The Marks of Karl

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.

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21 Comments

  1. Reply
    Abigail March 4, 2013

    Yeah, looks like you could lose a small child in his beard…

    Right-wing-leaning Kansas just recently passed a requirement that all public schools dedicate one week per year as “Freedom Week,” in which they emphasize patriotism by learning about the flag, etc. Various commentators have noted the irony of forcing schools to participate in “Freedom Week.” I find the same irony in Marx’s desires vs. his praxis. Let’s “free” people by having the State control every aspect of their lives. Hmmm… Christians aren’t the only ones with cognitive dissonances! Admirable goals, not too well-thought-out methods. I think advocating revolution to get through the first “phase” of implementation of his system is the lazy way to go about it. “Start from scratch” sounds so nice, until you’ve killed 10s of thousands of people…

    As far as the first question, I don’t feel comfortable going into personal details at this time, but in my story, religion (while always insisting it wasn’t actually a “religion, but a relationship!!”) used emotional manipulation to try to ensure certain behaviors in my life. Blatant were the negative reinforcements of the manipulation–fear of hell/ God/ the devil/ bad natural consequences; anger at “the world”/the Other/the devil/myself; guilt. Subtle were the more positive reinforcements– joy, awe, love, contentment, sense of adventure, were all “used” against my internal sense of freedom. THe hard thing about this, though, is that it wasn’t like a single person or small group of people “did” these emotionally manipulative things to me–it’s a systemic set of beliefs and ideas. As long as I fed on it, I did the blackmail to myself, so to speak. Religion is not nearly as overtly manipulative as it used to be, but all the ingredients are there.

  2. Reply
    jcandito March 4, 2013

    Marx substituted one religion for another.

  3. Reply
    Angelo March 4, 2013

    We should correct the expression: Marx has never intended to (directly) free “people” but “the people”.
    There is a dialectic in his thought we cannot ignore.

    But… to the questions, the second for the moment.

    There is nothing such as “the church”.
    There are to many churches we cannot define one for all.
    And, if I had to pick one – one that I know better – I should say that it is worst than Marx’s church.

    While that church was using fear, guilt and obedience for people to commit,
    nowadays most churches use the complete opposite instances.
    If I can use a metaphor,
    while we could think that The Matrix is the society,
    I’ve come to think that The Matrix is more akin to some churches – the most influencing churches for Western culture, imo.

    • Reply
      Abigail March 5, 2013

      Good points, all of them.
      Maybe I’m twisted, but I like the comparison of The Matrix to some churches. :) Can totally relate!
      “While that church was using fear, guilt and obedience for people to commit,
      nowadays most churches use the complete opposite instances.”
      Can you elaborate? I’m wondering if what comes to my mind when you say that is the same as what you are thinking –trendy, feel-good churches? Using “positive” experiences to hook people, as opposed to negative ones?

  4. Reply
    Jim March 4, 2013

    “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.”

    It’s sad to see much of the church existing the same today as it did in Marx’s day. It’s no wonder he developed the framework that he did as a way to escape the spiral of fear, guilt, and oppressive submission.

    This past weekend I was thinking about the past two weeks of content and this upcoming week’s worth and realized that the Christian God is not God, but a god-object, an image we create, project, and protect from our context and subjectivity. When religion focuses too much on the gods-of-their-creation it becomes an enslaver rather than a liberator. The church should be the place that frees us from our objectification of God rather than enslaving us to a syndicated version of it.

    • Reply
      Abigail March 5, 2013

      “the Christian God is not God, but a god-object”
      I agree, but how can you prove it? That’s the hard part, because that statement is unknowable…

  5. Reply
    Will March 4, 2013

    Religion as an “enslaver.” All men/women seek a purpose and higher calling, religion would be a vehicle for some to find that purpose. People will enslave themselves to any cause or lifestyle that seems to fulfill there definition of purpose. It is for “the greater good.” The enslaver concept seems to be an obvious and almost lazy call on religion as there are a number of other groups and activities that can fill a nearly identical role without the use of a god figure.

    Marx’s social awareness and idea of freedom does not quite line up with mine. Freedom is a state of mind. My personal state of mind does not include being subserveant to the powers that be, regardless of the beneficiary, true freedom. Regardless of anyone’s opinion of freedom, we are always a slave to something. In the immortal words of Robert Nesta Marley,”none but ourselves can free our minds.”

    • Reply
      Abigail March 5, 2013

      I agree. Everyone’s addicted to something. We all “need” purpose and higher calling, and we can fill those needs in a multitude of ways. But religion is the only thing that claims to be a universal need (at least the major ones make this claim), so it’s an easy target.

  6. Reply
    thule kinnison March 4, 2013

    I’ve experienced religion as “an enslaver” each time I’ve expected a promised outcome, passed judgement, or believed in a consequence, as per written in the bible.

    I would compare the church of Marx’s day as the same as today’s church. As long as there are beliefs of a God who does things, makes decisions, rewards or punishes, religion stays the same.

    I live in each day with the idea that I am a part of something, a mystery, more than just human existence. I like to keep it a mystery. I don’t need to understand what it is. I don’t put emphasis on realities that occur during the day. I don’t “give all glory to God,” rather, I just appreciate and embrace the world around me. My experience has been this; once I let God off the hook for things happening in the world, I am able to appreciate the world for exactly what it is. It’s part of being fig…

  7. Reply
    Paul March 5, 2013

    Sure seems like our species is hell-bent on avoiding our freedom in all its dizziness. If it’s not religion, we find some other spectacle to distract us from the contingency of our lives. Perhaps this is one of those areas where the evolution of our morals and virtues– the territory of our large pre-frontal cortex– lags behind our much older reptilian brains. More often than not, I assume that cultivation of virtue through discipline and practice is the road to freedom. At other times, it seems like being in the right environment (interdependence, basic needs are met), with the right social constraints (accountability to neighbor) is the crucial determining factor in making ethical decisions. Either way– without resorting to biological reductionism/determinism–I try to take the passion and desire of my limbic system seriously. It’s a formidable opponent and difficult to sublimate toward constructive ends. I can see why religion appeals when it offers a giant superego in the sky.

    I suppose we all need help from some external philosophy, science, or religion through which we might harness desire. Perhaps it might even be construed as a “holy” desire insofar as it takes us further on down the road towards living a life worth living well lived. Too often (but certainly not always) religion is used to do violence to the self and encourage fragmentation through aggressive avoidance and suppression of desire, in which case it returns with a vengeance.

    • Reply
      Abigail March 5, 2013

      Well said, Paul.

      Though I am more of the opinion that many of what we call “virtues” are not territories of our pre-frontal cortex at all; rather, they are part of our mammalian brains. Most mammals care personally for their young and watch out for those in their families/groups. We could argue that “love,” “accountability to one’s neighbor,” and “contentment with what one has” are deeply biological, not rational “virtues” available only to humans. Perhaps virtues such as “justice” are more pre-frontal-ish, since Nature is seldom “fair.” I’m just guessing, though, at this point.

      I agree with you that religion is often used to “do violence to the self and encourage fragmentation.” Don’t you think any kind of social structure has the potential to do the same kinds of things, with or without an appeal to a god? Patriotism, for example, or a “corporate culture” within a business… any kind of system that requires its people to toe the line and conform will inevitably result in some repression, fragmentation, etc. Kind of an unfortunate consequence of living in a group.

      • Reply
        Paul March 6, 2013

        hmm…virtues as part of our mammalian brains? Provocative thought. I know I believe that ethical egoism (self-interest is a moral good) is grossly one-sided view of human nature in that it ignores our innate instincts for empathy and compassion. I guess I think of the PFC as a force for putting the brakes on our limbic system, particularly the parts currently being hijacked by technology, marketing to adolescents, and a deluge of bite sized bits of stimulation. I almost think of the PFC as the superego to the id-like limbic system and its dopamine reward system. Not sure where ego fits in? So, the idea of the virtues being biological makes sense, I suppose in the “everything psychological is simultaneously biological” kind of way, but I would hesitate to say biology equals virtue (are you saying that?), maybe biology carries the capacity for virtue, under the right nurturing conditions. What you say about certain virtues, such as justice, being of a different sort fits with the idea that caring for other’s beyond immediate kin would require more cultivation as its farther away from evolutionary gene reproduction. I’ve also read that we really have no concept of our ancestors experience of kin, given that we live in a hyper-individualized culture of the nuclear family, compared to what has been hypothesized to be their more porous model of family and kin.

        As to your last point about sovereigns and social ideologies, I very much agree. However, I’m reluctant to give up the idea that certain forms of conformity inevitably result in repression/fragmentation. I do believe habits of the heart may formed through the outside in…”one cannot always think oneself into new ways of living, sometimes one must live oneself into new ways of thinking”. For example, I’m quite interested in ecology because I think it stands in as a source of moral guidance (hopefully without the fire and brimstone; wait, that’s global warming!, odd parallel) in light of what science understands about the relationship to greenhouse gases and climate change. Ecology provides a gestalt from which to think about how the parts, human and non-human nature, might fit together. The parts benefit from some vision of the whole in order to engage in the dynamic process of mutual reflection, self-correction, interpretation. However, that’s as far as I go because the moment we move from some sort of ideal to practice, we run the risk of enforcing peace and sustainability through violence, which produces the eclipse of ends by means.

        • Reply
          Abigail March 7, 2013

          Well, first of all, I don’t like to use the word “virtue,” as I think it is a culturally and religiously loaded word, and just an abstract value judgement on certain emotional states. So no, I’m not saying biology equals virtue. I don’t think virtue exists, except as a cultural concept. Not to be harsh, but I hope Virtue someday goes the way of medieval “Honor”…it becomes a historical curiosity.

          I’m no specialist in the brain, so I probably shouldn’t venture too far into that language. I was just talking about emotions that we generally consider to be beneficial to us, such as love, empathy, contentment, and such. I think these emotions are often just as deeply unconscious and/or biologically-rooted as the ones we don’t like as much, such as anger, greed, etc.

          From what I understand from your writing, it seems you want to generalize the PFC to be the seat of “rationality,” and the limbic system to be the seat of “emotionality.” (The brain being so incredibly complex, it’s probably an overgeneralization, but again, I’m not a specialist.) I think we often feel that those two forces are in conflict with each other. In fact, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy uses the concepts of “thinking mind” and “feeling mind,” and encourages people to find the healthy balance between the two, to allow “wise mind” to emerge.
          What I think often gets missed in the discussion, though, is the reptilian brain, or maybe we could call it “survival mind.” I remember reading (in a book called “The One Thing Holding You Back,” by Raphael Cushnir) that often times, it’s actually the reptilian brain that shuts down our strong emotional responses, NOT our conscious mind. When we have a strong emotional response, especially a negative one, it releases stress chemicals that tell the reptilian brain we are in danger. Hence, it tries to ensure our survival by shutting down the emotional response. However, the emotions do not just go away. They will reemerge in a variety of ways–anxiety, obsessions, addictions, psychosomatic symptoms, and so on. (It’s a fantastic book about working through emotions in healthy ways, especially emotions that trap or addict us. I highly recommend it!)
          Not sure where I’m going with that… food for thought, I guess! :) Sorry to ramble.

          I’m with you on the disgust at fire-and-brimstone methods in ecology, and the desire not to enforce peace through violence. There’s a movie in the works dealing with that theme, that looks interesting. http://www.fifthsacredthing.com/

        • Reply
          Abigail March 7, 2013

          And, by the way, I don’t agree with Freud’s division of the psyche into id, ego, and superego. So I don’t see a need to figure out how each one “fits in” with anything. :) I prefer to see psychology more as a spectrum of consciousness, though that’s another long possible tangent… I guess I sympathize more with Jung than Freud, as far as that goes, though i don’t agree with a lot of Jung’s stuff either.

  8. Reply
    Paul March 12, 2013

    Hmm…thanks for your thoughts. No expert on the brain here either, which is a common sentiment among the experts too, I think. The movie link looks very interesting too. WIth regard to emotions, the prospect of feeling through a lifetime of repressed emotion sounds overwhelming, but I agree with that sort of principle “what the mind forgets, the body remembers”, and that re-membering constitutes greater health and wholeness.

    I agree with the concern about loaded language too. However, how could it be otherwise? Is the problem that our words, like “virtue”, are culturally loaded (as a social constructionist, is there any other way) or that we forget to employ deconstructive practices that break open those stale meanings in a way that critiques and expands them. And, if our words, like virtue, represent a priori or archetypal categories that have evolved in consciousness over thousands of years, aren’t those cultural concepts giving expression to something potentially innate?

    I was very disapointed in the movie about Jung and Freud, “The Dangerous Method”, but I appreciate Jung’s perspective on dream analysis, archetypes, and the union of opposites. I once had the change to study Jung with a Jesuit Priest/Psychologist that had studied Jung at the Jungian Institute in Zurich…very fun.

    • Reply
      Abigail March 12, 2013

      Wow, I bet that WAS fun! Color me jealous.
      I haven’t seen the movie “The Dangerous Method,” but I’ve heard conflicting reports…
      As far as “feeling through a lifetime of repressed emotions,” Cushnir suggests just feeling what comes up now… staying in the moment. If what comes up now is rooted in the past, that’s fine, but for now, it’s now. (If that makes sense.) As I said, I’m a huge fan of that book.
      Regarding the term “virtue,” if society at large could deconstruct it in the way you describe, so that it simply becomes a synonym of “ethical,” that would be one thing. But it would be hard to get there, I think. “Virtue” and “vice” are still connected with ideas of heaven/hell, God/Devil, rewards/punishments. It bestows upon you either a kind of “score,” like your credit score or your “karma,” or a set of innate unchangeable characteristics, neither of which is a particularly intelligent or helpful way to label people. Maybe that’s just my understanding of the term.
      I appreciate your thoughts. Lots to think about!

  9. Reply
    Contessa Ojard May 3, 2013

    The general meaning of ethics: rational, optimal (regarded as the best solution of the given options) and appropriate decision brought on the basis of common sense. This does not exclude the possibility of destruction if it is necessary and if it does not take place as the result of intentional malice.:,

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