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Full Marx What do Marxists say about religion?

Like any other cultural activity, religion is capable of promoting political and social liberation, but it is also subject to manipulation and control by ruling classes to enforce conservatism

MOST Marxists would say that it is none of their business to judge or comment on any individual’s sincere and deeply held religious beliefs, provided that these do not encourage prejudice, intolerance or result in harm to others. 

Some religious groupings, notably the Quakers, have been prominent in the peace and anti-war movement.

Many Jews — not just secular Jews but ultra-orthodox religious Jews as well — oppose the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.

Catholic “liberation theology” has been a feature of progressive movements in South America.

And many individuals of all faiths have managed to combine their religious conviction with a commitment to socialism, even Marxism.

In Britain, the fusion of Marxist theory and Christian beliefs, called Christian socialism, has a long and honourable tradition. 

Keir Hardie, the founder of the modern Labour Party declared that “any system of production or exchange which sanctions the exploitation of the weak by the strong or the unscrupulous is wrong and therefore sinful.”

And Hewlett Johnson, the “Red Dean” of Canterbury (1931-1963) was a supporter of the October Revolution, a life-long friend of the Soviet Union and a chair of the board of the Daily Worker, the predecessor of today’s only socialist daily newspaper, the Morning Star. 

Religion in and of itself is no indicator of people’s political orientation or of their personal qualities. At the same time Marxists would challenge the liberal exhortation to “celebrate all faiths.”

Sometimes “or none” is added, condescendingly lumping together atheists of all colours into a “faithless” melange, implying that those who profess no religion therefore have no “faith.” 

The faiths that are purportedly celebrated are not, of course, just matters of individual conviction. They are institutionalised belief systems.

Religion is primarily a social and historical phenomenon. Britain’s own head of state is, after all, also the head of the “established” Church of England. As Marx observed, “Humanity makes religion, religion does not make humanity.” 

On a philosophical level, Marxism questions the truth of any religion that assumes the existence of a supernatural being not subject to the laws of nature but who, bizarrely, responds to the adulation and entreaties of his/her/its worshippers.

In engaging with religious believers, however sympathetically, Marxists do not conceal their materialist belief that everything that exists is part of nature and, in principle at least, can be studied and understood by humans as part of an endeavour to shape our own future. 

Probably the best known observation of Marx on religion is that it is the “opium of the people.” This is sometimes taken to mean that he saw it as a mechanism of control from above, prescribed by those in power to secure compliance and docility.

To the extent that this is true it is only part of Marx’s analysis. The full passage from Marx makes his own meaning clear. “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and 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.” 

Marx of course used opium himself to give some relief from a variety of ailments including toothache, ear aches and carbuncles. The opium metaphor had some meaning to him.

Religion, in his view, provided at least some comfort and hope to the oppressed. In an uncertain world it promises a degree of certainty. It provides an apparently alternative authority to corrupted secular institutions and to those suffering physical or psycho-social distress it offers comfort. Above all, it offers hope, however illusory.

Marxists understand this, which is why they don’t challenge genuine individual faith. 

And to some extent at least, religion is easy and cheap. Religion can be a cut-price insurance policy. Marxists realise the limitations of individual good works and question those driven primarily by expectations of a better life hereafter.

More than a century ago, the communist organiser Joe Hill’s ballad The Preacher and the Slave (popularised by Woody Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen among others) challenged the “pie in the sky when you die” of organised religion. “It’s a lie,” goes the final line of each stanza. 

Institutionalised religion can impose its own form of alienation on its adherents. As Marx concluded in his “opium of the people” passage, “challenging religion as the illusory happiness of the people is to demand their real happiness.” 

Religion can also be a cloak, a justification for greed and avarice. TV evangelists in the US and elsewhere promote the “prosperity gospel” — the belief that faith can make you rich — inverting Feuerbach’s assertion that “only the poor man has a rich God’’ and reimagining the life of an itinerant Jew who believed that you couldn’t serve God and Mammon to be “a poster boy for the super-rich.” 

As Giles Fraser, the former Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral, with special responsibility for contemporary ethics and engagement with the City of London as a financial centre, pointed out, US President Donald Trump is both a product and a perpetuator of the “prosperity gospel” — the belief that faith can make you rich.

“Being ‘blessed’ has become a moral alibi for America’s greed. It is a nauseating smile of faux-gratitude that says: ‘God gave this to me, so it’s not about me having too much’.” 

And of course, if God doesn’t smile on you, if you aren’t one of the chosen ones to receive riches on earth, it’s probably because you haven’t repented enough for your sins and, anyway, you will receive riches in heaven. 

In Britain the Alpha Course, that gospel’s more restrained but equally insidious equivalent — originally Anglican, but now extended to Methodist, Baptist and Catholic churches — promotes a parallel message of personal fulfilment or quiescence, in either case devoid of any notion of collective social progress. 

All religions demand a degree of submission in religious observance — attendance at mass, praying five times per day, acceptance of a higher authority than one’s own conscience. And most are accepting of the status quo on this earth as well as the next.

That lovely hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful has for its third verse: The rich man in his castle/ The poor man at his gate, God made them high and lowly/ And ordered their estate.

Pope Francis’s 2017 encounter with Donald Trump — who arrived at the Vatican in a motorcade. The Pope came in a Ford Focus — spoke volumes.

The Pope had previously suggested that Trump’s threat to build a Mexican wall meant he could not be a Christian — Christians build bridges — to which Trump responded by calling the Pope “disgraceful” for doubting his faith. 

For some, religious conviction offers comfort, disengagement, a shelter from the world. For others, it offers a justification for greed, bigotry and even violence. And for some it is the route to social action, challenging injustice, exploitation and evil. 

Marxists need to take a careful, dialectical view on religious belief. Like any other cultural activity, it is capable of promoting political and social liberation, but it is always subject to manipulation and control by ruling classes who attempt and very often succeed in turning it into a force for conservatism.

So: religion is a personal matter. Religious freedom is important as long as it doesn’t interfere with the liberty or well-being of others. 

At the same time, religion and its varied institutional manifestations are, inevitably, very public and political matters which socialists, Marxist and otherwise, need to challenge when they support or endorse exploitation and passivity but should applaud when they help to build collective action for social justice. 

A longer version of this article is available on Culture Matters:


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