The Original Atheists With Attitude


Karl Marx is generally included in compilations of Jewish thinkers. Yet, he was born into a Jewish family who had recently converted to Christianity. This poses interesting questions for exploration and discussion: “who is a Jewish thinker?” and “what is Jewish thought?” (to name only two). Many believe that Marx’s theories were heavily influenced by his family’s Jewish heritage, and their experience in Trier as Jews. More recently, Jewish population studies, such as the American Jewish Identity Survey in 2001, have recognized that the spectrum of Jewish identity is tremendous, and that the cultural aspects of Judaism are transmitted in various ways. One such category that AJIS utilizes is "of Jewish parentage: no religion," and it is within this category that Marx and his writings can be considered.

In Part I of this series we looked at the atheistic writings of Ernestine Rose—a 19th-century Jewish feminist who pulled no punches on the questions of God and religion. While Ernestine Rose was remarkable for her courage and eloquence, it was Karl Marx (1818-1883), a remarkable and irreverent German writer, who developed a pioneering philosophy on God’s nonexistence.

Marx came from a long line of accomplished rabbis on both sides of his family. His paternal grandfather and his uncle were the rabbis of the Rhineland town Trier. Yet Marx himself did not mature in rich religious soil. For professional advancement (it became illegal for Jews to practice law in Prussia), his father converted the family to Lutheranism. Marx grew up in a family devoid of religious education and alienated from their Jewish past.

Despite this fact, many have tried to make the case that Marx’s contribution to political thought came out of his Jewish background. After all, did not Marx speak truth to power in the great tradition of the prophets of Israel when he denounced the exploitation of the weak? Was not his teleological and apocalyptic vision of history a broken mirror image of Jewish messianism?

In the words of Historian Paul Johnson: “Despite Marx's ignorance of Judaism as such, there can be no doubt about his Jewishness. Like Heine and everyone else, his notion of progress was profoundly influenced by Hegel, but his sense of history as a positive and dynamic force in human society, governed by iron laws, an atheist's Torah, is profoundly Jewish. His communist millenium is deeply rooted in Jewish apocalyptic and messianism.”

While the verdict is not out on whether or not Marx’s social vision was animated by his Jewish past, one thing is clear, Marx was an atheist. As a materialist he believed that there is no reality save the material world. The universe according to Marx was a flatland reality devoid of spiritual qualities. Furthermore, Marx held that it was the reality of the material world that determines the nature and content of our ideas and higher institutions. In Marxist lingo—the base determines the superstructure.

Marx’s great contribution to the debate over atheism lay in his understanding of religious systems as operating within and determined by socio-economic structures. According to Marx, religion is a response to human alienation—which itself is a product of economic exploitation. In other words, in a society in which people feel profound disconnect, religion comforts them with pie-in-the-sky ideas.

It is within this context that we need to interpret Marx’s often quoted phrase that “religion is the opiate of the people.” The full passage reads:

Religious suffering is the expression of real suffering and at the same time the protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, as it is the spirit of a spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

As is evident from the passage above, Marx understood religion to be a palliative. It was clear to him that religion compensated people for their suffering on earth.

Out of all the major secularists explored in these articles, Marx had the most sympathy for the power and value of religion. Yet at the same time, Marx strongly believed that religion provides a false and in the end unhealthy escape from the real world.

What Marx concluded was that if religion is born in response to an alienated society, then a proper change in the structure of the society will turn the value of religion obsolete. “The abolition of religion as people’s illusory happiness is the demand for their real happiness. The demand to abandon illusions about their conditions is a demand to abandon a condition which requires illusions.”

Finally, while Marx saw religion as a natural response, or as he put it a “reflex” to the conditions of alienation, he also realized that religion has become a co-determinant of that condition. Marx pointed out that religion has been co-opted as an ideological instrument by the powerful to keep the exploited workers complacent and apathetic. Religion does this by calling on its followers to accept one’s God given lot in life, and by promising a hereafter in which all one's troubles would disappear.

In the end, it is safe to say that Marx’s alternative to religion itself became a religion. Yet his contribution to the atheism debate remains: After Marx we can never return to the idea of God and religion as divorced from foundational economic and social realities.