Magic and the Millennium: A Sociological Study of Religious Movements of Protest among Tribal and Third-World Peoples

By Bryan R. Wilson | Go to book overview

Introduction

I

NEW religious movements arising among less-developed peoples following cultural contact with westerners have today come to command increasing attention in several different social sciences--among anthropologists understandably, but also among political scientists, sociologists, and historians. Even some comparative religionists and theologians have been tempted to abandon writing new commentaries on often over-worked texts from the past for the excitement of more contemporary, if less literary, products of religious sentiment. The specific focus of interest in new religious movements differs for each of these disciplines. For the sociologist they are of more than merely phenomenological interest. They are significant not only in themselves, as examples of religious innovation, but also for what they reveal about spontaneously expressed social needs, about styles and levels of social consciousness, and about the consequences of social disruption and the patterns of response to it. Each new movement may be regarded as a pattern of sustained social action stimulated by new supernaturalist interpretations of contemporary processes of social change.

The ethnographer, the religious phenomenologist, and the student of comparative symbolics have discovered mines of new material in the minutiae of the artefacts and action patterns of participants in the new movements. The exhaustion of traditional materials, the over-supply of scholars working in these fields, and perhaps new doubts about the significance of the past, have no doubt all been responsible in some measure for the new-found interest in the new religions of less-developed peoples. The focus of the sociologist's concern is different: the minute details are not ends in themselves. Their full value is realized only if they contribute to the understanding of wider social processes, which embrace, but which also transcend, specifically religious phenomena.

In the pages that follow, therefore, much descriptive detail has been

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