Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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 The believability of religious and/or secular meanings.

Within the social scientific study of religion, the problem of plausibility usually revolves around the question of why and how individuals regard their beliefs as real or true. Although some psychological explanations have interpreted plausibility as an almost purely subjective phenomenon, many social scientists focus not only on the content of meaning systems but also on the dialectical relationship between meanings and the broader sociocultural context within which these meanings "make sense" or are plausible.

Any beliefs held by individuals and groups are sustained through sociocultural institutions and processes. But the metaempirical or transcendent nature of religious beliefs makes their plausibility especially problematic. Believers require social support, usually in the form of a religious community or congregation, to authenticate and reaffirm the typically extraordinary truth claims of their faith. Members of the community will likely use a somewhat specialized language and participate in sacred rituals as important means for expressing, sharing, and internalizing their beliefs. For the religion to survive beyond the current generation, believers also must develop appropriate socialization processes to ensure that new and future members accept their faith as plausible.

Some sociologists refer to the concept of "plausibility structure" when describing the sociocultural context or "base" for meaning systems. Societywide structures were likely the norm in earlier historical periods. But in a modern, pluralistic society characterized by rapid social change, many diverse groups, each with its own somewhat distinctive plausibility structure, are forced to coexist. For religious groups especially, the very presence of other denominations, sects, and cults carries with it the implication that alternative truth claims are now available to members. As the relativization of meaning systems continues, each group's confidence in the plausibility or certainty of its shared beliefs may become weakened.

Sociological research into this phenomenon, particularly among scholars interested in the development and career stages of new religious movements, has examined the factors influencing the strength or relative "firmness" of a given religious plausibility structure (see Snow 1982). Some studies have directed attention to the strategies employed by specific religions in protecting the plausibility of their meaning system from the effects of pluralism and social change. Researchers also have applied the concept to theory construction regarding conversion and defection dynamics as well as the process by which some defectors from religious communities become reintegrated within other groups.

Bruce Karlenzig


P. L. Berger, The Sacred Canopy (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1967)

C. Geertz, "Religion as a Cultural System," in Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Religion , ed. M. Banton (London: Tavistock, 1966): 1-46

F. Musgrove, Margins of the Mind (London: Methuen, 1977)

D. Snow, "On the Presumed Fragility of Unconventional Beliefs," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 21(1982):15-26

S. A. Wright, Leaving Cults (Washington, D.C.: Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, 1987).


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