After reading this article you will learn about Marxism and Religion:- 1. Definition of Religion 2. Sources of Marx’s Thought 3. Religion as Class Ideology 4. Religion and Science 5. Universality of Religion 6. Lenin and Religion 7. Criticism of Marx’s Theory of Religion.
Definition of Religion:
A fruitful and comprehensive analysis of Marx’s political ideas and philosophy will remain incomplete without any reference to religion because it constitutes the core aspect of Marx’s materialism in historical background in particular and political philosophy in general.
In this article we shall focus our attention on his analysis about religion. He defines or explains religion in the following manner.
It is the considered opinion of Marx, which he formed on the basis of study of history, is that man makes religion, but religion does not make man.
In other words, religion is the self-consciousness and self feeling of man who has either not yet found himself or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world.
Man is the world of man, the state, and society. Religion is the general theory of that world, its encyclopedic compendium, its logic in a popular form. It is the fantastic realization of human essence, because the human essence has no true reality.
The struggle against religion is therefore immediately the fight against the other world of which religion is the spiritual aroma. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people (Contribution to Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right).
In the above definition Marx has stressed few points about religion which require special emphasis. In his opinion religion has been created by man to meet his own requirements. It is not the opposite. It is secondly the fantastic realization of human essence and this has no practical existence.
Religion is associated with the other world. Thirdly, it is the sigh of persons who are exploited. Finally, we refer to his famous remark. It is like a sedative. Marx calls it opium.
Religion helps man to forget the real world. Persons having vested interests use religion for the attainment of their parochial and limited interests. Marx makes all these remarks about religion in the background of the role religion played in all the periods before him.
Though religion was quite active in almost all periods of European history, it was super- active during the Middle Ages.
Explaining Marx’s stand on religion Lenin says that religion is one of the forms of spiritual oppression. Religion is a weapon which blunts the sharpness of human intelligence and productive capacity of workers.
He further observes that religion teaches man to be submissive and docile. Religion is a sort of spiritual booze in which the slaves of capital drown their human image. According to Lenin common people have been taught religion to make them forgetful of the prevailing social political and economic conditions. The approach to religion adopted by the ruling class is a way of exploiting the masses of people.
Marx, Engels and Lenin hold that religion must be treated as a private affair and state must not have any role in religious matter. The state should not interfere with the religious beliefs of individuals.
It shall not be the business of state to encourage or discourage any religious belief. There shall be no provision of subsidy in any form to religious institutions such as church or ecclesiastical organization. The citizens shall enjoy full freedom to form or join associations according to their own belief or faith.
Sources of Marx’s Thought:
For almost all the major aspects of his philosophy in general and political ideas in particular Marx is indebted to his predecessors and his thought on religion is not an exception. His indebtedness to Feurerbach and Hegel may be mentioned.
At an early age Marx read Feuerbach’s Essence of Christianity which created a strong impact upon his mind. Feuerbach has stated that the ignorance of man fails to explain the natural and other phenomena and this leads him to take the help of religion.
In other words man endeavours all the “unexplained” phenomena to treat as supernatural or religious and for this reason Feuerbach calls religion a fantasy which compensates his own inadequacy.
Man feels that he is inferior to what he might be. In this way the idea of God appears in his thought system and imaginary world. Man thus creates God after his own image. Feuerbach has clearly stated that when man was in the depth of insecurity and helplessness he created an imaginary concept in the name of God and subsequently that became religious and this was not the reflection of the real world.
Feuerbach has also said that as man will be able to acquire more and more knowledge in accurate form and will be able to explain correctly the natural and other phenomena the idea of God and religion will become more and more indistinct and one day it will disappear.
“Man will come into full possession of his humanity and will dispense with his illusion of God. Religion is a product of man’s immaturity”.
Feuerbach took this idea of religion from Hegel. There are of course differences between them. Hegel has used the word Spirit whereas Feuerbach speaks of man. Feuerbach’s reality has become Spirit to Hegel.
Earlier thinkers treated religion as a social phenomenon and this impressed Marx considerably. We observed that religious beliefs and ceremonies were practiced by- men with a great fanfare and this practice provided social unity.
People of all sections of society worked, lived and behaved in a disciplined wav with the help of religious beliefs. Religion also strengthened social unity and obligation of man to society. Religion was thus a great cementing force. For this reason religion was a social phenomenon and Marx noticed it with great interest.
It is to be noted here that to Feuerbach religion was a psychological phenomenon. Feuerbach’s view did not impress Marx considerably. He inclined to those who regarded religion as a social phenomenon.
Marx has said that under the influence of religion man has no freedom to implement his full potentialities; he becomes the victim of religious practices. Man’s power and ability are limited and he does not possess the courage to challenge the religious practices according his own reason. In this way man is compelled by circumstances to surrender to the social practice.
Marx also took notice of the fact that religion gave man comfort and to some extent security. It also removed man’s sense of fear. This is because man’s rationality did not develop properly due to the inadequate development of education and science. Saint-Simon for that reason argued for their progress which would be able to remove the sense of fear and insecurity from the mind of man.
We can, therefore, say that Marx’s idea of religion is linked with Saint-Simon’s thought on the same subject. Pointing out Marx’s indebtedness to Saint-Simon, Plamenatz makes the following remark:
Though Saint-Simon does not call religion the opium of the people, he does say that theology flourishes while men are still incapable of explaining the world and themselves scientifically and that it holds together a society in which an unproductive ruling class lives off the labour of others. Of these early socialists none had a greater influence on Marx than Saint-Simon.
It is interesting to note that Saint-Simon has drawn our attention to the fact that the capitalist class uses religion as a weapon of exploitation. Whole society is held together with the help of religion and the capitalist class intensifies its control and exploitation over that society.
In the case of any lack of obligation of working class the capitalist class uses religion to achieve its objective. We, thus, see that both Marx and Saint-Simon held similar views on the role and importance of religion as a social phenomenon.
The capitalist class took active interest in the discipline and order of society because without this its exploitation could not become a reality. Marx noticed that in the Middle Ages the church and priests used religion for the purpose of utilizing common people for their benefit.
The Renaissance and Reformation brought about a change in the attitude of man towards religion. But these two failed to make the change radical. The capitalist class followed the path adopted by the church.
Religion as Class Ideology:
We shall now deal with how and in what sense Marx considered religion as a class ideology. The term class ideology means religion is held or practiced by a class and the religious beliefs flourish within the class structure.
In this regard there is a lot of controversy. It is due to the fact that the definitions of class and religion do not always suit class ideology. For example, the primitive tribal people had their own religion. But the tribal communities were not classes in the Marxian sense because Marx used the concept in a special sense. Moreover, his definition of religion is not applicable to the religion of tribal communities.
There are two broad aspects of Marx’s concept of religion. The advent and development of religion is due to the ignorance of man to understand the natural phenomena and their incapacity to solve his problems.
When these two are overcome the importance and even the existence of religion will be in danger. The German philosophers Feuerbach and Hegel viewed religion as fantasy of alienated man and Marx subscribed to this view. The alienated man being “unable to live a full and satisfying life, seeks compensation for his incapacity” (Plamenatz).
The above two elements of Marx’s doctrine of religion are not compatible with class ideology. Religion interpreted by Marx is not practiced by any particular class. But in spite of this his doctrine of religion can be called a class ideology.
Let us quote Plamenatz again:
“Yet both these doctrines are compatible with the belief that it is so (that is, it’s a class ideology-added). For religion, on either of these views, can be held to be a cement holding society together, and if society is divided into classes, some of which exploit others, it is cement which helps to make this exploitation possible”.
All the classes use religion, of course, for different purposes. Both the exploiters and exploited will use religious beliefs. It may be that any one class does not believe in religion, but uses it as a weapon for the attainment of any cherished goal. In a capitalist society the exploiting class with the help of religion exploits the proletariat. The working class practices religion and that helps the members to be united.
In the Middle Ages the powerful class used religion that is Christianity to exploit the common people. The feudal landlords, the priests and many other influential persons used religion for the simple purpose of exploitation.
Common people were taught that the life of the other world was more covetable and desirable and for that life they should ignore this mortal world and abide by the sermons of the pope and other priests of the church.
This was the way of strengthening their control over the community. On the other hand, common people out of the fear of punishment and to get rid of the wrath of God showed unconditional obligation to the church.
The religious beliefs practiced by different people before Marx was quite alive in his mind and in the background of that he drew certain conclusions.
In fact, religion of his time can be called a class ideology, because no class was quite free from the influence of religion. Moreover, each class had its own approach to religion though, in broadest term, the religion of all classes was the same.
Religion and Science:
Religion originated due to the ignorance of man about nature and natural phenomena. Marx, Engels and their adherents have concluded that religion will disappear with the progress of science and the application of science and technology to the development of society. That is, when a society will achieve all-round development, religion will gradually lose its importance.
The development of science will make minds of men scientific and rational with which they will be able to disprove the unscientific and absurd ideas of religion.
Spread of scientific spirit will also cause the disappearance of religious faith and practices. This is due to the fact that the development of science and scientific spirit will inculcate a feeling in the mind of man to be indifferent to theology. Thus religion will not be forced to disappear, it will, like the withering away of state, wither away.
Marx and Engels have stressed that because of the development of science man will be able to realize his potentialities which will help the rise and strengthening of self-confidence. This will be a sufficient factor for undermining the importance of religion in society.
The development of science has the capacity to destroy the alienation of man which previously caused the rise and growth of religion in society.
How the progress of science causes the disappearance of religion or theology can be viewed from still another perspective. The superior knowledge derived from science enables man to answer questions which were so long unanswerable, or man declares the questions simply as empty.
Thus the role of religion on the solution of social problems is removed. It is gradually reduced to non-existence. Marx and Engels in this way have come to the conclusion that science and religion are incompatible.
It has also been argued that the progress of science transforms the whole society which brings about a radical change in society. The existence of religion and progress of society due to the development of science will lead to the coexistence between the two impossible.
Thus the disappearance of religion or the decline of its importance due to the progress of science is not a concept characterized by oversimplification. Piecemeal progress of science cannot help a radical transformation of society.
It is necessary that science will lead the evolution to a stage where men will not feel the necessity of religion. This is a more plausible argument. In primitive tribal societies people depended upon science not only for comfort but for various other necessities.
When science will meet all the requirements of society man will no longer resort to religious practices and adhere to religious beliefs and faiths. If the society reaches that stage the need for religion will decline.
The impact of the progress of science and scientific knowledge upon religion has another aspect. A very important property of scientific development and the emergence of scientific spirit is it involves man in multifarious activities. This phenomenon removes the idleness of mind and body.
Man finds no time to contemplate about religion. He will concern himself with finding out avenues for accelerating material progress. This is evident when we look at the society that emerged after the medieval period.
Universality of Religion:
Marx’s concept of religion has been interpreted in a different light. He calls religion as the fantasy of alienated man. But if his ideas are thoroughly interpreted it will be found that it is more than that. It is not the “animism and magic of the simplest societies”; it is also a “dogmatic theology” of the complicated and sophisticated societies.
It is not true that only uneducated people of simple societies follow and adopt religious faiths in their day-to-day life, educated and wealthy people also practice religious faiths. Privileged people of society scrupulously follow religion.
“Theological religion, the type presented to us by Feuerbach and Marx as the religion of alienated man, is the religion of the sophisticated. It has been most fully accepted by the educated and the privileged”.
This indicates that religion has a universal appeal. The alienated worker may be attracted to religion, but the alienated man who is not a worker may also be attracted to religion. Explaining Marx’s position critics say that whenever a man suffers from frustration or fails to solve the mysteries of nature he resorts to religious practices.
Suffering from frustration or seeking comfort is not solitary to any particular man or group of men. Anybody can become the victim of circumstances and in order to get rid of that he may seek the help of religion.
However, the unprivileged section is the victim of environment and for that-very reason it is attracted to religion to a greater extent. It is said that all men in a class society are alienated and, naturally, the universality of religion will prevail.
Lenin and Religion:
Lenin’s view on religion is not basically different from Marx’s. But he has explained it in a greater perspective. He has said that religion is absolutely a private affair and it must not be the business of the state to interfere in any form with the religion. He further observes that in a true socialist society there cannot be any place of religion.
In an article published on 5 December 1905 he made the above and following observations. In this article he said “Religion must be no concern to the state, and religious societies must have no connection with the governmental authority. Everyone must be absolutely free to profess any religion he pleases or no religion whatever that is to be an atheist, who every socialist is, as a rule”.
The point of emphasis is that, in a socialist state, the authority shall have no relation with religion or religious societies. The state will neither oppose nor support any religion which is private. The most important thing about a socialist is he may be a believer of any religious faith or he may not be.
He is above all an atheist. It means that a socialist is indifferent to religion. Even if he professes any religious faith he cannot be expected to be dogmatic. Orthodox attitude to religion is not expected from a socialist.
In socialism there shall be complete separation between state and church. If there is no such separation, Lenin says, proletarians will demand the separation. This is because in the name of religion some persons exploit the working Class and in a socialist state there is no place of exploitation.
Emancipation is the aim of socialism and if there is religion emancipation is not possible. Communist party is the vanguard of workers and peasants and its members are highly self-conscious and class-conscious.
The members of the communist party, Lenin claims, are not the victims of ignorance and obscurantism in the shape of religious faith. He has further maintained that if church and other religious organizations are allowed to continue their normal functions that will before long contaminate the mind of the working class.
For this reason he has demanded “complete disestablishment of church, so as to be able to combat the religious fog with purely ideological and solely ideological weapons.”
According to Lenin the yoke of religion is merely a product and reflection of the economic yoke. Communist party will launch propaganda to enlighten the mind of people regarding the true nature of the religious fog.
Party will propagate that members must cultivate atheism. Once a man becomes a victim of religion he will not be able to come out of it. If people are not atheist, establishment of socialism will be a very difficult task.
Lenin concludes the essay with the following remark:
“The revolutionary proletariat will succeed in making religion a really private affair, so far as the state is concerned. And in this political system, cleansed of medieval mildew, the proletariate will wage a broad and open struggle for the elimination of economic slavery, the true source of the religious humbugging of mankind.”
Criticism of Marx’s Theory of Religion:
Marx’s theory of religion is faced with few criticisms. First of all, it is true that with the progress of science the influence of religion will disappear. Science and technology in the twenty-first century have reached a stage of unprecedented growth, but still there is influence of religion. It is true that today’s people are not orthodox in their attitude to religion, but they are not absolutely unreligious or atheists.
There is a fear of God or feeling of religion, more or less, in the mind of many people. So we can ‘say that progress of science and religion coexist peacefully. It is not true that science contradicts religion. The fields of the two are different.
In the second place, the former Russian leaders claimed that they had succeeded in achieving socialism, but it is also true that they had not been able to banish religion. Religion became a completely private affair, but there was religion.
We, therefore, see that Lenin’s estimation that in socialism there cannot be religion is not true. If in former Soviet Union there were religion there were no socialism, or vice versa.
Thirdly, it is not correct to hold that religion is the fantasy of alienated man. In our previous analysis we have said that even the privileged and educated people of sophisticated societies practice religion, but how are these people alienated? If these people are alienated then the concept requires to be redefined. There is no such scope.
Few more words may be said in support of Marx. While Marx was writing about religion the position and influence of religion of Middle Ages was highly active in his mind. The students of Western political thought are quite aware of the all pervading influence of Christianity in general and church in particular over all sections of society.
Even the powerful emperors were not free from the influence. The pope could dictate the kings in their day-to-day activities. There was nobody to challenge the authority of the pope. It was the religion which was responsible for the economic backwardness of medieval Europe.
It is also true that there was a time when religion acted as opium. Religion reduced the consciousness of people to the minimum. In medieval society religion was so powerful that people failed to consider their own interests. They were forced to think about the other world which had no physical existence.
Today the orthodox aspect of religion has declined remarkably. There are several reasons behind this and the most important are the progress of science and the development of consciousness.
Religion has not disappeared and will not disappear as Marx predicted. However, the educated people have developed a sort of indifference towards religion. There is today less orthodoxy, less fanfare and very less humbugging.
There is religion in miniature form. Lenin is not correct when he says that a socialist must be atheist. Many socialist minded people have been found to practice religious principles and faiths. This is because we are interpreting religion in a liberal way.