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Professor James (Jim) Arthur Beckford, In Memoriam

Religion has come adrift from its former points of anchorage but is no less potentially powerful as a result. It remains a potent cultural resource or form which may act as the vehicle of change, challenge, or conservation….

(Beckford 1989: 170, 172; 2003: 1)

By Hossein Godazgar – May 27, 2022

Professor James (Jim) Arthur Beckford died at age 79 on 10th May 2022. Most students of the Sociology of Religion remember him with this famous quotation. It forms the conclusion of his book Religion and Advanced Industrial Society (1989) and the starting point of his Social Theory and Religion (2003).

Jim was above all a Sociologist. His immensely stimulating enthusiasm for sociology was not only evident in his writings and teachings but also in his everyday activities and conversations. He repeatedly emphasised that sociology is about both theory and empirical studies. Theory without empirical studies is just words and empirical studies without theory are just routine experiences, nothing more. He devoted his intellectual and professional life to re-building bridges between the ‘remarkably self-contained’ modern sociology of religion and other fields of sociology. In Religion and Advanced Industrial Society, he showed `how the estrangement between the sociology of religion and other fields of sociology has taken place and what its consequences are for sociological studies of religion’ (1989: xi). In Social Theory and Religion, he introduced the influential and innovative theoretical approach of ‘social constructionism’ to ‘religion’ and analysed the themes of secularisation, pluralism, globalisation and religious movements accordingly.

Jim also contributed significantly to the idea of the inclusion of the sociology of religion within sociology through his teaching, supervisions and the various offices held in academic sociological associations. After nearly three decades, I can still remember clearly his melliferous voice and charming sense of humour in his popular classes on ‘Theoretical Ideas in Sociology’ and ‘Theorising Modern Society’ at the Department of Sociology at the University of Warwick. He was both a social theorist and a sociologist of religion. Interestingly, although he rarely talked or wrote about philosophy, his deep interest and knowledge of moral philosophy, particularly neo-Kantianism, Alfred Schütz’s phenomenology, and the modern philosophies of Richard Rorty and Alasdair MacIntyre, was astonishing.   

Jim received a First Class Honours degree in French Studies in 1965 and a Ph.D. in Sociology in 1972 both from the University of Reading, as well as a DLitt in 1985. While studying at the University of Reading, he was appointed to the post of Lecturer in Sociology (1966-73) and continued his post as a Lecturer and subsequently Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Durham. After ten years, he moved to the United States as a Professor in Sociology at the Loyola University of Chicago and returned to the United Kingdom to take on a Chair as Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick (1989-2022), becoming emeritus in 2008. Throughout his career, he held visiting positions in many universities around the world, including in North America, Japan, and Europe.

The list of offices held in various academic associations by Jim is truly impressive. He contributed immensely to their work in disseminating sociological perspectives across the globe and restoring the sociology of religion to ‘its former points of anchorage’. He founded the British Sociology Association’s Study Group for the Sociology of Religion in 1975 and was its first Convenor and then Chairman from 1978-1983. He was Secretary of the ISA’s Research Committee of the Sociology of Religion (RC22) (1978-82) and subsequently its President (1982-86). At the same time, he was a delegate to the Research Council of the International Sociological Association (ISA). He served as President of the Association for the Sociology of Religion (ASR) in the United States the following year. He was Vice-President of the International Sociological Association (1994-98) and Vice-President of the International Society for the Sociology of Religion (ISSR/SISR) (1995-99). In the following years, he became the President of the International Society for the Sociology of Religion (1999-2003) and then its Past-president and the Chairperson of its Editorial Committee (2003-07). He also served as the President of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR) based in the United States (2010-11). In parallel with the above-mentioned positions, Jim also served in other committees/councils in academic associations or advisory groups in the UK, France, Ireland, Switzerland, Canada, and USA.    

Jim also took on twenty-two editorial roles for social science journals and publications in various capacities. A few notable ones include Editor of Current Sociology, the journal of the International Sociological Association (1980-1987); Associate Editor of Sociological Analysis (183-86); Member of the Comité de Rédaction of Social Compass (1983-2022); Associate Editor of International  Sociology, the journal of the International Sociological Association (1984-90 and 1998-2004); Editorial Board of Religion (1989-99); Editorial Board of Identity and Culture (1993-2022); Editorial Board of The Journal of Contemporary Religion (1994-2022); Editorial Board of The Encyclopedia of Politics and Religion (1996-99); Editorial Board of The British Journal of Sociology (1998-08); Chairperson of the Editorial Committee of the International Society for the Sociology of Religion (2003-07); and Member of the International Advisory Board of Ethnicities (2013-22).  

The numerous grants and awards from prestigious national and international research funding bodies provide further evidence of Jim’s remarkable achievements in empirical studies and the recognition of his work. In the UK, he was awarded several grants by the Social Science Research Council, Economic and Social Research Council, Nuffield Foundation, the Leverhulme Trust, the Church of England, and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. He also received grants from UNESCO’s Division of Human Rights and Peace, UNESCO’s Division of International Development of the Social Sciences, the European Centre for Social Welfare Training and Research, the Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science, the Agnelli Foundation, Princeton University, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Jim’s list of publications is impeccable. He published five single-authored, three co-authored, and eight edited books, eight edited journal issues as well as 190 journal articles and book chapters. By any measure, this is monumental. His empirical study of the British Watch Tower movement as part of his Ph.D. led to his first book The Trumpet of Prophecy.  A Sociological Study of Jehovah’s Witnesses (1975). In the same year, he published his second book Religious Organisation (1975), which focused on the conceptual development, distinctiveness, and structures of ‘religious organisation’ as well as its social and cultural implications. His much-cited third single-authored book is Cult Controversies:  Societal Responses to New Religious Movements (1985), which is a sociological and empirical study of cult movements that mushroomed in the 1960s and 1970s. His other two single-authored books, Religion and Advanced Industrial Society (1989) and Social Theory and Religion (2003) are both influential and highly cited.       

Jim’s groundbreaking work continued in the form of three co-authored books. Religion in Prison: Equal Rites in a Multi-Faith Society (1998) and Muslims in Prison: Challenge and Change in Britain and France (2005) disseminate the results of his projects on religion in prisons in Britain and France. His more recent publications include Theorising Religion: Classical and Contemporary Debates (2006); The Sage Handbook of the Sociology of Religion (2007); Migration and Religion (2 vols, 2015), and New Religious Movements and Counselling: Academic, Professional and Personal Perspectives (2018). Some of his books have already been translated into Italian, Polish, French, and Persian.

As a result of these achievements and in recognition of his innovative and impressive work, Jim received many prestigious honors and awards. He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy (2004) and later a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. 

Despite his hard work and impressive achievements as a serious academic, he had many non-academic interests. He enjoyed gardening and spending time with his family, grandchildren, and friends. In addition to his impressive command of several languages including French, German, Latin, and Japanese, he was most recently learning Greek – a language he had been fascinated with from his childhood. His sense of humor and elegant emails and conversations were truly energising and gratifying. His scientific orientation was clear from his conduct. At conferences and other events, he always made sure not to exclude friends or students. His actions always mirrored his theoretical thinking about diversity and pluralism. He was indeed a great believer in religious diversity as a normative value. He was a true humanist who could not bear authoritarianism and discrimination based on identity issues, such as ethnicity or religion. His use of Amnesty International cards with a “Season’s Greeting” message in several languages during the festive season is a good example of this.

His manner, generosity, dignity, integrity, humility, and supervision were genuinely exemplary. In my first Ph.D. year at the University of Warwick in the early 1990s, a decent command of the English language was one of many struggles I was having to cope with. As a result, I was not particularly careful about spelling or grammar mistakes in my communications with him via email. I was happy as long as I felt that I managed to convey what I wanted to say. During a supervision meeting one day, he invited me in a such a dignified manner to write an email together to someone that I did not even feel that he was teaching me: “Let us start with ‘Dear’, then ‘Sir or Madam’… or no it is better, to begin with, the title and surname… or no better to start with the first name. Yes, I think this is better….” Although I was subsequently more careful in my emails, it did not register that he was teaching me how to write an email until years later when I became supervisor to my own students. Interestingly, when I recounted this story some years ago, he neither confirmed nor rejected it. He simply said: ‘We learn from each other’.  

Jim’s passing is a difficult moment for his family, relatives, friends, colleagues, and students. “But I hope that [we]’ll be consoled by the fond memories that [we] have of him.”, as he once wrote to me in relation to the loss of an old friend. He is already missed dearly.