Marxism and religion

Marx called religion the opium of the people, but that is only part of what he said

IT IS rather unusual for an article in the mainstream media to discuss the ideas of Karl Marx and even more unusual for it to offer a relatively fair and sympathetic account of Marx’s ideas, so I was pleasantly surprised by a piece in the Los Angeles Times by regular columnist Gregory Rodriguez last October. Rodriguez looked at belief in the existence of God, and he began by comparing a number of recent critics of religion—including Bill Maher, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris—unfavorably with Marx, whom he described as “still the most eloquent and thoughtful nonbeliever.”

Maher, host of a TV talk show, recently produced the documentary Religulous, which ridicules religious believers. Hitchens is an acerbic, ex-leftist journalist, whose latest book is God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Richard Dawkins, the Oxford biologist, is the author of The God Delusion, while Sam Harris, currently a graduate student in neuroscience, wrote The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation. There are differences in the perspectives of these various critics, but also important overlapping themes—in particular the idea that religious believers are not just mistaken, but gullible dolts. These commentators contend that religion is, in Rodriguez’s words, “a childish fantasy or a retreat from rationality,” and advance the view that religion is the root cause of many of the world’s intractable conflicts. Dawkins, for instance, blames religion for the 9/11 terrorist attacks, suicide bombings, violence in the Middle East, and the decades long conflict in Northern Ireland.

A third, related theme common to several of these critics is that while in theory they are opposed to all forms of religious faith, they single out Islam as worthy of particular criticism. That’s most obvious in the title of Hitchens’ book, which is a pointed negation of one of the most ubiquitous expressions in the Muslim world. Similarly, Harris claims that Islam is an especially dangerous religion, and that “there is a direct link between the doctrine of Islam and Muslim terrorism.”

In comments like this, Harris—who claims to be a student of world religions—reveals both his racism and his ignorance. Harris argues that the Koran advocates “killing people for what amount to theological grievances.” But the religious documents of other religions, including the Bible, contains equally bloodthirsty passages. The Book of Deuteronomy, for instance, instructs believers to kill their own relatives if they attempt to persuade them to change their religion and to wipe out entire cities if they begin worshipping other gods.

The claim that there is some special link between Islam and terrorism is particularly easy to refute. In one important study, for example, the political scientist Robert Pape compiled a list of every suicide bombing around the world from 1980 to 2001. According to Pape, “The data show that there is little connection between suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, or any religion for that matter. In fact, the leading instigator of suicide attacks is the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, a [self-described] Marxist-Leninist group whose members are from Hindu families but who are adamantly opposed to religion.” Pape concluded, “what nearly all suicide terrorist campaigns have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel liberal democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland. Religion is rarely the root cause, although it is often used as a tool by terrorist organizations in recruiting and in other efforts in service of the broader strategic objective.” (Perhaps the only thing it is necessary to add to Pape’s analysis is that the actions of groups like the Tamil Tigers have no connection with the actual ideas of Marx and Lenin, who both saw mass workers’ action—not acts of individual terrorism—as the way to transform society.)

All major religions have complex histories and consist of doctrines that are often highly ambiguous and sometimes internally inconsistent. Whether they know it or not, believers have to pick and choose what parts of a particular tradition to embrace and how to interpret them in the circumstances in which they find themselves. That is why religious traditions have so many different currents and why it is possible to create a religious justification for almost any course of action. Over the centuries, religions have been interpreted and reinterpreted to serve the interests of particular groups.

The ideas of these recent critics are a throwback to views about religion that were held by many eighteenth-century philosophers in Europe, who viewed religious faith as the result of ignorance and superstition and as the source of oppression and violence. The philosophical milieu in nineteenth-century Germany from which Marx emerged held similar views and came to the conclusion that “the criticism of religion is the prerequisite of all criticism.” But it was precisely these ideas that Marx himself eventually came to reject. As Rodriguez points out, Marx came to understand religion “as a symptom and not the disease,” and “as a source of solace” that would not disappear “until the sources of people’s pain—an unfair economic system—had been eradicated.” These are the ideas expressed in a much-quoted essay that Marx wrote in 1844:

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.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions.

Marx’s description of religion as “the opium of the people” has become one of the best known lines he ever wrote, which is in some ways a shame because, first, it is only half true and, second, it diverts attention from the deeper point that Marx was making. The description is half true because religion often does play the role of a painkiller (I’ll get back to why it is only half true in a moment). For many people, the thought that after death they and their loved ones will be reunited in a better place helps them to deal with the injustices and disappointments they face in their everyday lives. But the deeper point is that religion, like other parts of a society’s ideological superstructure, is a product of underlying material realities.

Rodriguez cites a recent study by Northwestern University psychology professor Dan P. McAdams, which asked religious believers in the Chicago area what they thought life would be like if God does not exist. Conservative Christians imagined a world with no God “as one of incessant conflict and chaos, expressing strong apprehension regarding people’s inability to control their impulses and the attendant breakdown of social relationships and societal institutions.” Liberal Christians described it as “barren or lifeless, lacking in color and texture, an empty wasteland that would not sustain them.” For both groups, life without God was seen as “entailing fear, sadness, interpersonal isolation and loss of meaning and hope.”

Rodriguez concludes that these findings reveal a flaw in Marx’s analysis of religion. “It appears that we do believe out of need,” he argues, “but it’s not, as Marx suggested, primarily because of material deprivation. Instead, it looks as if faith answers fear, and many different kinds of fear, which we can begin to delineate in some detail.” But in the passage above, Marx does not explain religious belief directly in terms of material deprivation. Rather, he emphasizes the role of oppression and living in a “heartless world” and in “soulless conditions”—factors that sound remarkably like some of the factors mentioned by the people interviewed in McAdams’ study.

However, for Marx these factors are not free-floating fears or unchangeable features of the human condition, but rather are indirectly linked to underlying material conditions. Although he does not use the word in the essay quoted above, Marx seems to be arguing that religious belief is typically a reflection of human alienation, not simply material deprivation. In his writings in the early 1840s, Marx wrote extensively about alienation under capitalism, and much ink has since been spilled trying to explain exactly what he meant. His central idea is that people are alienated when the development and exercise of their essential human capacities is systematically frustrated. Straightforward material deprivation is one way in which a person may be unable to develop or exercise their capacities, but it is not the only way. For example, someone may have their basic material needs met, but still be prevented from forming meaningful relations with others due to the way society is structured.

If this interpretation of Marx is correct, then his hypothesis is open to empirical testing. We would expect that in societies or countries in which levels of religious belief are relatively low that the population experiences less alienation too. Of course Marx believed that alienation is a permanent feature of all class societies, but alienation comes in degrees—people can develop and exercise more or less of their essential capacities for longer and shorter periods of time, and can have more or less control over their own lives. The countries where one would expect the level of alienation to be lowest would be those in which there is less social and economic inequality, including lower poverty levels, and in which workers have won the greatest concessions from the state, including free health care, free child care, more access to education, longer paid vacations, greater job security, more rights at work, and so on.

Historically, the societies that have moved furthest in this direction are the social democracies of northern Europe (even granting the fact that over the past several decades many of these historic gains have been substantially eroded), and in particular the Scandinavian countries. Once bastions of Protestantism, religious belief has now declined dramatically in such countries. In his recent book, Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment, sociologist Phil Zuckerman reports that while close to 90 percent of Americans say they believe in a personal god, the figure is only 24 percent in Denmark and 16 percent in Sweden. Fewer than a third of Danes and Swedes believe in life after death, compared to over 80 percent in the US, and only 10 percent of Scandinavians believe in hell, compared to nearly 60 percent of Americans.

That is convincing evidence that Marx’s analysis of religious belief is on the right track, but as I mentioned earlier his comparison of religion to opium is only partly right. Religion does play the role of a painkiller, but opium is also a sedative that, according to my dictionary, “dulls the senses and induces relaxation or torpor.” Religion can do these things, but it has also often been a spur to action. Ruling elites have used religion to mobilize people for their own purposes. On the other hand, religion has often played a central role in movements of the poor and oppressed fighting for social justice, the U.S. civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s being just one example.

To be fair, Marx and his collaborator Friedrich Engels were well aware of the progressive role that religion sometimes plays, and they ignore the memorable but misleading opium metaphor in their later writings on religion. The danger of taking it too seriously is that religion itself can come to be seen as the enemy, in the way that Dawkins, Hitchens et al. apparently believe it to be. But Marx’s deeper analysis suggests a much more pragmatic approach. It was not the job of non-believing socialists in the 1960s, for example, to win Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X to atheism, but to unite with them in the fight for racial equality. On the other hand, when religious organizations choose to organize their members for reactionary political goals—the Mormon Church pouring millions of dollars into the campaign to ban gay marriage in California, for instance—they become legitimate targets for protest. On this, I leave the last word to Polish socialist Rosa Luxemburg, writing in the early twentieth century:

[The socialist movement] in no way fights against religious beliefs. On the contrary, it demands complete freedom of conscience for every individual and the widest possible toleration for every faith and every opinion. But, from the moment when the priests use the pulpit as a means of political struggle against the working classes, the workers must fight against the enemies of their rights and their liberation. For he who defends the exploiters and who helps to prolong this present regime of misery, he is the mortal enemy of the proletariat, whether he be in a cassock or in the uniform of the police.

Issue #63

January 2009

Politics and struggle in a new era

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