Why Marx Hated Christianity: A Reply to Leonardo Boff

One keystone in the overall system of many liberation theologians is the claim that Karl Marx’s view of religion has been misunderstood. The argument may take one of several tacks, but all try to show that Christians can indeed employ Marxist analysis in theology. Some claim that Marx was only attacking the bourgeois Christianity of his day and that “true Christianity” (as defined by liberation theologians) is immune from this attack. Others may say that Marx’s attitude toward religion was simply bemused indifference and under the proper circumstances religion can easily coexist with a Marxist political economy.

Leonardo Boff’s “Case for Liberation Theology” in the January issue of Crisis makes the truly outrageous claim that “Marx in reality was never an atheist.” Marx never attacked religion directly, claims Boff; he only attacked the political manifestation that “other worldly” religion had on society. Boff goes on in his revisionist reading of Marx to say that Marx “is not opposed to religion per se, but … is opposed to the social and alienating effect that religion may engender.”

Boff’s view ignores Marx’s materialist ontology. Marx never separated religion from its manifestation in society because he never separated the essence of anything from its existence in society. The existence (or “social effect”) of something in society is its essence. If religion as political reality is alienating and to be rejected, argues Marx, then religion as religion is alienating and to be rejected.

What, in fact, did Marx have to say about religion? On this one can hardly trust Father Boff, especially when he makes such a ludicrous comment as, “Well, socialism eradicated misery; in spite of that, religion did not disappear.” If Boff understands Marx’s comments about religion as well as he understands the criteria of eradicating misery, then one must seriously question his ability to be objective at all. In fact, Marx hated religion with an unrelenting passion; he saw the eradication of religion as the absolute sine qua non of a “just” socialist society.

As is well known, Marx depended heavily upon the highly influential German philosopher, and contemporary of Marx, Ludwig Feuerbach. The most important contribution Feuerbach made to philosophy was his thoroughgoing materialism. The famous maxim “Der Mensch ist was er isst” (man is what he eats) is a crude expression of the idea that all human relationships are results of natural, material processes. Elsewhere, Feuerbach says, “A particular man is what he is, has his existence, his reality, only in his particular conditions.” Materialism is the necessary and primary element in Feuerbach’s theories about Christianity and the nature of human beings.

Applied to religion, Feuerbach says in the preface of his book The Essence of Christianity, “The true sense of theology is anthropology.” For him, religion is a projection of man’s own attributes into a fabricated absolute being called God. Consciousness of God is consciousness of humankind. The object of man’s veneration, God, is nothing but man venerating himself. “Consciousness of God is self-consciousness, knowledge of God is self- knowledge,” Feuerbach writes. It is proper to speak of God only in the sense that “the qualities of God are nothing else than the essential qualities of man.”

In a sense, it is not proper to speak of Feuerbach as an atheist. In fact he objected to being called an atheist. Those who called him that misunderstood what he was saying. One cannot negate religion, says Feuerbach, because in so doing one negates man. He explains, “I by no means say: God is nothing, the Trinity is nothing, the Word of God is nothing. I only show that they are not that which the illusions of theology make them.” In Karl Barth’s words, “Feuerbach does not deny either God or theology. In denying the existence of an abstract Being, divorced from nature and man, he is merely affirming God’s nature as man’s true nature. And in denying a false theology distinguishing theological and anthropological tenets, he is affirming anthropology as the true theology.” For Feuerbach, religion is the highest expression of humanity. But this is not the view of Feuerbach’s admirer Karl Marx. If for Feuerbach religion is the apex of human longing, for Marx it is the nadir of human alienation.

K.L. Clarkson and J.D. Hawkin write in their influential article “Marx on Religion”: “Marx could never say with Feuerbach that those who negate religion also negate man. Rather, for Marx, the negation of religion, atheism, was preliminary to the affirmation of man, communism.” Klaus Bockmuehl in The Challenge of Marxism observes that “The critique of religion is the prerequisite … of the entire economic, political, judicial and aesthetic critique and of all critiques which may yet come.” David McLellan in Marxism and Religion says that for Marx “religion is metaphysically and sociologically misguided and that its disappearance is the necessary pre-condition for any radical amelioration of social conditions.”

Marx in his eloquent introduction to Toward A Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right acknowledges that “The criticism of heaven is transformed into the criticism of earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.” Only when the criticism of religion is complete can it be time to turn attention to all those earthly forces which work to alienate man.

“The struggle against religion is indirectly the struggle against the world whose spiritual aroma is religion,” says Marx. “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature.” In perhaps Marx’s single most famous sentence — religion is the opium of the people — he suggests that religion dulls people into not recognizing their alienation. It makes them think they are liberated, when in fact they are even more alienated by religion’s intoxicating aroma.

“Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers from the chains,” Marx exclaims, “not so that man may bear chains without any imagination or comfort, but so that he may throw away the chains and pluck flowers.” This, it may be asserted, is Marx’s central theme in his entire life’s work. This is humanism. “The criticism of religion,” he goes on to explain, “disillusions man so that he may think, act, and fashion his own reality as a disillusioned man come to his senses; so that he may revolve around himself as a real sun. Religion is only the illusory sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself.” The goal of Marx’s entire system of thought is that man would revolve around himself. Indeed, Marx may properly be called, if not the first, at least the most influential secular humanist as we understand this term today.

This is Marx’s main interest in Feuerbach’s Essence of Christianity. Marx’s atheism was already firmly grounded through the influence of his teacher Bruno Bauer. What Marx found in Feuerbach was not the negative message of atheism, but the positive message of humanism. Marx could never say, with Feuerbach, that “those who negate religion also negate man.” For Marx the negation of religion was necessary for the affirmation of man, and obversely religion necessarily must be negated if man is to be affirmed. Clarkson and Hawkin distinguish between the two men by explaining, “Feuerbach wanted not to abolish, but to purify religion. Feuerbach simply wanted man to reclaim his alienated attributes and to return to himself. Marx, on the contrary, never granted any dignity to religion.”


Paris Manuscripts

The place that Marx begins his shift to a positive program is the so-called “Paris Manuscripts.” As the title suggests, these were written in the Summer of 1844 during a brief stay in Paris. They were not published until after Marx’s death, 50 years after they were written. “In these manuscripts,” McLellan explains, “Marx applied his interpretation of Feuerbach’s theory of religious alienation to the field of political economy.” He was not yet criticizing Feuerbach; in fact he still depends heavily upon Feuerbach’s analysis. His criticism of Feuerbach comes shortly after the “Paris Manuscripts” in the “Theses on Feuerbach” written about a year later.

In the section of the manuscripts titled “Alienated Labor,” Marx equates the alienation caused by wage labor — where man objectifies himself in a product which then becomes hostile to him — with the alienation caused by religion, where man makes a God which then becomes hostile by making man the object. In alienated labor, man makes a product which then confronts man hostilely and objectifies him when it is “appropriated” by the capitalist. “The appropriation of the object,” Marx claims, “appears as alienation to such an extent that the more objects the worker produces, the less he can possess and the more he falls under the domination of his product, capital.” This results in a “loss of reality for the worker.” Marx explains that “the more the worker externalizes himself in his work, the more powerful becomes the alien, objective world that he creates opposite himself, the poorer he becomes himself in his inner life and the less he can call his own.” And “it is just the same in religion,” adds Marx. “The more man puts into God, the less he retains of himself.”

Marx had compared private property to religion in “On the Jewish Problem,” and in the “Paris Manuscripts” he again draws the parallel. Private property, the main target of political economic criticism, is not the central alienating process, even though criticism of private property is the first economic criticism. Rather, alienated (appropriated) labor is the central or underlying problem, of which private property is a manifestation. Nonetheless, criticism of private property (like that of religion) is the premise of criticism. Marx says, “It is evident from the analysis of this concept that, although private

property appears to be the ground and reason for externalized labor, it is rather a consequence of it, just as the gods are originally not the cause but the effect of the aberration of the human mind, although later the relationship reverses itself.”

Under the heading “Private Property and Communism,” Marx says that it is time to move beyond the denial of the existence of God to the positive program of affirming man as “species-being,” that is, as communal or communist being. He explains: “The positive abolition of private property and the appropriation of human life is therefore the positive abolition of all alienation, thus the return of man out of religion, family, state, etc. into his human, i.e. social being. Religious alienation as such occurs only in man’s interior consciousness, but economic alienation is that of real life, and its abolition therefore covers both aspects.”

Man becoming subjective man, and thereby affirming his self-consciousness, does not come through criticism or theory, but rather through the positive action of abolishing private property. When this is done, religion will naturally fall away.

Thus, we do not criticize religion any longer. We know what it is; now it is time to do something about it, viz. establish “communism as the positive abolition of private property and thus of human self-alienation,” and thus of religion. “Atheism,” says Marx, “has no longer any meaning, for atheism is a denial of God and tries to assert through this negation the existence of man; but socialism as such no longer needs this mediation.” One need not deny the existence of God in order to affirm the existence of self-conscious man. Rather, man is affirmed positively when man begins positively to implement a communist political economy. This is “the positive self-consciousness of man, no longer mediated through the negation of religion,” Marx summarizes, “just as real life is the positive reality of man no longer mediated through … the negation of private property.” Thus humankind will realize its real Gattungswesen, its “species-being,” and no longer will it need, want, or have religion. Religion is necessarily excluded from a Marxist society. The criticism of religion is complete.


Theses on Feuerbach

“The only point that I do not like about Feuerbach’s aphorisms is that he talks too much about nature and too little about politics,” Marx wrote to his friend Arnold Ruge in 1843. “This latter is the only means by which present philosophy can become a reality.” The problem with Feuerbach is that he did not move beyond contemplation (criticism) to action (praxis). The outline of Marx’s criticism of religion is his “Theses on Feuerbach,” the last and most famous of which says, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” Feuerbach certainly was correct in his criticism of religion, but that was not enough, thought Marx. To criticism must be added practice. The correct conclusions of criticism had to be put into practice in order to change the world.

Man is not what he thinks, nor merely what he eats, as Feuerbach says; rather man is what he does. And man can only realize his true humanity — his self-consciousness — through praxis. “The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question,” Marx says in “Thesis II.” “The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking that is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.” One cannot separate thinking man from doing man. Feuerbach has said that man’s essence precedes his thought, but Marx is saying that one cannot make this distinction at all.

Feuerbach has spoken of an abstract man shaped by man’s environment and relationships. But this, for Marx, is inverted. “Thesis III” says, “The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that it is essential to educate the educator himself.” Man is not made by the forces of materialism; man is the force of materialism. Man makes these changing circumstances, they do not make man. There is no abstract “society” as over against man, nor is there some abstract being “man” as over against a particular social situation. There is only man in his social relations in historically concrete situations. Thus man only changes through change in these social relations. “The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.”

Thus, continues “Thesis VII,” Feuerbach “does not see that the ‘religious sentiment’ is itself a social product, and that the abstract individual whom he analyzes belongs to a particular form of society.” There is no individual “man” abstracted from history or from social relations. Man is only man in particular social situations. This is Marx’s doctrine of internal relations. Man “A” in social situation “X” is a different man than if he were in social situation “Y.” In social situation “Y,” he becomes man “B.” His “essence” has changed because his “essence” is known only in his social relationship. And social relationships are practical ones. So for man to realize his subjective identity, he must act. If man is alienated, he must act in a revolutionary manner. He must, as Marx would later say, become a New Man.

The German Ideology (and to a lesser extent “The Holy Family”) is the first concentrated exposition of Marx’s own doctrine of historical materialism, “the thesis that the nature of individuals and society ultimately depended on the material conditions which determined their production.” Alasdair Maclntyre says, “By 1844, Marx had [in] hand all the materials that he needed for his philosophy of history,” the philosophy known as historical materialism. In this philosophy, religion, like other ideologies, is parasitic upon material social forces. Ideologies have no history of their own. They are always products of the material forces of men. “Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness … no longer retain the semblance of independence. They have no history,” says Marx. Rather, these ideologies supervene upon the products of material forces in history. “In this respect,” McLellan explains, “religion was just like other forms of ideology, only more so. And thus it had even less of an autonomous history than did other forms of ideology.”

Arthur McGovern writes in Marxism: An American Christian Perspective: “The writings … on historical materialism thus contain two different, if interrelated, approaches to religion: religion is a reflection of the economic structure of society and hence of secondary importance; religion is the ideological force which tends to justify the status quo and impede change.”

Religion is an ideology, and like all ideologies it is both produced by material forces, and then used by the class in power to further its own goals. Different ideologies accompany different historical epochs and are used by different classes. “For instance,” says Marx, “in an age and in a country where royal power, aristocracy and bourgeoisie are contending for mastery and where, therefore, mastery is shared, the doctrine of the separation of powers proves to be the dominant idea and is expressed as eternal law.” Separation of powers is produced by the struggle for power, and used by those in power to justify the outcome of the struggle, in this case shared power. Ideology is used by the dominant class to obscure the “real world” of exploitation. Ideology legitimates the status quo by making the status quo appear to be pre-ordained, or given as a natural law.

The Communist Manifesto declares that in the place of “exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, the bourgeoisie has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.” The bourgeoisie has converted the priest into a wage laborer for its own oppressive ends. Where religion had veiled the miserable conditions of humanity, it is now used to create and sustain those miserable conditions. The inherent alienating character of religion is used by the bourgeoisie to further carry out its own program of exploitation. And Christianity is the most appropriate religion to affect this program. In Capital Marx writes,

The religious world is but the reflex of the real world. And for society based upon the production of commodities, in which the producers in general enter into social relations with one another by treating their products as commodities and values, whereby they reduce their individual private labor to the standard of homogeneous human labor — for such a society, Christianity with its cultus of abstract man, more especially in its bourgeois developments, Protestantism, Deism, etc., is the most fitting form of religion.

The fact remains, contends Marx, that where religious institutions are present, eo ipso, exploitation and alienation also are present. Religion is an ideology which always supervenes upon material forces in history, and which, like any other ideology, is used by the ruling class to legitimate its power. The very presence of religion, by definition, means that real human emancipation cannot yet have occurred. This is why Bauer’s and Feuerbach’s criticism of religion were not sufficient. Religion will not be abolished by criticism, but rather by action, i.e., changing the situation in which religion is fostered. Religion is just another form of illusion which disappears when other forms of illusion (including ultimately the state) also disappear.



  • Kenneth R. Craycraft

    Kenneth R. Craycraft is Bradley Doctoral Fellow at Boston College. Before his conversion to Roman Catholicism, he was a minister in the evangelical Christian Church, and a graduate of Cincinnati Christian Seminary.

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