Church History

Research Article

The Secular Beyond: Free Religious Dissent and Debates over the Afterlife in Nineteenth-Century Germany1

Todd Weir

Toward the end of the first third of the nineteenth century, German writers began to favor a new metaphor for the afterlife: “das Jenseits” (“the Beyond”). At first glance, the emergence of such a term may appear to have little bearing on our understanding of the history of religious thought. However, as the late historian Reinhart Koselleck maintained, the study of semantic changes can betray tectonic shifts in the matrix of ideas that underpin the worlds of politics, learning, and religion. Drawing on Koselleck's method of conceptual history, the following essay takes the popularization of “the Beyond” as a point of departure for investigating secularization and secularism as two linked, yet distinct, sources of pressure on the fault lines of nineteenth-century German religious thought.


1 This article opens up for a broader audience research completed for a workshop on “The Transformation of the Belief in the Beyond in Modern History” at the Siemens Foundation in Munich on 17 May 2005. I am grateful to the workshop organizer, Lucian Hölscher, and the other participants for their helpful comments on the paper that has been published in conference proceedings as “‘Keine Lücke mehr im Menschen, worin das Jenseits sich einnisten könnte,’ Naturwissenschaft und Dissidenz in der frühen freireligiösen Bewegung,” in Das Jenseits: Facetten eines religiösen Begriffs in der Neuzeit, ed. Lucian Hölscher (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2007), 95–122 [Google Scholar]. Permission to use some of this material is here thankfully acknowledged. The present article benefited from the critical eyes of Tracie Matysik, at the University of Texas at Austin, and my colleagues Andrew Holmes and Emma Reisz at Queen's University Belfast.

Todd Weir is lecturer in modern European history at Queen's University Belfast.