What Did Karl Marx Really Think About Religion?

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I took a Sociology of Religion final yesterday, but rather than the usual post-exam attempt to purge everything I learned over the semester, I’ve actually just been thinking about Karl Marx a whole lot. I’m sure this is something everybody does, right?

We all know about Marxism and its relationship with religion, or at least we think we do. Communism and socialism are all about atheism and the removal of religion. Billy Graham really rose to national fame by establishing the dualistic relationship between us God-fearing democratic Americans and the godless freedom-hating communists.  That quote from Marx about religion as the “opium of the masses” gets bandied about all the time. But, I think we mis-read him a bit.

First, I think we assume too much in reading Marx’s his views on the role of religion. Yes, Marx says that religion is man-made. He calls it an opium. He thinks that religion is what keeps the people satisfied enough that they don’t revolt to change the capitalist structures which create the need for the opium of religion in the first place. But he also says this: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.” Marx acknowledges that this is a response to very real suffering, he just thinks it’s the wrong response. Francis Spufford in UnApologetic actually does a good job reclaiming Marx’s opiate remark as a positive thing, religion as a means of perseverance through suffering, but not in a negative way of creating lethargy. On the other side, though, the problem with Marx’s argument is that religion can and has been used in ways other than merely dulling the pain of suffering. Critiques of oppressive structures and capitalism itself have been grounded in religion, too, but Marx seems either unaware of that or unwilling to concede that as a significant enough strain of religion to merit attention. There’s a diversity of religion expression that Marx neglects in his understanding of the category.

And, on that point, if Marx was going for a critique of all religion, he did a sloppy job of it. The religion he critiques is really just religion in the mold of Christianity and Judaism, and a very specific form of those religions at that. This makes sense, given Marx’s own background and the context he’s writing about/from. We can especially see the influence of Ludwig Feuerbach in all this, particularly in the critique of religion as man-made. Feuerbach’s critique of Christianity was that, rather than theology, it was really just theanthropology, worshipping a God made in the image of man (which, if you think about it, isn’t completely without merit; but that’s a whole nother blog post). Marx’s view of religion sees it as intensely focused on the supernatural and distraction from this world, again missing the breadth of religion beyond Christianity and Judaism. Max Weber would later critique Marx on that point, noting that there are significant numbers of religions out there that don’t focus on the supernatural. Marx is assuming belief in the supernatural as a fundamental criteria for religion, when that claim just doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. And, again, even if Marx is only really criticizing Western Christianity/Judaism, he’s still missing the whole picture. For example, there are Christians, myself included, who would argue that Christianity ought to be as focused on transformation and justice in this world as on the heaven of the next.

But, in addition to all this, I also think we’re so busy reading the critiques that we miss the fact that Marx inadvertently creates his own sort of religious system. Marx’s critique is advocating for a return to something better. He unpacks the economic history of society, with an obvious desire to return to a better, pre-capitalist state. He’s actually arguing for a return to a primal shalom of sorts, an Edenic society where right human relationship is restored to the way it was before the intrusion of capitalism and industrialization. He has an idealized picture of what community can/should be and has an eschatological desire for an overthrow of the current system he views as oppressive to restore this primal state. Take Marx’s name out of this, and all the baggage it carries, and we’d be pretty quick to label that a religion.

Maybe Marx was an atheist, but that doesn’t have to mean that what he was advocating for wasn’t religion. Views of Marx have been tied to old conceptions of religion as theism versus atheism for too long. I’m not saying that I’m right and Marx wanted to just replace prevailing popular religion of his day with his own religion. I’m not even saying Marx isn’t problematic. Just in terms of anti-Semitism alone, there’s no shortage of Marxist ideas to take issue with. I’m just saying we need to try to read Marx with fresh eyes if we’re going to continue to read him for the study of religion.

Now, the disclaimer for all of this is that I haven’t read all of Marx’s works (shocker, I know). Very few people have, because he produced a ton of material, so it’s difficult for most of us to really make definitive statements about Marx’s position on, well, anything really. So, if anybody’s read more of Marx and/or has thoughts on any of this, I’d be very interested to hear them.

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