Critical Social Theory & Religion

As most social and critical theorists know, Karl Marx asserted that the “criticism of religion is the premise of all criticism” (Critique of Hegel, 1843).  This is a startling foundational statement coming from Marx, who also thought that the criticism of religion was complete — a key accomplishment which enabled him to proceed with his critical project on political economy.

Why did Marx think this?  More importantly, was Marx correct in thinking this?

Marx came to this conclusion after reading Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872), particularly his Essence of Christianity and Lectures on the Essence of Religion.  In these and other works, Feuerbach argued that “man makes religion” and that the concept of God was a human projection.  As should be apparent, Feuerbach’s ideas also influenced Nietzsche and Freud.  But anyone who has read Feuerbach will probably come away with the distinct impression that much is missing and the criticism of religion is far from complete.  If this is the case, then the premise of all critical theory is far from being established.

One person who realized this is Max Horkeimer (1895-1973), a leading social theorist of the Frankfurt School.  With these things in mind, Horkeimer gave religion considerable thought and often wrote about it — though not in a systematic way and he never produced a monograph on the subject.  Fortunately, Christopher Craig Brittain has taken an interest in Horkheimer’s writings on religion.  In Social Theory and the Premise of All Criticism: Max Horkheimer on Religion, Brittain (2005) provides us with an excellent survey of Horkheimer’s musings on religion and religion’s uneasy relationship with Marxism.

As Brittain deftly explains, Horkheimer worried that despite its rational, emancipatory, and progressive impulses, Marxism was “vulnerable to a reinscribed dogmatism.”  Critical theory, it seems, has not been able to rid itself of — or even explain — supernaturalism:

Despite the fact that historical materialism has unmasked metaphysical truths as human constructions rooted in history, and despite the shift in authority from “religious” truth claims to scientific theory, dogmatism and mystification remain.

What might account for the fact that God is not dead and shows no signs of dying?  Although Horkheimer (and presumably Brittain) attempt to find an answer in social and economic conditions, I think part of the answer is to be found elsewhere.  What is missing in the critical account of religion is biology.  There are universal aspects of the evolved brain-mind that can never be extricated from social or economic conditions, no matter how rational or critical.

To fully account for religion, we also need to consider history (as critical theorists know and would agree).  This history, however, is not simply material — it is also evolutionary.

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2 thoughts on “Critical Social Theory & Religion

  1. Law Warrior

    So the spiritual element of religion is man made and evidence of it can be explained away by Karl Marx? Tyrrany is man-made too and no doubt religious thought can be hijacked for tyrannical purposes. I guess I need to read more. Thank you for your work . It is fascinating and I will tell all of my friends. you should write a book.

  2. admin Post author

    Not quite. I think the point here is that what we today call “religion” can be explained, but the explanation requires more than a politicial-economic or materialist explanation, which is what Marx did. Marx in turn relied on Feuerbach, who explained religion as a psychological phenomenon (i.e., spirits and deities exist only in human minds), which is getting closer to a complete explanation.
    To genealogize religions requires a multi-disciplinary approach, and will need to include evolutionary history in addition to materialist history.

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