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  • IAN HUNTER (a1)

This essay argues that today's dominant understanding of secularization—as an epochal transition from a society based on religious belief to one based on autonomous human reason—first appeared in philosophical histories at the beginning of the nineteenth century and was then anachronistically applied to early modern Europe. Apart from the earlier and persisting canon-law use of the term to refer to a species of exclaustration, prior to 1800 the standard lexicographical meaning of “secularization” was determined by its use in public law and diplomacy to name the civil conversion of ecclesiastical property and jurisdiction. Prior to the same point the most important use of the adjective “secular” was in political jurisprudence as a synonym for temporal, civil, and political, to name a religious–political settlement from which rival theologies had been excluded as the condition of its negotiation. But this usage was domain-specific, was quite compatible with religious devotion, and had nothing to do with the putatively secular character of the spheres of philosophy or the natural sciences, thence “society”. Far from seeing a shift from religious belief to autonomous rationality, early modernity in fact witnessed a significant intensification of religious belief and practice under the impact of rival confessional movements. It also emerges that the nineteenth century was characterized not by the supersession of confessional religions—or their conversion into rational religion or moral philosophy—but by their remarkable persistence and adaptation to new circumstances. In light of this, the essay argues that the variant philosophical-historical conceptions of secularization—as the epochal supersession of religious belief by human rationality—should not be understood as theories of a putative process but as “combat concepts”. These were internal to an array of rival cultural-political factions that first emerged in early nineteenth-century Protestant Germany and that continue to do battle today.

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An early version of this paper was presented to the Narratives of Secularisation conference, held by the Centre for the History of European Discourses (University of Queensland) at Prato in September 2013. The present shorter version of the paper has benefited greatly from the advice of the journal's editors and readers. Those seeking a more detailed presentation of the paper's arguments can download it here:

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1 Marshall John, John Locke, Toleration and Early Enlightenment Culture: Religious Intolerance and Arguments for Religious Toleration in Early Modern and “Early Enlightenment” Europe (Cambridge, 2006); Israel Jonathan I., Democratic Enlightenment: Philosophy, Revolution, and Human Rights 1750–1790 (Oxford, 2011).

2 Habermas Jürgen, “Glauben und Wissen”, Dialog, 1 (2002), 6374; in English, Habermas, “Faith and Knowledge”, in Habermas, The Future of Human Nature (Cambridge, 2003), 101–15. Habermas, “‘The Political’: The Rational Meaning of a Questionable Inheritance of Political Theology”, in Mendieta E. and VanAntwerpen J., eds., The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere (New York, 2011), 1533. Peter E. Gordon, “What Hope Remains?”, New Republic, 14 December 2011, available at

3 Taylor Charles, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA, 2007); Gregory Brad S., The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society (Cambridge, MA, 2012).

4 This difference between the public-law (Säkularisation) and philosophical-historical (Säkularisierung) usages of “secularization” began to be marked in the 1930s and was clearly spelled out in the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe, as was the identification of the early 1800s as the point of emergence of the philosophical-historical meaning. See Strätz Hans-Wolfgang and Zabel Hermann, “Säkularisation, Säkularisierung”, in Brunner O., Conze W., and Koselleck R., eds., Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe: Historisches Lexikon zur politisch-sozialen Sprache in Deutschland, vol. 5 (Stuttgart, 1984), 789829.

5 See the revisionist essays by Christopher Clark: “From 1848 to Christian Democracy”, in Katznelson I. and Jones G. Stedman, eds., Religion and the Political Imagination (Cambridge, 2010), 190213; Clark, “The Napoleonic Moment in Prussian Church Policy,” in Riall L. and Laven D., eds., Napoleon's Legacy: Problems of Government in Restoration Europe (Oxford, 2000), 217–36; and Clark, “Confessional Policy and the Limits of State Action: Frederick William III and the Prussian Union 1817–40,” Historical Journal, 39 (1996), 985–1004.

6 Heckel Martin, “Religionsfreiheit: Ein säkulare Verfassungsgarantie”, in Schlaich K., ed., Martin Heckel, Gesammelte Schriften: Staat, Kirche, Recht, Geschichte, 4 vols. (Tübingen, 1997), 4: 647849.

7 Strätz and Zabel, “Säkularisation, Säkularisierung”, 792–809. On the canon-law usage, see Ruessmann Madeleine, Exclaustration: Its Nature and Use According to Current Law (Rome, 1995), 1585.

8 Strätz and Zabel, “Säkularisation, Säkularisierung”, 798–99. Heckel, “Säkularisierung”, 773.

9 Hübner Johann, ed., Realen Staats-, Zeitungs- und Conversations-Lexicons (Leipzig, 1711), 1366. The entry remains unchanged in the 1737 revised edition.

10 See Lehmann Hartmut, Säkularisierung: Der europäische Sonderweg in Sachen Religion (Göttingen, 2004), 3656.

11 Hömig Klaus Dieter, Der Reichsdeputationshauptschluss vom 25. Februar 1803 und seine Bedeutung für Staat und Kirche (Tübingen, 1969).

12 See Israel Jonathan I., Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man 1670–1752 (Oxford, 2006), 4351; Israel, Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650–1750 (Oxford, 2001), 104–9, 641–5.

13 “Secularization” does not appear in any of Spinoza's Latin texts; nor, it seems, does the adjective “secular”. Neither term is listed in Emilia Boscherini's authoritative Lexicon Spinozanum (The Hague, 1970). “Secular” does not appear in the Latin text of the Tractatus Theologico-Philosophicus, and seems to be an interpolation introduced by Robert Elwes's English translation in the context of 1880s rationalism. Elwes translates Spinoza's jus principatus—the right of rule/imperium—with the phrase “the rights of secular rulers”. See and compare de Spinoza Benedict, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, vol. 3 of Benedict de Spinoza: Opera (Hamburg, 1670), 223; and Spinoza, A Theologico-political Treatise and A Political Treatise, trans. Elwes R. H. M. (New York, 1951; first published 1883), 238. Samuel Shirley follows suit in translating jus principatum as the “right of secular rule”. See the Shirley translation of the Tractatus, at 273.

14 One of the best collections of studies of the reception of Spinoza as heterodox philosophical theologian remains Gründer Karlfried and Schmidt-Biggemann Wilhelm, eds., Spinoza in der Frühzeit seiner religiösen Wirkung (Heidelberg, 1984). For the early eighteenth-century reception of Spinoza as a heretical Christian Cabalist see Martin Mulsow, “A German Spinozistic Reader of Cudworth, Bull, and Spencer: Johann Georg Wachter and His Theologia Martyrum (1712)”, in Ligota C. R. and Quantin J.-L., eds., History of Scholarship (Oxford, 2006), 357–83. For a detailed treatment of the censoring the German Spinozist Friedrich Stosch for theological heterodoxy rather than philosophical radicalism see Detlef Döring, Frühaufklärung und obrigkeitliche Zensur in Brandenburg: Friedrich Wilhelm Stosch und das Verfahren gegen sein Buch “Concordia rationis et fidei” (Berlin, 1995).

15 For a useful overview see Heinz Schilling, “Confessional Europe”, in Brady T. A. J., Oberman H. A., and Tracy J. D., eds., Handbook of European History 1400–1600: Latin Middle Ages, Renaissance and Reformation, vol. 2, Visions, Programs and Outcomes (Leiden, 1995), 641–82. Succinct surveys of the impact of confessionalization within the German empire are provided in Heinz Schilling, “Die Konfessionalisierung im Reich: Religiöser und gesellschaftlicher Wandel in Deutschland zwischen 1555 und 1620”, Historische Zeitschrift, 246 (1988), 145; and Wolfgang Reinhard, “Zwang zur Konfessionalisierung? Prolegomena zu einer Theorie des konfessionellen Zeitalters”, Zeitschrift für historische Forschung, 10 (1983), 257–77.

16 For the impact of confessionalization at the level of the formation and differentiation of religious communities see Rublack Hans-Christoph, “New Patterns of Christian Life”, in Brady, Oberman, and Tracy (eds.), Handbook of European History 1400–1600, vol. 2, 585606.

17 There is thus no evidence to support Thomas Howard's claim that owing to its more territorial character Protestant confessionalization was distinguished from Catholicism through its statist instrumentalization of religion. See Howard Thomas Albert, Protestant Theology and the Making of the Modern German University (Oxford, 2006), 215–22.

18 Anton Schindling, “Schulen und Universitäten im 16. und 17. Jahrhundert: Zehn Thesen zu Bildungsexpansion, Laienbildung und Konfessionalisierung nach Reformation”, in Brandmüller W., Immenkötter H., and Iserloh E., eds., Ecclesia Militans: Studia zur Konzilien- und Reformationsgeschichte Remigius Bäumer zum 70. Geburtstag gewidmet. (Paderborn, 1988), 561–70.

19 On the tight nexus of law and religion in the Saxon confessional state see Jerouschek Günter, Schild Wolfgang, and Gropp Walter, eds., Benedict Carpzov: Neue Perspektiven zu einem umstrittenen sächsischen Juristen (Tübingen, 2000). On early modern England as a confessional state founded in the alliance between Anglicanism and the common law see Clark J. C. D., English Society 1660–1832: Religion, Ideology and Politics during the Ancien Regime, 2nd edn (Cambridge, 2000).

20 For the (entirely contingent) circumstances surrounding the failure of the Hohenzollerns to achieve the Calvinization of Brandenburg-Prussia, and hence its emergence as a “tolerant” multi-confessional state during the seventeenth century, see the unsurpassed study by Nischan Bodo, Prince, People, and Confession: The Second Reformation in Brandenburg (Philadelphia, 1994).

21 Whaley Joachim, Germany and the Holy Roman Empire, vol. 1, Maximilian I to the Peace of Westphalia, 1490–1648 (Oxford, 2012), 255336.

22 For detailed discussions of these measures see Heckel Martin, “Parität (I)”, in Martin Heckel, Gesammelte Schriften, 1: 106226; and Heckel, “Itio in partes: Zur Religionsverfassung des Heiligen Römischen Reiches Deutscher Nation”, in ibid., vol. 2, 636–736.

23 See Heckel Martin, “Das Säkularisierungsproblem in der Entwicklung des deutschen Staatskirchenrechts”, in Dilcher G. and Staff I., eds., Christentum und modernes Recht: Beiträge zum Problem der Säkularisation (Frankfurt am Main, 1984), 3595, 50–55.

24 Heckel Martin, Vom Religionskonflikt zur Ausgleichsordnung: Der Sonderweg des deutschen Staatskirchenrechts vom Augsburger Religionsfrieden 1555 bis zur Gegenwart (Munich, 2007).

25 Heckel Martin, Deutschland im konfessionellen Zeitalter (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1983), 3366.

26 See Schilling, “Die Konfessionalisierung im Reich”; and Reinhard, “Zwang zur Konfessionalisierung?”.

27 Whaley, Germany and the Holy Roman Empire, vol. 1, 619–31.

28 Heckel, Deutschland im konfessionellen Zeitalter, 181–209.

29 Thomasius Christian, Höchstnöthige Cautelen Welche ein Studiosus iuris, der sich zur Erlernung der Kirchen-Rechts-Gelahrheit auff eine kluge und geschickte Weise vorbereiten will, zu beobachten hat (Halle, 1713), chap. 17, §§112.

30 It might well be the case that seventeenth-century natural philosophers did not in fact characterize their sciences as “secular”, since they did not confront the historical problem—the need to establish non-theological political settlements to religious conflicts—that had led to the use of the term by political jurists.

31 Ahnert Thomas, Religion and the Origins of the German Enlightenment: Faith and the Reform of Learning in the Thought of Christian Thomasius (Rochester, 2006).

32 Kleingeld Pauline, “Kant, History, and the Idea of Moral Development”, History of Philosophy Quarterly, 16 (1999), 5980.

33 Kant Immanuel, Religion within the Bounds of Bare Reason, Pluhar trans. W. S. (Indianapolis, IN, 2009), 6687, 113–37.

34 Hegel Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, Lectures on the Philosophy of History, Sibree trans. J. (London, 1861), 5682.

35 Gareth Stedman Jones, “Religion and the Origins of Socialism”, in Katznelson and Stedman Jones, Religion and the Political Imagination, 171–89, 185–7.

36 Clark, English Society, 385–95.

37 For an exemplary instance of this form of philosophical history, and for the probable first appearance of the new usage of secularization in English, see Lecky W. E. H., History of the Rise and Influence of the Spirit of Rationalism in Europe, 2 vols. (New York, 1866), vol. 1, 79.

38 For an insider's account of the emergence of Hegelian Thomism in the mid-twentieth century see Wayne John Hankey, “Tradition and Development of Doctrine”, in Petley D. A., ed., Tradition: Received and Handed on (Charlottetown, 1994), 1652.

39 See Taylor, A Secular Age, 28–75, 96–9, 146–58. See also Gregory, The Unintended Reformation, 36–64. For more detail see Hunter Ian, “Charles Taylor's A Secular Age and Secularization in Early Modern Germany”, Modern Intellectual History, 8 (2011), 621–46.

40 Yerkes James, The Christology of Hegel (New York, 1983), 2946.

41 This builds on Hunter Ian, Rival Enlightenments: Civil and Metaphysical Philosophy in Early Modern Germany (Cambridge, 2001), 274363.

42 See also Stedman-Jones, “Religion and the Origins of Socialism”.

43 For this line see Howard, Protestant Theology, 121–9, 222–39.

44 For this view see Habermas Jürgen, Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy, Rehg trans. W. (Cambridge, MA, 1996), 302–28.

45 See Heckel, “Religionsfreiheit”; also Ian Hunter, “Religious Freedom in Early Modern Germany: Theology, Philosophy, and Legal Casuistry”, South Atlantic Quarterly, 113 (2014), 3762.

46 Section 137(7) of the Weimar religious constitution—enacted in 1919 and then incorporated into the constitutional Grundgesetz of 1949—thus states, “Associations whose purpose is the cultivation of a philosophical ideology [Weltanschauung] shall have the same status as religious bodies”. See Parliamentary Council (of the Federal Republic of Germany), The Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany (Wiesbaden, 1971), 84–8.

47 For a detailed discussion see Hunter Ian, “Kant's Religion and Prussian Religious Policy”, Modern Intellectual History, 2 (2005), 127.

48 The full German text of the edict is available in the companion volume to Dirk Kemper's invaluable microfiche collection of the ensuing controversy literature. See Kemper Dirk, ed., Mißbrauchte Aufklärung? Schriften zum preußischen Religionsedikt vom 9. Juli 1788. Begleitband (Hildesheim and New York, 1996), 226343.

49 Kant, Religion within the Bounds of Bare Reason, 6–87.

50 Kant Immanuel, “On the Common Saying: That May Be Correct in Theory, but It Is of No Use in Practice”, in Gregor M. J., ed., Immanuel Kant: Practical Philosophy (Cambridge, 1996), 273310, 296–7.

51 Ibid., 302–3; and Kant Immanuel, “An Answer to the Question: ‘What Is Enlightenment?’”, in Kant: Political Writings, ed. Reiss H. (Cambridge, 1970), 5460.

52 Beiser C., Enlightenment, Revolution, and Romanticism: The Genesis of Modern German Political Thought, 1790–1800 (Cambridge, MA, 1992), 4853; Israel, Democratic Enlightenment, 855–88; and, for a more nuanced version, Saine Thomas P., The Problem of Being Modern: Or, the German Pursuit of Enlightenment from Leibniz to the French Revolution (Detroit, 1997), 280310. This view has now been convincingly called into question by an important revisionist study arguing that the edict itself was an Enlightenment measure and wholly in keeping with Prussian secular religious pluralism. See Sauter Michael J., Visions of the Enlightenment: The Edict on Religion of 1788 and the Politics of the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century Prussia (Leiden, 2009).

53 For Kantian and Hegelian accounts see, respectively, Wood Allen W., “General Introduction”, in Wood A. W. and Giovanni G. Di, eds., Immanuel Kant: Religion and Rational Theology (Cambridge, 1996), xixxiv; and Beiser, Enlightenment, Revolution, and Romanticism, 48–53.

54 A left-Hegelian or Marxian version of the story is offered by Warren Breckman, “Ludwig Feuerbach and the Political Theology of Restoration”, History of Political Thought, 13 (1992), 437–62; and Breckman, Marx, the Young Hegelians, and the Origins of Radical Social Theory (Cambridge, 1999), 258–97. Breckman treats Marx as approaching the final socialization (or “secularization”) of Kantian and Hegelian idealisms that had yet to break free of “Christian personalism”. For the inverted mirror-image Catholic account—according to which German idealism was indeed Protestant rationalism but for just that reason was capable of being instrumentalized and imposed as a supraconfessional state pedagogy—see Howard, Protestant Theology, 222–39.

55 Hunter, Rival Enlightenments, 52–62, 102–15, 285–316.

56 Heimsoeth Heinz, The Six Great Themes of Western Metaphysics and the End of the Middle Ages, Betanzos trans. R. J. (Detroit, 1994), 3881.

57 On Kant's “noumenal anthropology” see Wimmer Reiner, “Homo noumenon: Kants praktisch-moralische Anthropologie”, in Fischer N., ed., Kants Metaphysik und Religionsphilosophie (Hamburg, 2004), 347–90.

58 Sparn Walter, “Kant's Doctrine of Atonement as a Theory of Subjectivity”, in Rossi P. J. and Wreen M., eds., Kant's Philosophy of Religion Reconsidered (Indianapolis, 1991), 103–12.

59 Yerkes, Christology of Hegel, 7–50; O’Regan Cyril, “The Trinity in Kant, Hegel, and Schelling”, in Emery G. and Levering M., eds., The Oxford Handbook of the Trinity (New York, 2011), 254–66.

60 Hegel Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, Nisbet trans. H. B. (Cambridge, 1991), §§272, 298.

61 Hegel, Philosophy of Right, 270.

62 Ibid., 302–4.

63 Hegel Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History. Introduction: Reason in History, Nisbet trans. H. B. (Cambridge, 1975), 48–9.

64 Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, 53.

65 See Brown Peter, Power and Persuasion in Late Antiquity: Towards a Christian Empire (Madison, 1992), 71117.

66 Hunter, Rival Enlightenments, 293–316

67 For the standard Kantian and Hegelian view of this in contemporary scholarship, according to which, rather than being the architecture for a spiritual exercise, the divisions between spontaneous intellect and passive sensibility (or the ideal and material worlds) do in fact pertain to the structure of “human experience”, see Pippin Robert B., “The Kantian Aftermath: Reaction and Revolution in German Philosophy”, in Wood A. W. and Hahn S. S., eds., The Cambridge History of Philosophy in the Nineteenth Century (1790–1870) (Cambridge, 2011), 1945; Pippin, The Persistence of Subjectivity: On the Kantian Aftermath (New York, 2005).

68 Levinger Matthew, Enlightened Nationalism: The Transformation of Prussian Political Culture, 1806–1848 (New York, 2000), 191226.

69 Clark, “From 1848 to Christian Democracy”.

70 At this stage the factions were named after the hotels and cafés in which they met, although they were in fact the seed-forms of the political parties—the democratic socialist (SPD), Marxist–communist (KPD), liberal, conservative, and Catholic (Zentrumpartei)—that would dominate the next national assembly, to be held at Weimar in 1919. For an overview of the factions see Holborn Hajo, A History of Modern Germany: 1845–1945 (Princeton, NJ, 1969), vol. 3, 61–3.

71 On the constitutively factionalized character of these ideological groupings see the fascinating study by Lattek Christine, Revolutionary Refugees: German Socialism in Britain, 1840–1860 (London, 2006).

72 For his hostile commentary on the 1849 constitution's pluralistic religious provisions see Stahl Friedrich Julius, Parlamentarische Reden (Berlin, 1856), 81–8.

73 Stahl Friedrich Julius, Principles of Law, Alvarado trans. R. (Aalten, 2007).

74 Marx Karl, “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's ‘Philosophy of Right’: Introduction”, in Marx, Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, Jolin trans. A. and O’Malley J. (Cambridge, 1970), 129–42, 138.

75 Pace Howard, Protestant Theology, 226–7, Rothe's program was symptomatic not of the imposition of Protestant rationalism as the ideology of a secular state, but of a failed sectarian attempt to subordinate the destabilized Prussian state to a rationalist philosophical religion.

76 Rothe Richard, Die Anfänge der Christlichen Kirche und ihrer Verfassung (Wittenberg, 1837), 85.

77 Michelet Carl Ludwig, Entwicklungsgeschichte der neuesten deutschen Philosophie mit besonderer Rücksicht auf den gegenwärtigen Kampf Schellings mit der Hegelschen Schule (Berlin, 1843), 305.

78 Marx Karl, “Briefe aus den Deutsch-Französischen Jahrbüchern”, in Karl Marx/Friedrich Engels—Werke, Bd. 1 (Berlin DDR, 1976), 337–46, 343, 346, original emphasis.

79 Marx Karl, “Zur Judenfrage”, in Karl Marx/Friedrich Engels—Werke, Bd. 1, 347–77, 360.

80 See, for example, Warren Breckman's philosophical-historical argument that left-Hegelian debates over the revolutionary de-alienation of religious personhood represented an unfolding emancipatory “theory” of politics and society, in Warren Breckman, “Politics, Religion, and Personhood: The Left Hegelians and the Christian German State”, in Moggach D., ed., Politics, Religion, and Art: Hegelian Debates (Evanston, IL, 2011), 96117.

81 The central argument of Howard's Protestant Theology.

* An early version of this paper was presented to the Narratives of Secularisation conference, held by the Centre for the History of European Discourses (University of Queensland) at Prato in September 2013. The present shorter version of the paper has benefited greatly from the advice of the journal's editors and readers. Those seeking a more detailed presentation of the paper's arguments can download it here:

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Modern Intellectual History
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