The Religion of Marxism

We explore the relationship between Marxism and religion. What exactly did Marx mean with his infamous “opium of the people” quote? How were his thoughts related to scientism and the problem of evil? And how did an atheist ideology spawn one of the worst religions ever to ravage humanity?

March 14 is the death anniversary of Karl Marx. He was a well-known atheist, with a worldview firmly rooted in scientism, and a staunch opponent of religion. However, the consequences of his ideology spawned a pattern of government that consistently matches those of polytheist pagan civilizations. For someone wishing to abolish religion, this would have been scandalously contradicting. But when you analyze it from a Christian perspective, it makes perfect sense.

Marx, Materialism and the Problem of Evil

Karl Marx is undoubtedly one of the most influential philosophers to ever live. He started as a disciple of Hegel, but later became critical of his viewpoints. Marx adopted a materialist viewpoint, and for both personal and philosophical reasons, he was a staunch atheist. However, there are truly fascinating connections between his philosophy and religion.

To Marx, the origin of all evil was the alienation of people from the output of their production. More broadly, he saw economic relationships, and the resulting class struggles, as a pervasive cause of human malady. Carl Trueman concurs with other thinkers in asserting that Marx politicized everything. By making every social concern revolve around economical relationships, Marx denied any pre-political (non-political) motivations. Echoes of this viewpoint are prevalent in several contemporary theories.

Trueman further asserts that Marx saw economical relationships as a defining element of human nature. Humanity isn’t so much an immanent condition, but an evolving concept tied to the evolution of class interest struggles. In a sense, Marx was prescient in his assessment of the impact of technology over society, but always through his class struggle lens.

Note the connections to religion. Philosophers of all strands have wrestled with the problem of evil. Atheists sometimes use the fact that evil exists as evidence that God doesn’t. I exposed a Christian refutation to this argument in a previous article. But Marx’s materialist starting point entails that the root cause of this problem, as well as its solution, must reside entirely within the natural realm.

The Opium of the People

Of course, Marx’s most famous and direct engagement of religion comes from his “opium of the people” quote. His thoughts on this have largely been misquoted or incorrectly edited, and it’s illuminating to consider them in their entirety. In his posthumous published work, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Marx wrote:

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.

As several theologians have observed, this quote reflects at least certain empathy for believers, even if it doesn’t endorse religion itself. Marx validates religion as an expression and protest of pain, and sees some value in it. The quote is often reduced to the “opium of the people” bit, which entails that religion seeks to de-sensitize people from real pain, and to encourage them to indulge in illusions of a better afterlife, which is consistent with the medically accepted uses of opium in the 19th century. But it’s really the remainder of the passage that explicitly captures Marx’s rejection of religion:

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

For a worldview that sees all problems rooted in the political outcomes of capitalist exploitation, and the solution in the very concrete toppling of these structures through revolution, the supernatural focus of religion becomes a helpless distraction at best, and a material obstacle at worst.

Marxism: Paganism At Its Worst

Marx really didn’t say much about religion, but it’s fairly clear that his worlview didn’t endorse or support its key tenets. This partly relates to Marxism being greatly indebted to Friederich Engels, Marx’s collaborator and financier. Engels’ exposure to the development of the budding mining industry in Manchester and Salford in the 1840s greatly influenced Marxism’s views on capitalism and religion.

The extent to which the communist wave of the 20th century reflects Marx’s viewpoints will forever be greatly debated. At face value, it seems incredibly ironic that the ideology of an opponent of religion would eventually spawn a consistent pattern of politics and government exhibiting all the trappings of classical paganism. Starting with the Soviet Union in 1922, all the way to the current regimes in Cuba, China, North Korea and other countries, the playbook is remarkably similar. A revolution is first met with popular support and hope. It gives way to corrupt and authoritarian governments, which rely extensively on the systematic repression of rights and freedoms and the pervasive use of propaganda to hold on to power. It destroys the economy and the welfare of the nation. It inevitable devolves into a cult of personality around the dictator, and as we can already see in North Korea, even to his deification and the institution of civil religion.

Does this ring a bell? This outcome mimics that of every ancient empire that spawned from a polytheistic mythology. Egypt, Persia and Rome were religious and political empires that could very well be described, at least at some point in their history, by the communist playbook I’ve outlined. These worldviews seemingly stemmed from opposite ends of the religious spectrum: atheism vs polytheism. Too little religion vs too much of it. That they would result in eerily similar political structures seems a mind-boggling contradiction.

However, this is only the case if you consider them at face value. Peer right beneath the surface, especially in light of the Christian worldview, and all of a sudden it makes perfect sense. It begins with a wrong definition of reality. That which science and the senses can explain cannot be the only source of truth. Before we even entertain religion, we have to concede that reason, math, art and justice entail some degree of epistemic or moral assertions that we can’t verify empirically. Scientism is just its own form of superstition. The polytheist civilizations of yore created idols – shadows of deities that perfectly fit their self-serving narratives. The Marxist worldview exorcized these idols in favor of its own: the utopian revolutionary toppling of the bourgeois by the proletariat, Marxism’s ill-conceived solution to its equivocal diagnosis of the problem of evil. Ultimately, these are two sides of the same coin, and paganism always devolves into totalitarian misery.

139 years after his death, we’re still contending with the consequences of Marx’s ideas, even when it’s proved that they don’t entail from reality. That is the consequence of bad philosophy. That’s why a relentless search for the truth will always be relevant.

Published: March 13, 2022