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.
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.
- 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.