Influential sociologist who offered new and enduring insights into sects and religions
Bryan Wilson was one of the most brilliant and influential sociologists of religion of the past century. It is impossible for any serious student of the subject to write about the state of religion in contemporary society without referring to his secularisation thesis or his work on sects and new religious movements.
Bryan Ronald Wilson was born in Leeds in 1926. After studying at University College, Leicester, he took a first-class honours degree from London University in 1952. He then obtained a PhD at the London School of Economics. His thesis, a study of Christadelphianism, Elim Pentecostalism and Christian Science, formed the basis of Sects and Society (1961).
After a period as lecturer in sociology at the University of Leeds, 1955-62, he moved to the University of Oxford as a reader in sociology. From 1963 to 1993 he was a Fellow of All Souls, which became his intellectual home and offered him a way of life that he embraced wholeheartedly.
He was sub-warden, 1988-90, and domestic bursar, 1989-93, taking considerable pride in his responsibility for the stocking of the college cellars. However he would regularly slip away from Oxford life to become a visiting professor or fellow in universities as varied as Bangkok, Belgium, Berkeley, Brisbane, Ghana, Japan, Melbourne, Padua, Santa Barbara and Toronto.
Everywhere he went he would study the local religions in meticulous detail, which he compared and analysed with intellectual rigour in more than 100 elegantly written publications.
In an edited volume, Patterns of Sectarianism (1967), and later in Religious Sects (1971), he elaborated his model of the sect, with sub-types characterised according to how they believed that they could achieve salvation (through, for example, esoteric knowledge, proselytising or changing the world in some way).
He was always at pains to point out that the sociology of religion is not confined to ethnographic or historical details about particular movements. “Mere geography and mere chronology are inadequate charts to the sea of human experience, human inventiveness, and human behaviour,” he wrote in the introduction to his Magic and the Millennium (1975). Thus, Native North Americans, Zulu, Tanganyikan and Maori movements were all cases of millennialism associated with military enterprise; and, despite significant differences, new religions among less developed peoples have, he argued, much in common with post-Reformation Christian sects.
Not that Wilson was unconcerned about historical trends. On the contrary, he was one of the foremost proponents of the secularisation thesis.
In Religion in Secular Society (1966) he defined secularisation as “the process whereby religious thinking, practice and institutions lose social significance”, and he illustrated how industrialisation, urbanisation, rationalisation, bureaucratisation and societalisation have undermined religious institutions; how the economy, welfare, education, health, the law and other public spheres no longer depend on religious values, practices or institutions.
Wilson’s certainty that the empirical evidence clearly demonstrated that religious institutions had lost their social significance did not mean he thought religion had ceased to play an important role. Rather, he argued, religion had become privatised. “In this private sphere,” he wrote, “religion often continues, and even acquires new forms of expression . . . It offers another world to explore as an escape from the rigours of technological order and the ennui that is the incidental by-product of an increasingly programmed world.”
It was this relationship between contemporary society and modern religions that increasingly occupied his attention. He argued, for example, that Scientology was precisely the kind of religion one might expect to find reflecting the preoccupations of a secularised society in which individuals exhibit a greater concern for self-development and psychic wellbeing than for otherworldly salvation. A similar conclusion was reached in A Time to Chant (1994), which he wrote with the Belgian sociologist Karel Dobbelaere, about the new Japanese religion, Soka Gakkai. As society moves from a production-orientated economy, which required a moral order in which the work ethic has a central role, to a consumer economy, the image of a personal God becomes replaced by the idea of an impersonal force or spirit; rewards are increasingly sought in this life, in this world; or, via reincarnation, in the next life, but still in this world.
Although he was an agnostic, Wilson was careful not to pass judgment on the beliefs or practices of the religions about which he wrote. He was, however, prepared to defend their rights in court. English law, he contended, may claim not to distinguish between religions, but there is historically an inbuilt bias against sects and new religions. Referring to a case involving the Exclusive Brethren, he once remarked somewhat tartly “the unquestionable freedom in Western society for individuals or groups to maintain a distinctive, serious and conscientious way of life, should not be less than the very evident contemporary freedom to maintain an utterly frivolous and uncaring life.”
Wilson was held in considerable affection as a teacher by scores of students, many of whom have become professors themselves. He gently encouraged all, students and colleagues, whenever they asked for his opinion. Painstakingly he would pencil in marginal comments that ranged from brilliant intellectual insights to suggestions for improvements in grammar and punctuation — particularly the use of commas, of which he was inordinately fond.
Renowned for his generosity, his gentle courtesy and his concern to do and say the right thing, Wilson could, nonetheless, display a mischievous sense of humour, and he was a wicked mimic — his adenoidal spiritualist was a favourite; another was his portrayal of his LSE supervisor, Donald MacRae.
Among the many honours conferred upon Wilson were a DLitt from the University of Oxford (1984), honorary doctorates from Soka University (1985) and the University of Leuven (1992), and election to Fellowship of the British Academy (1994).
He played a crucial role in the development of the International Society for the Sociology of Religion, and in 1991 he became its first, and so far only, scholar to be made a life-long honorary president.
In 1993 Wilson retired to Headington. There, despite suffering from Parkinson’s disease, he amazed his friends by buying an enormous television set and watching such unlikely videos as Japanese westerns. He still made occasional trips abroad and contributed to various scholarly volumes right up to his death. He did not marry.
Bryan Wilson, sociologist of religion, was born on June 25, 1926. He died on October 9, 2004, aged 78.