13. Atheism and Marxism

Marx’s ideology of a society free of class has been used by millions to encourage and enforce religion-less cultures and societies, including North Korea and the Soviet Union. Many American critics have colored the philosophy as a godless one. But is there any possible way for Marx to be compatible with religion?

Like his compatriots in the Enlightenment, Marx is a critic of religion. In fact, he wrote more about religion than the class struggle in his early days. Marx’s anti-religious views had existed since he was young, and the Enlightenment only empowered and built them up. In the early stages of his writing career, Marx wanted to reveal all the flawed and damaging ways that religion’s supernaturalism and irrationalism hinder man. This stems from what Reverend. Gianbattista Mondin describes in the L’Osservatore Romano as what he sees as Marx’s key three postulates:

1) metaphysical or dialectical materialism which considers matter as the supreme and unique cause of everything;
2) historical materialism, according to which the economic factor is the principal and decisive factor, and the economic structure is the carrying structure of all the other structures that compose society;
3) absolute humanism, which sets man at the summit of the cosmos: man is the supreme being.

As the three postulates reveal, Marx inherently starts from an irreligious perspective. Rather than rely on any form of religious revelation, he starts from a simple access point; that which man can objectively observe.

From there he states in Private Property and Communism that communism begins from the outset….with atheism; but atheism is at first far from being communism; indeed, that atheism is still mostly an abstraction.” For Marx, one must start at atheism in order to truly understand and live out true communism. In doing so, one would not only be able to grasp the world and the controlling class struggle as it exists, but the irrelevance of religion.

As explained in our other post on Marx, religion for Marx is rather meaningless, since it is simply an expression of the world’s narrative of oppression, rather than a unique set of ideals separate from the economic and governmental ideals promoted by the leadership. So, while many critics will start from one’s sense of God and reality to begin their arguments, Marx begins by implying that one’s beliefs about God and religion come from the imposition of the ongoing class struggle. So if you believe in an omnipotent God, then this is because you’re encouraged to view authority as naturally forming, hence the need for a God, and by extension, a ruling class that reportedly was appointed by God.

In the end, Marx’s expression of his lack of faith underlies the majority of his arguments, especially his notions of faith being more an expression of the class struggle than an actual struggle. He was very antagonistic to the religious traditions of his day, and his work would spark a continuing resistance to religion among his philosophical children, from Freud to Lenin to the Soviet State.

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