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. We also find Marx presenting several ideas on the role and function of religion that will interest us here.

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 so-called “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 when it came to Christianity, Christian dogma, 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 involved himself 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 to come 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 thus cannot be considered “theocratic” in any sense. Marx nonetheless saw how the police protected and ensured the survival of Christianity, 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 engaged with 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 carries more weight than political power. Money is, writes Marx, 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 in practical need and egoism.

Marx on Religion After 1843

Marx came to increasingly appreciate the philosophical critiques of Christianity from 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.” To Marx, the philosophical critiques of Christian beliefs demonstrated that Christianity is indeed disputable. It also suggested that for the state to encourage the public’s unquestionable acceptance of disputable religious ideas must mean it had sinister reasons for doing so. Such a sentiment is behind Marx’s claim that “The criticism of religion is the premise of all criticisms.” He strongly believed that the criticism of religion and religious ideas should never be considered out of bounds. This was especially so given the state produced a religion that Marx felt obliged to criticize. Marx further charges that religion is little more than the “fantastic realization of human essence” which “has no true reality.” By the time Marx was making these charges, he was seeking to overthrow an oppressive regime. This meant that religion received less attention as his attention turned more towards social and economic realities underlying the existence of the state. From 1844 onwards, Marx concerned himself with analyzing the material means of human subsistence and the political organization of human society.

Materialist Social Ontology

Several important ideas are presented in Marx’s materialist social ontology. Marx theorized in an era of ongoing philosophical debates concerning mind and matter, especially between the two distinct and mutually exclusive philosophies of idealism and materialism. The idealist’s view is that the world we perceive 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 materialist because it posits human experience, in particular the tangible experiences of poverty, misery, exploitation, and oppression, as the leading factors in one’s engagement with the world. Marx’s theory is also ontological because it posits a view of human nature by defining the human’s essence as being his or her social nature.

Marx’s Notion of 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. It is therefore not helpful in solving the challenges facing the oppressed. Marx’s conviction is underpinned by his materialist and humanist disposition. He does not attempt to disprove the existence of God or the supernatural, but rather chooses to embrace a historical materialist approach to reality and human experience. Marx’s view affirms the material world of human experience and reason. It is humanistic because in it Marx treats with primacy the ideas 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. The most pressing for any theorist of religion is that Marx had a very limited understanding of religion despite his various strong claims. What he knew of religion would not have extended much beyond Christianity, especially the Christianity of the state, and a little bit of Judaism. Can one really make such sweeping claims about religion, such as why people are religious, based on such limited knowledge? Many would argue not. We must remember that Marx was theorizing in a time when statistical data was unavailable that many modern sociologists take for granted. Marx could not take into account demographic realities which suggest that his use of “Christianity” and “Judaism” are ill-conceived constructs.

This leads to the second major issue which has to do with applying Marx’s theory to other religions. Many scholars of religion do not think Marx’s ideas are necessarily obvious when we think of religions other than Christianity. For example, it is not clear that Marx’s theory of religion predicated on its emergence from the suffering and oppression is necessarily applicable to the religions of other contexts. Marx’s theory might have explained some aspects of the Christianity in Germany at his time of writing, but does it explain the religiosity of the Daoists or Confucians living in China a thousand years earlier or of Zen Buddhists and Shintoists in contemporary Japan? We don’t know.

Furthermore, Marx made much about religion focusing on the transcendent and the affairs of the next world rather than on this world. First, it could be argued that this is not necessarily obvious for Christianity despite its sophisticated doctrines pertaining to the afterlife. But what of those humanistic religions that do focus on the affairs of this world? Confucianism is much about self-cultivation and maintaining beneficial relationships with others in society. Confucianism seeks to promote education and establish a state based on the values of diligence, morality, sincerity, and compassion, especially in leadership. Historically, the Daoists have been so fixated with 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.

Further, Marx’s thesis does not possess much value for contemporary sociology. By focusing primarily on economic factors, Marx leaves unaccounted numerous social factors that sociologists find important, such as kinship-structures, belief-sets, group interaction, role relationships, etc. Perhaps Marx’s major 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. We also cannot ignore the immensity of Marx’s ideas and their influence on later revolutionaries and various political theorists.


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