Historically, Marxism has been perceived to be inexorably hostile to religion and especially to Christianity (since Marxism grew up in the Christian West). Nowadays most non-Marxists think Marxism is hostile to all religions and looks down on those who have religious beliefs. There are others today who think Marxism has become more mellow and is either neutral about religion or even somewhat encouraging in its attitudes towards some religious opinions. I hope to show that a contemporary Marxist position will incorporate some of both these perceptions.
The basic Marxist position was first enunciated by Marx as long ago as 1843 in his introduction to a "Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Law."
This work contains the famous "opium of the people" remark. More pithy than Lenin's "Religion is a sort of spiritual booze", which I am sure it inspired.
What did Marx mean by calling religion an opiate? Being a materialist, Marx of course holds to the view that religion is ultimately man made and not something supermaterial or supernatural in origin. "Man makes religion," he says.
Man, or better, humanity is not, according to Marx, some abstract entity, as he says, "encamped outside the world." In the world of the early nineteenth century the masses of people lived in horrendous societal conditions of poverty and alienation and lived lives of hopeless misery. This was also true of Lenin's time, as well as of our own for billions of people in the underdeveloped world as well as millions in the so called advanced countries.
The social conditions are reflected in the human brain ("consciousness") and humans living in such conditions construct their lives according to these reflections (ideas). These social conditions and ideas give rise to forms of culture, political states, and ideas about the nature of reality and the meaning of it. Marx says, "Religion is the general theory of that world... its universal source of consolation and justification."
The world we live in is one of exploitation and the human spirit or "essence" appears in a distorted and estranged form. This is all reflected in religion as if it (the human spirit or essence) had an independent existence rather than being our own self-creation out of our interactions with the terrible societal conditions in which we find ourselves.
In order to improve our conditions we must struggle against the imperfect social world and the ideas we have in our heads that that world has placed there and which reinforce its hold on us. This leads Marx to say. "The struggle against religion is therefore indirectly a fight against the world of which religion is the spiritual aroma."
This is the background to Marx's view of religion as an opiate. The complete quote is: "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people."
Lenin remarks that this dictum "is the corner-stone of the whole Marxist outlook on religion." (CW:15:402) Marx has more to say than this, however. It is possible to misinterpret Marx's intentions by not going beyond this dictum. Let's see what else he has to say.
Remember that Marx said that struggle against religion was indirectly a fight against an unjust and exploitative world. Religion is an opiate because it produces in us Illusions about our real situation in the world, the type of world we live in, and what, if anything, we can do to change it. The struggle against religion is not just an intellectual struggle against a system of beliefs we think to be incorrect. Marxists are not secular humanists who don't see a connection between the struggle against religion and the social struggle.
This is why Marx maintains that, "The demand to give up illusions about the existing state of affairs is the demand to give up a state of affairs which needs illusions." That is to say, he wants to abolish religion in order to achieve real happiness for the people instead of illusory happiness. We will see that when Marx, Engels or Lenin use the word "abolish" they do not mean that the government or any political party should use force or coercive measures against people who are religious.
What they have in mind is that since, in their view, religion arises as a response to inhumane alienating conditions, the removal of these conditions will lead to the gradual dying out of religious beliefs. Of course, if the Marxist theory on the origin of religion is incorrect, then this will not happen and religion will not be abolished.
At any rate, this is what Marx means when he says, "Thus the criticism of heaven turns into the criticism of the earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics."
We should also keep in mind that in addition to the theory of the origin of religion, Marx, Engels and Lenin were most familiar with organized religion in its most reactionary form as a state supported church representing the most unprogressive and backward elements of the ruling classes. "Quakers", for example, does not appear as an entry in the subject index to Lenin's Collected Works.
They are not thinking about religion as a positive force as we might today: as for example the Quakers in the antislavery movement or the Black church in the civil rights movement. [Although Engels had positive things to say about early Christianity in the time of the Roman Empire.] These would have appeared to them as aberrations confined to a very tiny minority of churches.
Sixty six years after Marx published his remarks on religion, Lenin addressed these issues in an article called "The Attitude of the Worker's Party to Religion" (CW:15:402-413), published in the paper Proletary in 1909.
In his article, Lenin categorically states that the philosophy of Marxism is based on dialectical materialism "which is absolutely atheistic and positively hostile to all religion." There is no room for prisoners here! "Marxism has always regarded," he writes, "all modern religions [he remembers Engels liked the early Christians] and churches, and each and every religious organization, as instruments of bourgeois reaction that serve to defend exploitation and to befuddle the working class."
I don't think we could have that opinion today. I mentioned above the role of the Black churches in the civil rights movement and we also know of many religious organizations and churches that have been involved in the peace movement and have taken stands in favor of workers rights and other progressive causes. In dialectical terms, what in 1909 appeared as two contradictory approaches has now become, in many cases, a unity of opposites. While Lenin's comments are, I think, on the whole still correct about the role of religion, we must admit that there are now many exceptions and that Lenin would probably not formulate his views on religion in quite the same way today.
Be that as it may, religion would still be seen as an illusion to overcome by a proper materialist worldview. This does not mean that Lenin would have been hostile towards people having religious beliefs. He is very clear, following Engels, that to wage war against religion would be "stupidity" and would "revive interest" in it and "prevent it from really dying out."
The only way to fight religion is by basically ignoring it and simply carrying on the struggle against the modern system of exploitation (capitalism). Those so-called revolutionaries who insist on proclaiming that attacking religion is a duty of the workers' party are just engaging in "anarchistic phrase-mongering."
We have to work with all types of people and organizations to build the broadest possible democratic people's coalition. Still following Engels views, Lenin says the proper slogan is that "religion is a private matter." Elsewhere he writes ["Socialism and Religion" in the paper Novaya Zhizn in 1905: CW:10:83-87], that to discriminate "among citizens on account of their religious convictions is wholly intolerable."
He maintains the state should not concern itself with religion ("religious societies must have no connection with governmental authority") and that people "must be absolutely free to profess any religion" they please, including "no religion whatever" (atheism). Would that socialist states (among others), past and present, followed Lenin's philosophy on this matter.
Lenin sounds positively Jeffersonian! Jefferson in his second inaugural address (1804) proclaimed, "In matters of religion, I have considered that its free exercise is placed by the constitution independent of the powers of the general government."
This is in line with Jefferson's 1802 comments about the "wall of separation between church and state." And what does Lenin say? He says the "Russian Revolution must put this demand into effect"! "Complete separation of Church and State is what the socialist proletariat demands of the modern state and the modern church."
However, what is true for the state and the citizen is not true for the worker's party. Religion is a private matter in relation to the state but not in relation to the party. To think otherwise, Lenin says, is a "distortion of Marxism" and an "opportunistic view." Therefore, the party must put forth its materialist philosophy and atheistic world view and not try to conceal it from view. But this propaganda "must be subordinated to its basic task-- the development of the class struggle of the exploited masses against the exploiters."
This basic task also means that workers with religious views must not be excluded from joining the party, and, indeed we "must deliberately set out to recruit them." Not only do we want to recruit them as part of the work of building a mass movement and mass party, "we are absolutely opposed to giving the slightest offence to their religious convictions."
People are educated in struggle not by being preached to. This means that valuable party time should not be taken with fruitless debates on religious issues, but with organizing the class struggle. Finally, Lenin says there "is freedom of opinion within the party" but this does not mean that people can use this freedom to disrupt the work of the party.
So, I conclude that, outside of the realm of theory, Marxists are not hostile to religion per se and are willing and eager to work together with all types of progressive people, religious or not, who will struggle with them in the current fight against the ultra-right and in the eventual fight, of which the current struggle is a part, for the establishment of socialism.
About the Author:
Thomas Riggins is a retired philosophy teacher (NYU, The New School of Social Research, among others) who received a PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center (1983). He has been active in the civil rights and peace movements since the 1960s when he was chairman of the Young People's Socialist League at Florida State University and also worked for CORE in voter registration in north Florida (Leon County). He has written for many online publications such as People's World and Political Affairs where he was an associate editor. He also served on the board of the Bertrand Russell Society and was president of the Corliss Lamont chapter in New York City of the American Humanist Association.
This article was originally published in 2005 by Political Affairs