Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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(1922-1995) Sociologist of religion and social psychologist who spent most of his career at the University of Michigan and then the University of California, Berkeley.

Swanson investigated how different types of social relations affect the formation of ultimate values and personal development. He combined Émile Durkheim's emphasis on representational parallelism with Max Weber's emphasis on forms of power/authority (Herrschaft) to account for variations in beliefs and practices. With the book The Birth of the Gods: The Origin of Primitive Beliefs (University of Michigan Press 1967), involving the rise of belief in the supernatural, he argued in Durkheimian fashion that belief in spirits represents experiences with the constitutional structure of sovereign groups. Using data on premodern societies, he demonstrated relations between types of constitutional structure and varieties of belief. He found that high gods appear where a government coordinates other kinds of organization: "Monotheism is positively related to the presence of a hierarchy of three or more sovereign groups in a society."

In Religion and Regime: A Sociological Account of the Reformation (University of Michigan Press 1968), Swanson attempted to explain why only some European societies adopted Protestantism in the sixteenth century. He argued that Catholics think God is immanent in the world. He considered regimes "immanent" if they implement their own distinctive purposes rather than serve private interests. His finding was that immanent European regimes tended to remain Catholic; the more constituent bodies of a community had a role in governing (thus making its regime "transcendent"), the more likely a regime was to adopt Protestantism and its more transcendent God.

Swanson thought that ultimate values arise in the experiences of human beings with each other and their society. Such values vary according to whether a society operates like a system or like an association. As societies secularize, specialized religious communities lose influence in formulating ultimate values but previously secular institutions take on greater roles in a sacred order.

Frank J. Lechner


G. E. Swanson, "Modern Secularity," in The Religious Situation , ed. D. Cutler (Boston: Beacon, 1968): 801-834

G. E. Swanson, "Life with God," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 10(1971):169-199

G. E. Swanson, "Immanence and Transcendence," Sociological Analysis 47(1986):189-213

"Symposium on the Work of Guy E. Swanson," Sociological Analysis 45(1984):177-222.

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