Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 June 2015
Anyone attempting to comment on the fate of religion and the religious in the face of the rise of the modern world immediately finds himself confronted with a term used by countless authors as a skeleton key to all the rooms in the shared house of modern Euro-American humanity: secularization. What was initially no more than a legal term referring to the more or less violent acquisition of church property by the organs of the modern nation state following the French Revolution developed over the course of the nineteenth century into one that seemed to address the overall trend characteristic of the competition between church and state – a positive one in the eyes of progressives and laicists, a negative one in the opinion of Catholic modernism. In Catholic milieux, secularization was referred to like an epochal crime committed by a narcissistic and humanistic modern world rebelling against its God-given origins. For progressives, the notion of secularization entailed the promise that humanity could break away from its unworthy, religiously dictated history through work and self-determination.
So begins Peter Sloterdijk's ‘Note on the Changing Form of the Religious in the Modern World’. Here the author does not distinguish between two meanings that are usually kept apart in German: the concrete use of church property by secular authorities – Säkularisation – and the spiritual process ‘which, over the course of modern European history, has endowed individuals with ever greater autonomy over their own lives and with respect to church and religious systems of order’ – Säkularisierung, as the entry on secularization in the German encyclopedia Brockhaus (vol. 19, 1992) puts it.