Australian atheists are apparently frustrated over an old joke involving religious affiliation that has taken on a problematic life of its own.
So, an atheist activist group is urging Australians who reject belief in a higher power to carefully respond to a question about religious affiliation during the nation's upcoming Aug. 9 census.
"If old religious men in robes do not represent you...don't mark yourself as 'Jedi,'" reads a message on a graphic that was recently tweeted by the Atheist Foundation of Australia, a group devoted to secular values.
The message comes as Australia is set to conduct a routine census. It also comes as a joke that began back in 2001 is apparently still having a major impact on the reporting of religious demographics in the country.
It all started 15 years ago when a few people thought it would be funny to select "Jedi" as their official religious designation, a label used to comically describe a faux, Star Wars-inspired faith. That joke went viral, though, offering up a sizable chunk of self-described "adherents."
The Australia Bureau of Statistics explains that dynamic on its website, noting that the initial decision to select "Jedi" or similar derivatives 15 years ago has had a continued impact on government statistics.
"When answering the question on religion in the 2001 Census, 70,509 Australians (0.37%) wrote 'Jedi' or a variant, in response to an email campaign claiming (mistakenly) that if 8,000 people said they followed the Jedi religion in the forthcoming Census, the country would have to recognise it officially," an explainer reads.
But it didn't end there. The Australian "Jedi" numbers were still at 58,053 in the 2006 census â€” and actually increased to 64,390 once again in 2011.
And the phenomenon spread to other countries as well, with 176,632 people saying that they were "Jedis" in England and Wales back in 2011 (that number was purportedly 390,127 10 years earlier in 2001).
With the Australian 2016 census about to unfold, atheists are hoping that more exact numbers can be collected and that a firmer idea about religion â€” or the lack thereof â€” will be discerned.
"'Jedi' and other joke religions are not placed in the 'No Religion' category, but in 'Not Defined,'" reads the graphic shared by the Atheist Foundation of Australia. "This makes Australia seem more religious than it really is."
The worry is that the Jedi dynamic means atheists will have a lower level of representation in terms of government services following the census, the BBC reported.
"One thing that we do know about the census is that it's used to decide all sorts of things, from planning education facilities and hospitals, to allocating time slots on public radio and television," Kylie Sturgess, president of the Atheist Foundation of Australia, told the outlet. "We're hoping that people who might have put down Jedi, or maybe even their favourite football team, as their religion, to think about what the future of Australia is going to be like, and whether they want to legitimately be part of that."
To counter the Jedi move and to encourage atheists to speak out, there's now a public service campaign aimed at getting people to mark "no religion" instead of the Star Wars descriptor during the Aug. 9 census.
The effort, set up by the Atheist Foundation, emphasizes the fact that it's "the first in Australiaâ€™s history where the 'no religion' option sits at the top of 10 possible responses, rather than at the bottom."
It should also be stated that while the Jedi phenomenon started out as a joke, the BBC questioned in 2014 whether "Jediism" is actually beginning to shape up to become a real-life religion.
In fact, the outlet reported that there's been an attempt to construct a "coherent religious code" â€” one that apparently blends elements of Catholicism, Buddhism, Taoism and Samurai, according to Beth Singler, an instructor at Cambridge University's divinity school. You can read more about it here.
A website for a U.S.-based group called the Jedi of the Temple Order proclaims that its beliefs have nothing to do with Star Wars and are, in fact, much deeper in its scope and aim.
"What we are is a group of individuals coming together in a community to promote goodwill, happiness, understanding and serenity," a description reads. "We are about a greater level of spiritual awareness, human compassion and bringing about a greater understanding of the universe and the people within it to help move the world forward in the most positive of ways."