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Secularism and Religion in Nineteenth-Century Germany
The Rise of the Fourth Confession


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  • Author: Todd H. Weir, Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, The Netherlands
  • Date Published: June 2014
  • availability: In stock
  • format: Hardback
  • isbn: 9781107041561

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About the Authors
  • Negotiating the boundaries of the secular and of the religious is a core aspect of modern experience. In mid-nineteenth-century Germany, secularism emerged to oppose church establishment, conservative orthodoxy, and national division between Catholics, Protestants, and Jews. Yet, as historian Todd H. Weir argues in this provocative book, early secularism was not the opposite of religion. It developed in the rationalist dissent of Free Religion and, even as secularism took more atheistic forms in Freethought and Monism, it was subject to the forces of the confessional system it sought to dismantle. Similar to its religious competitors, it elaborated a clear worldview, sustained social milieus, and was integrated into the political system. Secularism was, in many ways, Germany's fourth confession. While challenging assumptions about the causes and course of the Kulturkampf and modern antisemitism, this study casts new light on the history of popular science, radical politics, and social reform.

    • The first English-language book to address secularism and religion in nineteenth-century Germany at this level
    • Casts new light on the history of popular science, radical politics, and social reform
    • Appeals to scholars and students of history, anthropology, sociology, religious studies and history of science interested in the subjects of secularization, political secularism, political religion, popular science, and religious history
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    • Winner, 2016 Jacques Barzun Prize in Cultural History, American Philosophical Society

    Reviews & endorsements

    'Secularism and Religion in Nineteenth-Century Germany is a highly original, deeply researched, elegantly argued, and very significant contribution to modern German history. Crossing virtually all of the topics of recent interest in the field, including secularization, anti-Semitism, the Kulturkampf, monism, the history of Berlin, and esoteric religious pursuits, Todd Weir blends recent research with older debates concerning Bismarck's policies, the Strange Death of German Liberalism, and the problem of Jewish assimilation. Readers will surely be impressed by the depth of Weir's research and the subtlety of his argumentation, and even subjects they thought they knew well will look different on viewing them from the perspective of 'the fourth confession'.' Suzanne L. Marchand, Louisiana State University

    'Todd H. Weir's book is a social and political history of organized secularism in nineteenth-century Berlin as it unfolded in the context of the German confessional system. Rather than simply providing a conventional intellectual history of secularist ideas, this study focuses on the organizations that promoted 'free religious' or secularist worldviews, the sociological composition of their memberships, and the legal and political parameters in which they operated. The result is a tour de force of historical research and argumentation. Deeply grounded in archival sources and relevant social theory, Weir's study will force scholars to rethink how they approach the entire religious history of nineteenth-century Germany.' George S. Williamson, Florida State University

    'Weir has produced an impressive study about a subject that belongs to a still largely unexplored territory … From the perspective of the twenty-first century the author is certainly correct: secularism has become an important voice in the concert of worldviews, even if today among [a] differentiated field of confessions and world religions.' Joachim Schmiedl, translated from Sehepunkte (

    '… fascinating …' Marshall Poe, New Books in History (

    'By considering the interplay of secularism and confessionalism in nineteenth-century Germany, Weir has obliged historians of German religion and society to rethink both secularism and confession. [He] deftly shows how secularism existed not merely in conflict with the traditional confessions and state churches, but also how it was inextricably linked to them. Confessional structures regulated not only confessing members of the churches and their congregations, but religious dissidents and those outside of the traditional confessions as well. Most importantly, Weir has provided historians of German religion and society [with] a compelling case for how the apparently disparate histories of increasing secularization and renewed sectarianism coexisted during the nineteenth century.' Stan M. Landry, German History

    'Future scholars will have to contend with Weir's argument that secularism needs to stand alongside Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism as a 'fourth confession' in nineteenth-century Germany. His study forcefully demonstrates that it was not simply the opposite of religion or the absence of religion, but rather that secularism articulated its own philosophical position, worked hard to create and maintain social and cultural communities that acknowledged and subscribed to this vision, and had a sizeable impact on modern Central European developments well into the twentieth century.' Central European History

    'Secularism and Religion in Nineteenth-Century Germany leaves an indelible impression as one of the most original, stimulating, and transformative contributions to a dynamic field that now, thanks to Weir's bold historiographical enlargement, offers the empirical rationale, theoretical flexibility, and explanatory range for clarifying the cultural experience of nearly every German.' Jeffrey T. Zalar, The Journal of Modern History

    'Weir's attempt to replace the structural-historical term 'secularization' with the actor-centred concept of 'secularism' is also worth noting. … Weir convincingly distinguishes his use of the term 'secularism' from Talal Asad's use of the same term. In the dichotomous view of global history put forward by Asad and other post-colonial thinkers, 'secularism' essentially stands for the subjugation of subaltern religious and political arrangements by Western liberals. Weir, by contrast, rightly shows how deeply 'secularism' was contested in the West itself, and that it was anything but a hegemonic concept. In its conceptual structure, therefore, the book goes far beyond the history of 'peripatetic religiosity' in nineteenth-century Germany.' Klaus Große Kracht, Bulletin of the German Historical Institute, London

    'Weir demonstrates that despite their claim to have escaped the competition of worldviews, in the end the secularists always operated as confessional actors in the religious field.' Katharina Neef, translated from H-Soz-Kult (

    '… [Weir's] well-argued study is creative and repays careful reading. It is also highly topical … The fact that church and state in Germany are still so enmeshed makes Weir's book that much more significant; his analytical prism of 'secularism' will certainly invigorate the study of the German 'confessional' state.' Robert Beachy, The American Historical Review

    'This is a book that seeks continually to undercut the binaries that structure the way in which historians have considered these issues. Secularism, in this reading, appears both inside and outside confession. Anti-clericalism was a force not just against but also within the religious sphere. Kulturkampf legislation proved as destabilising for protestant churches as for German catholics. … There is intellectual history here, and social history too. But the core of Weir's book is the political meaning of secularism in the Prussian nineteenth century. For this is a study of how the constraints imposed by confessionalism and the Prussian state shaped secularism as a spiritual current and a political community. While secularism itself was never a mainstream movement, Weir argues persuasively that it punched above its weight politically and was symbiotically linked first to radical democratic associational life and politics, and then to the sub-culture that was Prussian socialism.' Abigail Green, English Historical Review

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    Product details

    • Date Published: June 2014
    • format: Hardback
    • isbn: 9781107041561
    • length: 316 pages
    • dimensions: 235 x 158 x 22 mm
    • weight: 0.57kg
    • contains: 9 b/w illus. 2 maps 9 tables
    • availability: In stock
  • Table of Contents

    1. Dissidence and confession 1845 to 1847
    2. Free religious worldview: from Christian rationalism to naturalistic monism
    3. The sociology of dissent: free religion and popular science
    4. Politics and free religion in the 1860s and 1870s
    5. Secularism in the Berlin Kulturkampf 1869–80
    6. From worldview to ethics: secularism and the 'Jewish Question' 1878–92
    7. Secularism in Wilhelmine Germany
    Epilogue: German secularism after 1914.

  • Author

    Todd H. Weir, Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, The Netherlands
    Todd H. Weir serves as a lecturer in Modern European History at Queen's University Belfast. After a formative experience as an exchange student in East Germany in 1988, Weir trained as a historian at the Humboldt University, Berlin and Columbia University, New York. He has previously taught at Humboldt University, Seattle University, and the University of Washington. Weir has been a resident scholar at the Berlin Program for Advanced German and European Studies, the Simpson Center for the Humanities of the University of Washington, and the Historisches Kolleg in Munich. He is the editor of Monism: Science, Philosophy, Religion, and the History of a Worldview (2012), and his articles have appeared in Central European History, Church History, German History, German Studies Review, and Deutschland Archiv. Weir's research has also been supported by grants from the British Academy, the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the German Academic Exchange Service, and the Leverhulme Trust.


    • Winner, 2016 Jacques Barzun Prize in Cultural History, American Philosophical Society

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