Monday, July 07, 2008

More than Opium: Marxism and Religion


About twenty years ago I spoke on ‘Marxism and Religion’ at the SWP Easter Rally in Skegness. I began, roughly, with the words, ‘Today, in Britain, religion – fortunately – is not a major political issue’. Unfortunately this is no longer the case. Today religion, or rather one religion in particular, namely Islam, is at the centre of political debate.

Scarcely a day passes without a news item raising the alarm about alleged ‘hate preaching’ imams or a mosque being taken over by ‘fundamentalists’, or an opinion piece about the deeply flawed nature of Islam, or a radio discussion about whether ‘moderate’ Muslims are doing enough to combat ‘the extremists’ and prevent Muslim youth from being ‘radicalised’, or a TV programme on the plight of Muslim women, or a scare story about some stupidity committed in the name of Islam somewhere in the world. As I start to write this article I see the following report in The Independent on Sunday:

Islamic extremism creates 'no-go' areas, says bishop

By Jack Doyle

Published: 06 January 2008

Islamic extremism in Britain is creating communities which are "no-go areas" for non-Muslims, the Bishop of Rochester, the Rt Rev Dr Michael Nazir-Ali warned yesterday. Bishop Nazir-Ali says non-Muslims face a hostile reception in places dominated by the ideology of Islamic radicals.

Regardless of the merits or accuracy of the individual story or claim, and this is a particularly absurd one, the relentless flow of this kind of comment and coverage, has turned Islam into a religion under siege. This incessant problematisation of Islam and demonisation of Muslims has created the phenomenon now widely referred to as Islamophobia.

For readers of this journal there should be no mystery as to why this has occurred. It is not an expression of some visceral Christian hostility to Islam stretching back to the crusades or the conflict with the Ottoman Empire. (even though these atavisms are sometimes mobilised ideologically).It is because the majority of the people who happen to be sitting on the world’s most important reserves of oil and natural gas happen to be Muslim and, secondarily, because, since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, much of these peoples’ resistance to imperialism has found expression in Islamist form. If the people of the Middle East and central Asia had been predominantly Buddhist or Tibet held oilfields comparable to those of Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran, what we would be dealing with would be ‘Buddhophobia’. Seeping out from The White House, the Pentagon, the


CIA and Downing St., and coursing through the sewers of Fox News, CNN, The Sun and the Daily Mail would be the notion that, great religion though it undoubtedly was, there was some underlying and persistent flaw in Buddhism. ‘Intellectuals’ such as Samuel Huntington, Christopher Hitchens and Martin Amis would be on hand to explain that, despite its embrace by naïve hippies in the sixties, Buddhism was really an essentially reactionary creed characterised by its deep seated rejection of modernity and western democratic values and its fanatical commitment to feudalism, theocracy, misogyny and homophobia.

However, the fact that it has happened; the fact that Islamophobia has been developed, nationally and internationally, as the principal ideological cover and justification for imperialism and war (as straightforward racism was in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) has enormously increased the importance of a correct theoretical understanding of, and political orientation towards, religion in its many different forms. Indeed it can be said that a deficient, mechanical or one sided understanding of the Marxist analysis of religion has been at least a substantial contributing factor to a number of left individuals and groups completely losing their former political bearings and ending up as left apologists for imperialism.

The most notorious example of this is, of course, Christopher Hitchens, who has written a book on religion, God is Not Great (of which, more later) and whose trajectory from leftist intellectual and radical critic of the system to ‘critical’ supporter of George Bush has been precipitous and extreme – though in Hitchens’ case one cannot help suspecting that material inducements have played a larger role in his race to the right than any mere theoretical error. There are also some members of the Euston Group such as Norman Geras, and Quentin Hoare, and among the left groups, the sorry case of the Alliance for Workers Liberty, and the French socialist organisation Lutte Ouvriere, whose hostility to the hijab turned them ,temporarily, into objective allies of the French imperialist state against its most oppressed women citizens.(NOTE See Antoine Boulange ‘The hijab, racism and the state’, International Socialism 102, )

At the same time, and not by coincidence, there has arisen in the US and Britain, a verbally militant anti religious, pro-atheist campaign, spearheaded by the science writer Richard Dawkins and accompanied by the aforementioned Hitchens, the philosopher Daniel Dennett and others. A critical examination of how these people present their arguments against religion will, by contrast, bring out important features of the Marxist position. But first I want to set out the fundamental principles underlying the Marxist analysis of religion, beginning not with Marx’s direct comments on religion but with the basic propositions of Marxist philosophy.


Marxist philosophy is materialist. According to Engels in Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy :

The great basic question of all, especially of latter-day philosophy, is that concerning the relation of thinking and being… The question of the position of thinking in relation to being … in relation to the church was sharpened into this: Did God create the world or has the world existed for all time?

Answers to this question split the philosophers into two great camps. Those who asserted the primacy of the mind over nature and, therefore, in the last instance, assumed world creation in some form or other… comprised the camp of idealism. The others who regarded nature as primary, belong to the various schools of materialism.

[K.Marx and F.Engels, Selected Works, Vol. 3, Moscow 1989, pp366-67]

Marxism, argues Engels, not only stands firmly in the materialist camp but is where, ‘the materialist world outlook was taken really seriously for the first time and was carried through consistently … in all relevant domains of knowledge.’ [ibid. p.382]

Marxist materialism, reduced to its essentials, involves commitment to the following propositions:

  1. The material world exists independently of human (or any other) consciousness.
  2. Real, if not total or absolute knowledge of the world is possible and has, indeed, been attained.
  3. Human beings are part of nature, but a distinct part.
  4. The material world does not derive, in the first instance, from human thought, human thought derives from the material world.

Propositions 1 and 2 correspond to the presumptions and findings of modern science and have attained the status of common sense. This is because they are confirmed in practice, millions or billions of times every day, as are most of the findings of science. Proposition 3 also corresponds to the findings of modern science, especially Darwin and modern paleontology and anthropaleontology ( see for example Richard Leakey, The Origins of Humankind) but, as it happens, was articulated by Marx before Darwin.

The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. Thus the first fact to be established is the physical organisation of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature….The writing of history must always set out from these natural bases and their modification in the course of history through the action of men.

Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organisation.[ K.Marx and
F.Engels, The German Ideology, London1991, p.42]

Proposition 4 is the most distinctively Marxist and the least widely shared. Many people who take a materialist view of the relationship between humans and nature, take an idealist position on the relationship between ideas and material conditions and on the role of ideas in society, history and politics.. Almost without thinking they such things as ‘The Cold War was fundamentally a clash of ideologies’ or ‘Capitalism is based on the idea of economic growth’. For this reason proposition 4 is the one Marx and Engels insist on most strongly and repeatedly.

Men are the producers of their conceptions, ideas, etc. – real active men, as they are conditioned by a definite development of their productive forces…Consciousness can never be anything else than conscious existence…

In direct contrast to German philosophy, which descends from heaven to earth, here we ascend from earth to heaven. That is to say we do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrate, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh. We set out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process… Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence… Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life. [ibid. p.47]

Does it require deep intuition to comprehend that man’s ideas, views, and conceptions, in one word, man’s consciousness changes with every change in the conditions of his material existence, in his social relations and in his social life?

[K.Marx and F. Engels, The Communist Manifesto,]

In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure

and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.

[K.Marx, Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy]

Just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history: the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion etc,; that therefore the production of the immediate material means of subsistence and consequently the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch form the foundation on which the state institutions, the legal conceptions, art, and even the ideas on religion, of the people concerned have been evolved, and in the light of which they must, therefore be explained, instead of vice versa, as had hitherto been the case. [F.Engels, Speech at the Graveside of Karl Marx]

Thus it is clear that a definite attitude to religion is present, both implicitly and explicitly, in the most fundamental ideas of Marxism. Moreover it should also be clear that this attitude has a dual character. On the one hand, for the thorough going and consistent Marxist, as for the thorough going and consistent materialist, religious faith, in all its many forms, is excluded. Religious ideas, like all other ideas, are social and historical products, i.e. produced by human beings, and this necessarily precludes religious belief since it is precisely their claim to transcendence and priority over nature, human beings and history that make religious ideas religious. By the same token philosophical idealism and religion are intimately linked. If mind has priority over matter whose mind can that be but the mind of God? If ideas are the ultimate driving force in history, where do those ideas come from if not the mind of God? And is not God, as in the terminology of Hegel, ‘the absolute idea’? As the Bible puts it, ‘In the beginning was the word, and the word was God’. This is why Trotsky, at the very end of his life, wrote that he would die ‘a Marxist, a dialectical materialist and, consequently, an irreconcilable atheist (my emphasis)’. [L.Trotsky, The Age of Permanent Revolution, New York, 1964 p.361.]

On the other hand the same Marxism clearly demands a materialist explanation of religion. It is not enough to view either religion as a whole or any particular religion as simply a delusion or folly that happens to have gripped the minds of millions for centuries. A common habit of less thoughtful religious believers (especially religious believers in imperialist countries) is to mock or dismiss as superstition the religious beliefs of others (especially so-called ‘natives’) on the grounds that they are obviously irrational or contrary to well known laws of nature, without realising that exactly the same applies to their own beliefs – in the virgin birth, the resurrection, the feeding of the five thousand or whatever. But Marxism does not just generalise this mistake by pointing to the equal stupidity of the cargo cultist and the Catholic, the Rastafarian and the Anglican. It requires an analysis of the social roots of religion in general and of specific religious beliefs; an understanding of the real human needs, social and psychological, and the real historical conditions, to which such beliefs and doctrines correspond. A Marxist needs to be able to understand why a belief in the divinity and immortality of Haile Selassie could inspire a musician of the calibre of Bob Marley in Trenchtown, Jamaica in the 1960s, while a belief in the divinity and immortality of Jesus inspired an artist (and mathematician) of the calibre of Piero della Francesca in 15th century Florence.

If we now turn to Marx’s most important statement directly on religion, the first couple of pages of The Introduction to A Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, we find it to be a condensed expression of all these elements. It begins with the assertion that:

For Germany, the criticism of religion has been essentially completed , and the criticism of religion is the prerequisite of all criticism

By this Marx means that the combined work of the scientific revolution, the Enlightenment, especially the French encyclopaedists, and the Bible criticism of German secular Left- Hegelians has demolished the claims of religion (Christianity/ The Bible) to offer a factually true account of nature or history, or even an internally coherent theology. Moreover this work was necessary and progressive because a genuinely critical analysis of the world was not possible until human thought was liberated from the fetters of religious dogma. But this single sentence is all Marx says on this aspect of the question. Taking the factual refutation of religion as given he proceeds rapidly to his main point, the analysis of the social basis of religion.

The foundation of irreligious criticism is: man makes religion, religion does not make man

This is the starting point. What follows is paragraph of exceptional density, typical of Marx, in which a PhD’s worth of insights are compressed into a few sentences

Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But, man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man — state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d'honneur, it enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.

Thus religion ia a response to human alienation – man who has ‘lost himself’ – but this not an abstract or ahistorical condition, rather it is a product of certain specific social conditions. This society produces religion, an inverted view of the world in which humans bow to an imaginary god of their own making, because it is an inverted world in which people are dominated by the products of their own labour. But religion is not just a random collection of superstitions or false beliefs, it is the ‘general theory’ of this alienated world, the way in which alienated people try to make sense of their alienated lives and alien society. Therefore it performs the rich array of diverse functions listed by Marx: ‘encyclopaedic compendium’, ‘logic in popular form’, ‘spiritual point d’honneur’,‘moral sanction’, etc. And therefore to struggle against religion is to struggle against that world ‘whose spiritual aroma is religion’, this world of alienation in which people need religion.

Two points need to be made about this passage. The first is that it almost universally ignored by commentators offering summaries or explanations of Marx’s views on religion. This may be because they haven’t read it (which seems unlikely) or haven’t understood it (more likely) or, most likely, because it is radically incompatible with the attempt to reduce the Marxist theory of religion to a simple one or two dimensional analysis as in, ‘ Marx argues that religion is a tool of the ruling class’, or ‘According to Marx religion functions to pacify the toiling masses’. Of course, Marx does say this kind of thing about religion, but he says much else besides and to reduce the complex totality of his theory to just one of its strands is effectively to falsify it. The second is that Marx is so keen on its conclusion that he repeats it again and again in a veritable storm of metaphors and aphorisms.[‘The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness… The criticism of religion is… the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo…Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower …The criticism of Heaven turns into the criticism of earth’ etc. etc.]

However, before concluding his argument on religion, Marx inserts one more highly significant paragraph.

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 circumstances. It is the opium of the people. [Marx’s emphasis}

This passage is much better known than the previous one but that is largely because of its much quoted final phrase (often presented as the essence or the totality of Marx’s analysis), whereas it is the first sentence that is probably the most interesting and most important for understanding the political role of religion. Marx’s insistence that religion is both an expression of suffering and a protest against it, is the key point, giving the lie to any analysis which focuses only on religion’s narcotic and soporific effects. It also points in the direction of the important historical fact (to which I shall return) that there have been many progressive , radical and even revolutionary movements that have either taken a religious form, had a religious coloration or been led by people of religious faith.

Marx then concludes his analysis of religion with a series of epigrams – ‘the criticism of religion [ is transformed] into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics’, in such a way as to move on to his main theme, the current state of affairs in Germany.

In the course of their immense oeuvre Marx and Engels made numerous references to and analyses of religion In particular the young Marx wrote On the Jewish Question, a polemic in favour of Jewish Emancipation [FOOTNOTE This rather obscure text has been particularly controversial because it has been cited as evidence of Marx’s anti-semitism. Refuting this false charge and dealing with some of the text’s other difficulties would divert me too far from my central theme . Fortunately it is discussed elsewhere in this issue by John Rose whose article should be read in conjunction with Hal Draper, ‘Marx and the Economic-Jew Stereotype’(1977) at and Anindya Bhattacharya, ‘Marx and Religion’ Socialist Worker, 4 March 2006.] and Engels contributed a number of interesting studies of the historical development and role of Christianity, particularly in The Peasant War in Germany, Anti-Duhring, The Introduction to the English Edition of Socialism:Utopian and Scientific, Bruno Bauer and Early Christianity, and The History of Early Christianity.( all of which can be accessed in Marx and Engels On Religion, Progress Publishers, Moscow 1957 or via the Marxists Internet Archive at However all these comments have one thing in comment: they never take religious doctrines, sects, churches, movements and conflict at face value, nor treat them as simple follies or deceptions practiced by the priests, but regard them always as distorted reflections and expressions of real social needs and interests i.e. of the class struggle. A few extracts will illustrate the point:

The German ideology of to-day sees in the struggles to which the Middle Ages had succumbed nothing but violent theological bickerings…In the so-called religious wars of the Sixteenth Century, very positive material class-interests were at play, and those wars were class wars just as were the later collisions in England and France. If the class struggles of that time appear to bear religious earmarks, if the interests, requirements and demands of the various classes hid themselves behind a religious screen, it little changes the actual situation, and is to be explained by conditions of the time Germany)

The revolutionary opposition to feudalism was alive throughout all the Middle Ages. According to conditions of the time, it appeared either in the form of mysticism, as open heresy, or of armed insurrection. As mysticism, it is well known how indispensable it was for the reformers of the Sixteenth Century. Muenzer himself was largely indebted to it. The heresies were partly an expression of the reaction of the patriarchal Alpine shepherds against the encroachments of feudalism in their realm (Waldenses), partly an opposition to feudalism of the cities that had out-grown it (The Albigenses, Arnold of Brescia, etc.), and partly direct insurrections of peasants (John Ball, the master from Hungary in Picardy, etc.). We can omit, in this connection, the patriarchal heresy of the Waldenses, as well as the insurrection of the Swiss, which by form and contents, was a reactionary attempt at stemming the tide of historic development, and of a purely local importance. In the other two forms of mediaeval heresy, we find as early as the Twelfth Century the precursors of the great division between the middle-class and the peasant-plebeian opposition which caused the collapse of the peasant war.(The Peasant War in Germany)

Calvin's creed was one fit for the boldest of the bourgeoisie of his time. His predestination doctrine was the religious expression of the fact that in the commercial world of competition success or failure does not depend upon a man's activity or cleverness, but upon circumstances uncontrollable by him. It is not of him that willeth or of him that runneth, but of the mercy of unknown superior economic powers; and this was especially true at a period of economic revolution, when all old commercial routes and centres were replaced by new ones, when India and America were opened to the world, and when even the most sacred economic articles of faith – the value of gold and silver – began to totter and to break down. (Introduction to the English Edition, 1892, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific)

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…

These risings [of oppressed peasants and town plebeians- JM], like all mass movements of the Middle Ages, were bound to wear the mask of religion and appeared as the restoration of early Christianity from spreading degeneration….But behind the religious exaltation there was every time a very tangible worldly interest. This appeared most splendidly in the organization of the Bohemian Taborites under Jan Zizka, of glorious memory; but this trait pervades the whole of the Middle Ages (The History of Early Christianity)

And, incidentally, the following footnote on Islam:

. Islam is a religion adapted to Orientals, especially Arabs, i.e., on one hand to townsmen engaged in trade and industry, on the other to nomadic Bedouins. Therein lies, however, the embryo of a periodically recurring collision. The townspeople grow rich, luxurious and lax in the observation of the "law." The Bedouins, poor and hence of strict morals, contemplate with envy and covetousness these riches and pleasures. Then they unite under a prophet, a Mahdi, to chastise the apostates and restore the observation of the ritual and the true faith and to appropriate in recompense the treasures of the renegades. In a hundred years they are naturally in the same position as the renegades were: a new purge of the faith is required, a new Mahdi arises and the game starts again from the beginning. That is what happened from the conquest campaigns of the African Almoravids and Almohads in Spain to the last Mahdi of Khartoum who so successfully thwarted the English…. All these movements are clothed in religion but they have their source in economic causes; (ibid)

It should go without saying that the point here is not the historical truth or falsity of all or any of these specific observations, but the consistent methodology underlying them.


Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist who first came to prominence with his book The Selfish Gene, and thereafter built himself a considerable reputation and career as a populariser of science. In 2006 he published The God Delusion, a full frontal assault on religion and defence of atheism, which became an international bestseller, generated huge controversy, especially in the United States, and attracted plaudits from sources as diverse as Ian McEwan, Michael Frayn, The Spectator, The Daily Mail and Stephen Pinker.

I should say at the outset that I do not at all share the apparently widespread admiration of Dawkins’ style and intellect. Reading Dawkins after Marx is like going from Tolstoy or Joyce to Kingsley Amis or Agatha Christie, i.e. moving down several divisions. Where Marx packs a book into a paragraph, Dawkins expands a short essay into a large book. In fact all 460 odd pages of The God Delusion do not take us intellectually beyond what Marx summed up in the first sentence of his analysis in 1843, namely that the criticism of religion is essentially complete. What Dawkins offers is an ‘enlightenment’, empiricist, rationalist, refutation of religion – a ‘scientific’, i.e. positivist demonstration that there is a complete lack of factual evidence to support what he calls ‘the God hypothesis’ and that on the contrary the evidence makes it almost (if not absolutely) certain that God does not exist. This is supplemented by logical refutations of the various arguments advanced for God’s existence ranging from the venerable ‘proofs’ of Thomas Aquinas and Pascal’s Wager to the bizarre recent speculations of one Stephen Unwin, and numerous examples of the follies and crimes perpetrated in the name of religion. I suppose there are some people for whom this will be revelatory and others who may enjoy it because it makes them feel smarter than the ignorant masses who swallow these superstitions, but theoretically there is nothing new here, indeed very little that isn’t at least two hundred years old.

The only real exception to this lies in Dawkins’ attempt to explain why religion is so widespread in human society but this attempt is a rather miserable failure. Being a committed evolutionary biologist he feels obliged to frame his explanation in evolutionary biological terms, i.e. in terms of genetic advantage in the process of natural selection. Unfortunately his blanket hostility to religion also obliges him to deny that religion can be advantageous for individual or social survival. He tries to wriggle out of this contradiction by suggesting that religion is a side-effect of a characteristic that he claims is advantageous in the struggle for survival, namely a propensity for children to believe what they are told by their elders. Clearly this doesn’t withstand criticism. First it is highly debatable the extent to which youthful suggestibility outweighs youthful skepticism, especially into adolescence. Second, it is equally debatable whether such suggestibility is on balance advantageous. Third, it seems highly likely that both the extent and advantageousness of suggestibility is massively socially conditioned and very different in different societies. Finally, like any theory that explains the behaviour or beliefs of children by the behaviour or beliefs of their parents, it is left with the problem of explaining the parents’ disposition in the first place or is caught in an infinite regress. As Marx pointed out,‘the educators themselves must be educated’ [Theses on Feuerbach:3]. In other words Dawkins’ explanation turns out to be no explanation at all. Moreover it is symptomatic of his whole approach that neither in this section nor any anywhere else in The God Delusion’s 460 pages does the author find time seriously to consider the Marxist theory of religion.

However intellectual unoriginality and mediocrity is by no means the main objection to this book.( It would be churlish to cavil so over a work that was second rate but reasonably sound). The main objection is to the reactionary political conclusions that flow from the weak methodological basis. As Marx argued in relation to Feuerbach, mechanical materialism invariably leaves the door open to idealism, and Dawkins is a particularly clear example of this. Without noticing it he flip flops from a vulgar materialist genetic determinism in his view of human nature and behaviour in the abstract, to a rampant idealism in his view of the role of religion in concrete historical circumstances. Again and again he makes the mistake of assuming that when people do something in the name of religion it really is religion that is determining their behaviour. The following passage from his essay ‘The improbability of God’ epitomizes his approach:

Much of what people do is done in the name of God. Irishmen blow each other up in his name. Arabs blow themselves up in his name. Imams and ayatollahs oppress women in his name. Celibate popes and priests mess up people's sex lives in his name. Jewish shohets cut live animals' throats in his name. The achievements of religion in past history - bloody crusades, torturing inquisitions, mass-murdering conquistadors, culture-destroying missionaries, legally enforced resistance to each new piece of scientific truth until the last possible moment - are even more impressive. And what has it all been in aid of? I believe it is becoming increasingly clear that the answer is absolutely nothing at all. There is no reason for believing that any sort of gods exist and quite good reason for believing that they do not exist and never have. It has all been a gigantic waste of time and a waste of life. It would be a joke of cosmic proportions if it weren't so tragic (‘The improbability of God’ Free Inquiry Magazine, Volume 18, Number 3.)

In fact this no more than a souped up version of the familiar nostrum that lots of wars are caused by religion and it will not stand a moment’s critical scrutiny. Let us take the example of Ireland. The view that conflict in Ireland was essentially or primarily about religion is both manifestly false and plainly reactionary. It is false even in terms of the declared statements and consciousness of the principal protagonists. If many, though by no means all, Republicans were Catholics, no Republican would have said (or believed) that they were fighting for Catholicism; they fought for Ireland, i.e. for an independent united Ireland. Things were less clear on the Unionist side where religious bigotry played a much larger role, nevertheless the principal declared goal was a ‘national’ one, namely remaining ‘British’. Moreover it abundantly clear that behind these conflicting national aspirations lay not religious differences about the doctrine of transubstantiation or the fallibility of the Pope but real economic, social and political issues of exploitation, poverty, discrimination and oppression. To see the conflict as basically about religion was reactionary because it fitted with the racist stereotype of the Irish as primitive and stupid (after all ‘we’ gave up fighting about religion centuries ago) and helped to legitimate the presence of the British army and British rule as a neutral arbiter between warring religious factions.

To his credit Richard Dawkins opposed the Iraq War and politically he is no friend of George Bush, but, in the context of the War on Terror, his approach to religion becomes, even if unintentionally, even more reactionary. For it is central to the Bush/Cheney/ neo-con/ Blair/Brown ideology that Muslim hostility to ‘the West’ is unprovoked and unjustified. It is not a reaction or response to Western imperialism, exploitation and domination, but rather a religion-based offensive campaign aimed at destroying, conquering, or perhaps converting the non-Muslim world. To some this hostility is inherent in mainstream Islam {Dawkins seems to hold this view or something like it –see The God Delusion pp.346-7); for Bush/Blair and co it derives from an ‘evil’ misinterpretation or perversion of Islam, but in both cases the motivation is religious. It is an interpretation which flies in the face of the declared statements of both Al-Quaeda, who made explicit political demands such as the removal of US troops from Saudi Arabia , and the 7/7 bombers in London, who said they were motivated by what was being done to Iraq, and which also defies reason. The notion that America, or Britain or any big western nation, could be destroyed, conquered or, indeed, converted by planting bombs on the underground or flying planes into a couple of tall buildings is so utterly absurd that it cannot be the real motive for any sustained campaign. The idea that the US could be induced by a terrorist campaign to stop supporting Israel or to get out of Afghanistan is also mistaken but it is not completely implausible. For Bush/ Blair and co,, however, the ‘religious’ interpretation is mandatory, as without it they would be forced to concede the culpability of imperialism and of their own policies, and the Dawkins approach dovetails with this and reinforces it.

. "Mindless" may be a suitable word for the vandalising of a telephone box. It is not helpful for understanding what hit New York on September 11… It came from religion. Religion is also, of course, the underlying source of the divisiveness in the Middle East which motivated the use of this deadly weapon in the first place. But that is another story and not my concern here. My concern here is with the weapon itself. To fill a world with religion, or religions of the Abrahamic kind, is like littering the streets with loaded guns. [Richard Dawkins, ‘Religion’s misguided missiles’, The Guardian, 15.09.01]

Similar to Dawkins, but worse, is Christopher Hitchens. His book, God is Not Great, is on an even lower intellectual level than The God Delusion, with a more arbitrary combination of self serving personal anecdote and rambling journalistic polemic. Its adaptation of the atheist case to Islamophobia is embodied in the title ( a mocking reference to the Muslim cry, ‘God is Great!’) and blatant throughout. I suppose out of deference to his radical past, he actually quotes, approvingly, a couple of the key paragraphs of Marx on religion and then proceeds to ignore their meaning completely. In the key ‘Religion Kills’ section of the book he takes us on a whistlestop tour of six strife torn cities – Belfast, Beirut, Bombay, Belgrade, Bethlehem and Baghdad – in each case offering a swift summation of the conflict exclusively in terms of religious hatreds without any reference to history, imperialism, oppression, or class. It is a travesty of socio-political analysis. The ‘analysis’ of Palestine is especially striking.

I once heard the late Abba Eban, one of Israel's more polished and

thoughtful diplomats and statesmen, give a talk in New York. The

first thing to strike the eye about the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, he

said, was the ease of its solubility. From this arresting start he went

on to say, with the authority of a former foreign minister and UN

representative, that the essential point was a simple one. Two peoples

of roughly equivalent size had a claim to the same land. The solution

was, obviously, to create two states side by side. Surely something

so self-evident was within the wit of man to encompass? And so it

would have been, decades ago, if the messianic rabbis and mullahs

and priests could have been kept out of it. But the exclusive claims to

god-given authority, made by hysterical clerics on both sides and further

stoked by Armageddon-minded Christians who hope to bring on

the Apocalypse (preceded by the death or conversion of all Jews), have

made the situation insufferable, and put the whole of humanity in the

position of hostage to a quarrel that now features the threat of nuclear

war. Religion poisons everything.

This is risible, but when Hitchens says, and I quote verbatim from You Tube, ‘ I am absolutely convinced that the main source of hatred in the world is religion’*, he is also saying it is not the material fact of capitalism, not imperialism, not inequality, not exploitation or class conflict, just a mistaken idea people have lodged in their heads.

[* NOTE Its not easy to grasp how far Hitchens has gone . Again I quote from him on You Tube, debating with Rev. Al Sharpton, ‘You see, I don’t love our enemies, and I don’t love people who do love them. I hate our enemies and think they should be killed…And I’m absolutely sure there should be no other country that has a budget that threatens ours, and I’m not sentimental about it.’ And by ‘our enemies’ and ‘our budget’ he means the enemies and budget of US imperialism.]

Vigorously opposing the arguments of Dawkins and Hitchens does not, however, involve diluting in any way the classical Marxist critique of religion or opening the door to some kind of theoretical compromise with religious ideas.At this point we need to leave the odious Hitchens for the far more congenial Terry Eagleton, who provides an example of what should be avoided. Eagleton is an eminent cultural and literary theorist, friendly to Marxism, who, in the past, attacked the racism and other bigotries of Philip Larkin, and who recently distinguished himself [in my eyes] by denouncing the Islamophobia of his colleague, Martin Amis. In 2006 he wrote a highly critical review of The God Delusion for the London Review of Books but although he advances some of the same arguments as this article, for example in relation to Ireland, the general terms of his critique are not Marxist. His principal argument is that Dawkins has attacked fundamentalist religion, Christian and Islamic as if it represents all religion, while ignoring more sophisticated ‘liberal’ theology of which he (Dawkins) is largely ignorant

What, one wonders, are Dawkins’s views on the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus? Has he read Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope? Has he even heard of them? Or does he imagine like a bumptious young barrister that you can defeat the opposition while being complacently ignorant of its toughest case?


As a criticism of Dawkins book this has some validity, but there are also serious problems here. First, it is not reasonable to argue that it is necessary to master all the ins ands outs of Christian (or Buddhist, or Zoroastrian ) theology before one can make an intellectually sound case for atheism and for rejecting theology as such. Second, in demonstrating his understanding of the liberal theologians’ concept of an immaterial, impersonal god of love and tolerance, in contrast to the Old Testament god of vengeance espoused by Falwell and attacked by Dawkins, Eagleton leaves decidedly open the possibility that this liberal god may actually exist, or be worthy of worship. He does the same when he offers his picture of Jesus as proto – anti- imperialist revolutionary.

Jesus did not die because he was mad or masochistic, but because the Roman state and its assorted local lackeys and running dogs took fright at his message of love, mercy and justice, as well as at his enormous popularity with the poor, and did away with him to forestall a mass uprising in a highly volatile political situation. [ibid.]

For a Marxist the loving caring impersonal god of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the radical Jesus of Terry Eagleton are both just as much human creations, illusory projections, as the unpleasant bigoted gods of Ian Paisley or Osama bin Laden.


To conclude this article I shall outline a brief and rather schematic summary of the principal political conclusions that flow, and have flowed historically, from the foregoing analysis.

First, and contrary to widespread opinion (fostered by widespread misrepresentation), Marxist socialists are absolutely opposed to any idea of banning religion. This is not some new position but was explicitly stated by Engels as far back as 1874 in response to a proposal by some Blanquists. The reasons given by Engels remain valid to this day.

In order to prove that they are the most radical of all they abolish God by decree as was done in 1793:

“Let the Commune free mankind for ever from the ghost of past misery” (God), “from that cause” (non-existing God a cause!) “of their present misery. There is no room for priests in the Commune; every religious manifestation. every religious organization must be prohibited.”

And this demand that men should be changed into atheists par ordre du mufti is signed by two members of the Commune who have really had opportunity enough to find out that first a vast amount of things can be ordered on paper without necessarily being carried out, and second, that persecution is the best means of promoting undesirable convictions! This much is sure: the only service that can be rendered to God today is to declare atheism a compulsory article of faith and to outdo Bismarck’s Kirchenkulturkampf laws by prohibiting religion generally....


Far from banning religion Marxists argue that religion should be a private matter in relation to the state and complete freedom of religion should prevail both under capitalism and socialism. Lenin spelt this out unambiguously in his article on ‘Socialism and Religion’ in1905

Religion must be of no concern to the state, and religious societies must have no connection with governmental authority. Everyone must be absolutely free to profess any religion he pleases, or no religion whatever, i.e., to be an atheist, which every socialist is, as a rule. Discrimination among citizens on account of their religious convictions is wholly intolerable. Even the bare mention of a citizen’s religion in official documents should unquestionably be eliminated.

( Lenin Collected Works, Progress Publishers, 1965, Moscow, Volume 10, pp84-5 )

The only sense in which Marxists contemplate the elimination of religion is through its gradual withering away as a result of the disappearance of its underlying social causes – alienation, exploitation, oppression etc. Marxist socialists are, however, opposed to any state privileges for religion and call the disestablishment of any or all official state churches (like the Church of England).

Inevitably the general perception of the Marxist attitude to religion is considerably influenced by the experience of the Stalinist regimes in Russia, Eastern Europe, China, Cuba, North Korea etc. A systematic investigation of this experience is impossible in this brief article and,hopefully, readers of this journal are well aware that the policies of these regimes were in no way representative of genuine socialism or Marxism Nevertheless certain observations are worth making. Stalinist repression of religion is often both exaggerated and misunderstood. It is exaggerated in that in general the Stalinist regimes did not repress the main religions or churches but tolerated them and even formed alliances with them, on condition that these churches were politically compliant ( which they mainly were).It is misunderstood in that where religious groups or individuals were persecuted it was primarily because they were politically troublesome, rather than because of their faith as such, but then these were societies in which all political opposition was suppressed. A broad overview of the communist states’ treatment of the religious can be found in the last chapter of Paul Siegel, The Meek and the Militant – Religion and Power Across the World, [Zed Books, London and New Jersey 1986] and an especially useful case study of the Russian Revolutions dealings with its Muslim minority is provided in Dave Crouch, ‘The Bolsheviks and Islam’ in International Socialism 110. Crouch shows how in the early years of the revolution the Bolsheviks adhered strictly to the Leninist principles outlined above and thus met with considerable success in winning over Muslims, whereas the rise of Stalin led to the adoption of increasingly top-down authoritarian policies, including the assault on the veil, which proved disastrous.

Second, in determining their attitude to popular movements with a religious coloration, which are many and varied, Marxists take as their point of departure not the religious beliefs of the movement’s leaders or of its supporters, nor the doctrines and theology of the religion concerned, but the political role of the movement, based on the social forces and interests which it represents.

To put this in perspective consider the respective historical roles of Catholicism and Protestantism. In the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period Catholicism was essentially the religion of the feudal aristocracy and therefore almost universally reactionary. In contrast radical Protestantism tended to represent either the rising bourgeoisie or the plebeian elements below and to the left of it. The great rebels and revolutionaries of those times, the Thomas Muenzers, John Lilburnes and Gerard Winstanleys, were passionate Protestants – extremists and fundamentalists in the language of today. BUT the moment these bourgeois rebels came to power, in the Netherlands and England, they became participants in what Marx called ‘the primitive accumulation of capital’ and thus vicious colonists and slavers. Cromwell, the revolutionary and regicide in England became Cromwell the oppressor in Ireland (where his name still lives in infamy), and specifically of the Catholic peasantry. Similarly the Dutch protestant burghers were the heroes of Europe in the Dutch Revolt but the villains of Africa with apartheid. The strongly reactionary role of the Catholic Church continued in Europe, especially southern Europe, well into the last century, witness its active support for Franco in Spain and its deals with Mussolini and Hitler, and still survives in attenuated form in the main conservative parties in Italy, Spain and southern Germany. BUT the countries in Europe where Catholicism and religion in general remained strongest were Ireland and Poland where the church was able, very moderately but powerfully, to identify itself with opposition to national oppression. Any socialist looking back to the seventeenth century will identify immediately with the Protestant rebels and against the Catholic monarchs and emperors. Any socialist looking at Ireland in 1916 or Belfast in the 1970s will identify with the ‘catholic’ Nationalists not the ‘protestant’ Unionists.. Any socialist who saw the rise of Solidarnosc in Poland as a conflict between the ‘backward’ Catholics of Gdansk and the ‘progressive’ atheist communists of the Soviet State ended up on the side of the imperialist oppressor. The same applies today to the Tibet/china conflict and above all to the War on Terror and the struggles in the Middle East.

Many other cases can be adduced to reinforce this argument. Where would a socialist be who decided their political attitude to Malcolm X on the basis of his crackpot and reactionary religious beliefs as a member of the Nation of Islam, or to Bob Marley on the basis of his belief in the divinity of that old tyrant Haile Selassie, or even to Hugo Chavez, self proclaimed Catholic and admirer of the Pope? Unfortunately some would- be socialists

who have no difficulty grasping this in relation to Chavez or Marley, under the pressure of intense bourgeois propaganda arre unable to apply the same approach when the religion in question is Islam. To put the matter as starkly as possible: from the standpoint of Marxism and international socialism an illiterate, conservative, superstitious Muslim Palestinian peasant who supports Hamas is more progressive than an educated liberal atheist Israeli who supports (even critically) Zionism.

It also follows that Marxist socialists do not accept the idea that any of the major religions is inherently, or in terms of its doctrines, more or less progressive, than any of the others. For a religion to become ‘major’, that is survive over centuries in many locations and different social orders, it is a precondition that its doctrines be capable of almost infinite selection, interpretation and adaptation. Once again what is decisive is not doctrine but social base in the specific social situation. Thus in the US we find a right wing racist imperialist Christianity in the Moral Majority or the Mormons and a left wing anti-racist anti-war Christian tradition as in Martin Luther King. In South Africa there was a pro-apartheid Christianity and anti-apartheid Christianity; in Latin America there has been a rightwing, pro-oligarchy, pro-dictator Catholicism and a leftist ‘theology of liberation’ Catholicism; and, of course, there are a multitude of different, often sharply conflicting, versions of Islam, ranging from the anti- imperialist Islam of Hezbollah to the pro-imperialist Islam of Hosni Mubarak.

The main argument used to justify the notion of Islam as a specially backward religion is, of course, the attitudes to women and homosexuality prevalent in Muslim countries. Those who put this argument need to be reminded that much the same attitudes were prevalent in Western societies until very recently and are still present in the teachings of many Christian churches. But the fundamental flaw in this argument takes us back to the basics of Marxist materialism – the secret of the Muslim Holy Family lies in the earthly Muslim family. It is not Muslim religious consciousness that determines the position of women in Muslim society, but the real position of women that shapes Muslim religious beliefs. Islam was born in the Arabian peninsular and spread horizontally, west across North Africa and east across Central Asia. For centuries this great belt has been largely poor, underdeveloped and rural, and to a considerable extent remains so today. Other societies, from Ireland to China, with similar levels of development and similar social structures but different religions, exhibit similar oppression of women and gays.

Finally, there is the question of the relationship of the revolutionary party to religious workers. Any such party operating in a country where religion remains strong among the mass of the population, which is much of the world, must reckon with, indeed count on, the fact that the revolution will be made by workers, many of whom will still be religious. The vast mass of workers will be liberated from their religious illusions not by arguments, pamphlets or books, but by participation in the revolutionary struggle, and beyond, in the building of socialism. In such a situation it is incumbent on the party to ensure that religious differences, or differences between the religious and the non-religious, do not obstruct the unity of working class struggle. Moreover in so far as the party becomes a truly mass party, leading the class in its workplaces and communities, it will inevitably find in its ranks a layer of workers who remain religious or semi-religious. To reject such workers because of their religious illusions would be sectarian and non-materialist. It would be to share the religious/ idealist mistake of regarding religion as the most important element in consciousness and consciousness as more important than practice. At the same time the party must not become a religious party, or party whose policy, strategy or tactics is shaped by religious considerations. Revolutionary victory requires that the party should be guided by the theory that expresses the collective interests and struggle of the working class, namely Marxism. Therefore the party must ensure that on this matter it educatesc and iinfluences its religious members rather than vice versa.

One revolutionary party working in such a situation was the Bolshevik Party and its leading theorist, Lenin, wrote on these matters with insight and clarity in his 1909 article ‘The Attitude of the Workers’ Party to Religion’. Here are a few extracts:

Marxism is materialism. As such, it is as relentlessly hostile to religion as was the materialism of the eighteenth-century Encyclopaedists or the materialism of Feuerbach. This is beyond doubt. But the dialectical materialism of Marx and Engels goes further …for it applies the materialist philosophy to the domain of history….. It says: We must know how to combat religion, and in order to do so we must explain the source of faith and religion among the masses in a materialist way. The combating of religion cannot be confined to abstract ideological preaching, and it must not be reduced to such preaching. It must be linked up with the concrete practice of the class movement, which aims at eliminating the social roots of religion.

Why does religion retain its hold…? Because of the ignorance of the people, replies the bourgeois progressist, the radical or the bourgeois materialist. And so: “Down with religion and long live atheism; the dissemination of atheist views is our chief task!” The Marxist says that this is not true, that it is a superficial view, the view of narrow bourgeois uplifters. It does not explain the roots of religion profoundly enough; it explains them, not in a materialist but in an idealist way. In modern capitalist countries these roots are mainly social. The deepest root of religion today is the socially downtrodden condition of the working masses and their apparently complete helplessness in face of the blind forces of capitalism

Does this mean that educational books against religion are harmful or unnecessary? No, nothing of the kind. It means that Social-Democracy’s atheist propaganda must be subordinated to its basic task—the development of the class struggle of the exploited masses against the exploiters.

The proletariat in a particular region …is divided, let us assume, into an advanced section of fairly class-conscious Social-Democrats, who are of course atheists, and rather backward workers …who believe in God, go to church, or are even under the direct influence of the local priest... Let us assume furthermore that the economic struggle in this locality has resulted in a strike. It is the duty of a Marxist to place the success of the strike movement above everything else, vigorously to counteract the division of the workers in this struggle into atheists and Christians, vigorously to oppose any such division. Atheist propaganda in such circumstances may be both unnecessary and harmful—not from the philistine fear of scaring away the backward sections, of losing a seat in the elections, and so on, but out of consideration for the real progress of the class struggle, which in the conditions of modern capitalist society will convert Christian workers to Social-Democracy and to atheism a hundred times better than bald atheist propaganda.

We must not only admit workers who preserve their belief in God into the Social-Democratic Party, but must deliberately set out to recruit them; we are absolutely opposed to giving the slightest offence to their religious convictions, but we recruit them in order to educate them in the spirit of our programme, and not in order to permit an active struggle against it.

[Lenin Collected Works, Progress Publishers, 1973, Moscow, Volume 15, pages 402-413]

What these extracts confirm is what this whole article has argued, namely that handling correctly the issue of religion – so vital in the present political situation- is not just a matter of ad hoc judgments or tactics, still less of electoral opportunism , but of understanding the most basic ideas of Marxist dialectical materialism

John Molyneux

7 July 2008


Anonymous said...

Since this brilliant exposition has no comments it maybe seems it has gone unnoticed but it has been read and understood and appreciated

Thank you

Anonymous said...

Mr. Molyneux,

I read your article carefully and with some interest. Some of what you write is interesting. Some of it suggests rigidity that borders of fanaticism.

One would think that the Marxism you posit is subject to the same analysis that applies to religion. Which is to say, your belief in Marxism is a product of certain social conditions and not an objective stance by which to judge society.

I also note another point you make. According to you, "To put the matter as starkly as possible: from the standpoint of Marxism and international socialism an illiterate, conservative, superstitious Muslim Palestinian peasant who supports Hamas is more progressive than an educated liberal atheist Israeli who supports (even critically) Zionism." That, frankly, could not have been Marx's view.

Rather, he would surely have been aghast at groups such as Hamas which fuse Nazi propaganda with religious themes.

It is a fact that Hamas is not merely a reactionary group. The group is a part of the Muslim Brotherhood which adopted, from its inception, Nazi ideology.

In fact, substantial portions of Hamas writings, including portions of the Hamas covenant, consist of writings obtained from Nazi sources and also from similar sources including, among other things, portions copied from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Nazi themes in Islamists writings long pre-date Israel's existence, by the way, so they are not a response to Israel. Rather, they arose in Egypt with the Muslim Brotherhood, when that group joined forces with the Nazis. And, as the historical record shows, many of the Islamists - most particularly, the Muslim Brotherhood leadership and much of its membership - believed in Nazism.

So, somehow, I do not think that Marx would have seen objective progressives in people who advance, by their own words, the agenda of the Nazis. He would have looked at Islamism as a supremacist ideology no different from Nazism.

Anonymous said...

To the "islamo-fascism" commentator:

1) Marxism is the scientific study of objective conditions. Correctly practised, it is the most "objective stance by which to judge society" yet developed.

2) Marx would certainly have supported the Palestinians against Israel, because they are an oppressed people and Israel is an oppressor nation.

3) Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood do not have Nazi ideology - this is the sort of bogus claim wheeled out by the "clash of civilisations" brigade to try to justify the murder of thousands of people in the Middle East.

You are simply fuelling, or parroting, the worst kind of anti-Muslim racism encouraged by the US.

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Sophie J said...

I have a lot of time for Marx, Engels and Lenin's view on religion.

But they do still have to be contextualized to their own epoch although of course there is much to be learned from them.

Applying the format in Lenin's time does not fit exactly with today.

Since the huge anti war movement or movement for peace, the politics in many religiously minded and motivated people took a shift to the left.

Religion today is not about right leaning social democratic middle class and poor oppressed believers in God and followers of the local priest. This may have been true in Lenin's time, but things have changed.

In the spirit of Lenin, unity is all in the fight for socialism, but this patronizing notion that may have fitted with the Bolsheviks, that any religious party member needs to be convinced out of their religious belief is not right for today or for the necessity of unity.

Any convincing one way or the other is perhaps an interesting debate but no-one should take the high ground on it; believers or non believers.

As hard as this is for materialists and I am one, not everything can be answered in the here and now; even if Marx said it can, he in his time had to clear a path for materialism on the back of the period of the enlightenment.

Alongside Marx's criticism of religion and atheism is also beautiful writings on philosophy, and that is where the debate needs to shift to now, no departure from Marxism but using Marx's theories and applying them to the situation today in the struggle for socialism.

Also, I am looking at religion as a whole, not one or other variation, but the whole thing.

Anonymous said...

Sir, this is a brilliantly written article but with certain basic assumptions whose root I would like to be clarified.
1. what is the basis for equality as a concept. Why do we consider a more equal world inherently better than a less equal one.

2. what is wrong in exploitation.

religion inherently is not a belief in god (at least not all of them) but a belief in certain basic values like respect for life.

to the extent that this beliefs do not have a material basis, Marx was religious, or at least spiritual.

Paul Shackley said...

John, Hello. I have been looking at your blog and wondering how to post a comment informing you that I referred to THE POINT IS TO CHANGE IT on one of my blogs: this older article is on Marxism and Religion, it seemed a good enough place.
Paul Shackley,

Paul Shackley said...

Trying to make the link:
Post title: "Better Than Religion".