In a The Immanent Frame post on buffered selves, Charles Taylor commented that “The process of disenchantment, involving a change in us, can be seen as a loss of a certain sensibility that is really an impoverishment (as against simply the shedding of irrational feelings).” For Taylor, selves that have been sealed against currents of transcendence flowing through cosmos and community are symptoms of an epochal process of secularization that has rationalized or disenchanted both individuals and whole societies. While not being the only one on offer—Jürgen Habermas and Daniel Dennett provide rival Kantian and naturalist accounts—Taylor’s account of a “disembedding” of the transcendent brought about by a self-alienating religion is probably the dominant philosophical history of a “secular age.” Given that Taylor aligns secularization with “Reform Christianity” and dates it to the 1500s, however, what should we make of the fact that the term was not used to refer to an epochal process of rationalization until the early nineteenth century?

Prior to this point secularization had a specialized use in canon law to refer to the transfer of cloistered clergy to the secular or worldly duties of the parish. But since the mid-seventeenth century its dominant use was in European public law to name the conversion of ecclesiastical property and jurisdiction to civil ownership and jurisdiction, although this too was a specialized usage and made no reference to any epochal rationalization of culture and society. It seems that the first uses of secularization to refer to such an epochal process date from the 1830s, and that they emerged in a specific context: namely, in debates over the reshaping of Germany’s religious and political order that were taking place in the period of political turbulence (the Vormärz) leading up to the 1848 revolution and National Assembly.

It further seems that this new usage took place within the new discourse or discipline of philosophical history that had emerged when Kantian and Hegelian metaphysics were projected onto political, legal, and ecclesiastical historiographies. It was in this political, religious, and discursive context that philosophical historians, especially “right” and “left” Hegelians, began to use a battery of terms—Verweltlichung and (less frequently) Säkularisation and Säkularisierung—in a new way, to refer to an epochal process that was transforming a formerly religiously based society into one grounded in human reason.

Of course, even if the use of secularization to refer to an epochal process of rationalization or disenchantment did not emerge until the early nineteenth century, it is still possible that such a process had been underway since the 1500s or even earlier. Possible, certainly, but likely?

Two historiographical research programs suggest that the evidence points in the opposite direction. The German “confessionalization” research program has produced many studies and much evidence indicating that rather than undergoing decline and rationalization, beginning in the mid-sixteenth century Christian observance was significantly expanded and intensified. As a result of three overlapping waves of confessionalization—Lutheran, Catholic, and Calvinist—Christian clergy were imprinted with mutually opposed theological and liturgical doctrines, while Christian communities were subject to new forms of religious education and pastoral guidance designed to extend religious discipline into everyday life.

But a second and more recent body of research (by such scholars as Margaret Lavinia Anderson and Christopher Clark) indicates that even in the face of nineteenth-century secularizing campaigns the confessional churches proved remarkably resilient, adapting their liturgical and pastoral forms to uncertain times, and forging the formidable organizational bulwarks of political Catholicism and political Protestantism from which Christian Democracy would emerge.

For present purposes these research programs provide grounds enough for suggesting that if the notion of secularization as an epochal rationalization of society was not invented until the early nineteenth century, this is because no such process had taken place, and, moreover, that no such process would take place during the century following that invention. By entertaining this suggestion it is possible to shift the focus of historical inquiry away from a claimed process of epochal secularization and onto the making of the claim itself.

If it is not prima facie evident that any such process was taking place, then what was it about 1830s Germany that led to the formulation of the new usage, and how did this take place? This question makes it possible to shift attention away from the putative epochal process of rationalizing secularization and onto the groups who first formulated the notion of such a process, the discursive means that they used, and the religious and political purposes that this notion served.

There would appear to be five major discursive sources for philosophical-historical constructions of an epochal process of secularization, although these discourses often overlapped and flowed into each other, especially in the factionalized turbulence of the Vormärz period.

First, in disseminating a view of man as a rational being distracted by his sensuous inclinations, Kantianism formed an academic subculture in which individual moral self-cultivation could replace ecclesiastical salvation. This metaphysical anthropology allowed history to be imagined as the progressive temporal unfolding of man’s capacity for rational self-governance, and this in turn gave rise to a rational religion and ecclesiology according to which infantile confessional biblical religions would be progressively displaced (“secularized”) with the maturation of a “pure religion of reason.”

Second, the free-thought and Free Religion movements also taught that reason itself would render Christianity redundant, but in a much more straightforward manner than Kant’s doctrine, simply through the progress of education and “science” that would relegate confessional religion in favor of a secular society based on free rational individuals.

Third, drawing on Hegel’s conception of history as successive self-objectifications and de-alienations of reason or spirit, theological or right Hegelians such as Bruno Bauer and Richard Rothe argued that the church was being progressively alienated or secularized through its incorporation into the state, while, at the same time, the state was being de-secularized by assuming the moral functions previously invested in the churches. In 1837, in one of the earliest of the new uses of the term, Rothe could declare that “The church is thus secularized [säcularisirt] in the same measure as the state is desecularized [entsäcularisirt]….”1

Fourth, the so-called left Hegelians—Ludwig Arnold Feuerbach, Ruge, Karl Marx—put Hegel’s dialectic to work in a different way, arguing that religion itself was an estranged projection of human psychology and anthropology. Man projected religion as an alienated superstructure owing to his psychological immaturity and/or and economic enslavement. This meant that educational and economic emancipation would lead to the de-alienation or secularization (usually Verweltlichung) of religion, entailing its complete displacement by ethics and radical popular democracy.

Although it belongs to the same discursive constellation as the four nineteenth-century forms, the fifth construction of secularization as epochal rationalization of society did not appear until the middle of the twentieth century. Emerging first from the reception of Hegelian philosophy within Catholic theological and social thought (an Anglican variant would follow), this construction combines two elements: first, a Hegelian conception of society as the alienated superstructure of religion; and second, a neo-Thomist understanding of the Protestant Reformation as a process that “disembedded” the transcendent from cosmos and society, allowing them to become alienated and instrumentalized. Charles Taylor could thus construct a philosophical history of a “secular age” in which the Protestant disembedding of the transcendentals led to an epochal disenchantment of the cosmos and disciplining of society, giving rise to a modern age supposedly consisting of “buffered” selves, a disciplined society, and an objectified and alienated cosmos.

Having identified four ways in which the notion of secularization as an epochal rationalization of society was first formulated in the early nineteenth century, plus a fifth 20th century offshoot, it becomes possible to redescribe these constructions by situating them within the factional cultural-political programs in which they were forged as combat concepts. I offer four brief pointers as to what such a redescription might look like.

First, and perhaps most demandingly, it will be necessary to cease viewing the philosophical histories as scholarly accounts of the confessional religions and to treat them instead as something like academic rivals. This radical reorientation becomes a little less demanding once we recall that in the early nineteenth century leading representatives of the confessional religions viewed Kantian and Hegelian philosophies as heterodox theologies, with Kantianism being routinely attacked as a hyper-rationalist Pelagianism and Hegelianism as a species of pantheism and Gnosticism. In this regard, it also helps to recall that these philosophies employed metaphysical anthropologies and cosmologies—Kant’s Christological view of man as a pure intelligence attached to a distracting sensibility, Hegel’s quasi-gnostic view of human reason as evolving through the mind’s or spirit’s successive historical self-objectifications and sublations—that were very similar to Christian models, from which they were arguably derived. Seen in this light, Kantianism and Hegelianism look very much like rival spiritual pedagogies to those offered by the Christian confessions.

Second, neither did Kantian and Hegelian philosophies provide a scholarly understanding of the German religious settlement and the religious constitution. As a result of major juridical and political reconstructions that followed from the Peace of Augsburg in 1555 and the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, Germany had developed a remarkable and distinctive religious constitution. Martin Heckel has taught us that this was a double-sided structure consisting of a juridical framework that was “secular” (weltlich) in the sense of recognizing a plurality of official confessions, but inside which each of the confessions was expected to teach its doctrines as absolute truths.

This ambivalent constitutional architecture meant that a limited secular outlook developed not on the basis of a foundational rationalist philosophy or through the self-alienation of an anti-sacramental religion, but as the result of a set of political-juridical arrangements in which religious and metaphysical truth had been suspended in order to achieve the political coexistence of rival confessional blocs. But it also meant that inside this treaty-based framework, rather than being secularized, the constitutionally recognized religions would be maintained as an array of absolutely true faiths in perpetuity.

Third, if they did not issue in scholarly histories or theories capable of being true, how did the philosophical histories of secularization gain such traction during the 1830s and 1840s? The first thing to observe in this regard is that these philosophical histories channeled the spiritual prestige and social authority of an esteemed German personage: the university metaphysician, imbued with charismatic insight into the transcendent forms underlying the empirical world, and the unfolding of these forms in historical time towards an eschatological finality. Through their metaphysical anthropologies and cosmologies Kant and Hegel transposed this insight into an extra-ecclesial academic subculture, and Kantian philosophers and their Hegelian rivals, both right and left, unhesitatingly laid claim to it by prophesying the transcendental unfolding of spirit in history, specifically in their philosophical histories of the inevitable secularization of society.

Fourth, by itself, however, the spiritual authority and insight of the university metaphysician was not enough to give cultural and political traction to the philosophical histories of secularization. What permitted these rationalist religious philosophies and philosophical histories of secularization to become effectual was not their truth or a history that would make them true, but something quite different: Napoleon’s destruction of the German Empire in 1806, accompanied by the suspension of the religious constitution that had kept the rationalist philosophies in check as tolerated academic confessions. This permitted various Kantian and Hegelian (and freethought) philosophers to assume leadership roles in the plethora of political sects and factions that sought to shape the course of constitutional and political history in the period leading up to 1848, embodying competing programs of secularization (and sacralization) in party platforms.

In short, the philosophical histories of secularization became effectual not because they described an epochal process, but because the programmed rival factional attempts to reconfigure the religious constitution. Backed by a unified political organization and sufficient coercive power, one of these programs might well have achieved a certain kind of secularization, as would happen in the German Democratic Republic after 1945. In the event of 1848, however, stalemate between the competing factions, followed by political and military crisis, led not to secularization but to the reinstatement of the pluralist religious constitution—as would happen again in 1919 and 1949—not because of its truth of course, but on account of its capacity to hold the ring between competing truths.

One might say that since 1848, philosophical histories of secularization as an epochal rationalization of society have hovered at the edges of the university, as we see in the rival accounts of secularization provided by such thinkers as Habermas, Taylor, Brad Gregory, John Milbank, and others. These thinkers seem to wait for a political or religious situation that could convert a process that never happened into a program that might just work. Removed from the kind of political power that permitted the GDR’s successful left-Hegelian secularizing program, the philosophical historians of secularization lose their prophetic capacity and turn back into academic faction leaders.

Habermas’s Kantian claim that the development of discursive reason has the capacity to secularize confessional religion while preserving religious norms in a rational form thus only makes sense within a factional cultural-political program. But this also applies to Taylor’s Hegelian claim that Protestantism’s self-estrangement into an atomized disciplinary society might be followed by a sacralizing de-alienation capable of reintegrating the “disembedded” transcendentals in moral community. If there was no “unfinished” project of secularization, then it cannot be completed in the present. Equally, if religion never went away then it cannot come back.

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