Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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(1926-) Reader (senior academic post, other than professorial chair) in Sociology at Oxford University, 1962-1992; President of the International Society for the Sociology of Religion (SISR), 1971-1975, Honorary President 1991-

Bryan Wilson has exercised a formative influence on the sociology of religion in Britain, not only directly through his many publications but also through the generations of graduate students he has supervised with great generosity. He has made a decisive contribution to the sociology of religion in the areas of sectarian religion and secularization; in the latter respect, particularly, he has largely set the research agenda for sociology of religion throughout the world.

His pioneering 1959 article "An Analysis of Sect Development" in the American Sociological Review and his book Sects and Society (Heinemann 1961)—a study of the Elim Pentecostal Church, the Christadelphians, and Christian Science (based on his doctoral thesis at the London School of Economics, under the supervision of Donald MacRae)—shaped a paradigm for subsequent sociological studies of sectarian religion, many of which have been conducted by his own students. His typologies and classifications of sects were further expounded in Patterns of Sectarianism (Heinemann 1967) and presented in a more popular form in Religious Sects (Weidenfeld and Nicholson 1971). Wilson's interests later shifted from Christian-inspired sectarian groups to new religious movements, reflected in a collection of essays he edited, The Social Impact of New Religious Movements (Rose of Sharon Press 1981), and his own essays The Social Dimensions of Sectarianism: Sects and New Religious Movements in Contemporary Society (Oxford University Press 1990).

In Religion in Secular Society (Penguin 1969 [1966]), Wilson defined secularization as "the process whereby religious thinking, practice and institutions lose social significance," and argued persuasively not only that this process has been dominant in Europe, along with the well-charted decline in church attendance, but also in the United States, "a country in which instrumental values, rational procedures and technical methods have gone furthest and a country in which the sense of the sacred, the sense of the sanctity of life and deep religiosity are most conspicuously absent." With this book, Wilson set the terms of the debate on secularization—a thesis much challenged in the 1960s but later adopted in part by many of its critics. He returned to the theme a decade later in Contemporary Transformations of Religion (Oxford University Press 1976) and again in Religion in Sociological Perspective (Oxford University Press 1982).

Wilson's work always has been characterized by objectivity and value neutrality, eschewing consideration of metaphysical and theological concepts of ultimate truth but guided by the Weberian concept of the rationalization of culture. He edited a collection of influential essays by philosophers and anthropologists: Rationality (Blackwell 1970). Wilson's attention has increasingly shifted to non-Christian and non-European religion. This general theme was explored in Magic and the Millennium (Heinemann 1973), a wideranging analysis of the collision between preindustrial societies and modern Western modes of life and thought, and later in The Noble Savages: The Primitive Origins of Charisma and Its Contemporary Survival (University of California Press 1975). Wilson has made an extensive study of new religious movements in Japan, and A Time to Chant (Oxford University Press 1994), written with Karel Dobbelaere, is a study of the progress of one such movement, the Soka Gakkai Buddhists, in Britain. His most recent research has focused on the relationship between minority religious groups, the state, and the law.

Peter Gee


E. Barker et al. (eds.), Secularization, Rationalism and Sectarianism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993).

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