Acts That Work: A Cognitive Approach to Ritual Agency

In: Method & Theory in the Study of Religion
Jesper Sørensen Institute of Philosophy, Education and the Study of Religions, University of Southern Denmark, Campusvej 55, 5230 Odense M, Denmark

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Questions of agency are central for understanding ritual behavior in general and representations of ritual efficacy in particular. Religious traditions often stipulate who are entitled to perform particular rituals. Further, representations of unobservable superhuman agents are often explicitly described as the 'real' ritual agents. Recent investigations into the processes underlying action representations and social cognition can help explain how these representations arise. It is argued that paying close attention to details in the cognitive processing of ordinary actions can shed light on how ritual actions activate part of these systems while simultaneously leaving other aspects unaccounted for. This has particular effects that make culturally transmitted representations of superhuman agents highly relevant.

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