Obituary: Bryan Wilson ; Scholar of the Sociology of Religion
Martin, David, The Independent (London, England)
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. …