2 Ιουνίου 2021

Germany and the New Global History of Secularism: Questioning the Postcolonial Genealogy.

2 | 6 | 2 μ.Κ (Year ΙΙ AQ) | 2021

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Germany and the New Global History of Secularism: Questioning the Postcolonial Genealogy
Todd H. Weir

Taylor & Francis Online

To cite this article: Todd H. Weir (2015) Germany and the New Global History of Secularism:Questioning the Postcolonial Genealogy, The Germanic Review: Literature, Culture, Theory,90:1, 6-20, DOI: 10.1080/00168890.2014.986431

To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00168890.2014.986431

© 2015 The Author(s). Published with license by Taylor & Francis© Todd H. Weir

This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited. The moral rights of the named author(s) have been asserted.


Secularism has emerged as a central category of twenty-first century political thought that in many ways has replaced the theory of secularization. According to postcolonial scholars, neither the theory nor the practice of secularization was politically neutral. They define secularism as the set of discourses, policies, and constitutional arrangements whereby modern states and liberal elites have sought to unify nations and divide colonial populations. This definition is quite different from the original meaning of secularism, as an immanent scientific worldview linked to anticlericalism. Anthropologist Talal Asad has connected nineteenth-century worldview secularism to twenty-first century political secularism through a genealogical account that stresses continuities of liberal hegemony. This essay challenges this account. It argues that liberal elites did not merely subsume worldview secularism in their drive for state secularization. Using the tools of conceptual history, the essay shows that one reason that “secularization” only achieved its contemporary meaning in Germany after 1945 was that radical freethinkers and other anticlerical secularists had previously resisted liberal hegemony. The essay concludes by offering an agenda for research into the discontinuous history of these two types of secularism.

Η μελέτη αναδημοσιεύτηκε για πρώτη φορά την περίοδο της | π.Κ - BQ | Κοσμοϊδιογλωσσίας, πριν από πέντε χρόνια, το 2016. Ακολουθούν 11 επιλεγμένα σημεία:

1. According to Gauri Viswanathan, the colonial context encouraged missionary educators in the 1840s and 1850s to support secularist education as a means to wean Indians from their prior beliefs and prepare them for Christian conversion.

2. The liberal elites who backed secularization shared with more plebian freethinkers assumptions about the cultural relevance of natural science, the emancipation of religious minorities, and the need to limit church control of public education. At the same time, they were competitors, who clashed over political practices and epistemological assumptions. The theorists of political secularism have tended to overlook these clashes and subsume worldview secularism under the liberal project of secularization.

3. Scholars of secularism resolve the tension between the particular and the universal in different ways. Social theorist Ashis Nandy argued in 1990 that the mounting religious conflicts in India revealed that political secularism was a colossus with feet of clay. Underneath a thin crust of Westernized state elites, who had inherited an antireligious orientation from the colonial regime, most Indian politicians only paid lip service to Western norms, while promoting more pluralist and more authentically Indian understandings of the public role of religion.

4. Much of the excitement surrounding secularism as a field of inquiry has come from postcolonial studies, which has identified secularization not as a neutral social theory, but rather as the scientific auxiliary of a technique of statecraft developed and deployed in the nineteenth century to unify nations and divide colonial populations. By removing the “ization” and adding “ism,” the new critical histories have signaled their effort to demystify or, better yet, to secularize the theory of secularization by revealing that what was once held for science was, in fact, ideology. Secularism, accordingly, encompasses the discourses, policies, and constitutional arrangements, whereby modern states and elites have sought to regulate religion and, in the process, contributed to the “immanent frame” in which religion is now located.

5. Anthropologist Peter van der Veer invites us to examine how supposedly Western ideas of “rationality and progress were […] produced and universally spread in the expansion of European power” but “inserted in different historical trajectories” in places such as India and China. Focusing on the state and elite groups, van der Veer emphasizes continuities in Chinese state secularism from the Imperial to the Maoist period and compares this to the secularism of similarly hegemonic groups in India.

6. How does the quadriconfessional understanding of religious conflict contribute to our history of concepts? What if, instead of expressing liberal Protestant triumphalism, the first formulations of the secularization theory by sociologists Max Weber and Ferdinand Tönnies also contained signs of a strategic retreat? Half a century ago, the political philosopher Hermann Lübbe proposed that as these liberal sociologists plucked the term “secularization” out of the arsenal of political anticlericalism and transformed it into a social scientific term to describe an impersonal, macrohistorical process, they had effectively “neutralized” secularism.

7. Weber and Troeltsch's distinction between secularization and secularism could not catch hold in Germany prior to 1933, because, I would argue, liberals and conservatives proved unable to neutralize worldview secularism politically. It was only after the war that the prominent German theologian Friedrich Gogarten arrived at a new position that distinguished between a healthy secularization compatible with modern Protestantism and a secularism that resulted from the irrational apotheosis of the secular. Secularization, he wrote, was “the necessary and legitimate consequence of Christian faith,” while secularism was a “perversion (Entartung) of secularization.” Already in 1950, another Protestant theologian, Friedrich Karl Schumann, had ascribed to secularism the status of a theological–philosophical error, “a misunderstanding of the genuine Christian differentiation of ‘spiritual’ and ‘worldly’ produced within the Christian domain.

8. The conflict between radical secularists and liberal secularizers has not featured in recent studies of religious conflict in nineteenth-century Germany. These have centered on the Kulturkampf of the 1870s and have generally employed binary models to portray the conflict as a manifestation of the confessional antagonism between Protestantism and Catholicism or as a clash between liberalism with its conception of state secularity and Roman Catholicism with its vision of a Christian order. Although the historians of the Kulturkampf are only beginning to receive postcolonial studies, they operate from a similar model of religious–secular conflict. Both identify policies of secularization as tools of Protestant liberals aiming at cultural hegemony, and both place the emergence of the theory of secularization with the history of that struggle. Several historians of Germany now argue that Weber's theory of secularization should be interpreted as a partisan contribution to the anti-Catholic Kulturkampf in which he, as a Protestant liberal, was raised.

9. The terms “Säkularismus” and “Säkularisierung” were popularized in Germany only in the late Weimar republic, in part by Protestant ministers, who had returned from the 1928 Jerusalem conference of the International Missionary Council impressed with the keynote speech delivered by the Quaker Rufus Jones on “Secular Civilization and the Christian Task.” Rufus argued that a turning point had been reached by Western civilization and that instead of being the hub from which Christianity was exported into the heathen world, the West was now threatened by heathens in its European core. German theologians translated Rufus's terminology and defined “Säkularismus” as the collectivity of “all forces opposing the faith.” It was, according to missionary Siegfried Knak, the “worldview and attitude” behind the “commerce, politics, industry and technology” of the day. Crucially, this definition of secularism conflated radical Freethought and communism with the secularization of modern civilization.

10. This science of ethics created a perspective above the religions that could synthesize them on a higher order, rather than calling on one to submit to the other. Importantly, Tönnies subjected the worldviews of Darwinian-inspired natural scientific secularism and Marxism to the same critique as the churches by treating them as objects of ethical analysis. The appeal of Ethical Culture to freethinking liberals is clear. It offered a path to national (or for liberal cosmopolitans such as Tönnies a transnational) spiritual unity without abandoning their respective confessions. At the same time it defanged radical secularism by relegating it to one (underreflected) religious source among many. The science of ethics was able to secularize secularism, but at a cost to liberals. They had to abandon the dream of a unified worldview grounded in natural science. Some two decades later, philosopher Heinrich Rickert and sociologist Max Weber formalized this neutralization of secularism, when they argued that worldviews constituted systems of thought based on value and not on empirical truth. The essential point here is that early, canonical statements of the sociological theory of secularization emerged not at the highpoint of the Kulturkampf, when many German liberals understood themselves to be locked in a binary struggle between scientific modernity and recidivist religious traditionalism, but rather at the point at which this binary began to break down. Radical secularism, aligned politically to socialism, ruptured the loose harmony of political and worldview secularism and contributed to the ongoing fracturing of the earlier liberal consensus on religious progress.

11. A link between the two definitions of secularism is found in the incorporation of the French term laïcité (laiklik) in the Turkish constitution of 1923. Laïcité fused the Republican cultural projects of anticlericalism, positivism, and state secularization. It was enshrined in the French separation law of 1905, which became an international model for reformers.

Todd H. Weir
Germany and the New Global History of Secularism: Questioning the Postcolonial Genealogy


2 | 6 | 2 μ.Κ (Year ΙΙ AQ) | 2021