Karl Marx (1818-1883) is most notable for the significant impact he made on the development of Socialism and Communism. Influenced by thinkers such as; Gorge Wilhelm Friedrich von Hegel, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Ludwig Feuerbach, Marx developed a complex and controversial view of society, economics, and religion that has made him one of the most known historical figures of the modern world. Though none of his popular works was written directly on the topic of religion, the subject pervades so much of his system of thought that an analysis of his political views would be incomplete without also exploring his understanding of religion. Moreover, it would be foolish to attempt to understand Marx’s thoughts on religion without exploring the advancement of the economic and political thinking that makes up the majority of his most famous contributions to the world. It is therefore necessary to examine Marx’s thoughts on religion while simultaneously analyzing his career as a philosopher, an economist, and a communist revolutionary.
Marx began his career as an idealist and a student of philosophy when he came to accept Hegel’s ideology as a young man.[i] However, upon joining a group called “Young Hegelians,” Marx began to set himself apart from Hegel’s ideology; creating the system of thought that would later become the foundation of his Communist thinking.[ii]
Marx’s primary disagreement with Hegel’s philosophy was the importance of the material world in human life. He believed that Hegel was incorrect in thinking that ideology should be more important than the material world; but rather than outright rejecting Hegel’s concept, he drew from two primary elements within Hegel’s dialectic that he did accept-human alienation and conflict.[iii] According to Marx; to be materialistic is human nature, and while it is right to think that humans suffer from alienation and historical conflict, both stem from ideology, not materialism.
As his own doctrine continued to develop, Marx’s thinking transitioned from that of a philosopher to that of an economist and his opinions regarding religion followed. Marx believed that no religion is the authority of true reality. Instead religion is an illusion or simply a part of culture comparable to art or politics. Marx also insisted that religion is actually the result of economics. In his work, Contribution to a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Introduction, he writes, “Man makes religion, religion does not make man.”[iv]
In addition to understanding what religion is, Marx believed it was important to understand what religion does. He considered religion to be not only an illusion, but a dangerous and debilitating one. His explanation for such a controversial assertion consists of mainly two parts; that religion serves as a false hope for believers, resulting in the failure to fight against poor circumstances in life due to the promise of happiness in the afterlife, and that religion legitimizes society, again resulting in the acceptance of life as “the way things are.”[v] This failure to act is precisely what Marx refers to as “self-alienation” which is a predominant element in much of his works. Rather than accepting the realities of the material world (which would allow for change when life is unsatisfactory), humans tend to separate themselves from reality by creating a god and an alternative world, or afterlife, as a method of escape. Religion, for Marx, is both cause and effect of human suffering.
However grim they may seem at first, Marx theories did not end on a hopeless note. A revolutionary at heart, Marx moved beyond mere contemplation and into action, developing what he regarded as the solution to the human problem of self-alienation. His conclusion was that it is economics that truly determines human behavior, and by changing social structure, we can solve our problem of alienation.[vi]
In 1848, Friedrich Engels, who shared similar views with Marx, collaborated with him on what is perhaps the most famous of Marx’s writings,The Communist Manifesto. Working from their materialistic beliefs and economic theories, they explored a theory of class struggle and diagnosed what they believe to be the problems of Capitalism.[vii]
Building upon Hegel’s theories regarding historical conflict, Marx and Engels concluded that human history is nothing more than a chronicle of class struggle. They insisted that while it is human nature be concerned about material things, which leads to the development of societies (to enhance the production of those material things), the result of society is capitalism and that goes against the very nature of human beings. With capitalism comes a separation of the working class and the business owners, the rich and the poor, those who must turn to ideologies such as religion to withstand their misfortune, and those who look to ideology to legitimize their own good standing in society.[viii] Again, such a forecast for society is bleak, but this time Marx offered something more than just a solution. He also provided a (non-mythical) prophecy. Because Capitalism contradicts human nature, Marx insisted that it would inevitably end with a revolution. As a crusader for the working man, Marx must have been pleased to announce that one day the working class will rise up against their oppressors an retake their rightful places in the material world.[ix]
While Marx’s focus clearly changed a great deal throughout his career, the fundamental features of his understanding of human life remained the same. As a philosopher believing in the nature of humans as materialistic beings, an economist exploring the cause and effect of self-alienation, and a revolutionary calling out to the working class of the Industrial Revolution to fight for their right to happiness, Karl Marx developed and maintained a belief system that would come to be authoritative to many people. However, at the core of even his most political theories laid a foundational belief system that could not be ignored. According to Marx, human beings must be liberated from religion in order to find true happiness and that can only be done through economic change.
[i]The Encyclopedia of Religion, s.v. “Marx, Karl,” (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1987), 238.
[ii]Daniel L. Pals.Seven Theories of Religion. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 126-127.
[iii] Pals, 132-133.
[iv] Pals, 140.
[v] Pals, 141.
[vi] Pals, 141.
[viii]John Chaffee, The Philosopher’s Way: Thinking Critically About Profound Ideas(New York: Pearson Apprentice Hall, 2005), 553.
Chaffee, John. The Philosopher’s Way: Thinking Critically About Profound Ideas. New York: Pearson Apprentice Hall, 2005.
The Encyclopedia of Religion, s.v. “Marx, Karl.” New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1987.
Pals, Daniel L.Seven Theories of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.