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

14
The Rational Mutation of Religious Responses

DEVIANT religious responses to the world, as manifested in social movements, display distinct capacities for mutation. Not only the movements themselves, but also the particular processes of change that they undergo are powerfully influenced by the relation between, on the one hand, the culture and social conditions of the indigenes, and on the other, those of the advanced peoples who have dominated them. Cultural response to conquest itself varies. The North American Indians and the Maoris resisted--belatedly in the Maori case--the impress of white culture. Substantially dispossessed of their lands by the invaders, they rejected assimilation to the way of life and the values of the people who engulfed them. As their own social organization was destroyed, and as any possibility of assimilation to the dominant system disappeared, new patterns of response emerged. Ethnicity became the basis and bulwark of the new religious orientation and the new pattern of community life which sometimes arose with the new movement. Once tribal life was in decay, ethnic allegiance gained steadily over tribal allegiance: but from within the ethnic group a new voluntaristic principle came into operation as the basis for the new religiously- inspired communities. This re-girding of cultural loins was the assertion of a persisting, if much modified, way of native life.

New movements necessarily legitimated themselves by claiming to belong to the native past, and offered a separate path of native salvation. Necessarily, they retained much of the old thaumaturgical practice of the past, albeit in modified form. Thus the Shakers of the north-west coast and the Ratana movement perpetuated styles of thaumaturgical practice which, although by no means aboriginal, were none the less sufficiently separate and distinct even from white religio-therapeutic practice, and perpetuated sufficient elements from the indigenous cultural inheritance, to pass themselves off as such. At the same time, these movements avoided outright rejection of the primary religious concepts of the dominant culture, whilst asserting that the dominant religion per se was inappropriate to native needs. The Ringatu movement, the Menomini Powwow, and the Peyote cult similarly asserted

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