone Intelligence Units have discovered the location of General Grievous. He is hiding in the Utapau system.

ANAKIN: At last, we’ll be able to capture that monster and end this war.

PALPATINE: I would worry about the collective wisdom of the Council if they didn’t select you for this assignment. You are the best choice by far… but, they can’t always be trusted to do the right thing.

* * *

ANAKIN: Chancellor, we have just received a report from Master Kenobi. He has engaged General Grievous.

PALPATINE: We can only hope that Master Kenobi is up to the challenge.

ANAKIN: I should be there with him.

PALPATINE: It is upsetting to me to see that the Council doesn’t seem to fully appreciate your talents. Don’t you wonder why they won’t make you a Jedi Master?

ANAKIN: I wish I knew. More and more I get the feeling that I am being excluded from the Council. I know there are things about the Force that they are not telling me.

PALPATINE: They don’t trust you, Anakin. They see your future. They know your power will be too strong to control. Anakin, you must break through the fog of lies the Jedi have created around you. Let me help you to know the subtleties of the Force.

Cain and AbelIn the end, Anakin, like Cain, also wants to kill his “brother”, his mentor Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi (from script number 214):

ANAKIN: This is the end for you, My Master. I wish it were otherwise.

ANAKIN jumps and flips onto OBI-WAN’s platform. The fighting continues again until OBI-WAN jumps toward the safety of the black sandy edge of the lava river. He yells at Anakin.

OBI-WAN: It’s over, Anakin. I have the high ground.

ANAKIN: You underestimate my power!

OBI-WAN: Don’t try it.

ANAKIN follows, and OBI-WAN cuts his young apprentice at the knees, then cuts off his left arm in the blink of an eye. ANAKIN tumbles down the embankment and rolls to a stop near the edge of the lava.

ANAKIN struggles to pull himself up the embankment with his mechanical hand. His thin leather glove has been burned off. He keeps sliding down in the black sand.
OBI-WAN: (continuing)… You were the Chosen One! It was said that you would, destroy the Sith, not join them. It was you who would bring balance to the Force, not leave it in Darkness.

OBI-WAN picks up Anakin’s light saber and begins to walk away. He stops and looks back.

ANAKIN: I hate you!

OBI-WAN: You were my brother, Anakin. I loved you.

At this point in the story, Anakin is already involved in the second and third stage of the satanic cycle. He is convinced that the crisis in the Galactic Republic can only be stopped by sacrificing the Jedi and by establishing the rule of the Sith. Moreover, he believes that the power of the Sith will save the life of his wife Padme (but he will tragically accomplish the opposite).

In any case, Anakin is willing to believe Palpatine, who portrays the Jedi as a threat to the survival of the Republic. After being named “Darth Vader” while receiving his new identity as Sith Lord, Anakin is prepared to sacrifice the Jedi in order to prevent further “civil war” and establish “peace” (from script number 88 & 130):

PALPATINE: You must sense what I have come to suspect … the Jedi Council want control of the Republic… they’re planning to betray me.

ANAKIN: I don’t think…

PALPATINE: Anakin, search your feelings. You know, don’t you?

ANAKIN: I know they don’t trust you…

PALPATINE: Or the Senate… or the Republic… or democracy for that matter.

ANAKIN: I have to admit my trust in them has been shaken.

PALPATINE: Why? They asked you to do something that made you feel dishonest, didn’t they?

ANAKIN doesn’t say anything. He simply looks down.

PALPATINE: (continuing) They asked you to spy on me, didn’t they?

ANAKIN: I don’t know… I don’t know what to say.

PALPATINE: Remember back to your early teachings. Anakin. “All those who gain power are afraid to lose it.” Even the Jedi.

* * *

PALPATINE: Every single Jedi, including your friend Obi-Wan Kenobi, is now an enemy of the Republic. You understand that, don’t you?

ANAKIN: I understand, Master.

PALPATINE: We must move quickly. The Jedi are relentless; if they are not all destroyed, it will be civil war without end. First, I want you to go to the Jedi Temple. We will catch them off balance. Do what must be done, Lord Vader. Do not hesitate. Show no mercy. Only then will you be strong enough with the dark side to save Padme.

ANAKIN: What about the other Jedi spread across the galaxy?

PALPATINE: Their betrayal will be dealt with. After you have killed all the Jedi in the Temple, go to the Mustafar system. Wipe out Viceroy Gunray and the other Separatist leaders. Once more, the Sith will rule the galaxy, and we shall have peace.

The reasons given by Darth Sidious (Palpatine) and Darth Vader (Anakin) to justify the murder of the Jedi are the exact same reasons given by the chief priests and the Pharisees in the Gospels to justify the murder of Jesus.

Jesus accuses the Jewish leaders of obeying “the devil”. In the Gospel of John, the devil clearly is a personification of the scapegoat mechanism. Jesus knows that the leaders of the Jewish people, the Pharisees and the chief priests, want him dead and that they try to justify his death with certain lies. They obey “the devil” – indeed the mechanism that justifies the elimination of people based on lies. [Note that Jesus does not believe that God wants him dead. If Jesus paradoxically sacrifices himself eventually, it is a consequence of his obedience to a Love that “desires mercy, not sacrifice”. He does not want to live at the expense of others, not even his “enemies”…]

John 8: 39-44

“If you, Pharisees, were Abraham’s children,” said Jesus, “then you would do what Abraham did. As it is, you are looking for a way to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. Abraham did not do such things. You are doing the works of your own father.”

“We are not illegitimate children,” they protested. “The only Father we have is God himself.”

Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God. I have not come on my own; God sent me. Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”

The Pharisees and chief priests are afraid that the growing popularity of Jesus might become a threat to their power. That’s why they try to present him as a rebel leader who could lead an uprising against the Roman occupier of Judea. A war with the Romans would mean the end of the Jewish nation and culture. Therefore the Jewish leaders see no other solution than to get rid of Jesus. It’s their way of justifying his elimination.

John 11: 45-50

Many of the Jews who had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin.

“What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.”

Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”

In the case of Jesus, the Gospel of John leaves no doubt that these allegations are false. The Evangelist lets Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect, unwittingly declare “the truth” about the arrested Jesus, namely that Jesus is innocent. Jesus does not wish to establish a “kingdom” or “peace” in competition with “the kings of this world” (whose kingdoms are based on sacrifices and the expulsion of certain people – like the “Pax Romana”). In other words, the Gospel of John reveals the plot against Jesus by the Pharisees and the chief priests as a scapegoat mechanism: Jesus is wrongfully accused. He refuses to start a civil war that would mean the end of the Jewish nation and culture.

John 18: 33-38

Pilate summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” “Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?” “Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”

Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”

Ecce Homo by Antonio Ciseri c. 1880“You are a king, then!” said Pilate. Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

“What is truth?” retorted Pilate. With this he went out again to the Jews gathered there and said, “I find no basis for a charge against him.”

Although both the killing of Jesus and the Jedi is justified by the potential danger they supposedly carry with them, there is a crucial difference between the attitude of Jesus and the attitude of the Jedi regarding the charges put against them. Jesus indeed is not drawn into a rivalry with “the kings of this world”, while the Jedi see no other option but to fight “the kings of their world”, the Sith.

In the competition to become rulers of the Galaxy, the Sith and the Jedi imitate each other more and more. As they try to distinguish themselves from each other, they tragically establish the opposite: they become, in the words of René Girard, “mimetic doubles” in a crisis of undifferentiation. At the height of the crisis, the Jedi are convinced that they should temporarily abandon normal democratic rules and replace so-called “corrupted” Senators in order to achieve peace. That’s exactly what Palpatine did earlier when he became a Chancellor with extended power! Moreover, the Jedi justify their politics of excluding “the betrayers” by referring to a potential plot against their order – once again, this is exactly the same as when Palpatine referred to a potential plot against the Senate to justify the eradication of the Jedi. Yoda senses the danger of this situation, as if he realizes that eventually there is no difference between so-called “good” and “bad” violence (from script number 117):

MACE WINDU: I sense a plot to destroy the Jedi. The dark side of the Force surrounds the Chancellor.

Kl-ADI-MUNDI: If he does not give up his emergency powers after the destruction of Grievous, then he should be removed from office.

MACE WINDU: That could be a dangerous move… the Jedi Council would have to take control of the Senate in order to secure a peaceful transition…

Kl-ADI-MUNDI: … and replace the Congress with Senators who are not filled with greed and corruption.

YODA: To a dark place this line of thought will carry us. Hmm… great care we must take.

From this perspective, maybe the greatest wisdom in Episode III comes from Palpatine, Darth Sidious (from script number 88):

PALPATINE: Remember back to your early teachings. Anakin. “All those who gain power are afraid to lose it.” Even the Jedi.

ANAKIN: The Jedi use their power for good.

PALPATINE: Good is a point of view, Anakin. And the Jedi point of view is not the only valid one. The Dark Lords of the Sith believe in security and justice also, yet they are considered by the Jedi to be…

ANAKIN: … evil.

PALPATINE: … from a Jedi’s point of view. The Sith and the Jedi are similar in almost every way, including their quest for greater power. The difference between the two is the Sith are not afraid of the dark side of the Force. That is why they are more powerful.

ANAKIN: The Sith rely on their passion for their strength. They think inward, only about themselves.

PALPATINE: And the Jedi don’t?

ANAKIN: The Jedi are selfless … they only care about others.

PALPATINE smiles.

PALPATINE: Or so you’ve been trained to believe. Why is it, then, that they have asked you to do something you feel is wrong?

ANAKIN: I’m not sure it’s wrong.

PALPATINE: Have they asked you to betray the Jedi code? The Constitution? A friendship? Your own values? Think. Consider their motives. Keep your mind clear of assumptions. The fear of losing power is a weakness of both the Jedi and the Sith.

It is no surprise then that both sides use violence: Jedi Masters Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi are killing clones while Anakin – now Darth Vader – is killing the separatists.

In the final battle of Episode III between Anakin and his former mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi, Anakin once again reveals the insight into the state of undifferentiation between mimetic doubles like the Sith and the Jedi. Both Obi-Wan and Anakin feel the other “is lost” and has to die (from script number 214):

OBI-WAN: I have failed you, Anakin. I was never able to teach you to think.

ANAKIN and OBI-WAN confront each other on the lava river.

ANAKIN: I should have known the Jedi were plotting to take over…

OBI-WAN: From the Sith! Anakin, Chancellor Palpatine is evil.

ANAKIN: From the Jedi point of view! From my point of view, the Jedi are evil.

OBI-WAN: Well, then you are lost!

ANAKIN: This is the end for you, my Master. I wish it were otherwise.

If these words of Anakin were applied to the Star Wars saga as a whole, with the Sith portrayed as “the good guys”, the Episodes would have had some mirroring titles, namely (by the way, the working title of The Return of the Jedi for a long time was The Revenge of the Jedi, indeed):

Episode I: A New Hope (as opposed to The Phantom Menace)
Episode II: Attack of the Clones
Episode III: The Return of the Sith (as opposed to The Revenge of the Sith)
Episode IV: The Phantom Menace (as opposed to A New Hope)
Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
Episode VI: The Revenge of the Jedi (as opposed to The Return of the Jedi)

Star Wars Prequel Trilogy PosterStar Wars Original Trilogy Poster

Perhaps the ultimate difference between the message of Star Wars and the message of the Gospels becomes clear by considering a story told by Palpatine (from script number 88):

PALPATINE: (continuing) Did you ever hear the tragedy of Darth Plagueis “the wise”?

ANAKIN: No.

PALPATINE: I thought not. It’s not a story the Jedi would tell you. It’s a Sith legend. Darth Plagueis was a Dark Lord of the Sith, so powerful and so wise he could use the Force to influence the midi-chlorians to create life… He had such a knowledge of the dark side that he could even keep the ones he cared about from dying.

ANAKIN: He could actually save people from death?

PALPATINE: The dark side of the Force is a pathway to many abilities some consider to be unnatural.

ANAKIN: What happened to him?

PALPATINE: He became so powerful… the only thing he was afraid of was losing his power, which eventually, of course, he did. Unfortunately, he taught his apprentice everything he knew, then his apprentice killed him in his sleep. (smiles) Plagueis never saw it coming. It’s ironic he could save others from death, but not himself.

The last sentence of Palpatine’s story also refers to a passage in the Gospels, when Jesus is dangling on the cross and is sneered at by the rulers, for instance in Mark 15:31:

The chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked Jesus among themselves. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself!”

sacrificial peaceBoth the Sith and the Jedi “save others” by “killing enemies” and “teaching others to become like them”, i.e. killers. Hence the Sith and the Jedi become rivals to both their enemies and their apprentices. This rivalry can only end in the death of one party, until the inevitable cycle of rivalry starts again. This is the meaning of Palpatine’s story. In the Star Wars Universe there has to be sacrifice, one way or the other, to create an ever provisional “peace”. In Episode VI, for instance, in the end either Luke Skywalker or Emperor Palpatine is killed. Darth Vader – Anakin Skywalker – eventually kills the Emperor to save his son. This means that Anakin Skywalker is “the One who brings balance to the Force” after all. He fulfilled his destiny. Moreover, by dying himself Darth-Vader-Anakin-Skywalker, the “evil one” while alive, becomes the “savior” of the Galaxy in the blink of an eye.

It seems that, by telling the story of Darth Plagueis, Palpatine prophesied his own tragic fate. Once again, in this way, the story of Palpatine refers to the history of Caesar, who was killed also by Brutus, his “son”. In the words of Jesus (Matthew 26:52): “Those who use the sword will die by the sword.”

Darth Vader vs. The EmperorAssassination of Julius Caesar by BrutusThe Gospels hold that there is another way. Throughout the Gospels it becomes clear that Jesus criticizes the universal tendency of human communities to structure themselves according to the identification of a common enemy or a common victim (be it an individual or a group). So on the one hand, concerning the group people are part of and that often manifests itself at the expense of a common enemy (for instance an adulteress who is about to be stoned – see John 8:1-11), it is no surprise that Jesus sows discord. It is no coincidence that he claims (Matthew 10:34-36):

I did not come to bring peace“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.”

This intention of Jesus, to create conflict where there is a certain order, is actually and paradoxically a plea against violence. Family members who slavishly obey a pater familias, tribe members who harmoniously feel superior to other groups, criminal gangs who blindly pledge allegiance to the mob boss, cult members and fundamentalist believers who are prepared to fight for their leader and their God till death, anxious employees who sell their soul to keep their job in a sick working environment, (youthful) cliques who strengthen their internal cohesion by bullying someone, whole nations who bow to the demands of a populist dictator and execute so-called “traitors” – Jesus doesn’t like it one bit.

Opposed to the small and big forms of “peace” based on oppression and violence, of which the Pax Romana in the time of Jesus is an obvious case of course, Jesus challenges people to build peace differently. Family members who belong to a “home” where they can have debates with each other, members of enemy tribes who end age old feuds by questioning their own perception of “the other tribe”, former criminals who start to behave like “moles” to clear their violent Mafia gang, fundamentalists who – realizing what they do to those who supposedly don’t belong to “the chosen ones” – liberate themselves from religious indoctrination, employees who address a reign of terror at their workplace, individuals who criticize the bullying of their own clique, pacifists who dare to dissent with the violent rule of a dictatorship and unveil its enemy images as grotesque caricatures – Jesus likes it. “Love your enemies”, Jesus says. Everyone who no longer condemns the external enemy of his own particular group because of a stirred up feeling of superiority, generates internal discord: “A person’s enemies will be those of his own household.” It’s only logical.

In short, Jesus argues in favor of non-violent conflict in order to end violent peace. That’s why he can say on the other hand, eventually (John 14:27):

Peace I leave with you“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you.”

Indeed Jesus saves others by calling their sacrifice or expulsion from the community into question. When he takes sides with a woman accused of adultery, who is about to be stoned, he does not want to get stoned himself, but he hopes that the community will show “mercy” and will not “sacrifice” (see Matthew 9:13).

Truman Atomic Bombing HiroshimaHowever, in consistently refusing to take part in a social system that constructs itself by means of sacrifices, Jesus is eventually sacrificed himself. Indeed, Jesus saved others, but he cannot save himself: if you stand up for the bullied, you run the risk of being bullied yourself, and you can only hope that others will show mercy as you yourself refuse to take part in sacrifice. When Jesus is arrested to be crucified, he refuses to start a civil war. He refuses to become the imitator of his persecutors, a “prince of this world”, a “Muammar Gaddafi” or even a “Harry Truman” (who considered the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki justified). By withdrawing from vengeance (i.e. the imitation of his persecutors and the ones who betrayed him – his disciples), Jesus creates the possibility of a truly new world. Imitating the One who “offers the other cheek”, the One who forgives and approaches his persecutors and betrayers with compassion, indeed allows each and every one of us to accept and deal with our own and each other’s weaknesses and iniquities, without us being victimized or “crucified” for jumping to this occasion…

To conclude, both the Star Wars saga and the Gospels eventually reveal violence for what it is, with all its tendencies towards undifferentiation, but the Star Wars saga seems to consider this violence to be an inevitable, tragic part of the social make-up. In the end, according to the Star Wars saga, the world always needs some sort of “sacrifice” that allows for a new “order”, i.e. for new “differences” between a group and its common enemy, between “good” and “bad” violence. The Gospels, on the other hand, consider another possibility – the imitation of Christ. In the words of René Girard (from an interview on Dutch television in 1985 – click here):

René Girard portraitYou see, what the Bible tells you and no other religion tells you, is that sacrifice is so inborn in human beings, so important in human society, that you can refuse sacrifice only if you accept to die. Because the moment will come where rivalry, mimetic rivalry between your brother and you, will put you in a situation where either he kills you or you kill him. And I think Greek tragedy stops right there – it says: “Well, I have the right of self-defense. It is mine.” What I think the Bible does, is saying: “You have to go beyond that.”

Star Wars

Fight over “True Islam”

Well, here’s my attempt at creating a “Girardian” image. René Girard constantly demonstrates how enemies have the tendency to imitate each other, although rather unwittingly. The more they resemble each other, the more they strive to differentiate themselves from each other, which tragically ends up in an even more undifferentiated monstrous cycle of mutual aversion and violence – a cycle of revenge…

CLICK THE IMAGE TO ENLARGE:

True Islam is Violent Mimetic Defenders and Enemies

Enemies become “mimetic doubles”. Today’s fight over so-called “True Islam” as a religion that supposedly justifies violence is but one example of a mimetic (i.e. imitative) interdependence between “defenders” and “attackers”. I highly recommend René Girard’s Battling to the End in this regard (find an extensive review by clicking here).

A slightly different version of the same image:

True Islam is Violent (by Mimetic Doubles)

One more:

True Islam is Violent Mimetic Fight

An Atheist Illusion

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

(Luke 18: 9-14).

The Pharisee in this parable of Jesus clearly claims the moral high ground. According to English dictionaries, “to claim the moral high ground” means “to say that you are morally better than someone else.”

There are several possible answers to the question why this Pharisee feels the need to expose his superior morality to a “God” while comparing himself to the morality of other people – of “sinners”, in particular of a tax collector. Maybe he is just an uncertain person who needs the comforting affirmation of an “imaginary friend” to feel good. Maybe he is a supreme narcissist who boosts his Ego (a collection of imaginary ideas of oneself) by convincing himself that he is favored by a “Supreme Being”. Maybe he is both – narcissistic feelings of superiority do tend to be a compensation for feelings of inferiority.

Pharisee and Tax Collector

There is yet another, more complex possibility, and it is provided by the German philosopher and atheist Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). Maybe the Pharisee compares himself to the tax collector in order to nurture the good yet imaginary ideas of himself because he is secretly jealous. Nietzsche claimed that the so-called weaker, dominated people in a society – the “slaves” as he calls them – have the tendency to compare themselves to the so-called stronger, dominant people – the “masters”. From this comparison the slaves develop the desire to achieve the same position and status as the masters, yet they fail. In order to cope with this failure, some of the slaves tell themselves that there is a God who is on their side, as opposed to the more common yet also more archaic religious idea that the opposite is true, namely that good health, strength, wealth, prosperity and a high social status are the signs of being favored by a “divine or sacred order of things” (see, for instance, the notion of “karma”). Convinced that an ultimate, “one true God” favors them over the masters and their “false gods”, the slaves start to resent what they initially desired until finally, they even develop a kind of paternalistic pity toward the masters. Hence the slaves praise themselves for not being like the masters who should be ashamed of their life, and they feel sorry for the masters. The victory of the slaves over the masters is complete, according to Nietzsche, when the masters start feeling ashamed and guilty about themselves. Thus the so-called “compassion” the slaves feel for “sinful” others has nothing to do with genuine care for these people, but everything with the love for an untruthful image of themselves. In other words, if achieving some kind of “prestige”, “image” or “status” is your ultimate goal in life, then you are not only unable to accept and love yourself, but you are also not able to truly love others.

Nietzsche was convinced that the resentment of the slaves forms the basis for the Judeo-Christian tradition. He was also convinced that this tradition is absolutely unique among the world-religions in that it provides these slaves with a powerful weapon to comfort and structure themselves and the rest of the world according to false hopes and fears. Therefore he despised the Judeo-Christian religion and he wanted to bring an end to the way it had – in his views – “poisoned” the mentality of the Western world.

Nietzsche especially resented – yes, he was no stranger to resentment himself, ironically – the figure of Jesus Christ. He believed that this so-called “prime representative of the God of the slaves” was the ultimate catalyst of the resentment of the slaves, turning it into perverse forms of pity, loathing, shame and guilt. However, when we read the above fragment of Luke, we get quite the opposite picture. It is clear that the Pharisee believes there is a God who favors him over the tax collector. A tax collector, mind you, usually is rather wealthy. The Pharisee, furthermore, praises himself for not being like the tax collector who should be ashamed of his life. Clearly the love of his self-image leads him to look down on other people. Because he does not really love himself (but an untruthful, narcissistic image of himself) the Pharisee is less capable of loving others. It is precisely the Pharisee’s narcissistic self-concept and his illusory ideas and expectations of a certain “God” that is criticized by Jesus, much in the same vein as Nietzsche criticizes those ideas! Well, who would have thought: Jesus as a kind of Nietzsche avant la lettre, who crushes the idols of narcissistic religious self-concepts.

The reason why Jesus wants people to be more realistic about themselves is because he wants to open the possibilities of love between people. And that’s different from Nietzsche’s ultimate concerns. Jesus wants to prevent people from offending, excluding or even sacrificing each other. Indeed, it is because of all too heroic, romantic or utopian ideas that we tend to create “hell”, not only for others, also for ourselves. In that sense Jesus is right to proclaim that “whoever exalts himself will be humbled” – it is the way of the world. The narcissist eventually destroys himself, utopias become dystopias. For instance, the student who takes pride in not working hard for school because he thinks it is “cool” reduces his chances of a really cool life. Of course this type of student is sometimes able to make hard working students feel ashamed of themselves, but in the long run “those who humble themselves” by not taking part in the competition of being the coolest “will be exalted”. Being honest about yourself, realizing that you are not that unique or special, prevents you from feeling ashamed of yourself, as it also prevents you from “pointing fingers” and loathing others. The hard working student who made himself believe by his surroundings that hard work is not cool, will often hide his real character by mocking, offending and excluding others who did come out of the closet as diligent students. In order to prevent this kind of exclusion, Jesus reminds us of who we really are: not at all that different from the people we look down on. That’s why he says, “let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”

Jesus wants to replace the love for our untruthful self-image and the adherence to our “reputation” with the love for ourselves and others. We can be like the hard working student who feels ashamed of himself, even guilty of studying hard, and indeed develop the tendency to publicly and hypocritically loath or exclude other hard working students. On the other hand, if we no longer feel ashamed of ourselves, we can start feeling ashamed of the hurt we brought to others because we were too preoccupied with our social profile. That is what happens to Peter: after denying Jesus when the latter is imprisoned, feeling ashamed of who he is because he fears being excluded or sacrificed himself, Peter eventually feels ashamed because of the hurt he brought to his friend.

That’s why a true conversion to Christianity is never easily “comforting”. It is, first of all, a conversion to “who we truly are”, and that truth is sometimes hard to swallow. So, no: belief in Christ is not equal to a comforting support of naïve, unrealistic, romantic or even utopian ideas of ourselves and the world. Nevertheless, at the same time, this conversion to ourselves in the realm of Christ’s love is also liberating since we are not destroyed for being “not perfect”. On the contrary, we are forgiven. To be able to acknowledge who we truly are in this realm of grace and mercy, enables us to refrain from “casting stones” to others who are more “like us” than we would previously acknowledge. It prevents us from approaching others for the sake of untruthful ideas of ourselves. For instance, the alcoholic who finds the realm of grace where he can acknowledge that he indeed is an alcoholic among other people with similar problems (be it at an AA-meeting or somewhere else), makes the first but very important step on a journey that might reconnect him with the people he hurt because of his addiction. The experience of this kind of grace, forgiveness and remorse, which enables people to love themselves and others anew, is totally contrary to the perversion of forgiveness: the “cleansing” of one’s sins in order to feel “perfect” again (which is the restoration of a narcissistic, untruthful Ego that eventually leads to hurting others).

Whether we call ourselves Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus or atheists, we all suffer from the same temptations. That’s because, believe it or not, we are all humans and we are more alike and less “unique” than we sometimes imagine.

Hence, Christ’s criticism of the pious believer is also applicable to the zealous atheist – contrary to the latter’s illusion that the figure of Christ has nothing to say to him; contrary to the latter’s illusion that he is “totally unlike the theist”. So yes, it comes as no surprise that some atheists claim the moral high ground. The well-known Penn Jillette, for instance:

“It’s about time we grabbed the moral high ground. I can make the argument – and I have – that the only ones with true morality are us, the atheists. We are doing good because it is good and we are doing right because it is right and not for reward or punishment. We have love for each other, we have community, we have charity…”

I can make the argument that the only ones with true morality are us the atheists (Penn Jillette quote)

It is clear that this atheist feels the need to expose his superior morality to an “Audience” while comparing himself to the morality of other people – of “theists”. From this conviction of moral superiority follows an aversion towards religious people, as they are perceived as being corrupted by their faith. This is perhaps best expressed by the late Christopher Hitchens, another well-known atheist:

“We keep on being told that religion, whatever its imperfections, at least instills morality. On every side, there is conclusive evidence that the contrary is the case and that faith causes people to be more mean, more selfish, and perhaps above all, more stupid.”

Faith causes people to be more mean, more selfish and more stupid (Christopher Hitchens)

Paraphrased in terms of the above mentioned parable of Jesus in Luke 18: 9-14, all of this looks like:

The atheist stood by himself and proclaimed on YouTube: ‘Man [since an atheist does not address God], I’m so happy that I am not like those believers, who are more mean, more selfish and more stupid than I am…’

This type of narcissism might seem rather harmless, but it does contain the seeds of a utopian desire to save us from so-called “corrupted” elements in order to establish a more perfect world. Christopher Hitchens again:

“If religious instruction were not allowed until the child had attained the age of reason, we would be living in a quite different world.”

a quite different world (Christopher Hitchens quote)

Sam Harris, yet another leading voice of the so-called “new atheism”, goes one step further in expressing his hope for the future:

“Some beliefs are so dangerous that it may be ethical to kill people for believing them.”

ethical to kill people (Sam Harris quote)

And so, once again, we are in the territory where, with the best of intentions, utopian dreams of “a better world without belief in God” might turn into ugly dystopias. It always starts with an idea… Of course, it is unlikely that it might come to this since there are respectful, non-paternalistic dialogues going on between many atheists and believers.

However, as is the case in some “pious” religious circles, also a kind of narcissism in some atheist quarters creates the impression that one should not feel ashamed or the least embarrassed if other people are offended or hurt by one’s words. Apparently, there is a kind of self-righteousness that seems to give people “the right” and “entitlement” to be indifferent towards the feelings of others. It dates to biblical times and beyond, and we can’t get rid of it, it seems… Stephen Fry, for instance, as yet another atheist:

“It’s now very common to hear people say, ‘I’m rather offended by that’ – as if it gives them certain rights. It’s no more than a whine. ‘I find that offensive.’ It has no meaning, it has no purpose, it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. ‘I’m offended by that.’ Well, so fucking what?”

offended by that (Stephen Fry quote)

Well, yeah, of course zealous atheists like Stephen Fry and Christopher Hitchens have the legal right to call believers generally “more mean, more selfish and more stupid” because of their faith than atheists. Well, yeah, of course some of the people who consider themselves to be pious believers have the legal right to call atheists immoral sinners who will burn in hell… I guess this type of “mimetic doubling” (René Girard) is a sign of tolerance, respect and love in a beautiful, unbroken human world?