Secularism as A New Religion

Todd Weir. Secularism and Religion in Nineteenth-Century Germany: The Rise of the Fourth Confession. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. xvi, 304. $29.00.

Evan Kuehn on Todd Weir

Many people take the idea as mere common sense: as societies advance, religion declines. This is the secularization thesis, a story that breaks the bonds of religion and frees people into a rational, scientific world. The core of this conception of secularism and modernity was present in philosophies of history from the European Enlightenment into the nineteenth century; one popular version was Auguste Comte’s loi des trois états, which posited a progressive development from theological, through metaphysical, to positive scientific conceptions of the world. As a sociological theory of modernity the secularization theory is often traced back to Max Weber.

In scholarly circles, however, it is the current interdisciplinary consensus that the secularization thesis is defunct. In fact, prefacing scholarly discussions of the secular with references to the now-buried secularization thesis has become de rigueur; this ritual patricide provides a foil for new and better theories of modern religiosity. At this point, rehearsed critiques of Weberian narratives are so entrenched in the scholarly literature, and even in self-congratulatory popular works on re-enchantment and post-secularism, that such contextualization hardly seems necessary anymore. Revisions of the secularity thesis have attracted such an extensive hearing that even dense tomes about the question have made a large public impact (Charles Taylor’s 900-page A Secular Age being only the most obvious example). Anyone who cares enough to investigate knows that secularism is not a progressive diminution of religious credulities, and that insofar as the modern world is a secular world, it often does not exist as such in any very predictable way. And yet, as much as secularism has been cut down to size as a world-historical force, this very unpredictability of modern religion also means that secularism has become a newly interesting field of study.

Among the many proposed ways forward is the idea of secularism as a religion, or as Todd Weir describes it, secularism as confession. Atheism or naturalism are not an opting out of religiosity, nor (merely) a default metaphysical assumption, but rather something that can form structures of association and actively compete as a positive community with other communities of faith. This sort of organized secularism makes the news periodically in our own day – perhaps the most colorful recent example in the United States is the Satanic Temple, an organization that does not actually assert any confessional beliefs about Satan, but exists as a politically progressive and secularist organization best known for displaying Baphomet sculptures at capitol buildings alongside more familiar religious monuments like displays of the Ten Commandments or Nativity scenes. This is secularism as weird mimesis. Organized secularism typically understands itself in relationship with religiosity, either antagonistically or as part of an ongoing dialectic. Often the relationship is more symbiotic than any of the parties involved would wish to acknowledge. The question, then, becomes how to understand a pluralistic array of religious options when the non-religious asserts itself as a part of what Todd Weir, building on Bourdieu, calls the “confessional field.” Weir seeks to show that the contemporary problem of secularism amidst religious pluralism actually has a history, and historical investigation of secularism as a confession can make important contributions to our understanding of modern religiosity.

In the midst of Otto von Bismarck’s Kulturkampf, an act of symbolic confessional challenge similar to that of today’s Satanic Temple came from the Free Religious Congregation in Berlin, which crafted a provocative installation on the gate of its cemetery stating, “Make life here good and beautiful, / There is no Beyond, no resurrection.” The sign lasted six years before being covered over following police pressure. But provocation was not the only, or even the primary, reason for such public displays in defiance of the status quo. Free Religion was forming congregational communities and sought state privileges of association to this end. As congregations, Free Religion cared for families through the lifespan, creating ceremonies of confirmation for youth, celebrating marriages, and burying their dead. Such a development from core tenants of non-belief to perpetual structures of association signaled that these groups harbored not only theological or ideological commitments, but also responsibilities for community maintenance that traditionally went under the name “care of souls.” In the nineteenth century, secularism became more than simply non-belief—it was a positive confession of specific worldly spiritual practices. Consensus about the doctrinal content of this new “confessional” secularism came in fits and starts—or rather, never really came. But the ferment of new quasi-religious formations, disagreements, and intersectionalities was an important (if underappreciated) part of social life in Prussia between 1848 and the 1918 Revolution.

Secularism and Religion in Nineteenth-Century Germany tells a story primarily about mid-to-late nineteenth-century Prussia, after a toleration edict of 1847 opened up an array of secular options for relatively free public expression and association. Friedrich Wilhelm IV did not in fact have magnanimity toward dissenters foremost in his mind when the law was enacted, however. The growth of early groups of religious freethought such as the Lichtfreunde and the Deutschkatholiken, public appeals of liberal church parties against the political maneuvers of conservatives tied to the magazine Evangelische Kirchenzeitung, and less than successful attempts to further solidify the Protestant Union of 1817 according to the wishes of the king all brought church politics to a head toward the end of the Vormärz period. The Edict of 1847 enabled a lessening of tensions by allowing personal disaffiliation from any church without the requirement of converting to another, and the possibility of new religious groups being added to the small number of recognized—and privileged—faiths. The intention was to thereby root out radicals from state churches as a way of diminishing their influence. Weir points out, though, that “to defend the confessional order, the decree recast it.” Dissent became associated with secularism, and organized secularism in turn, with the latter developing in curiously confessionalist ways.

Weir tracks these varying secular confessions, moving through the final decades of the 19th century and toward the first World War in chronological fashion, with a planned future book picking up the narrative thread in the Weimar Republic. Important topical considerations offer pauses throughout this history, in particular the rise of popular naturalistic monism, the question of class and culture among the secular, and the unstable relationship between secularism and Judaism, which oscillated during these decades between outright antisemitism and a philosemitism that could be problematic in less obvious but still real ways.

Naturalistic monism, or the assertion that the real world is coterminous with the natural world, arose over time as a central tenant of secular groups, although the optimal metaphysical framework for organized secularism was a matter of dispute. On the one hand, a dualism between the material world and the ideal or spiritual realm seems amenable to secularism because it lends itself to skepticism and agnosticism about our knowledge of the realm of ideals insofar as this is an experientially discontinuous realm of being. Such agnosticism was bread and butter for anticlerical ethical worldviews. At the same time, the Beyond posited by dualism is a superfluous hypothesis for worldviews grounded in immanence. Wilhelm Ostwald, the famed chemist who led the Monist League in the early 20th century, referred to metaphysical dualism as “double entry bookkeeping.” Ernst Haeckel, probably the most famous monist of the time for his popularization of Darwinian biology, rejected earlier skeptical proposals that there were basic riddles of the universe to which scientific knowledge would never have access. The difficulty for monists, at least as it was raised in internecine debates among the secularists, was how they could still be seen as “religious,” when their worldview was evacuated of transcendent spirit and ideals situated outside of mere nature.

These philosophical disputes also had their social context. Contrary to conceptions of radical freethought as being largely a phenomenon of the working classes or of bourgeois liberals, Weir shows that membership was drawn largely from the petty bourgeoisie (Kleinerbürgerlich) population. The appeal of organized secularism was cultural in many respects, but the presence of lower class audiences led to rifts not only between freethinkers and societal elites, but also between the Halbbildung (half-educated) secularists and anti-clerical cultural elites. Many secularists continued to attend Protestant churches throughout these decades, in light of its close connection with social status. Those radicals who had no such hopes for social mobility cut ties completely with the sacraments and church membership threw down a gauntlet to which liberals were unwilling to respond. The debate between freethinking scientists Ernst Haeckel and Rudolf Virchow similarly demonstrated disagreement about whether to go so far as to teach Darwinian evolution in schools (Haeckel’s position) or not (advocated by Virchow, a member of the Prussian Academy of Sciences). Organized secularism opened new spaces for political and confessional alignment. How far to live into these spaces was a matter of uncertainty and disagreement, largely determined by class and cultural interests.

The simultaneous clash between secularism and dominant Christian religious groups was complex in its own right, and secularism’s “Jewish Question” was likewise fraught. While Jewish emancipation was often tied to a new political belonging beyond the traditionally sequestered European Jewish identity, Jewish secularists were often caught between the broader public disapprobation of their Jewish identity and rejection from secular communities, either because of their hope to retain Jewish identity as secularists, or in their efforts to retain monotheism and transcendence over against the new monistic dogma. For example, Wilhelm Loewenthal, a Jewish physician and founder of the Berlin Freethought Association Lessing in 1881, immediately faced pushback for his commitment to ethical science (which was monotheistic and affirmed a spiritual transcendence from this world). In a matter of years Lowenthal had left the group he founded, which was increasingly populated by Christian converts to monism. In the next decade, the well-known German Society for Ethical Culture would take up similar debates, with the sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies advocating many of Lowenthal’s views. In the same way that secularism was no panacea for freethinkers coming from Protestant and Catholic backgrounds, it was not one for Jewish converts either. In addition, it tended to exacerbate tensions that were already present in German culture related to Judaism and Jewish identity.

Secularism is always conditioned by its religious, political, and social context. It forms confessional structures and participates in a confessional field in much the same way as the religions out of which it arises did, and do. Thus nineteenth-century Prussia is no different than anywhere else, but the unique developments of the German context that Weir investigates make plain how organized disbelief tends to repeat the structures of belief against which it defines itself. Coherent narratives of secularization are therefore necessarily disparate, localized phenomena, and a large part of Weir’s goal is to complicate our notion of what modern secularism meant, and perhaps by extension what it continues to mean. In this sense he continues to critique the older monolithic secularization thesis.

Evan Kuehn researches modern religious thought and is interested in innovative methodological approaches that can offer a coherent account of modern transcultural religious complexities. His writing includes Troeltsch’s Eschatological Absolute(Oxford University Press, 2020), and Theology Compromised: Schleiermacher, Troeltsch, and the Possibility of a Sociological Theology, co-authored with Matthew Ryan Robinson (Lexington/Fortress Press, 2019).