Chapter 4: Marx’s Critique of Religion

Aristotle said that to understand a thing one must study its origins. Before expounding Marx’s critique of religion, let us first inquire what kind of religious influence Marx had at home and during the school days.
Marx’s father, Hirschel Marx, a lawyer, was a descendant of a respected family of rabbis. And yet, in 1816, when the edict went out from the Prussian government that no one of the Jewish faith could serve as a lawyer or an apothecary within the kingdom, Hirschel Marx abandoned his Jewish faith and embraced Protestantism. He entered the Evangelical Church as a convert and received the name Heinrich Marx. Nominally a Christian, he was a free thinker who attended church regularly, sang hymns and paid his tithes. He was prepared to conform to the outward form of the church, but did not believe that any faith was superior to any other. In his view Stoicism, Judaism, Christianity and Hinduism were all equally valid and equally vulnerable. In a letter sent to Karl Marx while he was a student in Bonn, Heinrich Marx said:
A good support for morality is a simple faith in God. You know that I am the last person to be a fanatic. But sooner or later a man has a real need of this faith, and there are moments in life when even the man who denies God is compelled against his will to pray to the Almighty... everyone should submit to what was the faith of Newton, Locke and Leibniz.1
In other words, he professed a belief in reason. His belief in God restricted itself to an acknowledgment of a supreme moral value. Like the poet Heinrich Heine, he considered the sacrament of baptism only as "an entrance card into the community of European culture".
Karl Marx’s mother, Henrietta Pressborck, also came from Jewish background. Her father was a well-respected rabbi in Holland. At the time when her husband accepted the Christian faith, her father was still living and therefore she postponed her joining the church. She was baptized in 1825 after her father’s death. Unlike her husband she was not educated, and spent most of her time as a good housekeeper.
Karl Marx was born of these parents on May 5, 1818 at Trier in the Rhine province of Prussia. He was the third of the nine children in the family. He received baptism in the Evangelical church on August 26, 1824 and was solemnly confirmed on March 23, 1834. But in a family where baptism was considered only as "an entrance card into the community of European culture, these religious ceremonies did not mean much. In his childhood he lived a leisurely life of ease and bourgeois respectability, with wealth and servants at his disposal. His mother never bestowed upon him anything comparable to a religious education. He had special affection toward his father with whom he read Voltaire and Rousseau. At the home of Baron von Westphalen, his neighbour and later father-in-law, he began to appreciate Homer and Shakespeare.
Contrary to most of the Young Hegelians, Marx never went through a period of "religiousness". People like Hegel, Feuerbach and Bruno Bauer who influenced Marx began their career as students of theology. All of them came from middle-class Protestant families which tried to educate their children as good Christians. Even Engels grew up in a pietist family. Marx, on the contrary, grew up among men to whom religion never was more than a question of propriety or of expediency. The only place where he might have come into contact with practising Christians was the Friedrich Wilhelm Gymnasium in Trier which he attended for five years.
Since Marx’s ideas were to have such a revolutionary impact on the world, it is important to watch them as they first rose to the surface. Some of the essays he wrote for his Abitur, the German school leaving examination, permit us to watch them while they were being formed. Because these essays reflect his religious attitude, and because many of the ideas he presented to his teachers were to be enlarged and given greater resonance m later years, they now deserve our attention.
The essay for German composition, Reflections of a Youth on Choosing a Vocation involves a careful study of the purposes of life and human being’s proper duty to fellow human beings. Given free will, a man must strive for an occupation in which he can do the greatest good for the greatest number, and he gravely points out the dangers of alienation and self-deception. It is interesting to note that he employs the word "vocation" (Beruf) almost in the sense of a profession of faith. The task given to the human being is to choose a way of life which will best serve the human race. He writes:
To man... the Deity gave a general goal, to improve mankind and himself, but left it up to him to seek the means by which he can attain this goal, left it up to him to choose the position in society which is most appropriate and from which he can best elevate both himself and society.2
Free will, the commandment of God, the ennoblement of mankind are all implied in the theme which will eventually encompass the whole field of human conduct. We shall not understand Marx unless we realize that when he became a revolutionary, he was carrying out the injunctions of his youthful essay, for he felt that he was choosing the position in society in which he could best serve humanity.
The essay on religion was titled "The Union of the Faithful with Christ, according to St. John 15:1-14, presented in its Reason and Essence, in its Absolute Necessity and its Effects." Marx notices that corruption and alienation are present in humankind to an intolerable and terrifying degree. No matter how much human beings strive, they know themselves to be incapable of achieving their purpose without divine help. So he depicts human beings as creatures at the mercy of their vices, saved only by the mercy of God. Without God people are helpless; with God they become divine. Marx points out that the ultimate proof of this assertion is found in the word of Christ himself in the parable of the Vine and Branches. By loving God, he wrote, human beings find themselves turning toward their brothers and sisters and sacrificing themselves for others. Instead of alienation there is the loving bondage of service and sacrifice. He continues:
Thus the union with Christ means a most intimate and vital companionship with him, keeping Him before our eyes and in our hearts, and being permeated by the highest love, so that we can turn our hearts, toward our brothers, united with us through Him, and for whom He had sacrificed himself. But this love for Christ is not fruitless; it fills us not only with the purest reverence and highest respect for Him, but also has the effect of making us keep his commandment in that we sacrifice ourselves for each other and are virtuous, but virtuous only out of love for him.3
In this way Marx resolves the theme of virtue by defining it in both divine and human terms, simultaneously bringing divinity down to earth and raising humanity to the level of divine. According to Marx, Christian virtue, being free of all earthly attachments, acts as God’s agent in the redemption of mankind. By virtue human beings become divine, while in no way losing their humanity. In fact virtue makes them only more human, more loving, and more understanding.
Marx was a Christian, and when he turned against Christianity, as Robert Payne observes, he brought to his ideas of social justice the same passion for atonement and same horror of alienation which characterize this essay.4
In his dissertation Marx provided the stimulus for the development of a materialistic-atheistic tradition by setting up the titanic figure of Prometheus as the archetype. When the twenty-three year old Marx called Prometheus "the most eminent saint and martyr in the philosophic calendar", he had in mind a philosophy with the basic creed: "In simple words I hate the pack of gods". According to Marx, Prometheus is opposed to "all divine and earthly Gods who do not acknowledge human self-consciousness as the highest divinity." Marx’s philosophic calendar therefore contains such a "saint and martyr" who hates the gods and extol human being’s self-consciousness as the highest divinity. The phrase "saint and martyr" should be understood as an interpretation of Prometheus’ answer to Hermes which Marx quotes:
Be sure of this, I would not change my state

Of evil fortune for your servitude.

Better to be the servant of this rock

Than to be faithful boy to Father Zeus.5
In preference to Hermes’ servitude as faithful boy to Father Zeus, Prometheus would rather be the "servant to this rock" to which he is bound by way of punishment. Prometheus profession is the service of human beings over against Hermes service of the gods. The latter enjoys an apparent freedom, whereas the former is subjected to eternal sufferings and bondage. But in these sufferings and bondage he is free, because it is his own conscious and deliberate choice. His martyrdom for the sake of human beings makes him the real saint. Prometheus thus becomes the representative of a view of human beings and the world that sets up their own self-consciousness as the ultimate reality and supreme good. Prometheus’ act is, according to Marx, the true task of philosophy. Just as Prometheus, having stolen fire from heaven, begins to build houses and to establish himself on earth, so philosophy, having embraced the whole world, should rebel against the world of phenomena.6
In the Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction, we find another reference to the tragic aspects of Prometheus’ act. There, the gods of Greece are said to have already been "tragically wounded to death in Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound." In other words, the real victim in the tragedy is not the human saint and martyr Prometheus, but rather the gods whose dominance has been fatally undermined by the disbelief of human beings.
Prometheus’ challenging answer to Hermes, the servant of gods, is applied to the actual political situation at the time of writing the dissertation, i.e., March 1841. At this time the government had begun to withdraw the semi-official support it used to give to the young Hegelians. It encouraged the theological faculty of Bonn to reject the appointment of Marx’s friend Bruno Bauer, one of the leading figures among the Young Hegelians, as professor. Thus, by the "poor March hares, who rejoice over the apparently worsened social position of philosophy", Marx meant all those in the universities who collaborated with the government by interfering in the academic freedom of the Young Hegelian philosophers. The political servitude of the theological faculty is compared by Marx to Hermes’ servitude to Father Zeus. Prometheus’ challenging answer to Hermes should therefore be read as an indirect assault on the analogous position of Christianity in the nineteenth century.
In the foregoing paragraphs we found that Marx’s critical attitude toward religion can be traced back to his student days. In Chapter 3 we already discussed specific aspects of the philosophies of Hegel and Feuerbach which had direct impact upon Marx’s critique of religion. Having set the stage we shall now proceed with his own critique. In doing so, first we will examine Marx’s critique of religion in general, and then we will discuss his criticism of Christianity in particular.
According to Marx and Engels, all religions reflect the fact that human lives are controlled by external powers over which they have no control. Engels put it this way:
All religion... is nothing but the fantastic reflection in men’s minds of those external forces which control their daily life, a reflection in which the terrestrial forces assume the form of supernatural forces.8
He, then makes a contrast between primitive religions and contemporary religions. Whereas in the primitive society it was the power of nature which controlled man, in the modern world it is the forces of the social system which exercise this external dominance:
In the beginnings of history it was the forces of nature which were first so reflected and which in the course of further evolution underwent the most manifold and varied personifications among the various peoples... But it is not long before, side by side with the forces of nature, social forces begin to be active -- forces which confront man as equally alien and at first equally inexplicable, dominating him with the same apparent natural necessity as the forces of nature themselves. The fantastic figures, which at first only reflected the mysterious forces of nature, at this point acquire social attributes, become representatives of the forces of history.9
It is not only before nature that man is powerless; he is also overwhelmed by society, so that the processes of society appear to man as strange and terrible divinities. Thus the "fetishism of commodities" comes to replace fetishism of nature. Taking Feuerbach’s lead, Marx developed a theory of religious alienation -- that man projects his own perfection into the supernatural and calls the sum of these qualities ‘God’. This process, Marx said, actually alienates man from himself.
But Marx did not stop at the recognition of this alienation. He went beyond Feuerbach in asserting that it is the economic and social forces that drive human beings to create illusions such as God. Herein lies the genius of Marx. Merely recognizing the fact that man is alienated from himself does no good as long as man is not emancipated from the underlying causes of alienation found in the economic order. For "it is not the consciousness of men that determines their beings, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness."10
Marx’s analysis of the human predicament and alienation leads him from the criticism of religion to the criticism of society. Religion cannot be disposed of, nor can the problem which begets religion be solved, without a radical change of the society and the economic system. Feuerbach’s calculation was wrong when he believed that mere criticism of religion could remove religion from the minds of the people.
Marx sees the criticism of religion only as a preliminary step to the criticism of society, and criticism of society goes hand in hand with the revolutionary political action which not only changes society but also destroys the basis of religion.
Feuerbach considered the concept of God to derive from the thought and temperament of the individual. On the other hand, Marx asks what conditions particular individuals to develop religious concepts and continue to believe in them. Whereas Feuerbach understood the consciousness of God as man’s consciousness of himself, Marx investigates the nature of the man who can develop the self-consciousness only in an alienated way. The problem is carried one stage further;
The basis of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. In other words, religion is the self-consciousness and self-feeling of man who has either not yet found himself or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man, the state, society. This state, this society, produce religion, a reversed world-consciousness, because they are a reversed world.11
This is the fundamental principle of Marx’s critique of religion. State and society in their specific, imperfect, unjust, inhuman form produce in human beings a reversed or perverted consciousness, corresponding to human being’s perversion, i.e., religious consciousness.
The task therefore changes from traditional criticism of religion to practical criticism of social and political ,conditions which produce and maintain religious consciousness. Religion is described as the "moral sanction", the "solemn completion", and the "universal ground for consolation and justification" for this world.12 This means religion is an integral part of this perverted world, and not simply the perverted consciousness belonging to it. It is necessary as the consolation of human beings in this bad world, to make the perverted world tolerable and to justify it. Without religion this world could not carry on, and for this reason it spontaneously springs up again and again out of the inhuman conditions of life. Therefore Marx finds that religion is still the better part in a bad whole. He says:
Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.13
It is a complete distortion if this often-quoted passage is taken as some sort of vulgar atheism or as a rejection of religion per se, or even as an attack upon religion. It is as though one quoted the Psalmist saying "There is no God". He did say that, of course, but if one wishes to convey his thought one should complete the sentence, "The fool says in his heart, there is no God."
Unless we give careful attention to Marx’s description of religion as opium we will miss the point. Religion is described as the expression of this world’s distress, as the "sigh of the oppressed creature". Mention has already been made that this phrase occurs in Feuerbach’s writings: "God is an unutterable sigh, lying in the depths of the heart." However, religion is at the same time also a protest against this distress. But such protest according to Marx remains vain and ineffectual because it diverts attention from this world and focuses hope on the next. Only after the religious phenomenon has been described as a sigh which awakens concern and as a protest which calls forth sympathy, it is criticized as opium, a sedative and narcotic. Its narcotic effect stems from the fact that it teaches an acceptance of earthly unhappiness by holding out a promise of transcendental happiness. This is what Marx means when he says that religion is the "spirit of a spiritless situation". It takes on an increasingly spiritual and ethereal form, the more spiritless the material world becomes, the more it forces the human spirit toward an "other world". "The struggle against religion is therefore mediately the fight against the other world, of which religion is the spiritual aroma."14 Thus the denial of religion is not an end in itself, but a fighting doctrine; its source is not a theoretical interest for truth, but the practical interest in the changing of this world into a human one.
At any rate religion can make people content in their soul, in their consciousness, but in an imaginary way and not in any complete and real way. The medicine it offers cannot help to cure the disease from which society and man are suffering; it can only help to alleviate the pain. It therefore seems to Marx to be pointless simply to take this pain relieving drug away from man, quite apart from the fact that as long as the disease lasts it would be futile. It is instead a question of curing the disease itself and thus making the opiate superfluous. Marx poignantly says:
The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusions about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions. The criticism of religion is therefore in embryo the criticism of the vale of woe, the halo of which is religion. ... The immediate task of philosophy, which is at the service of history, once the saintly form of human self-alienation has been unmasked, is to unmask self-alienation in its unholy forms. Thus the criticism of heaven turns into the criticism of the earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of right and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.15
Thus, we find that Marx’s criticism of religion moves on two levels. That is, first, the unmasking of religion which, according to Marx, has been mainly completed by his predecessors, especially by Feuerbach. But as this unmaking of religion reveals that religion is ‘true’, in the sense that it is an invention of human beings to compensate for and to sublimate their real wretchedness, a second kind of criticism has to follow: religion has to be made false, i.e., the secular world has to be changed. Once the secular world is discovered to be the source of religious ideas, it must be "criticized in theory and revolutionized in practice".
Of these two tasks, Marx had seen the second quite clearly as early as 1844: radical human emancipation could only be effected by a class "with radical chains" the industrial proletariat, through whose action all human beings would be liberated at the same time, because it can only free itself as a class by trying to end every form of domination and exploitation. Once these inhuman social conditions are removed, poverty will also disappear and with it religion which was its inevitable expression and ineffectual protest.
The critique of religion contained in the early writings is continued, at least indirectly, in various sections of Capital. The first chapter of Capital contains the famous section on "The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof" which deals directly with the problem of religious alienation. In a manufacturing society the conditions of the individual seem to depend on things, on commodities and the laws of their movement in the market. A mysterious power transforms the results of the human labour into ‘commodities’, endows them with ‘value,’ and makes them exchangeable for other commodities of equal value. This is the mystery which Marx tries to elucidate in the passages from Capital that we quoted earlier.
Marx hopes religion will be overcome by a transformation of the method of production which would permit human relationships to be both ‘intelligible’ and ‘reasonable’:
The religious reflex of the real world can, in any case, only then finally vanish, when the practical relations of everyday life offer to man none but perfectly intelligible and reasonable relations with regard to his fellow-men and to Nature. The life process of society, which is based on the process of material production, does not strip off its mystical veil until it is treated as production by freely associated men, and is consciously regulated by them in accordance with a settled plan.16
Marx is offering here an outline of an ordered society in which the relations of human beings to one another and to nature are both clearly recognizable and rationally acceptable. This ordered society can be attained, according to Marx, only by individuals voluntarily forming themselves into associations to take over production and distribution. Then the religious reflex of the real world will finally vanish. The task therefore is not to fight religion but, more clearly stated here than before, to set up a society in which religious consciousness will die out. Suffering and mystery, to which Feuerbach attributed the existence of religion, are now seen more precisely as the sorrows brought about by enforced, unreasonable, incomprehensible and alien conditions of life (social structure). The accent is shifted from emotional to intellectual suffering, without losing sight of the reality of that suffering.
Engels found that while institutionalized religion generally seeks to defend the status quo, the content of the religious affirmations has its own logic, and may appeal to, and does appeal to, different classes. In other words, the ruling classes may wish to employ religious belief and feeling as forces for the retention of their power; but religion being a mass phenomenon that transcends classes, may serve as the justification for and inspiration of vast popular movements that are revolutionary. Marxism, thus, emphasizes the revolutionary quality of early Christianity and stresses the significant contrast between early and late Christianity. We can illuminate this point from some classical Marxist writings. In an essay, "On the History of Early Christianity," Engels wrote:
The history of early Christianity has notable points of resemblance with the modern working class movement. Like the latter, Christianity was originally a movement of oppressed people: it first appeared as the religion of slaves and emancipated slaves, of poor people deprived of all rights, of peoples subjugated or dispersed by Rome. Both Christianity and the workers’ socialism preach forth coming salvation from bondage and misery; Christianity places this salvation in a life beyond, after death, in heaven; socialism places it in this world, in a transformation of society. Both are persecuted and baited, their adherents are despised and made the objects of exclusive laws, the former as enemies of the human race, the latter as enemies of the state, enemies of religion, the family, social order. And in spite of all persecution, nay, even spurred on by it, they forge victoriously, irresistibly ahead. Three hundred years after its appearance Christianity was the recognized state religion in the Roman World Empire, and in barely sixty years socialism has won itself a position which makes its victory absolutely certain.17
Karl Kautsky, one of the leading figures of the Second International, maintained that Christianity was originally a revolutionary organization. The liberation from poverty which it proclaimed was at first thought of quite realistically. It was to take place in the world and not in heaven. The transference of liberation to heaven only took place later.18
Marx and Engels do not mean that priests are necessarily impostors who cunningly divert the workers’ attention from their grievances by telling them lies about God and a spiritual world. Still less do they mean that men could be ‘cured’ of their religious beliefs by proving them false, as men might possibly be cured of drug addiction by lectures about the injury it does to them. Rather, the central idea is that religion is a social and psychological mechanism that makes the lives of unhappy men bearable to themselves and serves as a justification for the sufferings they undergo. The sufferings themselves are due to social maladjustments, and if these were remedied, religion would lose its raison d’etre and cease to exist. Therefore, Marx did not believe that a direct attack against religion would ever work. Since religion is only the symptom of a more basic discrepancy, the demise of religion cannot be hastened. Any direct struggle against religion appeared to Marx as useless and misplaced: useless, because religion simply cannot be abolished as long as the world is not put straight; misplaced, because the real enemy is the perverted social order of which, as Marx put it, religion is only the spiritual aroma. Any efficient treatment has to be radical, i.e., to reach the very roots of the evil. In the Manuscripts, Marx writes:
Atheism... has no longer any meaning, for atheism is a negation of God, and postulates the existence of man through this negation; but socialism as socialism no longer stands in any need of such a mediation. It proceeds from the practically and theoretically sensuous consciousness of man and of nature as the essence. Socialism is man’s positive self- consciousness.19
Marx believes that a full reappropriation of what human being has lost in alienation cannot be achieved by a mere annulment of God, but only by an annulment of the social structure of private property which produces the need for God. Thus, for Marx to be human is not to be something, but to do something.
Marxism, manifesting a profound humanism as the heart of its inspiration, naturally opposes religious persecution. It opposes coercive methods aimed at religion. The few references to religion made by Marx in his later years indicate that, in spite of his lack of interest in this kind of problem, his view on religion and atheism did not change as the years passed. Thus, for instance, in his "Critique of the Gotha Programme" (1875), Marx argues: "Everyone should be able to attend to his religious as well as his bodily needs without the police sticking their noses in."20
Before we proceed with Marx’s critique of Christianity in particular, let us examine briefly how Lenin’s critique of religion differs from that of Marx. It is important to note this distinction, because the religious persecutions which took place in Russia under the dictatorship of Lenin are contrary to the spirit of Marx, as is evident from the last statement of the preceding paragraph. The key to understand Lenin’s attitude toward religion is his materialism.
Lenin was not satisfied with the materialism of Marx, but expanded his theory by adding a materialistic world view. Marx’s critique of religion was replaced by the eighteenth century popular critique of religion, clergy, and church, evidently because it was more effective as a political weapon. Lenin himself admits that Marx’s critique of religion did not have the same propagandistic effect as that of the eighteenth century Enlightenment:
A Marxist could not make a worse mistake than to think that the many millions of people (particularly peasants and artisans) who are condemned by modern society to ignorance, illiteracy and prejudices can extricate themselves from this ignorance only by following the straight line of purely Marxist education.21
For this reason, Lenin urges the distribution of "militant atheist literature" from the eighteenth century. His emphasis of a materialistic world view, may therefore be explained on the basis of the political need for effective weapons against contemporary, conservative churches.
He called for attacks on religion. Those who believe in God are regarded as ignorant and backward people in need of instruction. Instead of meeting Christians with tolerance and respect, they are met with persecution in the form of enlightenment. Lenin said:
Our programme is based entirely on scientific -- to be more precise -- upon a materialist world conception. In explaining our programme, therefore we must necessarily explain the actual historical and economic roots of the religious fog. Our programme necessarily includes the propaganda of atheism. The publication of related scientific literature (which up till now has been strictly forbidden and persecuted by the autocratic feudal government) must now form one of the items of our party work.22
Marx’s sociological critique of religion also influenced Lenin. He, like Marx, opposed the attempts of Bakunin and his anarchist disciples to put the struggle against religion in the centre of the class struggle. The question of religion must not be the principal issue that separates the religious and non-religious workers into two camps and weakens the class struggle. Instead the struggle must be focused on "the social roots of religion," i.e., capitalism.23
When Lenin combined Marx’s sociological critique of religion with anti-religious belief in science, the result was a drastic intensification of the critique of religion. Religion as an unscientific world view is entirely negative. According to Lenin, the idea of God is simply a weapon in the hands of the oppressors:
The idea of god has always lulled and blunted "social emotions," and substituted concern for the dead for interest in the living. It has always involved the idea of slavery (of the worst and most hopeless slavery). The idea of god has never "united the individual with society." It has always bound the oppressed classes by faith in the divinity to submission to their oppressors.24
The tendency toward intolerance became stronger because of Lenin’s theory about the Communist Party as an elite, especially as his successors interpreted it. The function of the party was to indoctrinate a revolutionary consciousness into the proletariat. It is the perils of this intolerance and aggression inherent in such a cleavage between the enlightened party and the unenlightened masses that we find in the subsequent developments in Russia.
In this respect, Mao Zedong is closer to Marx than Lenin is. Mao rejects Lenin’s insistence on a struggle against religion, and accepts the idea that religion will disappear once it is deprived of its social basis. Mao said: "It is the peasants who made the idols, and when the time comes they will cast the idols aside with their own hands: there is no need for any one else to do it for them prematurely."25
This does not mean that Mao excludes the possibility of a conflict between the party and religion, because the socialist revolution is something which involves the life of the entire society. The significant point here is that this conflict is social and political.
On the whole, Mao’s critique of religion is essentially sociological and political, as is indicated in his statement: "If religion doesn’t interfere with the People’s Republic, the People’s Republic will not interfere with it."26
We shall now turn our attention to Marx’s critique of Christianity in particular. Marx’s main target was not God but religion, and chiefly Christianity which he felt was an obstacle to man’s self-realization. In other words, in Marxism, propaganda against the church did not develop out of a denial of God and his work, or from a denial of the Gospel and its spiritual power. As a matter of fact, Engels declares of the early Christian writings: "they could just as well have been written by one of the prophetically minded enthusiasts of the International."27 It grew rather from an opposition to the church as a definite socio-political form which in the name of so-called religion defended the old social order with all its injustices, its cultural backwardness, and its conservative immobility.
Mention has already been made that Marx and Engels were critically aware of the significant contrast between early and late Christianity. Here let us examine more specifically how Marx found Christianity justifying the existing order. Marx’s criticism is that the church taught the masses that the established order is willed by God and that, as obedient and submissive subjects, they should resign themselves to it. The doctrine of original sin has been used for this purpose. St. Augustine wrote in his City of God that God introduced slavery into the world as a punishment for original sin. To seek, therefore, to abolish slavery would be to rebel against the will of God. The German church of Marx’s time literally followed this statement. They taught that ‘order’ was given by God, and therefore any attempt to interfere with it was a sin against God. Religion seemed to be a part of the ‘superstructure’ which sanctioned the existing order, promised rewards in heaven for enduring the pain on earth, and therefore suppressed any attempt to change the real social condition of this world. So Marx saw a parallel between the way the British and French used guns to force opium on the Chinese people in the mid-nineteenth century and the way the Christian church used religion to deaden the social awareness of the working people. Hence the critique that Christianity’s function is something by which the proletariat is rendered incapable of protesting against its own exploitation.
Marx and Engels point out that Christianity is grounded not in a political, but in an eschatological vision -- the second coming of Christ and the establishment of the Kingdom of God. Jesus and his disciples expected that this eschatological vision will be realized within their lifetime. Accordingly, the function of the teaching of Jesus was to prepare people for the second coming, and not to root them in an existence whose nature is basically corrupted. Since the second coming did not materialize in their time, Marx contends, early Christians began to abandon the teaching of Jesus.
When the much expected Kingdom of God did not realize, Christianity began to accept its given lot with the conviction that one is to render to Caesar what is his own and to submit to authority since it was "ordained by God". But as a result of its willingness to comply with any secular authority which would protect its own religious practice, Christianity ended by accommodating itself through history to everything wicked and degrading in the social existence of human beings. Marx says:
The social principles of Christianity justified the slavery of Antiquity, glorified the serfdom of the Middle Ages and equally know, when necessary, how to defend the oppression of the proletariat, although they make a pitiful face over it. The social principles of Christianity preach the necessity of a ruling and an oppressed class, and all they have for the latter is the pious wish the former will be charitable. The social principles of Christianity transfer the consistorial councillor’s adjustment of all infamies to heaven and thus justify the further existence of those infamies on earth. The social principles of Christianity declare all vile acts of the oppressors against the oppressed to be either the just punishment of original sin and other sins or trials that the Lord in his infinite wisdom imposes on those redeemed.28
Marx and Engels never get tired of noting the baseness of organized religion and the extent of its hypocrisy. They maintain that except for its early days Christianity has always been on the side of the oppressor. Marx rarely misses the opportunity to vent his sarcasm at the self-seeking of the religious institutions as when he notes in Capital that "the English Established Church... will more readily pardon an attack on 38 of its 39 articles than on 1/39 of its income."29
In 1855 during an anti-church demonstration in London, Marx criticized the established church for its callousness and reactionary policy, and said: "The classical saint of Christianity mortified his body for the salvation of the souls of the masses; the modern, educated saint mortifies the bodies of the masses for the salvation of his own soul."30
Christianity, throughout its history and especially in the Middle Ages, appears to be an institution bearing the heavy imprint of class power and prestige. Since the time Constantine proclaimed Christianity as the official religion of the State, the church grew as "the most general synthesis and sanction of the existing feudal domination."31 Clergy obtained a monopoly on learning, which became essentially theological. Even politics and jurisprudence had the influence of theology. Eventually the church passed from a persecuted minority to a powerful oppressor. Christianity "had partaken of the fruits of slavery in the Roman Empire for centuries, and later did nothing to prevent the slave trade of Christians".32 It required of the small farmer to transfer the title to his land and his independence to its growing power. Thus Christianity hoped to reduce the free farmer to a serf. In these circumstances, "all the generally voiced attacks against feudalism were above all attacks against the Church, and all social and political, revolutionary doctrines were necessarily at the same time mainly theological heresies."33 Since the church stood as the ideological sanction of the feudal system, it was necessary to de-mythologize that system before it could be directly destroyed. It was in the context of this need that the Protestant Reformation occurred.
Marx and Engels maintain that the religious revolution which goes by the name of Protestant Reformation was actually a reflection of underlying economic forces. It is to be noted here that for a Marxist the reformation has no ultimate foundation in religiosity for the simple reason that for him religion is a part of the social superstructure and is therefore primarily an effect, rather than a cause, of social action. What is progressive in religion does not, for Marx, derive from some inherent virtue in the religious mode of consciousness, but rather from the fact that the economic forces which are the ultimate causes of the religious mentality, are entering a progressive stage. There often have been in history humane religious movements directed at the reform of established religious institutions, but they do not derive necessarily from any logic inherent in the spirit of religion itself, but from more social causes.
Marx notes that the "forcible expropriation" of property in the sixteenth century received "a new and frightful impulse from the Reformation, and from the consequent colossal spoliation of the church property."34 The inhabitants of the monasteries were hurled into the proletariat and subtenants of the church’s estates had their land confiscated as they were themselves forcibly removed. Again, Protestantism supported the genesis of capital by "changing almost all the traditional holidays into workdays". In these and numerous other ways, Protestantism was merely carrying out the underlying thrust of the growing tendency of capitalism itself. To Marx and Engels Protestantism was the perfect religious expression of capitalism.
When accused of trying to abolish Christianity and to establish atheism, the attitude of Marx and Engels is that such charges do not deserve serious attention at all. They remind us what happened in the history:
When the ancient world was in the last throes, the ancient religions were overcome by Christianity. When Christian ideas succumbed in the 18th century to rationalist ideas, feudal society fought its death battle with the then revolutionary bourgeoisie.35
Marx and Engels believe that religion will be replaced by the proletariat in a similar way. In a review of G. Fr. Daumer’s, The Religion of the New Age, Marx and Engels elucidate this point further. They contend that all conceptions and ideas are transformed with each great transformation of social circumstances. Different social circumstances generate different religions. In their time, people have at last discovered the secret of this historical process and were no longer willing to deify this process in the exuberant form of a new religion. They simply strip off all religions. Once man has found his way back to himself in the ‘material’ order, he has no need to delude himself. Religion as an expression of his distress will disappear exactly as morbid delusion vanish with the body’s restoration to health. Insofar as it is a protest against this distress, the sigh of the oppressed creature, it will become superfluous. The illusory happiness which the religious opiate offers will be replaced by "real happiness".
Marx’s criticism of Christianity can be summed up in the declaration that Christianity is the transcendent justification of social injustice. He condemns the Christian substitution of charity for justice. Marx emphasizes this criticism once more by referring to the "Jewish Question". In the eighteen centuries of Christian domination, he says, whatever has been granted to the Jews has been given grudgingly and by way of concession, never as a recognition of their rights as human beings. The real Christian task should not be that of just helping the poor with charity; rather it is to ensure for the poor the exercise of those rights whereby they can cease to be poor.
From our discussion so far, one thing is obvious: Whenever Marx attacks religion, or particularly the church, it is an indirect attack on the evils of society. Similarly, attacks on the evils of society are indirectly attacks on religion. He challenged the religion of his time to build a just social order. Thus we can say that Marx was, by his sense of injustice found in the society, on the side of the angels. Hence he has been classified with the "Children of Light" and not with the "Children of Darkness."36
At this point one might as well ask the question why Marx’s criticism was particularly aimed at Christianity among all the religions. The answer is quite obvious. Christianity was the dominant religion in the society which Marx knew. Also, along with Hegel, he considered Christianity as the absolute religion which synthesized in itself all the religious tendencies which the history of man had manifested. That is why Leslie Dewart says that Marxist atheism is truly anti-theism, and specifically and historically anti-Christian anti-theism.37
To sum up Marx’s critique of religion: Marx believed that as long as the human being remains under the control of alien forces, let it be the power of nature or the various forces of society, religion will persist. As long as the human being is incapable of eradicating social evils, the need for "illusory compensation" will continue to exist. What is needed is that human beings must redeem themselves from the bondage of external forces. The only redemption open to them is that which will be gained through their own labour. When one is redeemed by one’s own potentialities, one will realize that the ideals which are rooted in one’s nature need no longer be projected beyond society and history into an unearthly realm. Human beings will recognize that it is the power within themselves that establishes the conditions of their own dignity and destiny. To hold that the evil of this world will be redeemed by an agency beyond the human person and time is to destroy the motive for secular transformation. If the secular transformation is to be achieved, people must destroy the foundation upon which religious illusion flourishes. Thus in the course of building a society "in which the free development of each is the condition for the development of all,"38 one must fight religion because it will inevitably stand in one’s path. And yet, in the new transformed society there will be no need to persecute religion, for its essential function will have disappeared. There will no longer be an exploiting class, nor will the common people stand in need of religious consolation. Religion itself will disappear of its own accord without persecution. This contention is at the heart of everything that Marx wrote, and is not, as has been maintained by some, a youthful enthusiasm of Marx which he abandoned on attaining maturity. The autonomy of the human person -- that was the goal Marx wanted to achieve through his critique of religion. Marx’s criticism of religion ends
With the teaching that man is the highest essence for man, hence with the categoric imperative to overthrow all relations in which man is a debased, enslaved, abandoned, despicable essence.38

1. MEGA Ii (2) p. 186.
2. Easton & Guddat, op.cit., p.35, MEGA 11(2), p.164.
3. Karl Marx: On Religion, ed. & trans. by Saul K. Padover (New York: McGraw-Hill book Company, 1974), p. 5: MEGA Ii (2), p. 173.
4. Cf. Robert Payne, Marx (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968),.p. 42.
5. MEGALI, See also, Aeschylus, op.cit., p. 302, 303.
6. Cf. MEGA Ii (1), p. 131.
7. On religion, op. cit., p. 46
8. Engels, ‘Anti-Duhring,’ On Religion, op. cit., p.147.
9. Ibid.
10. Marx, "Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy" Marx & Engels: Selected Works, op. cit., p. 182.
11. Marx, "Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right; Introduction," On Religion, op. cit., p. 41.
12. Ibid
13. Ibid. p.42
14. Ibid.
15. Ibid.
16. Capital, Vol. 1, op. cit., 79f.
17. On Religion, op. cit., p. 316.
18. Cf. Karl Kautsky, Foundations of Christianity, trans. by Henry F. Mins (New York: Russell & Russell, 1953), p. 351ff.
19. Manuscripts, op. cit., p. 145f.
20. Marx & Engels: Selected Works, op. cit., p. 333.
21. V. I. Lenin, Religion (New York: International Publishers, 1935), p. 31.
22. Lenin, "Socialism and Religion", Religion, op. cit., p. 9f
23. Cf. Lenin, "The Attitude of the Workers ‘Party Towards Religion", Religion, op. cit., p. 14.
24. Lenin, "Letter to A.M. Gorky", Religion, op. cit., p. 46.
25. "Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan, Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung (4 vols; Peking: Foreign Language Press, 1965), Vol. 1, p. 46.
26. Cited by Richard C. Bush, Jr. Religion in Communist China (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1970), p. 399.
27. "On the History of Early Christianity", On Religion, op. cit., p. 334
28. "The Communism of the Paper Rheinischer Beobachter," On Religion, op. cit., p. 83f.
29. Capital, Vol. I, op. cit., p. 10
30. "Anti-Church Movement -- Demonstration in Hyde Park", On Religion, op. cit., p. 128f.
31. Engels, "The Peasant War in Germany", op. cit., p99.
32. Engels, "Origin of Family, Private Property and State", Marx & Engels: Selected works, op. cit., p. 570.
33. Engels, "The Peasant War in Germany", On Religion, op. cit., p. 99.
34. Capital, Vol. I, op. cit., p. 721.
35. "Manifesto of the Communist Party", Marx & Engels: Selected Works, op. cit., p. 5.
36. Cf. Reinhold Niebuhr, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1960), p. 31 ff.
37. Cf. Leslie Dewart, The Future of Belief (New York: Herder & Herder, 1968), p. 61.
38. "Manifesto of the Communist Party", Marx & Engels: Selected Works, op. cit., p. 53.
39. Marx, "Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction", On Religion, op., cit., p. 50.