The Original Atheists With Attitude
By ROI BEN-YEHUDA
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
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
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.