Claims made in the name of secularism vary greatly. At one extreme, self-described secularists in the United States portray their cause as the beleaguered defense of the separation of church and state. As their critics rightly point out, faith in naturalistic worldviews often bubbles up in the fuzzy definitions of secularism that underlie their advocacy. At the other extreme, political and critical theorists use the term as shorthand for a master theory of global modernity. They see secularism as a set of discourses, policies, and constitutional arrangements whereby modern states and liberal elites have sought to regulate religion and, in the process, have contributed to the “immanent frame” in which religion is now located. Rather than advocacy, they see their task as the demystification of secularism.

I want to consider here the apparent disjuncture between critical theory of political secularism and what I will call worldview secularism, by which I mean movements that combine advocacy of separation with anticlericalism and the promulgation of immanent political or scientific creeds. Historically, this combination has appeared most prominently in the various forms of Freethought, but it also found expression in the religious dynamics present in political movements of the left. While investigating the history of German Freethought and socialism, I was struck by the significant, if minor, role that Talal Asad attributed to worldview secularism in his groundbreaking Formations of the Secular, now a foundational text in critical theory. I learned much from his interpretation, but it misses an important dimension that needs addressing.

The term “secularism” was coined in 1851 by George Holyoake, the leader of British Freethought, a politically radical movement of largely plebian character. This marginal origin serves, for Asad, as evidence of the mode in which he believes secularism emerged both as concept and technique. Asad argues that secularism, rather than unfolding from Enlightenment ideals, was elaborated in micropolitical theaters before being assimilated into macropolitical processes. Asad holds that Holyoake’s neologism marked exactly the point of transition between the two, when “[l]ong-standing habits of indifference, disbelief, or hostility among individuals towards Christian rituals and authorities” became “entangled with projects of total social reconstruction by means of legislation.” (24) The implication is that the anticlericalism of subaltern radicals was transformed into a core process of modernity as it passed to the more powerful hands of British liberals and the emerging nation-state.

For scholars who follow Asad’s lead, the task of historical research is to trace the dialectic between secularism as a singular global process and secularisms found in multiple local theaters, or as Peter van der Veer recently put it, 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.”

At the risk oversimplifying, I want to identify a common or master narrative in this rich literature, namely that political secularism developed as a hegemonic global process that followed a crooked but nonetheless linear path—in that it progressed by continual adjustment and without serious reversal—between the mid-nineteenth and the late-twentieth century. Where considered, worldview secularism is incorporated as a minor factor in an essentially singular project of emergent secularity.

Yet, it seems to me that worldview secularism challenges this narrative. Rather than just adding grist to the liberals’ mill, as Asad suggested, worldview secularism and associated political movements in fact posed a significant problem for political secularism. The advocates of each version of secularism clashed repeatedly. As a result, liberals developed a complicated relationship towards the terms “secularism,” “secular” and “secularization.” By connecting the conceptual history of these words to the clash of secularisms, the following contribution—based on a longer essay in the Germanic Review—seeks to illuminate the origins of our contemporary critical vocabulary from a different standpoint than that taken by Talal Asad. More importantly, it asks how a fuller account of the impact of worldview secularism might revise current assumptions about the formation of the secular.

Recoiling from the secular

America’s humanists, freethinkers, and atheists today gain political advantage from the polysemous quality of the term secularism. It mediates between a particularistic creed and the universal ideal of separation contained in the term “secular.” The historical record indicates that Holyoake recognized this advantage as well. The opening came with the politicization of the binary “secular” and “religious” in the 1840s in the context of debate over national school education. By renaming his movement Secularism, Holyoake allied it to liberal calls for secular education, thereby making Freethought less distasteful and widening its potential base. At the same time, the semantic overlap claimed for Freethought a privileged position as the only creed compatible with the secular content of scientific education.

Yet, this move came at a cost: Holyoake’s semantic distinctions were difficult to maintain. Late in the century, he protested that his term secularism was being usurped and confused with secularity. This ostensibly supports Asad’s implicit claim that worldview secularism had become subordinated to liberal hegemony and the secular state. However, Holyoake was not the only one irritated by the conflation of terms. In 1850, leading liberal Richard Cobden addressed a congress convened to found a National Secular School Association. He rejected this proposed name because to his ear “secular” had come to mean “not religious” rather than “non-sectarian.” If school reformers associated their cause with irreligion, Cobden warned, they would be “opening up a chink in their armour which they would some day have to rivet up with more difficulty and discussion.” The delegates were apparently convinced and chose the name National Public School Association instead.

Not being a historian of Britain, I don’t want to speculate about Cobden’s deeper motivations. However, I do think that we have to take note of the fact that radical secularism caused some liberals to recoil from “the secular.” I think there is more at stake here than explaining the paradoxical fact that the purported chief agents of state secularism, i.e. Western liberals, in fact avoided this term (and many still do). Using examples from German history, I want to show that this sort of semantic retreat was symptomatic of large-scale socio-ideological conflicts, in which worldview secularism caused significant deformations of both liberal and conservative conceptions of secularization.

The fate of secularism in Germany

One of the major differences in the political development of Britain and Germany was that whereas British liberals successfully bridged the social gap separating them from the craftsmen and workers organized by Holyoake, their German counterparts failed to do so, and an autonomous socialist movement arose in the 1870s. This rift also disrupted relations between established German intellectuals and organized secularists, who, at the beginning of the 1870s, had jointly welcomed the government’s effort to exclude the Catholic Church from public institutions as part of a wider Kulturkampf (“culture war”).

Following socialist electoral victories in 1877, liberal attitude towards Freethought became increasingly ambivalent. The pathologist and leading liberal Rudolf Virchow warned fellow liberals against those who would turn science into a political worldview, asking them to imagine “how the theory of evolution appears in the head of a socialist.” Once it became aligned in the public mind to socialism, worldview secularism contributed to the crisis in liberal faith in religious progress. Although some remained true to a positivist worldview, other liberals argued for a division of science and politics from ultimate questions, and still others embraced anti-materialism and anti-Semitism.

Recently, a number of historians have suggested that Max Weber’s theory of secularization was a byproduct of the liberal Protestant Kulturkampf. Yet Weber’s immediate political context was not, in fact, the Kulturkampf, but rather the subsequent phase when the binary organization of religious struggle broke down, and liberals found themselves in a two-front battle against Catholicism and secularism/socialism. According to the political philosopher Hermann Lübbe, the anxiety this produced flowed into the theory of secularization. When the early sociologists plucked the term “secularization” out of the arsenal of political anticlericalism, they had to neutralize it, i.e. dissociate it from its origin. Whereas Kulturkampf era liberals viewed secularization as the result of intentionally willed action, the sociologists described it as an impersonal, macrohistorical process. In other words, the theory of secularization was marked both by Protestant liberal triumphalism and a strategic retreat from secularism.

One of Weber’s chief innovations, as set out in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, was to locate the driving force of secularization not in worldview secularism but in a process of rationalization unfolding within religion itself. This disentanglement of Christian secularization from anti-Christian secularism was echoed by theologian Ernst Troeltsch in the first decades of the twentieth century. But despite the efforts of Weber and Troeltsch, Protestant and Catholic leaders in Germany largely rejected the term “secularization,” because, according to Lübbe, it still contained “too much polemic of its freethinking origin.”

The terms Säkularismus (“secularism”) and Säkularisierung (“secularization”) were only popularized in Germany in the late Weimar republic, largely by conservative Christians. Crucially, their definition of secularism conflated it with the secularization of modern civilization, on the one hand, and Bolshevism, on the other. The distinction between secularization and secularism could not catch hold because liberals and conservatives proved unable to neutralize worldview secularism either semantically or politically. Only after the banning of Freethought and socialism in 1933 and the end of the National Socialist worldview dictatorship in 1945 was prominent German theologian Friedrich Gogarten able to distinguish between a healthy secularization compatible with modern Protestantism and a secularism that resulted from the irrational apotheosis of the secular.


This brief historical excursion indicates that worldview secularism should not be prematurely subsumed under the liberal political drive for state secularization. Figures who sought to tame religion, such as Richard Cobden, Rudolf Virchow and Max Weber, sought to neutralize radical secularism at the same time. Yet, at least in Germany, this neutralization was not entirely successful. Only when worldview secularism ceased to be a divisive component of domestic politics did postwar German church leaders finally accept secularization as a legitimate process within Christian history.

Although I find strong divergences from the British and American experiences of secularization, this is not an argument for German exceptionalism. I see the clash between defenders of state religions and radical secularists allied to the political left as typical for many regions across the globe, which calls into question the master narrative sketched out above. Rather than seeing the evolution of secularity as an essentially unbroken line connecting the high point of classical European liberalism to the postcolonial regimes of the 1970s or even the neoliberal present, the German example points to discontinuities. The rivalry between liberalism and worldview secularism, accompanied as it was by the clash of political worldviews, often ran very deep. Its late resolution suggests that the “secular age” may be of a recent vintage.