Marx’s Critique of Religion

As regular readers know, I’ve been revisiting early naturalist theories of religion and looking at these through an anthropological lens. The first post was on David Hume and the second on Ludwig Feuerbach. While Hume established the framework within which all later explanatory theorists would work, Feuerbach was in some ways more influential. Though Feuerbach is not much read today, his ideas were foundational for both Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud. Today’s post is devoted to the former and a future post to the latter.

Marx, after reading Feuerbach’s 1844 Essence of Christianity, commented that “the criticism of religion has been essentially completed, and the criticism of religion is the premise of all criticism” (1844). This is a curious claim coming from the normally methodical Marx. In The Essence of Christianity, Feuerbach had merely sketched the explanatory-anthropological arguments he would fully develop and publish three years later in The Essence of Religion. The appearance of the latter book suggests that Feuerbach did not think he had completed a critique of religion and that another book, on a more general or higher level, was required. Ironically, it may have been the appearance of The Essence of Religion which caused Marx to realize that the critique of religion was incomplete and insubstantial.

Feuerbach had, in idealist (and sometimes obscure) Hegelian fashion, argued that God or the “divine” was simply a projection of alienated human consciousness. It was, for Feuerbach, an entirely psychological process. Marx was troubled by the idea that such thoughts or “alienated consciousness” could simply occur, unbidden and uncaused. There was no apparent mechanism, something which might prompt people to have such ideas and feel alienated. Marx found the mechanism in the material conditions of life that determine social relations. These material conditions and social relations, in turn, give rise to the alienated consciousness which is at the heart of Marx’s theory or critique of religion.

Alienated consciousness makes sense only in contrast to un-alienated consciousness. Marx’s conception of the latter, though somewhat vague, derives from his understanding of primitive communism. It is here that Marx’s debt to anthropology is most clear. In foraging or “primitive” societies, people are whole – they are un-alienated because resources are freely available and work directly transforms those resources into useable goods. This directness and immediateness – with no interventions or distortions between the resource, work, and result – makes for creative, fulfilled, and unified people. Society is, as a consequence, tightly bound. There are no class divisions which pit one person or group against another. Because social relations are always reflected back into people’s lives, unified societies make for unified individuals. People are not alienated they have direct, productive, and creative relationships with resources, work, things, and others. This communalism is, for Marx, most conducive to human happiness and well-being.

This unity is shattered when people begin claiming ownership of resources. Private property introduces division into formerly unified societies and classes develop. When this occurs people are no longer free to appropriate and produce as they please. Creativity and fulfillment is crushed when labor is separated from life and becomes an isolated commodity. Humans who labor for something other than their needs, or for someone else, become alienated from resources, work, things, and others. When these divided social relations are reflected back into peoples’ lives, the result is discord and disharmony. People, in other words, feel alienated. As economies develop and become more complex, life becomes progressively more specialized and splintered. The alienation becomes so intense that something is required to sooth it; otherwise, life becomes unbearable.

It is at this point (which anthropologists recognize as the Neolithic transition) that religion arises. But religion is not, Marx asserts, merely a soothing palliative – it also masks the economically and socially stratified conditions that cause alienation:

Precisely as a consequence of man’s loss of spontaneous self-activity, religion arises as a compensatory mechanism for explaining what alienated man cannot explain and for promising him elsewhere what he cannot achieve here. Thus because man does not create himself through his productive labor, he supposes that he is created by a power beyond. Because man lacks power, he attributes power to something beyond himself. Like all forms of man’s self-alienation, religion displaces reality with illusion. The reason is that man, the alienated being, requires an ideology that will simultaneously conceal his situation from him and confer upon it significance. Religion is man’s oblique and doomed effort at humanization, a search for divine meaning in the face of human meaninglessness.

(Parsons 1964:56). This is the critical (socioeconomic) context in which Marx (1844) makes his famous statement about religion:

Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and also 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 spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

The distress is caused by underlying economic and social conditions that divide society. Marx thinks that if these divisions (and the oppositions or contradictions they engender) are removed, the reason and need for religion would disappear. This accounts for Marx’s hostility towards religion — it prevented people from recognizing the underlying causes of their distress. And without recognition, there could be no change.

While Marx may not have explained religion, he added analytical dimensions that are particularly interesting from anthropological perspectives. His analysis begins with ideas about a primitive past that can be compared to – or tested with – the archaeological and ethnohistoric records. He envisions history in developmental terms that are consonant with evolutionary theory. Finally, he trained our attention away from purely cognitive or psychological treatments, such as those found in Hume and Feuerbach. Minds are not universals that float freely in time and space. They are always embedded in the ecologic and economic conditions of history.

It is unfortunate that Marx’s comments on religion are usually isolated quotes that have been ripped from their critical context. Marx did not dismiss religion as mere superstition or primitive atavism. His sympathy for those who felt a need for religion was matched by his antipathy for rationalist atheists. The latter, he thought, did not understand how religion arose or recognize the real needs it served.

For those interested in a brief but comprehensive survey of Marx’s thinking on religion, I strongly recommend Howard Parson’s article, “The Prophetic Mission of Karl Marx” (1964). While I don’t agree with all that Parson says, it is the single best overview I’ve read.


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