What was Karl Marx’s Theory of Religion?

The German philosopher and theorist Karl Marx (1818-1883) was the father of Marxist theory who posited the notion that the history of society is one of class struggle between the oppressed and the oppressor. Marx presented several ideas on the role and function of religion.

Marx’s Conventional Faith and Skepticism of Religion

Marx accepted Christianity conventionally during his school and youth days but later came to reject Christian belief on philosophical grounds while at the University of Berlin. There Marx was introduced to philosophy in greater detail, particularly the ideas of the idealist Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (d. 1831).

His liking for philosophy grew and he became attracted to the Young Hegelians, a group that was a part of the “Doktorklub.” This group consisted of high-school teachers, university lecturers, and several reputable academics such as Bruno Bauer (theology lecturer), Karl Koppen (history teacher), and Ludwig Feuerbach (philosopher and anthropologist). They met in a small cafe and in private rooms where they often applied philosophy to religious ideas and theology.

Much skepticism was promoted by these thinkers, especially on Christianity, Christian beliefs, Jesus Christ, and the Gospels. Feuerbach, for example, argued that the divine and God were a projection of ideal traits that human beings made from the natural world. God was no more than the best qualities found in human nature. For Feuerbach, man’s obsession with religious imaginings is a result of his division or alienation from his own true being.

Marx on religion in 1842

In 1842, Marx was involved in journalism under some friends. But because of the publication’s critical views of religion, it was threatened with censorship by the Prussian state. One of the criticisms that came from Marx is that religion need not be considered essential to the survival of the state. The Prussian state is not based on Christianity and it cannot be considered “theocratic” in any sense. Marx nonetheless saw how the police protected and ensured the survival of the so-called “religion of rule”; Marx writes: “The rule of religion is nothing but the religion of rule, the cult of the government’s will.” This criticism was directed particularly at the Protestantism of the state and against other forms of European state Protestantism.

Further, in his article On the Jewish Question, Marx discussed the topic of Christianity and Judaism’s relation to money. The Jews may possess no political power in Germany but they had the power of money. That power carries more weight than political power. Money is, Marx asserted, the Jewish person’s god: “The bill of exchange is the real god of the Jew. His god is only an illusory bill of exchange… The chimerical nationality of the Jew is the nationality of the merchant, of the man of money in general.” The basis of the Jewish religion is practical need and egoism.

Marx on Religion After 1843

Marx increasingly appreciated the philosophical critiques of Christianity by David Friedrich Strauss, Bauer, and Feuerbach. He writes that “the most capable and consistent section of Protestant theologians has maintained, [that] Christianity cannot be reconciled with reason”. For Marx, the philosophical critiques of Christian beliefs demonstrated that Christianity is disputable and suggested that for the state to encourage the public’s unquestionable acceptance of disputable religious ideas must indicate it had sinister reasons for doing so. This view is behind Marx’s claim that “The criticism of religion is the premise of all criticisms”.

Marx boldly asserted that criticism of religion and religious ideas should never be out of bounds, especially because the state produced a religion that he felt compelled to criticize. Marx further argued that religion is little more than the “fantastic realization of human essence” which “has no true reality”.

By the time Marx was making these claims, he was attempting to overthrow an oppressive regime, which meant that religion received less attention in his work as his focus turned more toward social and economic realities beneath the state. From 1844 onwards, Marx analyzed the material means of human subsistence and the political organization of human society.

Materialist Social Ontology

Important ideas are presented in Marx’s materialist social ontology. Marx theorized in an era of ongoing philosophical debates on mind and matter, especially between the two distinct and mutually exclusive philosophies of idealism and materialism.

The idealist’s view is that the perceived world is not constituted of matter, such as atoms and molecules, but rather of some other immaterial property or substance, or that it is dependent on the mind. For idealists, the ideas of the mind constitute the essence or fundamental nature of all reality.

The materialist view rejects this position and posits a material component to the world of conscious experience. For Marx, conscious experience is a product of one’s activity and social existence in the world. This is a materialist perspective because it posits lived experience, in particular the tangible experiences of poverty, misery, exploitation, and oppression, as the primary factors in a person’s engagement with the world. Ontologically, Marx posited a perspective of human nature that defined its essence as social.

Marx’s Atheism

Marx was an atheist but also held to a distinctive view of atheism that he called “for the most part an abstraction”. As an abstraction, atheism is similar to belief in God and therefore does not lead to a break with religious ways of thinking. Atheism cannot, as a result, constitute a foundation for a positive world-affirming philosophy of man and human experience. Atheism simply replaces belief in a deified being, such as God, with belief in a deified concept of man.

Atheism is therefore unhelpful in solving the challenges facing the oppressed on the ground. Marx does not try to disprove the existence of God or the supernatural but rather chooses to embrace a historical materialist approach to reality and human experience. Marx reiterated his conception of a material world of human experience and reason undergirded by the primacy of the notion of human worth, development, capabilities, and freedom.

Religion as an Illusion and Alienation

Marx sees religion as constituting an “illusory happiness of the people” on the grounds that it causes human beings to flee from the real world into a comforting illusion. As an illusion, religion is a lived false consciousness based upon a false perception and/or interpretation of reality. Although false, religion does yet arise out of a human need with a basis in reality. As Marx writes, religion is little more than “the reflex of the real world”, meaning that it is a reflection of a real, tangible component of human experience. This reality is the sufferings of the oppressed classes for whom religion provides comfort and fulfillment. Religion is, writes Marx, “the expression of real suffering” that provides solace for the oppressed. Religion also survives because the ruling social class encourages its preaching, especially that of Christianity given its ethic of submission. The state also protects religion through force and censorship.

Another charge Marx made is that religion is “alienating” because it always places the destiny of human beings under the control of forces that are not human. It places human destiny under the control of non-human forces and therefore cannot have a legitimate place in any genuine revolution and/or revolutionary outcome. Christianity, Marx claimed, poses the question of God in opposition to the question of man. Whatever one gives to God one must take away from man, which is to say that religion’s priority lies not with the material but the spiritual world. Christianity focuses primarily on the transcendent and the affairs of the next world which Marx found problematic. He was strongly against this other-worldly focus as he was much more concerned with the material world that he believed shapes human consciousness and experience.

Criticisms of Marx’s Theory of Religion

Several critiques have been offered on Marx’s theory of religion. Importantly, Marx had a limited understanding of religion despite his various strong claims. What he knew would not have extended much beyond Christianity, especially the Christianity of the state, and a bit of Judaism. Can one therefore justifiably make such sweeping claims about religion, such as why people are religious, based on such limited knowledge? Many would argue not. Marx was theorizing in a time when statistical data was unavailable which many contemporary sociologists take for granted. Further, Marx’s limited knowledge of the demographic realities of these religions at his time suggests that his use of the all-encompassing “Christianity” and “Judaism” titles are ill-conceived constructs.

Many scholars of religion do not think Marx’s ideas are necessarily obvious when one considers religions other than Christianity. It is not clear that Marx’s theory of religion postulating its emergence from suffering and oppression is necessarily applicable to the religions of other socio-cultural historical contexts. Marx’s theory might have explained some aspects of Christianity in Germany in his day but does it explain the religiosity of the Daoists or Confucians living in China a thousand years earlier or of Zen Buddhists and Shintos in contemporary Japan?

Marx made much about religion focusing on the transcendent and the affairs of the next world rather than on the present, material world. It could, however, be argued that this is not necessarily obvious for Christianity despite its developed doctrines about the afterlife. But what of humanistic religions that focus on the affairs of this world? Confucianism emphasizes self-cultivation, maintaining beneficial relationships with others in society, promoting education, and establishing a state based on the values of diligence, morality, sincerity, and compassion, especially in leadership. Historically, Daoists have been so fixated on living in harmony with nature and attaining immortality in this life that they have intended to preserve their lives in the here and now rather than in heaven.

Marx’s thesis does not have much value for contemporary sociology and the study of religion. By focusing primarily on the economic factors of his day, Marx leaves unaccounted numerous social phenomena sociologists find important, such as kinship structures, belief sets, group interaction, role relationships, and so on. Perhaps Marx’s value lies in him being a philosopher and proto-sociologist who perceived certain patterns of inter-relationship between material and mental realities which had not previously been taken into account.



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