Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Religious Narratives as Plausibility Structures

Religions involve belief in the unbelievable: in evil spirits causing disease, in souls surviving death, and in gods punishing wrongdoers and blessing the just. Cognitive studies suggest that humans are predisposed to speculate about fate and divine agency, but support from so-called ‘plausibility structures’ is needed for spontaneous religious cognition to develop into firmly held beliefs about particular deities.

2016  -   2017
Markus Davidsen

This project investigates the role of religious narratives as plausibility structures for religion. More concretely, it aims to test and develop a theory on the persuasive power of religious narratives developed by Markus Altena Davidsen [“The Religious Affordance of Fiction: A Semiotic Approach”, Religion 46(4), 521–549, 2016]. Based on analyses of the Christian Gospels and contemporary fictionbased religions (Star Wars-based Jediism and Tolkien spirituality), Davidsen suggests that a given narrative can work as a plausibility structure for religion if it includes the following textual features: (1) narrative religion, i.e. characters performing rituals directed at supernatural beings that can be taken as models by the reader, and (2) veracity mechanisms, i.e. rhetorical features that explicitly claims or implicitly implies that the text is non-fictional truth.

To test the theory, this project investigates the persuasive power of narratives in two additional cases: the Apollonian cult at Delphi and the International Raëlian Movement (a contemporary UFO religion). The project will analyse the role that narratives play as plausibility structures within these two traditions and identify the rhetorical features that these narratives use to generate their authoritative status. The findings will be compared to hypotheses generated by the theory, and used to refine the theory where necessary.

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