Religion through a Marxist lens

Religion, as a social phenomenon, is best understood as an outgrowth of real, tangible material conditions.

What does almost every religion in the world deal with primarily? Death. And most of them also have at least something to say about what comes after.

Why do people even care? Why are they not fully focused on this life? In part because death represents the Great Unknown. It is natural to fear what one does not know and cannot understand.

Now consider that for the vast majority of human history – and this is still the status quo for untold millions of people beset upon by the blight of everyday survival, privation, misery, destitution and ruin – life was a constant struggle to stay alive against the forces of nature, and quite often your fellow man as well.

Is it any wonder that under these wretched conditions, people would come to believe in divine deliverance from the crushing pain of daily existence in the form of an afterlife?

In the mid-19th century, opium was a widely available – and very strong – painkiller. Having said that, here’s a famous quote that I’m sure you will recognize:

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.

Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right

That is what Marx is getting at here. Religion has to be understood not in idealist terms, but in terms of the real conditions of people’s lives.

It is worth noting that before the formation of class societies, monotheism was not very common, if at all present. Most hunter-gatherer societies, living in what Marx would call “primitive communism” had as their religion some sort of animism, like the Native Americans for example. Rather than one or more paternalistic figures setting in stone the rules of life and society, from now and to eternity, they believed everything to be imbued with some sort of life energy. It made a lot of sense, when you consider that they barely had the ability to produce their own means of subsistence, instead harvesting them directly from nature.

As class society emerged, this became in turn reflected in the religious beliefs of each society:

The economic oppression of the workers inevitably calls forth and engenders every kind of political oppression and social humiliation, the coarsening and darkening of the spiritual and moral life of the masses. The workers may secure a greater or lesser degree of political liberty to fight for their economic emancipation, but no amount of liberty will rid them of poverty, unemployment, and oppression until the power of capital is overthrown. Religion is one of the forms of spiritual oppression which everywhere weighs down heavily upon the masses of the people, over burdened by their perpetual work for others, by want and isolation. Impotence of the exploited classes in their struggle against the exploiters just as inevitably gives rise to the belief in a better life after death as impotence of the savage in his battle with nature gives rise to belief in gods, devils, miracles, and the like. Those who toil and live in want all their lives are taught by religion to be submissive and patient while here on earth, and to take comfort in the hope of a heavenly reward. But those who live by the labour of others are taught by religion to practise charity while on earth, thus offering them a very cheap way of justifying their entire existence as exploiters and selling them at a moderate price tickets to well-being in heaven. Religion is opium for the people. Religion is a sort of spiritual booze, in which the slaves of capital drown their human image, their demand for a life more or less worthy of man.

But a slave who has become conscious of his slavery and has risen to struggle for his emancipation has already half ceased to be a slave. The modern class-conscious worker, reared by large-scale factory industry and enlightened by urban life, contemptuously casts aside religious prejudices, leaves heaven to the priests and bourgeois bigots, and tries to win a better life for himself here on earth. The proletariat of today takes the side of socialism, which enlists science in the battle against the fog of religion, and frees the workers from their belief in life after death by welding them together to fight in the present for a better life on earth.

Vladimir Lenin, Socialism and Religion

Under feudalism, the Catholic church was the biggest landlord by far. The emerging bourgeoisie (merchants, traders, and later industrialists) began to challenge the existing system.

Naturally, they came into confilict with it. Their clashes with the old order were not only economic, but also ideological and political. Ideological chiefly meant religious, in an illiterate society where the chief source of general ideas about society was church preaching.

In turn, the church propagated pro-feudal views. attacking as ‘sinful’ many of the practices of the urban bourgeoisie.

Thus, in the 16th and 17th centuries in Western Europe – the birthplace of modern capitalism – a new religion emerged, Protestantism. It is notable for preaching thrift, sobriety, hard work, in contrast to Orthodox and Catholic Christianity, which call for charity, modest living and condemn usury and fraudulent trading.

The Protestant, and especially Puritan work ethic is particularly prominent in the United States, which explains the origin of the phenomenon of very long working hours compared to most of Europe, as well as the higher tolerance in regards to economic inequality. Rich people are “blessed by God”, unlike the “sinful” and “lazy” poor people, who can’t or won’t exercise “personal responsibility” and “lift themselves up by their bootstraps”.

Note that feudalism never really took hold there, along with its ideology. Lords were supposed to look out and care for their serfs, and they formalized their relationship with a ceremony not unlike marriage. Hence the extended state regulation and social security that characterizes (or at least used to) most European countries.

In contrast, today a lot more people are either indifferent towards religion, irreligious, or atheists. The reason is a rise in living standards compared to our ancestors. It is also why countries such as Sweden are, on average, quite blasé religiously speaking, whereas countries like Afghanistan are among the most religious on Earth.

Ideas do not emerge out of thin air. They are a product of the concrete material and social conditions under which we live. But humans are not mindless automata, driven purely by instinct and inherited behavioral patterns. Every so often, our ideas come into conflict with the material world. This contradiction is resolved by us acting upon the world to change it. This way of viewing things is called dialectical materialism. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were the first to formulate it as we know it today.

I, for example, renounced my religion (in Greece that would be Orthodox Christianity) long before I became a communist. Why? Apart from the fact that religion never really played a big role in my life (material conditions and living standards, as I said before), I saw, and learned about, members of the clergy acting almost in direct opposition to what they were preaching for others. Living tax-free and driving luxury cars instead of practicing charity and poverty in the name of Mother Church, spewing hate against minorities, leftists, LGBT people, and misogyny instead of words of Christ’s powerful and inclusive love, and a lot more. Molesting underage boys, various sex, political and financial scandals, etc. I imagine that for a lot of people the hypocrisy of the clergy is a big factor in abandoning religion.

Russian Orthodox Church - Wikipedia
Orthodox church in Russia. Credit: Wikipedia/photographer unknown

In conclusion, a communist, and especially a Marxist one, views religion as neither good nor bad, but as a byproduct of the way people interact with, and act upon, others around them, having as an anchoring point the given productive relations of a given society.

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