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

11
From Magic to the Millennium--and back

IT is only at certain historical moments and in a particular concatenation of circumstances that revolutionist movements emerge. Such movements mobilize men by creating a new and induced awareness of the commonality of their conditions, and the need for supernatural action at a societal or cosmic level to produce effective change. This awareness is not a sophisticated consciousness of social circumstances. It does not imply accurate perception of the structure of the social order, nor a clear conception of its operation. It is, rather, a widely diffused apprehension that things are wrong, and the wish that they should be better. The ideology that welds so many men together and stimulates them to action has little or no analytical content, and produces little empirical evidence. Rather it presents a dream, a vision, a wish, and projects it as a prospect for the real world. It is a fantasy that fires the imagination and conforms to widely felt longings, which now acquire a focus and perhaps even a stimulus for action.

Since the millennial dream draws so little support from empirical reality, and since fantasy does not remain fresh, revolutionist responses are not easily sustained at even levels of commitment over long periods. Men have individual problems which are only incidentally and occasionally shared with others, and the solutions for which lie, or appear to lie, in personal relationships with others, or with the powers of the cosmos, rather than in the circumstances of the collectivity, or the relations of the society with other societies. The demand for thaumaturgy, as we have seen, is endemic, and especially so in societies in which medical and religious practice are closely identified, and in which a wide range of worldly activities require the reassurance of supernatural goodwill. The revolutionist response is a consequence of a stimulated awareness that the difficulties that men experience are common difficulties, having their origin within the social system, or in the unbalance between the community and its natural environment, or in the disordered relations of the community and those men who come from another society and another culture.

The salvation of the community, and perhaps of the wider society, has usually been expressed in traditional ceremonial, in rain-making,

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