This is very much a loaded question. Why does a man who rejects the greed and oppression inherent within the capitalist ideology (just as Jesus Christ did), appear to thoroughly ‘reject’ the concept of theistic religion? How could Jesus Christ – a product of theistic religion – come to the conclusion that all ‘greed’ is bad, but Karl Marx arrives at the same conclusion via the ‘rejection’ of exactly the same religious structure? Both men arrive at the same place in understanding, and share a remarkable amount of anti-establishment rhetoric and behaviour. When viewed from this perspective, Marx cannot be criticising Jesus Christ directly, but must be targeting a ‘different’ aspect of this religion.
It makes no difference to Marx whether Jesus Christ existed or did not, or was the Son of God or an ordinary human-being. None of this matter for the parameters of this essay. The point is that religion ‘exists’ and has done so for thousands of years in one form or another. Whether the various religious mythologies that abound have any basis in material truth is irrelevant. Religion is a self-referencing system that assumes its own validity and superior outlook upon existence, but Marx begs to differ. For thousands of years, religious ideas were the only concepts that humans seem to have developed. This idea attempted to understand the entirety of existence and humanity’s place within the immensity of nature! Religious thinking brought ‘order’ to a chaotic world, and attempted to explain why humanity is here and why much of life seems to be ‘unjust’ and often very ‘unfair’. In this regard, religion has served humanity well. This situation existed until the development of secular logic.
Religious ideology has many manifestations from the plain stupid to the remarkably sublime! Religious thinking is not always ‘illogical’ and it can be argued that much of theology is a product of a distinct type of logic! Nevertheless, Marx never lets religion off the hook! He will have none of it! Marx even criticises the Christian monastic tradition for rejecting the ownership of private property as ‘hypocritical’ due to the broader Church itself, continuously amassing huge amounts of wealth extracted from its practitioners, whilst forcing its monastics to live in a state of eulogised abject poverty! Marx does not perceive ‘poverty’ as being ‘holy’ whether imposed ‘voluntarily’ (as in the case of monastics), or ‘imposed’ as in the working-class ‘forced’ to exist in a state of psychological, emotional and physical impoverishment! For Marx, it is a matter of defining and distinguishing the notion of ‘poverty’. Christian monastics, regardless of their piety and voluntary simplicity, always have clothes to wear, food to eat and a bed to sleep in – whereas the working-class has none of these securities. Furthermore, when the rich Church fathers who are busy amassing their wealth – they do nothing to relieve the poverty of the working-class!
Mindless poverty is not ‘holy’ – this is the point Marx is making. This is not a condemnation of individual Christians, and has nothing to say about the validity of monastic discipline or the experience of grace, etc, but it does recognise the hypocrisy of the Church. It is as if Marx is focusing his fire upon the ‘popular’ Church rather than the Church that advocates monastic practice and selfless endeavour. All the way through the narrative of Das Kapital, for instance, Marx maintains a continuous critique of established religion. Even so, it is difficult to assert that Marx is ‘anti-religious’. It seems that Marx is ‘indifferent’ about religious teaching and is totally ‘non-religious’ in his intellectual assessment. Marx is attacking a Church establishment that a priori supports the bourgeois, capitalist system and does nothing to relieve the suffering of the working-class. In other countries where the imperialist West has spread predatory capitalism, the non-Christian religions have often mimicked the Western Churches that acted as the torch-bearers of Western colonialism, and taken to supporting capitalism and exploiting the working-class. In this sense, Marx’s critique of religion equally applies outside the West.
As for the theology underlying theism, Marx presents a devastatingly simple but effective counter-argument that is difficult to overcome. Whether this argument is equally applicable to all non-Western religious (in their unpolluted state) is a matter of debate. Marx interprets a belief in god as being an error in perception – albeit a human habit that has brought terror and comfort in equal measure to the masses over thousands of years. The concept of ‘god’ is a) premised upon an ‘idea’ formed in the human mind through the habit of pursuing non-scientific thinking processes, which b) is mistakenly assumed to ‘exist’ in the external, material universe. Marx asserts that there is no objective evidence that this ‘thought’ of god ‘exists’ as a separate entity in the objective universe. Indeed, and this is the crux of the entire philosophical argument of Marx against a belief in religion, the thinking that underlies religious belief is ‘inverted’. This was not the invention of Marx, but rather of Ludwig Feuerbach.
The ‘inverted’ argument appears to be the application of ‘scientific thinking’ to the subject of religious theory. As modern science is materialist in nature, this is a ‘materialist’ argument against the validity of religious thinking. Why is religious thinking ‘inverted’? Feuerbach stated that the human mind generated the concept of ‘god’ and that ‘god’ did not create the ‘human mind’. In other words, what religious thinking believes to be the right way around – namely that god created the world and everything in it – material science states is the wrong way around and is not correct. The physical universe is the creation of random physical processes that eventually led to the emergence of ‘life’ and eventually ‘conscious’ life. Human-beings are not the result of a divine-being ‘pulling’ physical processes into a functioning order, but are rather the slow development of physical processes and an eventually generated brain that became ‘consciouses of its own ‘existence’. Once human-beings could stand on their own two-feet (literally), and ‘think’ for themselves, they concocted the mythology of a theistic entity which early humans assumed was responsible for their own presence in the world.
On the face of it, it is difficult to see how religious ideologues can effectively ‘counter’ the argument of Marx. For a start, it not just Marx who thinks like this, but rather virtually everyone who believes in modernity and the processes of science. This type of thinking is the underlying premise behind secular society. It is hard to see why the Catholic Church has embraced fascism and rejected Marxism – when many fascist leaders are committed atheists! Karl Marx is not responsible for the scientific nature of modern society – he simply ‘aligned’ himself with this trend – although he does hold the Church to account for its out and out support of the bourgeois system and its endless crimes. All religionists can resort to, or so it seems, is a restatement of ‘faith’, but this seems intellectually lazy, considering that many great thinkers are drawn toward to religion. Religious thinkers have to effectively counter the onus of modern science in a way that acknowledges the validity and purpose of modern science (without demeaning it or its supporters), whilst logically furthering its own cause and creating a new validity for religious thinking – perhaps one thoroughly ‘divorced’ from the strictures of predatory capitalism! Within Communist China, Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism all adhere to supporting the Socialist System and developing their theology in that direction.