Responding to the Religious Question: A Marxist Approach

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Everybody knows Marxists are thoroughly against religion. It stands to reason right? After all, Marx said so – “Religion is the opium of the people”. It’s one of the most well-known Marx quotes in the world, and anyone who knows anything about Marxism has heard it. So for Marxists, religion is BAD. Case closed.
However, when we scratch below the surface, it’s not quite that simple. What many people do not realise (including many self-professed Marxists) is that read in full this quotation suggests that for Marx, the question of religion was a far more complex, multi-dimensional issue:

“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.”

Taken in full, we can see that Marx fully recognised the comfort and relief that religion offers to working-class people, who work long hours for low wages in the dog-eat-dog world of capitalism.  This might seem like a minor point, but when we consider the disbelief with which many atheists regard those who still practice religion in these supposedly ‘enlightened’ times, it’s hugely relevant. Take for example the sneering condescension with which the likes of Richard Dawkins approach the question of religion. It might well seem irrational and illogical to the privileged and wealthy that people still place their faith in an unseen, incomprehensible divine forces. But where else should they place their faith, in an era in which working class organisations such as trade unions and traditional workers parties have been systematically defeated, co-opted and neutralised? At a time when in fact faith groups represent the closest thing to community that is available?

That’s not to turn the argument around and argue that any Marxist would see religion as some kind of a positive force. For Marx, the starting point in understanding religion was the real-world material conditions in which religion arises – and for Marxists, the illusory nature of religion serves to soften the harsh nature of the material conditions of society, and even blind us to them. Religion isn’t unique in that of course; the ‘opium’ factor is just as easily achieved with drugs, booze, ‘reality television’, and, er, opium. Anything, in fact, that fuels and perpetuates a false consciousness.  Make no mistake, if Marx were alive today he’d have had similar things to say about the national obsession with the X-factor or excessive use of cannabis. The central theme here then is that religion is at one and the same time a source of comfort and succour to the oppressed, and an illusion; a false sense of hope and spirituality that serves to blind and desensitise working people to the material reality of the world.

Even bearing this in mind though, there is a further dimension that is impossible for Marxists to ignore – dialectic analysis is never that simple! Grounded as our analysis must be in the real and material world, it must recognise that theology and belief arises from the material circumstance of human history; that is the conditions and dynamics of the class struggle. Religion does not arise in a vacuum but as a consequence of these conditions. On the one hand we can clearly observe in the roots of religion the dynamic of oppression – the persecution of the Jews in Egypt, the tirade of Jesus against the money-lenders and so on. On the other hand, the way that religion has been used to legitimate oppression is obvious, whether we look at the oppression of women and homosexuals within the Catholic Church, or the oppression of Palestinians at the hands of Zionists in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.  Max Weber famously cited the Calvinist strand of Protestant Christianity as a key factor in the development of modern capitalism. While of course Marxists would place far more emphasis on the material conditions of society in explaining the origins of capitalism, there can be no doubt that the Calvinist ideas of predestination and the acceptance of usury clearly served to legitimate the principles of private property and profit on which capitalism rests. When religious ideas are used to justify such oppression, it must always be the role of Marxists to oppose them. In a sense there will always be a dual nature to religion – for example there is a world of difference to the religion of the poor, oppressed Muslims in the Middle East and the ‘faith’ of the largely dictatorial Arab ruling classes.

Given the complex dimensions of religiosity then, how should the Marxist respond to the question of religion in the 21st century? Well, certainly not by replicating the sneering derision of obnoxious writers such as Richard Dawkins; his book ‘The God Delusion’ may be an international bestseller, but it’s a safe bet he has won few believers over to the atheist cause with his jeering, condescending rhetoric. Ironically, in fact, Dawkins preaches almost exclusively to the already-converted. It’s hardly surprising that this should be the case either; his total failure to understand the origins of religion or the comfort that worshippers find in belief leaves him unable to connect with people of faith. Furthermore, his tendency to understand religion in a purely abstract sense at times leads him to conclusions which are just as nonsensical as the idea that God created the world in six days. Take his statement in The Telegraph from October 8th 2006, in which he claimed that “It is not an exaggeration to say that the Troubles in Northern Ireland would disappear in a generation if segregated schooling were abolished”. It should be clear to anyone that the sectarian divisions in Ireland, rooted as they are in the experiences of imperialism, oppression and poverty, could never be solved by small scale administrative changes alone. And yet Dawkins’ supposedly ‘scientific’ analysis, removed as it is from socio-economic reality and from the weight of human history, fails totally to get to grips with the real issues.

Seldom do we win anyone over to our ideas when we fail to engage sensitively and fraternally with their experiences and troubles. This is why, contrary to popular opinion never call for the forced abolition or suppression of religion, though of course we would reject that idea that faith of any kind has a legitimate role to play within the state apparatus itself. This was recognised by Lenin, one of the key leaders of the Russian Revolution, who rightly condemned the “pseudo-revolutionary idea that religion should be prohibited in socialist society”, recognising that this would only lead to a diversion from “the urgent tasks of the class and revolutionary struggle to the most superficial and false bourgeois anti-clericalism.” Sadly this was not the same approach taken by Stalin, who visited terrible oppression on religious groups, recognising that they represented a potential ideological alternative to his vicious and bureaucratic regime. The fate of the church wasn’t unique of course; Stalin’s monstrous regime opposed the free exchange of all ideas, not just religious ones.

So how should the Marxist left deal with the question of religion? First and foremost, our task is to defend the right of all people to believe or not believe as they see fit – in the words of Lenin, “Everyone must be absolutely free to profess whatever religion he (or she!) likes, or to profess no religion”. The only way religion will decline is with advances in social development; not through the insistent ‘rationality’ of wealthy intellectuals. The human obsession with the afterlife is as old as humanity itself, and in the final analysis only by uniting workers of all religions and none to create a better world in this life can we expunge that.
Written by Sam Morecroft


Bibliography/Further Reading:
‘A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’ – K. Marx

The Attitude of the Workers’ Party to Religion’ – V.I. Lenin

‘Socialism and Religion’ – V.I.Lenin