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A Cross-Cultural Study of Some Supernatural Beliefs

A Cross-Cultural Study of Some Supernatural Beliefs
© Photograph by Marlon Roth

Looking back at the last two centuries, it seems that more and more distinct types of religions have appeared in the religious field. Especially the link between supernatural fiction and non-mainstream religion has given rise to more research on these new and distinctive religions.

With supernatural fiction, one can understand narratives that belong to their own fictional world, which exists only in the fantasy and imagination of the author or readers with a special focus on the supernatural, thus magic and anything beyond that is natural.

Supernatural fiction is present in most works of the fantasy, horror and science fiction genres. Various new and non-traditional religious movements have adapted supernatural fiction as a source for religious ideas, doctrines, and practices. This phenomenon caught the attention of certain scholars as Adam Possamai, Carole Cusack and Markus Davidsen.

Possamai named these religions that base their belief system on supernatural fictional texts hyper-real religions and he defines them as a “simulacrum of a religion created out of popular culture that provides inspiration for believers/consumers at a metaphorical level”. Cusack, on the other hand, named these types of religions “invented religions”. These, according to her, are religions “that announce their invented status”. Davidsen uses the term fiction-based religion because, according to him, it is “a religion that uses fictional texts as its main authoritative, religious texts”. Davidsen’s concept of fiction-based religion is very similar to Possamai’s term hyper-real religion (though more accurate), but it differs from Cusack’s definition.

Cusack’s concept does include not only fiction-based religions, but also parody religions as for example the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. And as Davidsen points out, this is problematic because parody religions indeed announce their invented status but fiction-based religions claim for themselves to be real religions.

There are various examples of fiction-based religions and one that is well-known is Jediism, a religion based on the fictional Force religion in Star Wars. The Force inspires the ideas and beliefs of Jediism as the supernatural power. Therefore, the religious practices performed by the adherents of Jediism are cornered around the interaction with the Force. This can be done through prayers, meditation or other performed rituals.

The Jediists have no real place to perform these rituals or to worship the Force and therefore the internet is used to communicate to other members of this religion. Thus it is not an institutionalized organisation, it as rather a network of individuals and groups with communities online although some meet face to face. Another example of fiction-based religions is the Tolkien Spirituality. J.R.R. Tolkien was a philologist, professor of English Language and above all, a famous writer, well-known from the books ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings’. The literary mythology described by Tolkien in these books became a source of spiritual inspiration for some of its readers and so a religious movement emerged. Some of the adherents of the Tolkien religion believe that Middle-earth is a place that actually exists and the members communicate through rituals with the gods of Tolkien’s fictional world.

But how could it be that these two works of fiction gave rise to a religion, while this did not happen with other fictional narratives as for example ‘The Wheel of Time’ by Robert Jordan or Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling? There seem to be some fictional texts that can give rise to a religion and thus afford religious use while other fictional texts do not. But what is it that makes supernatural fiction to afford religious use? Precisely this question is discussed by Davidsen in his article ‘The Religious Affordance of Fiction: A Semiotic Approach’. In this article, he explains that there are certain textual features that make it possible for supernatural fictional texts to afford religious use. These textual features are rhetorical strategies that are mostly employed in religious narratives, but they can be imitated by fictional texts as well.

Before we go on, it is important for this research to explain the terms religion and religious affordance. Within the field of the Study of Religion, the definition of religion has always been an important and immense challenge. Many scholars came up with functional as well as substantive definitions of religion; all try to give attention to the practical, theological, individual and/or collective dimension of religion as much as possible. All the known definitions of religion will not be discussed here, but it is important to give a workable definition of religion that is usable for this research. First of all, the definition of religion should be substantive (explaining what religion is) as well as functional (explaining what religion does). In my opinion, the substantive part of the definition of religion is that religion is the belief in supernatural agents. The functional part is that believers need to have a meaningful relationship with these supernatural agents or beings through religious practices.

In short, the definition of religion that will be used in this thesis is: “religion is the belief in supernatural agents and the need for a meaningful relationship with these supernatural agents through religious practices”. With these religious practices, the ways in which believers communicate with the supernatural agents through prayers, rituals, acts or symbols can be understood. Especially the functional essence of religion can be used to test if a phenomenon has a religious content or not. As Davidsen has pointed out in his article, fans of Star Wars or Lord of the Rings do no communicate through rituals or prayers to the (fictional) supernatural beings in these narratives, while the Jediists or adherents of the Tolkien religion do.

Star Wars, as well as ‘Lord of the Rings’, are fictional texts. Yet, these fictional narratives are used for a religious purpose; some of the readers choose to make these narratives authoritative for their own religious life. These texts thus afford religious use.

The idea of religious affordance used by Davidsen derives from the concept of affordances from ecological psychologist James Gibson. To give a short explanation; objects or artefacts have affordances that are functions intentionally designed. But they can also afford use that was not intended. A plate, for example, affords to be eaten from, which is its intended use but it can also afford to be thrown at somebody when you are angry, which is obviously possible, but it is not its intended use. Davidsen argues that this is the same for (fictional) texts; the intended use of fiction is to read it as fiction and play with it as fiction, as fans do when they dress up as characters. This is the fictional affordance. But some fictional narratives have another, unintended, affordance as well: religious affordance. Here, the texts afford a religious reading instead of a fictional reading and communication with the supernatural beings instead of playing with it as fiction. These texts thus afford religious use.

Davidsen argues that a fictional text needs certain textual features, or veracity mechanisms as he calls them, to afford religious use. If this theory is correct, then we should be able to predict if certain fictional texts could eventually give rise to a fiction-based religion or if this is not possible at all. Take for example the series of novels ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ written by George R.R. Martin, which are very well-known because of the immense popular television series Game of Thrones, which is based on these novels. These books are highly praised and not only because the fantasy novels seem so close to reality.

Of course, according to many reviews, the main attraction of the novels is the way in which readers recognise and identify themselves, their own conflicts, egos and interests, as well as the conflicts of this world in the characters and fictional world portrayed by George Martin. But the books are also recommended because of the detailed and diverse description of religion, magic, and how these supernatural powers are such a realistic part of the fictional world. Because of this marvellous epic fantasy work, with all grey characters, a Manichaean struggle between good and evil, and a fictional historical world, many proclaim Martin as the American Tolkien.

Martin is being compared to Tolkien, and in his works religions play a huge role; the author invented a fictional world with fictional religions which are considered to be very realistic. However, unlike the books of Tolkien, the fantasy novels of Martin did not give rise to a fiction-based religion. The adherents of Jediism, as well as those of the Tolkien Spirituality are mostly found online and keep in touch with each other through forums and discussion blogs. Therefore, if there would already be any sort of fiction-based religion on the novels ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ and/or the television series Game of Thrones, the internet would be the best place to find it. There are many blogs and discussions on forums and websites on these novels and television series, such as the fans sites Westeros.org, watchersonthewall.com and towerofthehand.com.

Although many theories on particular magical occurrences can be found, there was nothing to be found that pointed towards a fiction-based religion. Therefore, one could say that at this moment there is no fiction-based religion on the fantasy novels ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ and/or the television series Game of Thrones.

But one should also take into account that the series are not yet complete. Only five of the seven books are written (book six will probably be published in 2016) and Game of Thrones season six is now broadcasted. In this season, many religious and magical events occur. Also, the showrunners of this series have said that there will be two more seasons after season six (although with less episodes). These coming additions could influence the reception of ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ and Game of Thrones and it is possible that later on fiction-based religion on this series can be found. But at this very moment, no such thing exists.

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