Colin Jager is the author of Unquiet Things: Secularism in the Romantic Age. In Great Britain during the Romantic period, governmental and social structures were becoming more secular as religion was privatized and depoliticized. If the discretionary nature of religious practice permitted spiritual freedom and social differentiation, however, secular arrangements produced new anxieties. Unquiet Things investigates the social and political disorders that arise within modern secular cultures and their expression in works by Jane Austen, Horace Walpole, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, and Percy Shelley among others. Emphasizing secularism rather than religion as its primary analytic category, Unquiet Things demonstrates that literary writing possesses a distinctive ability to register the discontent that characterizes the mood of secular modernity. In the twenty-first century, Jager contends, we are still living within the terms of the romantic response to secularism, when literature and philosophy first took account of the consequences of modernity.
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Penn Press: How open was the general populace in England to religious pluralism in the 18th and 19th centuries?
Colin Jager: It all depends whom you ask. By the middle of the 19th century you have religious liberties for most minority groups, and yet certain politicians and other elites remained scandalized by Catholic Emancipation, for example. The 18th century was a different story: tolerance was the official policy, but that extended only to certain groups. And even the Methodists received a fair amount of ridicule, though this often had as much to do with class as with religion per se. The important shift, though, is that dissent or non-conformity becomes a political rather than strictly theological affair. That’s a huge, though very gradual, change. That’s why secularism is a matter of politics as much as it is of religion.