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Star Wars, Christmas, and Constraints on Secular Influence
Culture Religion
Image credit: Flickr/kalexanderson
Michael Price
Michael Price
is Senior Lecturer in Psychology, and co-Director of the Centre for Culture and Evolutionary Psychology, at Brunel University, London.

As I write this in early December 2015, two cultural events loom larger in my London environment with each passing day: Christmas is coming, and the fanatically-awaited new Star Wars movie is about to be released. I’m fascinated by the power of cultural juggernauts like Christmas and Star Wars. Why are these particular institutions so popular? The answer may provide insight into human nature’s impulse towards supernatural explanation. These insights, in turn, may help us understand how secular, naturalistic philosophies of life (in contrast to supernatural philosophies like traditional religions) could become more popular culturally and thus stronger forces for good in the world.

As the Christmas-dominated holiday season really gets going, we’re all reminded of the power of commercialization, of course, but also of the power of religion. Yes, Christmas has strong secular aspects (some pagan roots, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, etc.), and it’s celebrated by many people who don’t believe Christian theology. Nevertheless its religious foundations are obvious. For centuries, the birthday of the Christian messiah has been the most important holiday in the West, and its associated rituals have constituted important aspects of Western culture.

Appearing in commercial synergy with Christmas this year is the about-to-be-released new Star Wars film. The first Star Wars movie, released in 1977, was incredibly popular, [1]not just because its special effects were great but because people felt like the movie as a whole—and especially its storyline—brought real magic into their lives. The second and third instalments (1980 and 1983) were also well-received, but the latter three films (1999, 2002, and 2005) disappointed many fans. However the franchise has recovered easily from this disappointment—the upcoming instalment is the most anticipated film in years—and this testifies to the tenacious appeal of the original three films.

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So Christmas and Star Wars have both had major cultural impacts. But beyond that, what do they have in common?

Magical, meaningful and emotionally charged

Christmas doesn’t mean a lot to everyone, of course, and neither does the 1977 Star Wars. But it’s worth asking why so many people have loved them so much. I suggest (as have others) that a big part of their success is that they both very effectively satisfy the human impulse to believe that your destiny and purpose in life are being controlled by a higher power. Religious people like Christians call this power God, and the original three Star Wars films called it the Force (whereas the latter three films portrayed the Force in more biological terms).

In both Christianity and the original Star Wars, this higher power (God/the Force) is the designer of the universe, who decides what’s going to happen in the world and what everyone’s destiny will be. This power has a plan for all individuals, and to lead a good and satisfying life, people must discern that plan and exist in harmony with it. If this power foreordains some outcome, it will of course happen, even if it’s against all odds. Things happen ‘for a reason’, and because they were ‘meant to be’. And this power will ultimately ensure that good prevails over evil. Supported by the power of God, Mary and Jesus were able to fulfil exceedingly improbable destinies: from pregnant virgin to mother of a stable-born messiah, and from ordinary carpenter to resurrected light of the world. And because the Force was with Luke, nothing could have come between him and his destiny to destroy the Death Star; the Force propelled him on an against-all-odds journey from rural farm kid to saviour of the rebellion.

Human nature and higher power

If skilfully told, stories such as those of Christmas (and of Christianity, and other religions, more generally) and Star Wars—stories of a destiny-controlling higher power—strike a chord in many people. They make life seem more meaningful, purposeful, magical, sacred, wonderful, exciting, and beautiful. They allow people to see their lives as fitting into a larger transcendent plan, to feel connected with the cosmos in an emotionally charged and satisfying way. And the emotional component of these stories is the most vital aspect of their appeal. People become deeply attached to these stories, and regard them with unusually high levels of reverence, love, and nostalgia. These stories become the most important and cherished cultural aspects of many people’s lives.

Why are people so attracted to stories about higher powers? The impulse to believe such stories is shown by many people across many different cultures, and is probably an aspect of human nature – that is, the product or by-product of evolved adaptation.[2] Although some people can become quite good at suppressing this impulse, even those who try hardest to do so—such as many atheists and agnostics—struggle with it[3]

Why are atheists and agnostics motivated in the first place to suppress the impulse to believe in a higher power? Because such beliefs are nearly always expressed in supernatural terms, and most atheists and agnostics strive to understand the world in naturalistic terms. Devotion to science and reason may lead one to feel that believing in a higher power is irrational, intellectually irresponsible, and out of touch with reality.

If higher powers are supernatural, is naturalism doomed?

What I mean to suggest, using Christmas and Star Wars as illustrations, is that the philosophies of existence that satisfy people the most are those which frame life in terms of a destiny-controlling higher power. But this higher power is usually described in supernatural terms, which is anathematic to those who aspire to understand the world in terms of reason, science, and knowledge of naturalistic processes. How does the rejection of higher power explanations by naturalistic philosophies (such as secular humanism) affect the popularity of these philosophies? It may limit their ability to spread culturally. Given this self-limitation, it’s not clear that any naturalistic philosophy could realistically expect to achieve popularity on the scale enjoyed by major world religions.

Perhaps naturalists should stop turning away from higher power explanations of life, and instead start embracing them, or at least start regarding them with more curiosity. That suggestion will sound paradoxical, if you’re assuming that higher power explanations must be supernaturalistic. However, although relatively few people seem to realize it, higher power explanations can be naturalistic as well. The most promising of these explanations see life itself as the product of a cosmological natural selection process, analogous to biological natural selection (I’ve written about these ideas here). Just as organismal traits are products or by-products of biological selection, life itself could be the product or by-product of cosmological selection[4].

Theories of cosmological natural selection are speculative and preliminary, and of course naturalists can’t be dogmatic about them in the way that traditional religions dogmatize their supernatural accounts. But these are serious naturalistic theories that, by invoking cosmological natural selection as the ‘designer’ of existence, may cast light on the ultimate meaning and destiny of life. These theories may seem fantastical to some, but if there’s one thing modern cosmology has taught us, it’s that our cosmic habitat is, in fact, staggeringly fantastic. In order to become more culturally influential, naturalists should stop dismissing the possibility of a higher power, and instead be exploring this possibility with all the scientific tools at their disposal. In the search for a higher power, cosmologists should lead the way.[5]
[1] Taylor, C. (2014). How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: The Past, Present, and Future of a Multibillion Dollar Franchise. Basic Books.

[2] Boyer, P. (2001). Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. Basic Books.

[3] Heywood, B. T., & Bering, J. M. (2014). “Meant to be”: How religious beliefs and cultural religiosity affect the implicit bias to think teleologically. Religion, Brain & Behavior, 4, 183-201

[4] Smolin, L. (1997). The Life of the Cosmos. Oxford University Press.Smolin, L. (1997). The Life of the Cosmos. Oxford University Press

[5] Gardner, J. N. (2000). The selfish biocosm. Complexity5, 34-45.

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  1. Ralph Haygood says:

    “cosmological natural selection as the ‘designer’ of existence”: The great difficulty with this notion, if you’re looking “to achieve popularity on the scale enjoyed by major world religions”, is that this ‘designer’ is apparently indifferent to the sufferings and deaths of individuals or even the extinctions of entire species. The great attractions of religion for many believers are its claims that the dead continue to exist as individuals and that the injustices of life are not permanent; versions of these claims are made by all widely embraced religions, whether the claimed mechanisms are some kind of heaven versus hell or some form of reincarnation with karma. However, I know of no naturalistic basis for making such claims. Perhaps humanity needs to evolve beyond its susceptibility to such claims.