Excursus on Marxism and Religion

The rise of a movement known as the ‘New Atheism’ has given cause to much controversy among the left on the right attitude to develop towards religion. For a long time, the secularization of Western societies and the decline in active religious participation seemed to have made the question altogether redundant, but the open theoretical confrontation with theology initiated by the New Atheism has created an equal counter-reaction. Neither side has shown necessarily impressive motives here – there is little doubt that much of the anxious fervor of some of the New Atheist writers, such as Sam Harris, has been influenced by the perceived growing threat of Islam in Europe and elsewhere; a threat to secularism, freedom, equality, and perhaps even modernity itself, as the school of ‘Eurabia’ would have it. Equally, much of the response by religious figures has shown the same venal dishonesty, banality, and special pleading that has characterized ‘sophisticated’ apologetics for most of human history.

It would be easy therefore to say ‘a plague on both your houses!’, and be done with it. However, even among those already readily inclined to atheism and secularism and who see the necessity of opposing clericalism in practice as an obvious political point, there is much disagreement about the right reaction to the revived issue of atheism as a formal programme. On the one hand, many Communists and other left-wingers readily point to an established historical tradition of opposing religion and even religiosity in all its forms, and express the need for a thoroughly materialist approach to politics; others point to the sectarian, often anti-Islamic, elements in the New Atheism, and question the political viability of an anti-theist programme. It therefore seems worthwhile to revisit this issue to some extent from a Marxist perspective. When I say ‘a Marxist perspective’ here, I mean this in both senses: as just a, rather than the, perspective, and as trying to understand the way Marx and those following in his intellectual tradition might see the current issue. The subject of the relationship between socialism, or even just Marxism, and religion is an enormous one, and the excellent work of Roland Boer (Stalin’s Moustache) has explored this in much more erudite detail than I can do here. I would therefore want to focus on just a few key issues which I hope can clarify the issue to some degree, and avoid the kind of knee-jerking on each side which so badly degenerates so many socialist debates.

The first and essential thing is to revisit Marx’s most famous statement on religion, the section dealing with the significance of religion and its critique in his introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. This article was part of a larger critique of Hegel’s ideas on state and society, a project which (as most of Marx’s projects) he undertook on a grand scale but never fully worked out, losing interest in systematic philosophy in favor of political economy. However, this introduction has become one of his most famous early texts, and shows some of his great strength in putting enormous insight into a seemingly small number of pithy phrases. It is therefore worth examining in some detail, and we will see it still has immediate and complete relevance for the situation and debates described above.

For our purposes, it is interesting to note that Marx sets out by stating that “the criticism of religion is the prerequisite of all criticism”. What this means is that without a critique of religion, there can be no meaningful critique at all; if one allows the greatest level of alienation, the greatest level of projection of social forces on real or imaginary things, the greatest level of mystification of human powers to exist unchallenged, then one cannot in any serious way critique lesser forms of the same phenomenon. This is an essential point: it establishes the impossibility of a ‘religious socialism’ that fully comprehends the meaning of social criticism. While religious socialists may well be greatly active in labour movements, may well have a greatly charitable and positive attitude towards the claims of the poor, may well be hostile to capitalism or even sympathetic to Communism, the premise of religion is not compatible with understanding the nature of alienation and its reflection in ideology. The more definite way in which this works will be established by Marx a little further in the essay.

We must however note next that Marx also states that “for Germany, the criticism of religion has been essentially completed”. The impact of the earliest members of what would later become the German Historical School on the general understanding of the nature of religion and its role in society was enormous; it was in Germany that David Friedrich Strauss for the first time attempted a serious secular, historicist reading of the New Testament and its narrative, de-mystifying it and bringing it down from the status of Holy Book to the level of a human chronicle, to be examined like any other. Such things seem painfully obvious to us now, but in the early 19th century were path-breaking; there had been many critiques of Christian (and other) theology at a theoretical level, but very little actual social and historical critique of religion and its texts. It is highly important to note that Marx considered this, the social and historical critique, to be the one ‘completing’ the criticism of religion, not the systematic critique of theology by figures like Spinoza.

Both of these elements then point us to Marx’s actual understanding of religion, and the critique of it that immediately follows. One cannot but quote one of Marx’s most famous paragraphs ever, and perhaps also one of his best ever written:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

Rarely has both the real nature of religion, its nature as experienced by the religious, and finally the meaning of its critique been expressed better in a nutshell by anyone in the history of philosophy. Religion is the expression of real suffering: that is, it is the consequence, not the cause, of alienated and oppressive conditions in the actual world. Religion is a protest against real suffering, in that it is the expression of human hope under such conditions. No amount of theology has ever sufficed to gain the adherence of the masses, nor to maintain it against all the progress of scientific knowledge or the application of technology. Only its function as a vehicle for human hope does that. This is why heaven and the afterlife, or rebirth, have in all religions been more significant than hells and damnations: the latter serve to keep one in the faith once it is engaged, but the former compel the wish to believe in the first place. It is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, the soul of soulless conditions: only where alienation reigns, in one form or another, does religion find its true role as the expression of the perseverance of human hope and human will against all the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

This is why so often apologetics of religion, especially among educated people, focus on its role in sustaining and soothing the will of the oppressed. This is why one finds the greatest and most true religion among those who are most oppressed, whether slaves in the plantations or prisoners in the modern world, in the despairing rebellion of starving peasants and in the tearful prayers of abandoned people. This is absolutely nothing to be lightly dismissed, sneered at, or condescended towards, and Marx was well aware of this – it is no coincidence that he reserved some of the highest and most eloquent praise in his entire oeuvre to this description of religion’s social role. This then does away with the lazy, sneering attitude of some on the left towards expressions of religion, regardless of their nature. This does away with the Dawkinsian understanding of religion as merely a mistake, a misconception borne out of a lack of scientific knowledge, or a lack of theoretical understanding. It is that, but it is more than just that, and this should be recognized. Its nature as mystification can only be understood by examining the nature of what kind of mystification it is, by understanding its social role.

This does not, of course, constitute an apologetic. For in the preceding paragraph (which perhaps would have better fit after it), Marx explains what he means by the opium of the people. Opium is a soporific – it is pleasant, in fact too much so, to the point of addiction. And it creates hallucinations and drowsiness, numbing painful feelings, but disabling a true understanding of the conditions one finds oneself in. Here we must quote the entire paragraph, as all of it is essential to the point:

The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man – state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.

Again, this deserves careful consideration. The foundation of the critique of religion must be, as Marx says, the recognition of the fact that it is a human project, a product of human thought and will. Religion is, however it presents and justifies itself outwardly, never actually about heaven: it is always about earth. Religion is a this-worldly phenomenon. It is precisely in failing to recognize this essential nature of religion, as all human thought and ideology, that makes religious socialism impossible as a theoretical understanding, and makes the critique of religion the basis of all other critique. Religion is the ultimate form of mystification, because it takes the most fundamental and deep nature of alienation and oppression and turns it into the most fantastical and other-worldly theory imaginable (in fact, often even unimaginably so). It is, as Marx says, an “inverted consciousness of the world”. It is the most general form of this, because religion is all-encompassing, all-covering in its ambition, precisely because it is the expression of alienation in its most general, most universal form. This is why religion allows itself to be distinguished as a theoretical proposition, however much anthropological difficulty this entails in practice, from ‘mere’ magic or supernaturalism. One can be perfectly critical and secular, yet happen to believe in ghosts, but one cannot be perfectly critical and secular, and believe in an omnipotent god. The enormity of religion, in both senses of the word, arises exactly out of the grandiose claims: omnipotence, all-creating, all-encompassing, all-judging, and so forth. It is the ultimate, most universal expression of the alienation of human powers, who in their totality are projected onto an otherworldly power. This is also why, as Dawkins and others have not failed to point out, the god of a believer always exactly matches their imagination, their understanding of their own knowledge and alienation: people with a limited understanding of social and natural forces and their alienation from them have small gods, the ‘sophisticated’ have enormous, unintelligible, gods of pure power that they cannot themselves describe in a coherent fashion.

The core point remains: man – allowing for 19th century patriarchal expression – makes religion. What follows from this? It follows that the nature of religion is a consequence of the state mankind is in. It is therefore absolutely necessary to combat religious mystifications and expressions of what are ultimately real social forces, for our alienation cannot be understood without doing away with these. It is therefore also absolutely necessary to not critique religion solely at the theoretical level. Explaining on the basis of formal logic, or scientific discovery, why religion is senseless is to miss the point entirely. It is not a critique of religion, but a critique of theology, and if limited to this, all it produces is a counter-theology. That is not to say that demonstrating the incoherence and ignorance of much theology is not a useful tool in the process of critique, because it certainly is. But its effects are limited, and any clever Jesuit can always reason around it, by redefining the religious expressions of the real issue. As W.F. Hermans used to say, the Calvinist who watches television worships a different god than his father for whom television is sinful. But because of this, their dispute cannot practically be decided (other than by force). This counter-theology is merely a tool, but it is not the right critique itself. It is not sufficiently radical, which, as Marx pointed out, means striking the subject at the root.

This then must be the nature of the real critique: it must be not just a criticism of the religious mystification, but only and ever do this as part of a critique of the social relations of alienation that produce religion in the first place. In the final instance, most religious people will not be convinced to abandon religion if confronted with modern physics, or with logical proofs. But they will be so convinced, or at least can be, when they are given a source of hope in a new understanding of the world superior to the old. As Marx says in the next paragraph:

Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower. The criticism of religion disillusions man, so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses, so that he will move around himself as his own true Sun. Religion is only the illusory Sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself.

This, then is the purpose of the critique of religion. Our aim must not be to condescendingly confront the religious with the real knowledge that science has brought us, or reasonings of that kind. The sole justified aim in critiquing religion is by exposing it as a hindrance to mankind’s ability to control and determine its own affairs, which is its sole source of real hope, its sole potential for emancipation. It is only by losing control over our own lives, by abdicating understanding of it and being robbed of practical control over the forces affecting us, that religion becomes the source of our hope. For this reason, and for this reason only, must religion be overcome. Humanity must revolve around itself. This, as Marx knew, immediately sets the agenda for the manner in which this critique is to be undertaken:

It is, therefore, the task of history, once the other-world of truth has vanished, to establish the truth of this world. It is the immediate task of philosophy, which is in the service of history, to unmask self-estrangement in its unholy forms once the holy form of human self-estrangement has been unmasked. Thus, the criticism of Heaven turns into the criticism of Earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.

Of course, all this so far just deals with religion as a theoretical proposition, and as a real social phenomenon. It does not yet determine what practical form this justified anti-religious position can and should take. The answer to that question will, as all practical politics, vary wildly from place to place and from time to time. Indeed, scientific and logical criticism of religion may at times be a very useful tool; at other times, entirely counterproductive. We should neither support it in principle nor oppose it in principle, but always keep in mind the goal to be achieved, the emancipation of mankind from its alienation and alienation’s ideological reflections, and structure our theoretical and practical opposition to those accordingly. These oppositions are therefore always political in the last instance. This political purpose of critique is then what Marx announces he will apply henceforth to the situation in Germany, in a concluding paragraph remarkably meaningful to us today, despite its philosophical language:

In the struggle against that state of affairs, criticism is no passion of the head, it is the head of passion. It is not a lancet, it is a weapon. Its object is its enemy, which it wants not to refute but to exterminate. For the spirit of that state of affairs is refuted. In itself, it is no object worthy of thought, it is an existence which is as despicable as it is despised. Criticism does not need to make things clear to itself as regards this object, for it has already settled accounts with it. It no longer assumes the quality of an end-in-itself, but only of a means. Its essential pathos is indignation, its essential work is denunciation.

This is then what the criticism of religion is for us socialists: as object of critique, it is done, settled, over with. “No saviour from on high delivers, no faith have we in prince or peer”, as the Internationale rightly says. But it is essential as a weapon of politics, and must be as sharp and as to the point in any given time or place, sharp as a lancet. Its essential pathos is indignation, not condescension; its essential work is denunciation of the real social circumstances, not scientism; its politics is that of emancipation from all alienation, as much as mankind has the will and power to achieve.


Very interesting and well-written post. This certainly struck a chord with me since the British left has always been tied to religion.

As Jonathan Rose notes in his brilliant “Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes”, the religious ethicism of the Labour Party has always managed to attract more working class support than the secular communist movement. Rose is blatantly liberal-biased but his book is still extremely valuable, if only to marvel at how the arrogant and exclusive CPGB managed to alienate itself from a populace that was showing signs of interest.

(if interested, there’s a free preview of an earlier edition here: http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=3B-qbvQTYyEC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false)

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