Bryan Wilson

Scholar of the sociology of religion
Click to follow
The Independent Online

With just one or two precursors in the French tradition of " sociologie religieuse" Bryan Wilson founded the modern sociology of religion in Britain and was one of a select group of international scholars who shaped the discipline in the second half of the last century.

Bryan Ronald Wilson, sociologist: born Leeds 25 June 1926; Lecturer in Sociology, Leeds University 1955-62; Reader in Sociology, Oxford University 1962-93; Fellow, All Souls College, Oxford 1963-93 (Emeritus), Sub- Warden 1988-90, Domestic Bursar 1989-93; President, International Society for the Sociology of Religion (formerly Conférence Internationale de Sociologie Religieuse) 1971-75, Honorary President 1991-2004; FBA 1994; died Middleton Stoney, Oxfordshire 9 October 2004.

With just one or two precursors in the French tradition of " sociologie religieuse" Bryan Wilson founded the modern sociology of religion in Britain and was one of a select group of international scholars who shaped the discipline in the second half of the last century.

He deepened and developed a Weberian approach, focusing on religion's loss of social significance, and the disenchantment and rationalisation of the world. He gave a sound foundation to the standard model of secularisation and was the pre-eminent scholar of sectarianism, beginning with a path-breaking analysis in an article published in 1959, in The American Sociological Review, and including the magisterial survey Magic and the Millennium in 1970.

Born in 1926, Bryan Wilson was one of Richard Hoggart's "scholarship boys" who went to the (then) Leicester University College before writing his doctoral thesis at the London School of Economics. This entirely innovative study of Pentecostals, Christian Scientists and Christadelphians became his acclaimed Sects and Society (1961). It was followed by the edited volume Patterns of Sectarianism (1967) and by overviews which developed his approach, like Religious Sects (1970), and then by pioneering work on "New Religious Movements" like the Soka Gakkai, for example A Time to Chant (1994), written with his collaborator Karel Dobbelaere.

His first statement of his understanding of secularisation was in Religion in Secular Society in 1966 and it was further developed in the influential text Religion in Sociological Perspective (1982). He was also interested in the nature of rationality and deeply engaged by the crisis in the university as well as by a loss of the kind of personal moral responsibility he saw as best fostered in community, including religious communities.

From his base, or rather his home, in All Souls College, Oxford, he was the central figure in the international network he fostered, in particular through the Visiting Scholars arrangement at the college, which he helped to set up. He had long-standing relationships with Australasia, with the University of California at Santa Barbara, with Japan (which he loved) and with Louvain, where he received one of several honorary doctorates. While President of the International Conference of the Sociology of Religion (in 1971-75) he steered it away from its France-Belgian Catholic origins in the direction of a broader academic forum.

His seminar at All Souls was made up of a "school" of postgraduates he mentored with meticulous devotion. It provided a meeting point for numerous colleagues whose affection and admiration for him was expressed in Secularisation, Rationalism and Sectarianism (1993), edited by Eileen Barker, Karel Dobbelaere and James Beckford.

Bryan Wilson was the embodiment of an ordered way of life, devoid of religious faith, but grounded in the virtues of loyalty, duty, personal and intellectual probity, courtesy - and even courtliness. A confirmed bachelor, he wore protective clothing against brash invasions of his private space, but with those who respected boundaries he was always welcoming, and even ready on occasion to entertain with mimicry or sardonic comment on local wickedness.

He brought together a nonconformist "respectability" (in the profound sense of the word) with a Ciceronian ideal of the bonds of friendship; and he was clear those bonds had been violated when he appeared, thinly disguised, in a famous novel of university life.

Wilson gave total devotion to the fraternity of scholars at All Souls and loved the even tenor of its ways and his engagement in the "daily walk of the mind's business". His numerous guests found him the perfect host.

The consummate Englishman, he unsuccessfully tried to convince persons from more expressive cultures that "we don't shake hands", let alone hug. When a group of sociologists had an audience with Pope Paul VI, under the auspices of the Secretariatus pro non Credentibus, he was worried in case it required obeisances appropriate only for the Queen of England. For him the Conservative Party was whoring after the false gods of utility and the Church of England dangerously populist. I suspect an assiduous biographer might unearth traces of an early radicalism. His careful ignorance of certain aspects of demotic culture was worthy of a high court judge - and indeed the law interested him, in part because of his active advocacy of minority religious rights.

Friends enjoyed the benefits of his punctilious concern for their grammar, and, listening to him or reading him, they admired the smooth and efficient beauty of his intelligence. Social science was for him a calling to rigour and objectivity, without jargon or inflated theory. He specially disliked what he called the "in-group cynicism" of some sociologists.

After his retirement in 1993 he was increasingly affected by Parkinson's disease.

David Martin



Comments