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

1
Sociological Analysis and the Search for Salvation

THE sociology of religion has suffered for a long time in captivity to its own concepts. That captivity occurred partly because of the difficulty of establishing adequate generalizations about complex and highly diversified phenomena, and partly because of the derivation of concepts from the Christian tradition of the west and its theological formulations. In the wider perspective of history, Christianity and sociology are, of course, related phenomena in the cultural inheritance of the western world. Whatever the differences in their perspectives--western assumptions about human personality; freedom of will; the norms of human interaction; the character of voluntary association; the emotional and intellectual implications of commitment, and its exclusiveness; the concept of rationality, and its realization in the patterns of religious organization--all inhere in a greater or lesser degree in both the Christian tradition and in sociology. Inevitably--the attempted objectivity of the discipline notwithstanding--concepts in the sociology of religion have been heavily stained by these assumptions. Difficulties arise when concepts evolved in relation to religion in Europe and America are applied in other cultural contexts, and it is evident that comparative religionists and, in lesser measure, anthropologists have faced similar difficulties.1

This accounts, in large part, for the lack of uniform terminology in reference to even everyday phenomena in the field. Each analyst, dissatisfied with existing terms, feels not only the need, but almost the obligation, to coin a new terminology for his concepts and categories. This circumstance in sociology may be regretted, but perhaps it can be regretted overmuch, and particularly by those who liken sociology to the natural sciences. Despite the inconvenience, the situation may be one not without advantages, and it may be a situation endemic in the social sciences. The humanistic content, the diversity, variability, subtlety, elusiveness, and complexity of human interaction are kept in

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1
See, on the philosophical problems involved here, the essays in particular of Peter Winch , Alasdair Maclntyre, and Steven Lukes in Bryan R. Wilson (Ed.), Rationality ( Blackwell, Oxford and Harper, New York 1970).

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