Karl Marx on religion – the logical flaw in Marxist economic theology

Karl Marx was a left-wing Hegelian who argued that God was an “opiate of the masses”. The purpose of this post is to give an answer to Marx’s view of religion for today’s time. Now more than ever, economics and wealth is a hot topic. The idea of the poor, the struggling middle class, and the wealthy are no less relevant than in Marx’s time. Although the developement of economics and religion was not predicted precisely by Marx, there is a relationship between faith and economics that Marx seemed to anticipate. What were his ideas, and why did he hold them? I will examine the question,  “was Marx right about his theory of religion”? I will clearly answer this question.

Marx on religion and economics
I think I will try some of that religion to fill the void created by my economic suffering

Why examine Marx when we have great thinkers like Dawkins and Hawkins answering the question about belief for us?

Why is it important to return the arguments of Marx when we have people like Stephen Hawkins and Richard Dawkins telling us God did not create the universe?

  • The reason is that modern scientific arguments offer nothing new, and are not as well logically developed as the those already stated in classical philosophy, and more recently by Marx, Feuerbach, and Freud.

The smirk sarcastic arguments of the showman Richard Dawkins, a man who knows less about religion than I know about  science is dwarfed in comparison to the arguments in classical philosophy (in light of Dawkins’ smugness, the South Park parody of him was not unjustified). Hawkins puts on a similar show of ignorance or at least disrespect. for epistemology. Therefore, I like to dismiss modern cult figures such as these. Unless someone really offers something that new, that the classic thinkers did not discuss, there is not much to get excited about. Therefore, I lets return to the nineteenth century.

I would say of “great classical atheistic” arguments against religion put forth by Marx, Feuerbach, and Freud are as relevant as ever. Karl Marx had the weakest arguments. However, Marx’s are worthy of examination.

Marx believed:

  • The ruling classes used religion to give false hope and comfort to the poor and strengthen and keep their power
  • The poor used religion as a form of protest against their economic conditions, to aid them in their economic alienation.
  • In both cases Marx argued that religion, at its core, was a projection. It was a false projection and illusion, which found its genesis in economic inequality and material suffering. The advent of atheistic social state would extinguish the need for this projection and the need for religion.

What seems true in Marx’s negative theology today – the relationship between economics and faith

Religion often is misused for purely power-political goals, including war. – Hans Kung

  • The ruling class does use religion to unconsciously manipulate the masses. For example, as theologian Hans Kung points out about the neoconservatives in the USA, in “an almost Orwellian structure of lies thought that they had God on their side in the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq.” This message was conveyed to the American people, and it did influence the course of events for many years to come. (My input is: the war may or may not have been politically correct, but to say that God, the center of all love in the universe was on the side of the American missiles, is incomprehensible and manipulative. Furthermore, I find the vocal mixing of religion and politics distasteful.)
  • You can see that in Scandinavian countries, like Sweden and Denmark, that economic prosperity seems to have weakened the need for religion.
  • Via state-sponsored state atheism and socialism in places like China, religion is no longer necessary or at least practiced by the masses.
  • In capitalist countries like the UK, as prosperity sky rockets, religion wanes. Ethical scientific atheism and a general attitude apathy concerning religion as material needs are satisfied the youth becomes predominate and the paper tiger of fundamentalism is easily knocked down.
  • In contrast, in impoverished countries like Brazil or Latin American religion is as important as ever. Liberation theology has even developed which is in essence an empowerment of the economy.

Therefore, from a non-theoretical, but an observable level it seems that Marx’s critique of religion is not without merit.

A deeper look at the theory of Marx’s ideas on religion

Die Religion …  ist das Opium des Volkes –  Marx – Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.

I often glaze over quotes and like to read people’s analysis of thinkers, as it is mentally easier. However, this quote of Marx summarizes better than I can regarding his theory of religion.

Religion is…. 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 further developed this idea of protest against suffering to equate it to material lack. Therefore, what religion was a protest against material or economic suffering in the world. Not only, but primarily. When needs are satisfied, people can give up their illusion of God and achieve real happiness.

Why did Marx have these views?

  • Marx was born Jewish but raised as a Christian to avoid anti-Semitic persecution. This early, on imprinted, a distaste for religion on his personal psychology.
  • He subsequently studied Hegelian philosophy and with other young Hegelians like Bruno Bauer and developed the idea that the material world, not ideas, was what mattered in the world. This is ironically, in contrast to Hegel’s belief that the world is a war of ideas.
  • Religion as a projection – “The religious world is but the reflex of the real world”, was at the core of his ideas. It was a symptom, an illusion.

Why Marx was wrong on religion

Flowing from the three points above are my criticism of Marx. The last being the deal breaker.

Marx on Religion my first criticism: – My first question is, do you think that Marx’s own experience living in an anti-Semitic world had an influence on his objectivity? Was his view of atheism a form of protest and psychological satisfaction against his own early life experiences, and his philosophy was only the layers added as an ego defense mechanism? Objectively speaking, I think we all do this to some extent.

Marx on religion my second criticism: – Hegel himself said, ‘There is a complex stratification of reality’. As humans we not only have material needs and suffering but social, psychological and spiritual needs (for example as illustrated by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs). Marx over emphasised the material world and over simplified the equation for human happiness.

A projection of nothingness?: My third criticism

The real  ‘opium of the masses’  is not religion as Karl Marx has said, rather, a belief in nothingness after death.  This belief is certainly easier to accept and less frightening to people than the belief, that their betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders and other assorted sins will be seen by all when their life on earth has ended. -Czeslaw Milosz

  • People’s projection of nothingness or non-existence after death is just as much a projection and an illusion based on hope and fear as other people’s projection of ‘an unfolding of a greater reality’ after death. Some people find great comfort in projecting nothingness and take pride in this belief complete with an ego defense mechanisms. Nothingness is a projection also.
  • We can not conclude on the reality or none reality of God based on the psycho-genesis or anthropomorphic understanding of mankind’s belief in religion, nor can we explain the existence of God based on economic and social repression like Marx implied. The existence of God, or non-existence of God, is independent of what I think, what I believe, and whatever the cause of my beliefs or disbelief. To do so would be what psychology calls “magical thinking”.

This last point is important. The existence or non-existence of God has nothing to do with what people think or why they think it. Yes, Marx was correct that the genesis of some people’s beliefs about God and religion come from an unconscious psychology of protest and longing for comfort, even economic comfort, a desire to be lifted from this vale of tears. However, this does not clearly resolve the issues about the ultimate reality or the Absolute. At best, it brings us back to an agnosticism on the issue. It is a huge cognitive leap to offer an explanation about why people believe and then advocate a strong form of atheism. If you understand this, you understand the logical flaw in Marx’s thinking.  Therefore, Karl Marx was wrong about religion.

Observable evidence today that religion is not just for the economically repressed

  • The United States, arguably the richest country in the world, is still, at its core, a religious country. Ireland, arguably the one of the richest countries in Europe, is still religious, as is Italy, Portugal, and the-up-and coming Poland. I live in Poland and have observed an almost doubling of wealth, with only a slight decrease in religiosity. India is another rising country, like South Korea, that is religious. So many economics is the not the primary factor. Rather humans are more complex and other social and political issues are at play. What about Kuwait and other rich Middle Eastern countries. Do we, with an ethnocentric Euro-American view, on the world just discount all the wealthy from these countries just because they are Muslim?
  • Religion in less religious, wealthy regions  resurfaces as spirituality. For example, in Boston, where I am from, in the USA I meet a lot of people who declare themselves not religious, like in Sweden also. However, many of these people believe in God or a greater reality, even if not using the language of a religious person. It is more an evolution in the collective unconsciousness and language.
  • Scores of wealthy people like I know personally or are known internationally, like great investors like John Templeton, are believers. So it is not a matter of one’s level of relative wealth, but ultimately choice. A choice that is influenced by our genetics and environment, but still a choice. Each person has to answer the question ‘no’ to a fundamental trust in an ultimate reality or a “yes’”. This is not based on an economic equation.
  • The toll of proselytization of Marxism was 110 million lives in just 70 years of the 20th century. This dwarfs any of the criticism against (many rightly so) against religious fanaticism’s ill effects.

Therefore, again we can conclude just because religion does have a liberating effect on people economically, does not mean it is untrue, nor will it fade away with economic prosperity.

The purpose of this post is not to give an argument about the existence or non-existence of God. Therefore, I will stop here. However, if you want a more detailed investigation on the matter, I recommend the works of Hans Kung. He has written in detail about Marx and religion in his book Does God Exist. His latest book What I believe, is a summary of those ideas, although Marx is not addressed in-depth.

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7 responses to “Karl Marx on religion – the logical flaw in Marxist economic theology”

  1. Adam

    “The ruling classes used religion to give false hope and comfort to the poor and strengthen and keep their power”

    Manipulation and religion.

    The ruling classes benefited from religion since God is infallible he could be use to send people to war or that the good people be ask to pray for the king. It was a very convenient and manipulative association. Its always better to keep people praying than revolting. South America for many years comes to mind.

    Don’t we have the same manipulation to day with Big Government and the Nanny state? Does this mean we should totally reject Government ? Of course not.

    “My first question is, do you think that Marx’s own experience living in an anti-Semitic world had an influence on his objectivity?”

    Perhaps but I think that its more as if Marx rationalized every thing toward is goal of an egalitarian material world.

    It may be an oversimplification on my part but the fact is that when men is in serious need or in danger of dying suddenly God and Religion is more often than not that instant need and that does not exclude the ruling class,the mafia and who knows perhaps Marx him self on is dead bed. The more fear the closer to God.

    If there is less religion in socialist countries its not because of
    more or less wealth its because the State is the only religion.

    I suspect that Marx knew that and in is vision of a future perfect Utopian World and egalitarian State it would not be compatible to compete with God or religion.

    Ayn Rand the Russian-American pro capitalist novelist was an atheist and Sir John Marks Templeton Billionaire investor and mutual fund pioneer was a very religious men. In a free society we tolerate both.

    Its impossible to prove that God does not exist or that he does.
    Its impossible to prove that green men live on other planets but we are free to believe it or not as long as we do not impose it on others.

    Since we can not prove a negative religion is based on faith and that is where the magic of life gets more complicated.
    I live in the Caribbean Islands and I can assure you that some religions are more Fun than others.

    1. Mark Biernat

      Whatever my personal convictions are, I agree that religion should be protected by the state so individuals have the right to choose and answer the meaning of life question the way they want. I am not my brothers keeper and if someone wants to be a nihilist, believe in predestination, Catholic, Jewish, or enlighten deism, what do I care. It is their life.

      I think the founding fathers in the US almost from the beginning understood this. In contrast, Marx has a different vision. In retrospect, and looking at history, I think it is clear which one was better for humanity. That is, whenever you maximizes people’s personal liberties, whether it be personal liberties of religion or economics, society as a whole is better off and individuals are happier. I certainly do not want some state, a state that can not even run their own affairs, telling me how I should run my life. However, unfortunately this is happening to some extent.

      “Since we can not prove a negative religion is based on faith and that is where the magic of life gets more complicated” – agreed, you can read up on the “New Mysterianism” people like Mathematician Martin Gardner (as expressed in his book – ‘the night is large’) put himself in this camp.

      The Caribbean, you lucky guy, life that must go at a different pace.

  2. Adam

    “New Mysterianism” Thanks.

    Perhaps that some problems can not be solved because they are not problems in the first place. They could simply be based on irrational information past on from generation to generation placed and programed in our minds at early age.

    If so the real solution is not trying to sole the problem(s)but debugging the sabotaged matrices within us. Its hard to solve what does not exist other than in our imagination.

    Some believe they will have eternal heaven or hell (or temporary purgatory, other will have reincarnation until they gain enlightenment, Virgins awaits the Muslims but for Epicureanism the soul was to dissolves when the body dies.

    Deist believe that men gave us religion and that God gave us reason That sound like a move forward but it’s still kind of “Mysterianism” to me.

    1. Mark Biernat

      First, I am a fan of Epicureanism and ancient Greek philosophy. I think on the beautiful islands and mainland of Greece, thousands of years ago, humanity looked at the stars and without the confusion of modern life as we know it, was able to see reality in a different way than we can today. Classic philosophy was brilliant and as stated, modern thinkers are often sloppy in their evaluation of problems.

      “They could simply be based on irrational information past on from generation to generation placed and programmed in our minds at early age.”

      Yes, this could be true, but again it does not tell us anything. Just because something is programmed into us from generation to generation and based on irrational information, does not tell us about the truth. It does not tell us that if we step outside this programming what the reality is.

      Some would argue the programming is there for a reason. It was put in us. Joseph Campbell hints at this as he said, even before we had language or the ability to express the abstract, faith. Myth was a way to describe the indescribable, something language and science does not have the ability to do, but that does not mean it is not true.

      Just because the body dissolves after death does not mean anything either, regarding the soul as humans are limited by their brains to understand the next level, be it nothingness or a greater reality.

      For example, a snake understands light and darkness and movement but does not understand audible human language. The smartest snake in the world could never as its brains is not build for this. A dog understands language, however, it does not understand abstract math or things about the cosmos like dark material or even evolution. However, humans understand these things. But because the construct of our brain allows it.
      However, the real question is what can our brains not penetrate? I would agree with Hegel that reality is layered and stratified. The smartest human can not perceive the next level or is not really aware that it exists. Our brains are limited by its construction.
      So is the best we can do is agnosticism?
      I think it comes down to not blind faith but rather trust. A fundamental trust that reality and all our lives have a purpose which is greater than can be perceive. Not a naive trust but a fundamental trust.
      One might never over come fundamental doubt , however, that is what trust is. Not certainly like 1+1=2 for even science is based on some things which can not be proven but rather they are understood as so with a reasonable confidence, we can say it is true.


  3. Marco

    Kudos, I enjoyed your article and even more your comments on epicureanism and the limits of human understanding. I often do the same analogy, relating the capacity of dogs understanding calculus and our understanding of theology. Not so sure about the trust part, but that`s not what I wanted to contribute here. I think your first criticism is wrong, and from that mistake you end up with a few wrong conclusions.

    See, your first criticism of Marx states that his life experience helps to explain how he got to think like he did. That`s true. And ironically (i think you know) that`s pretty much in agreement with marxist theory of knowledge. But the social and psychological contexts that allowed someone to come to a certain understanding of reality doesn`t say anything about the veracity of that understanding, as you correctly argues afterwards.

    The second criticism is one I certainly agree in general as a criticism of Marx, but it`s not decisive. Marx wouldn’t agree he disregards social and psychological aspects, but rather that these aspects are material as well. As far as spirit goes, that would also be explained by matter. So we just go back to the age-old debate of idealism vs. materialism, when we should focus on how one philosophical stance has led him to a wrong conclusion and criticize that directly.

    Your third criticism goes directly to the point: belief in nothingness after death is an ideology too. As Weber would say, marxists cannot apply ideology analysis to others and believe they`re neutral observers with no ideological leaning. That`s pretty much it, simple and clear. Hardcore marxists hate to admit that, sure!

    Having said that, I`m not convinced it is easier to believe in nothingness than in a paradise whose entrance depends on a forgiving God. And as the modern atheist showmen say when they are hard pressed, their critique is much more directed to the specific claims of every particular major world religion than to pantheism and deism in general. Your idea that God`s existence does not depend on the psychokinesis of our knowledge is correct, and the atheist leap is certainly wrong. But the ideas that we make about God do depend on context, and his analysis was a based in a world much less secular than ours. If some basic form of agnosticism was a given at Marx times and believers argued in terms of personal trust, I doubt he would have written that. So I`m not sure if Marx is as wrong as you suggest, or if part of him being less right today is an outcome of secularization.

    (that was a long comment. Well, hope you enjoy it.)

    1. Mark Biernat

      Belief in nothingness hangs on the balance
      There is so much to address here. Maybe I will go for one point, that is it easier to believe in nothingness or not?

      I think you are right, I do not know if it is easier to believe in nothingness. I think it hangs on the balance for most people (depending on one’s environment to a certain age).

      However, from my life and I am being frank, I think I will not make it to heaven, but purgatory, a long purification process. Belief in nothingness is certainly simpler, easier, and makes you feel lighter and free from any moral responsibility except to yourself and remnants of guilt or self-derived humanism which makes the ego feel better (If I was an atheist I would be an ethical humanist).

      For you can feel you are taking the ethical and intellectual high ground if you believe in nothingness. It is a great rush to the ego to jettison, taught beliefs and strike out on your own and be in a circle of great enlighten minds that often look down on believers with witty ironic comments like Voltaire did (If God did not exists, it would be necessary for us to invent him). You walk around enlighten, rational modern and free and a notch to your belt for being so.

      Yet in the end, I think it is 50-50. Believing in a ultimate reality and believing in nothingness hangs in the balance and each has pluses and minuses which individual subconscious weight, and the rational mind might not be aware of these debits and credits calculated at a deeper level.

      However, my personal belief still does not affect external reality. If I believe or not has no bearing on if God exists or not.

      I think Marx like Freud at some level was influenced by the start of a rising wave of anti-Semitic feeling in the Germanic countries.

      Marx and philosophy Vs. Theology
      A little historical perspective to back up my ideas.

      • Marx’s father Herschel Marx, converted to Protestantism (after a long line of devout Ashkenazi Jewish including Rabbis). He converted strictly to be allowed to practice the bar, he did not practice it.
      • His father was influenced by Immanuel Kant and Voltaire and other enlightenment philosophers as they took issue with absolutism, which was the rule of the day in Prussia. However, many of these free thinking critics of absolutism were also liberal humanists
      • Therefore the political environment and the people writing against ideas of absolutism and injustice influenced the family in a religious way. The Marx family became or were non-belivers.
      • Marx himself was trouble by excess drinking and a father pushing him into the practical professor of law, rather than pure though. There was some zealousness already manifest in his personality, he was even a bit manicy
      • It was not surprising that the slightly rebellious work, ‘The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature’ was Karl Marx’s first publication, it was his doctoral thesis which conveyed the superiority of philosophy (without God) over theology. Already the seeds are sown regarding, how the unenlightened find consolation in a belief in God. Marx the prophet of a new epoch would champion this injustice with his disciples. If you read his early writing, it already had a touch of him feeling intellectual superiority.
      • His ‘Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’, opened up a new line of attack, directly describing religion as a opiate for the masses of unenlighted people.
      • I wonder his he grew up in a protestant family of Lutherans without any Jewish history or blood and high expectations, woud Karl be so emphatic about swinging the pendulum so far in the other direction? I think much of Marx’s of philosophy comes not from an empirical description of reality but a psychosocial reaction to an ego that needed

      So this is Marxism. It is a manifestation of Karl’s personal over emphasis on a way of thinking. That is the masses, who are unthinking unenlightened pawns need salvation found in the form of economic liberation as defined personally by him. His inner world and conflicts, manifest on paper.

  4. Goolam Mahomed Dawood

    Tales of the destructiveness of Marxism are just silly. The stats are so laughable and so disingenuous, that there is not point in discussing. But the reality is that his critique of religion has a lot of merit in it, and the 400 years of colonialism and slavery are proof of it. His arguments against religion are made by many right wing atheists as well.

    To argue against Leftists/Marxism, you have to imagine a world without their contribution. That itself will show how necessary his critique has been. Not what Marxism is accused of, WMD’s in Iraq style, but the lasting physical impact on causes of equality and worker rights the world over.

    No religion or political ideology has done more. And that says enough. This comment coming from a believer. A critique of atheism is really a separate task from a critique of Marxism. And this article has failed at both by relying on weak assumptions and fair amount of distance from the history. Of course, some of us like our God to be Colonial, White and a mediator of our power, exploitation and privilege.

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