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

Todd Weir

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Citations (Scopus)
554 Downloads (Pure)


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.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)6-20
Number of pages15
JournalThe Germanic Review
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 02 Apr 2015


  • German History
  • History of Secularism
  • Postcolonial theory
  • Secularization

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History and Philosophy of Science
  • History
  • Religious studies

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