Secular World: Victorian Secularism as a Global Ideology in its Imperial Context, 1840-1880

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Corbeil, Patrick
Victorian Secularism , British Empire , Race and Racism , Comparative Religion , Social Ethics , Secularization , George Jacob Holyoake , Charles Bradlaugh , Charles Southwell , Religion and Political Thought , Working-Class Radical Thought
This thesis examines the development of British secularist ideas of morality and social ethics, and how those ideas informed secularist views of non-Europeans and the imperial civilizing mission. I investigate the relationship between secularism as an ideology and the development of secularity as one of the defining characteristics of modernity. Secularism was founded by G. J. Holyoake, a whitesmith and Owenite lecturer, in 1851. The movement served as a vital link between a pre-1848 artisan radical tradition and the socialism of the final decades of the nineteenth century. I investigate how imperial knowledge creation informed the development of secularist ethical and political ideas, and the impact of those ideas upon secularist interventions into imperial debates, particularly regarding the European civilizing mission. Previous historians of the secularist movement have neglected to demonstrate how the religious pluralism of empire and its attendant political and administrative challenges shaped secularism as a strain of liberal thought. Concomitantly, research into Britain’s uneasy negotiation of the religious diversity of its empire has not sufficiently incorporated the dynamics of domestic freethought. Secularism promoted belief in a rational, utilitarian morality that would unleash humanity’s innate capacity for moral and intellectual progress. My research contributes to scholarship on the impact of empire and globalization on European modernity and secularity. Faith in universal human progress was and remains a defining characteristic of secularism. I am interested in how ideas of progress have been both informed and challenged by difference and the implications of power.
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