Karl Marx is best known for his Communist Manifesto and for having a fantastic face full of hair rivaled only by his co-conspirator Friedrich Engels, but before he was a socialist, he was an atheist. His later work gave little explicit commentary on religion, largely because the roots of the ills of his society were economic and not religious. Religion, according to Marx, was merely a symptom to those ills, so to treat it would be to act as one removed from the real problem.
For Marx, religion was an enslaver. Servility and submission to authority were the poles of his apathy for religion. But even more than religion as ideology, it was the nineteenth-century church that pushed him over the edge. The church of Marx’s day was kind in its steely way, but it was paternalistic in its authoritarianism. The overriding emotion of the churchgoers of his day was fear of God, guilt for sins, and a servile submission to rules, as well as individualism in piety. This led to fear becoming cowardice, guilt becoming abasement, obedience becoming servility, and individualism becoming egotism. Humanity is free and self-determined and takes as its guide reason alone. It came down to this: freedom versus servility and reason versus authority. These were the shapers of Marx’s atheism. He was not out to destroy God, but to establish free people.
Marx was highly influenced by Feuerbach who said that religion was a projection and an abstraction. Primitive humans projected their fears onto a personified sun or sea or mountain and this became God. Now we project love, power, and all our best traits onto an imagined God. We have given away all our best attributes to an imagined God, thereby alienating ourselves from our true worth.
If atheism was an abstraction, communism was not; it was a praxis–a plan of action. The philanthropy of the former was abstract (unreal) because it was not a praxis; the philanthropy of the latter was real because it was an orientation to action. Atheism was merely the reality factor in one’s assumptions.
Class antagonism is created by the surplus exploited from the proletariat (working class) by the bourgeoisie (upper) class. The antagonism is dealt with through a variety of distractions sanctioned by the bourgeoisie, and religion is one such distraction, a form of social control. Rather than being explicitly hostile toward religion as such, Marx is concerned that religion provides an escape, which lulls the proletariat into further submission, bypassing any felt need to challenge the systems that oppress a society.
Merold Westphal, in his book Suspicion and Faith, writes “Even if there is a God, or better, especially if there is a God like the one described in the Bible, when religion functions as Marx describes, killing the pains of injustice rather than challenging its right to exists, it deserves the diatribes he directs against it.”[youtube http://youtu.be/UvtJja2ihYQ]
An excerpt from On Religion by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels:
The social principles of Christianity justified the slavery of Antiquity, glorified the serfdom of the Middle Ages and equally know, when necessary, how to defend the oppression of the proletariat, although they make a pitiful face over it.
The social principles of Christianity preach the necessity of a ruling and an oppressed class, and all they have for the latter is the pious wish the former will be charitable.
The social principles of Christianity transfer the consistorial councillors’ adjustment of all infamies to heaven and thus justify the further existence of those infamies on earth.
The social principles of Christianity declare all vile acts of the oppressors against the oppressed to be either the just punishment of original sin and other sins or trials that the Lord in his infinite wisdom imposes on those redeemed.
The social principles of Christianity preach cowardice, self-contempt, abasement, submission, dejection, in a word all the qualities of the canaille [rabble]; and the proletarian, not wishing to be treated as canaille, needs its courage, its self-feeling, its pride and its sense of independence more than its bread.
The social principles of Christianity are sneakish and the proletariat is revolutionary.
So much for the social principles of Christianity.
“Surplus exploitation” is Marx’s term for the value created by the worker that is not accounted for in the worker’s wages but instead accumulated by the capitalist. Capitalism requires a continuous expansion of surplus (regardless of limits on resources) accumulated by a select few, resulting in wealth disparities and class antagonism.
An example of this is the empire of Rupert Murdoch who owns the companies that produce Fox News as well as shows such as “Family Guy,” a cartoon that makes fun of the same type of narrow-mindedness seen in pundits of the aforementioned network. Far from being a contradiction, this is the capitalist ethic at its purest: the creation of profits is ultimately the only value a capitalist system is capable of caring about and exploiting. Marx believes everything in society (even religion) can be analyzed according to how it relates to class antagonisms created by exploitation.
Marx’s famous equation of religion as an opium of the masses does not mean that he is altogether antagonistic toward religion. Marx himself used opium, a common medicine in mid-19th century Europe. For Marx, religion and opium are painkillers that are not only addictive but even worse, since they treat symptoms rather than diseases. Religion is both an expression of and protest against real suffering, a metaphysical and ideological surplus exploitation.
Marx believes the need for religion will dissipate as class antagonisms caused by the capitalist condition (surplus exploitation) is properly dealt with. Later, Marx’s partner Engels came to recognize the end of capitalism in revolution would not necessarily kill all forms of religion–he believed there was in Christianity a revolutionary potential that could persist and continue to aid political liberation.
Marx is formed by Hegel’s concept of the dialectic. A particular state of things cannot feel the need to change until it is faced with a contrasting state. The proper dialectical solution does not simply synthesize the two contrasting states; instead, the dialectical solution incorporates the experience of the the internal antagonisms of the current state of being and sublates into a higher mode of being. This is important to understand Marx’s dialectical materialism. For a society to move forward (sublate) into a more liberated political order, the antagonism of the class struggle must be felt clearly.
Christianity can, at its worst, bypass this antagonism by mitigating the proletariat’s frustration with their impoverished existence. At its best, Christianity can provide a narrative that 1) embraces material reality in the incarnation and, 2) after the death of God, leaves only the Holy Spirit as the remnant among a community that desires to bring liberation. For as Marx writes at the end of his Thesis on Feuerbach, “The philosophers [and theologians] have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”
Excerpts from the Introduction:
“Man has found in the imaginary reality of heaven where he looked for a superman only the reflection of his own self.”
“The foundation of irreligious criticism is this: man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is indeed the self-consciousness and self-awareness of man who either has not yet attained to himself or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man, the state, society. This state, this society, produces religion’s inverted attitude toward the world because they are an inverted world themselves….It is the imaginary realization of the human essence, because the human essence possesses no true reality. Thus, the struggle against religion is indirectly the struggle against the world whose spiritual aroma is religion.”
“Religious suffering is at the same time an expression of real suffering and protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the feeling of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless circumstances. It is the opium of the people.”
“Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers from the chains not so that man may bear chains without any imagination or comfort, but so that he may throw away the chains and pluck the living flowers.”