Bryan R. Wilson died on Saturday October 9, 2004 from a heart attack while dining in a restaurant. One of the most distinguished sociologists of the 20th century, Wilson had been Reader (a senior academic post in the Oxford system) in Sociology at Oxford University, 1962-1992, President of the International Society for the Sociology of Religion (SISR), 1971-1975, and its Honorary President, 1991-2004.
Bryan Wilson has exercised a crucial influence on the sociology of religion, not only through his many publications but also through the generations of his graduate students. He has been a staunch proponent of the secularization theory, and since the 1960s became well-known for his claims that secularization was destined to be as prevalent in the United States as he thought it was in Western Europe. His many writings on the topic helped clarifying the issues and distinguishing between quantitative secularization (a decline in religious belief and church attendance) and qualitative secularization (a declining influence of religion on behaviour, culture, and politics). Wilson's work largely defined the agenda and the field where secularization theorists and their opponents crossed swords for more than forty years.
His 1959 An Analysis of Sect Development in the American Sociological Review and his book Sects and Society (Heinemann 1961) - a study of the Elim Churches, the Christadelphians, and Christian Science (based on his doctoral thesis at the London School of Economics) - may be regarded as representing the beginning of contemporary academic study of new religious movements, to which Wilson later contributed its influential The Social Dimensions of Sectarianism: Sects and New Religious Movements in Contemporary Society (Oxford University Press 1990). He was also a pioneer of studies of millennialism, many years before this field achieved its present visibility, in Magic and the Millennium (Heinemann 1973).
A frequent participant in CESNUR conferences and initiatives, Wilson will also be remembered as one of the most prominent academic champions of religious liberty in the 20th century. He defended new religious movements and other minorities against the various waves of international anti-cult campaigns, for no other personal reason than his passionate love for freedom and justice, since he defined himself as an atheist. Although even some of his closest friends would have preferred that he did not to pick up such a controversial fight, he argued with particular strength, both in academic and legal settings, that an effective defence of religious liberty needed a definition of religion large enough to include non-theistic religions and movements offering religious services on a quid pro quo payment basis, and that such definition should perforce include the Church of Scientology. Even his opponents had to admire the clarity and the elegance of his arguments on this topic; many regarded them as persuasive. That was Bryan at his best, Bryan as we like to remember him: humorous, eloquent, and also brave in the face of an opposition against which, from France to Germany and Russia, in difficult times academic eminence offered no shield.
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