Paul N. Siegel


The Meek and the Militant


Part I: The Marxist Critique of Religion


Chapter 2
The Marxist View of Religion


Dialectical Materialism and Its Criticism of French Materialism

‘The materialism of the last century,’ says Engels, was

predominantly mechanical, because at that time of all natural sciences only mechanics, and indeed only the mechanics of solid bodies – celestial and terrestial – in short, the mechanics of gravity, had come to any definite close ... This exclusive application of the standards of mechanics to processes of a chemical and organic nature – in which processes the laws of mechanics are, indeed, also valid but are pushed into the background by other, higher laws – constitutes the first specific but at that time inevitable limitation of classical French materialism. The second specific limitation of this materialism lay in its inability to comprehend the universe as a process, as matter undergoing uninterrupted historical development ... Nature, so much was known, was in eternal motion. But according to the ideas of that time, this motion turned, also eternally, in a circle and therefore never moved from the spot; it produced the same results over and over again ... This same unhistorical conception prevailed also in the domain of history ... Thus a rational insight into the great historical interconnections was made impossible, and history served at best as a collection of examples and illustrations for the use of philosophers. (On Religion, pp.231-3)

For dialectical materialism, on the other hand, change is not merely repetitive. Things undergo qualitative transformation in their interactions with one another. ‘The motion of matter is not merely crude mechanical motion, mere change of place, it is heat and light, electric and magnetic tension, chemical combination and dissociation, life and, finally, consciousness’ [1] (On Religion, p.171). These are different forms of motion.

Matter is not merely acted upon from outside; it is impelled by inner opposing forces. In the struggle between these inner forces a gradual accumulation of changes brings about at a given point a sudden transformation. Water that is heated is at a certain definite temperature transformed into steam; water that is cooled is likewise at a precise temperature transformed into ice. The addition of a single crystal to a supersaturated solution of certain crystals will cause a precipitation. In biological evolution, an accumulation of small changes leads to the emergence of a new species. [2]

The solar system, the earth, the plants and animals on it, human societies came into existence in this way. Everything is in a process of evolution, of coming into being and passing away. The main features of this process can be summed up in a very general manner by a series of laws which were first formulated by Hegel: interpenetration and struggle of opposites; development through contradiction; the transformation of quantity into quality and vice versa; ‘breaks of gradualness’; new stages of development which contain in a different and higher form something of what has been destroyed (‘the negation of the negation’).

Diderot anticipated to some degree the evolutionary views of the next century. [3] However, because other 18th century materialists saw the universe as a machine which repeats its movements, they were deists: a machine needs a ‘first impulse’ from a prime mover to get it started. Whereas the God of the Bible was a Middle Eastern monarch who ruled over the universe with the might and wisdom with which Solomon ruled over his kingdom, the God of the deists was a British constitutional monarch who did not interfere with nature’s laws and who, once having created the universe, presided over it but did not rule it. But as for Marxism, Engels commented, ‘in our evolutionary conception of the universe, there is absolutely no room for either a Creator or a Ruler; and to talk of a Supreme Being shut out from the whole existing world, implies a contradiction in terms’ (On Religion, p.295).

So too the 18th century materialists saw human society not as lawfully developing in accordance with its own internal forces but as acted upon from the outside by superior individuals who exerted their ideas and their will upon the inert masses of people. They tended to look upon religion as a conspiracy of kings, priests, and aristocrats to ‘lull to sleep the people in fetters’, as one of them put it [4], a theory which Marxism, as we shall see, regards as an oversimplification. At the same time in an elitist spirit they feared what would happen if not merely the educated, but the masses, were to reject the notion of the God of Christianity. This was the point of Voltaire’s quip ‘If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.’

‘In the realm of history,’ said Engels (On Religion, p.256), ‘the old materialism becomes untrue to itself because it takes the ideal driving forces which operate there as ultimate forces, instead of investigating what is behind them, what are the driving forces of these driving forces.’ In short, it takes the ideas by which people explain their actions to be the impelling force of history instead of seeking the material causes which bring about changes in their view of things.

Marxism holds that, just as coping with their environment leads, in animals, to the evolutionary development of natural organs through natural selection, so with humanity the labour process leads to the development of tools, humanity’s artificial organs. The development of the forces of production, in which the means of production – the aggregate of tools socially organized – are an essential element, is the dynamic power of social development. Different social classes stand in different relationships to the mode of production, the productive forces plus the productive relations. The further development of the means of production, which disintegrated primitive collectivism and brought in class divisions, brings about the rise of new social classes, which after a gradual economic development effect a sudden transformation in society, a revolution.

Each ruling class, the class that owns the means of production, constructs an ‘ideology’, a system of ideas expressive of its outlook on life, that dominates its age. Other classes have different interests and ideas, but until they become revolutionary they normally tend to accept or at least adapt to the dominant ideology.

A new social class does not come into existence with a ready-made view of the world corresponding to its real conditions and constitution. Quite the contrary. At the beginning this budding formation may have as distorted and inadequate a picture of the social setup and its position and prospects in it as a child does of the world around it. The class’s distinctive conceptions have to be elaborated in the course of its activities and evolution by specialists in that line. [5]

These ‘specialists’, the ideologists of the class, generalize upon the class’s distinctive conceptions, which express the new needs and interests rising from its new social circumstances, shaping them into a new world-view.

In constructing an ideology, the ideologists of a class make frequent use of the ideas of the past in accordance with the same principle of economy of energy that distinguishes all production. The process of the construction of an ideology is complex, involving interaction between the diverse components of a class and its ideologists; it is not fully conscious. Although an ideology acts as a rationalization of a class’s social position and material interests, it is not mere hypocrisy but is sincerely trusted as truth by its members. For instance, the Puritans among the bourgeoisie of the late 16th century, who were often denounced as hypocrites by their opponents, generally had the genuine strength of their belief which made it possible for them to gain adherents and lead a revolution fifty years later.

On the ‘economic foundations’ or ‘material base’, the forces of production and the sum total of the relations into which people enter to carry on social production, there develops, then, an ‘ideological superstructure’ constituted by the various systems of ideas and cultural institutions of a society. The metaphor of base and superstructure is not to be construed to imply a static or one-way relationship between them. There is constant interaction among the diverse aspects of a given socio-economic order. In the ‘ideological superstructure’ religion acts upon literature, art, political theory, philosophy, and other kinds of ideological activity and is also acted upon by them. But there is also action on the economic base by ideological forces: the ideas that people have play a role in shaping the form of society, as did the Puritan ideas of the English revolutionary bourgeoisie in the 17th century. Ideology becomes a force in the class struggle, just as an individual’s concept of himself, even though mistaken, affects that person’s actions.

Ideological activities, however, are not independent forces. Although the people engaged in each form of ideological activity operate in accordance with the traditions and special concerns developed within that activity, these activities – even religion, which ‘stands furthest away from material life and seems to be most alien to it’ (On Religion, p.263) – are only relatively independent. All of these factors are different manifestations of the unified process of social development from which they have evolved. Amid all of the movements the most powerful movement acting upon them is the underlying economic movement. It is this underlying movement that ‘ultimately always asserts itself (Reader, p.202). [6]

The Marxist Analysis of the Origins of Religion

Marxism accepts the dictum of the earlier materialists, derived from Epicurus, that religion originated from the savage’s awe and fear in the face of an inexplicable nature. However, making use of subsequent comparative mythology and its own sociological insight, it has elaborated and expanded upon this observation. ‘All religion... is nothing but the fantastic reflection in men’s minds of those external forces which control their daily life,’ says Engels (On Religion, p.147), ‘a reflection in which the terrestrial forces assume the form of supernatural forces. In the beginnings of history it was the forces of nature which were first so reflected and which in the course of further evolution underwent the most manifold and varied personifications among various peoples.’

Using the findings of Edward Tylor, the founder of modern anthropology, Engels also called attention to the fact that the idea of a human being’s immortal soul came from the dreams of primitive peoples, who thought that during sleep the soul left the body and had the experiences of which a person dreamed. They assumed that this soul would leave the body after death as it did in sleep. What Engels did not know and what modern anthropology has established is that this soul, when it left the body on death, was, since it had supernatural powers, generally feared. [7] Some primitive peoples are afraid of cameras because they believe that souls are thereby captured on photographs. Even in civilized countries today mediums present, as evidence of their powers in summoning the spirits of the dead, photographs allegedly showing these spirits’ materializations, and books about poltergeists such as the The Amityville Horror gain enough credulous readers to become bestsellers.

In such dread and awe do primitive peoples hold the spirits of the dead that ancestors and outstanding persons are apotheosized into gods. [8] Contemporary anthropologists and students of comparative religion for the; most part agree that both natural forces and the spirits of the dead were the origins of the gods.

In the animistic stage of culture all nature was thought to be alive with souls The ancestral origin of some of the spirits and demons came to be forgotten, while others were remembered for a longer period of time ... Polytheism seems also to have stemmed from animism. The more important the object in the life of a people, the greater its divine soul was considered to be ... A mountain in Midian [Mount Sinai] contributed a Semitic god whose spiritualization has fathered at least three great religions. Among the Greeks, the Romans, the Indo-Aryans, the Teutons, and many other tribal groups, imagination in the course of time organized polytheism into a system and attributed a social life to the gods. [9]

Religion, therefore, is derived from the animism of primitive peoples, who do not differentiate themselves from the other things of nature, endowing them with spirits that have the thoughts and desires of human beings. Magic is the means by which the savage seeks to control these spirits either by inducing them to follow his example, squirting water from his mouth to cause rain, or by transferring their powers to himself, wearing a tiger’s tooth to gain the tiger’s strength.

Religion came into being with the advance from savagery to barbarism, when the passage from food-gathering to agriculture brought with it class society and an unproductive priesthood, just as in a higher stage of productive development the commercial centres of Greek civilization saw the birth of philosophy and in a still higher stage the industrial society of the 17th century saw the birth of modern experimental science. But the old persists amid the progress of the new. Religion continues although science advances, and it contains within it elements of magic.

Thus swine flesh may not be eaten by Jews or Muslims and cows may not be killed by Hindus, just as savages have taboos which forbid them to touch objects believed to be inhabited by supernatural beings or forces. The icon, the image of a saint or other sacred personage that is itself sacred, is similar to the fetish of the savage. Prayers, holy water, and priestly blessings are similar to the formulas, incantations, and rituals of magic. The doctrine of transubstantiation of the Catholic Church, which holds that in the rite of the Eucharist the bread and wine are actually converted into the body and blood of Christ although they retain their external appearance, resembles the cannibalism of primitive peoples who believe that eating a man’s flesh is a means of gaining his strength and courage. The ‘laying on of hands’ in various Protestant sects is a quasi-magical means of allaying distress – a power formerly reserved for kings and saints, including the unsaintly Charles II, whose ‘royal touch’ was supposed to be able to cure scrofula.

Both magic and religion have their origin in humanity’s lack of control over nature. Religion, however, also reflects humanity’s lack of control over the forces of society that resulted from class domination. This was first perceived by Engels, who pointed out that the students of comparative mythology in paying attention exclusively to the gods as imaginary reflections of the forces of nature overlooked one increasingly important factor in the evolution of religion. That was its connection with and conditioning by the loss of control over the forces of society with the advent of class distinctions and domination.

Side by side with the forces of nature, social forces begin to be active – forces which confront man as equally alien and at first equally inexplicable, dominating him with the same apparent natural necessity as the forces of nature themselves ... At a still further stage of evolution, all the natural and social attributes of the numerous gods are transferred to one almighty god. (On Religion, p.148)

How the ‘natural and social attributes of the numerous gods’ were transferred to the God of the Old Testament is suggested by a recent student of comparative religion, Weston La Barre: ‘The priestly Jehovah himself is an odd syncretism of fertility- and place-daemons, fire- and volcano-god, Mesopotamian sky god and neolithic rain bull, shaman-husband [medicineman cultivator] of the land, and many others besides.’ [10]

The Marxist Perception of Religion as Ideology

The Marxist perception of religion as ideology is not the same as the French materialists’ view of religion as a conspiracy of the ruling class. This was not understood by Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the pre-eminent theologians of our time, who writes in his introduction to the Schocken edition of Marx and Engels on Religion that Marx and Engels’ ‘appreciation of the socially radical peasants of the sixteenth century under Anabaptist religious leadership, revealed particularly in Engels’ article on the Peasant Wars, is not quite in agreement with Marxism’s central thesis that religion is a weapon always used by the established social forces.’ The function of an introduction to a book is to make the reader better acquainted with the author of the book and his ideas so that the reader comes to the book better oriented: it is, in short, to introduce, not traduce. But this statement, like other statements in Niebuhr’s introduction, with which we shall deal later, only misleads the reader.

Niebuhr’s statement is applicable to the Enlightenment philosophers’ view of religion as conspiracy. That was an unhistorical approach to religion. The philosophers rightly regarded the Catholic Church of their time as the enemy of progress and consequently looked upon religion as ministering exclusively to reaction at all times and in all respects. This was too one-sided an appraisal of the phenomenon.

In accord with the method of dialectical materialism Marx and Engels gave a much more concretely historical explanation of the role of religion through the ages which took into account its contradictory functions. Although the primary function of religion was to sanctify repressive institutions, because it dominated people’s thinking about the world and society around them, rebellious moods and movements among the oppressed in pre-bourgeois times – and even after – tended spontaneously to acquire a religious colouration and heretical cast. The aims and aspirations of social agitators were expressed through traditional religious ideas adapted to the need and demands of the insurgent masses.

There is, therefore, no sort of contradiction, as Niebuhr suggests, between the perception that German Anabaptism served the socially radical peasants and the perception that religion is a weapon used by the established social forces: religion – in different forms, of course – can be a weapon used by opposing sides. The reinterpretations of religious ideas have accompanied deep-going changes in social relations that have given rise to sharp class conflicts.

In fact, this is clearly stated, although obtusely disregarded by Niebuhr, in the very passage in Engels’ The Peasant War in Germany from which Niebuhr got his metaphor of religion as a weapon. There were three opposing forces in Luther’s time, says Engels, analysing the social classes in each, ‘the conservative Catholic camp’, ‘the camp of burgher-like moderate Lutheran reforms’, and the ‘revolutionary party’ of Münzer, the Anabaptist leader (On Religion, p.103).

Luther had put a powerful weapon into the hands of the plebeian movement by translating the Bible. Through the Bible he contrasted the feudalized Christianity of his day with the unassuming Christianity of the 1st century, and the decaying feudal society with a picture of a society that knew nothing of the complex and artificial hierarchy. The peasants had made extensive use of this instrument against the princes, the nobility, and the clergy. Now Luther turned it against them, extracting from the Bible a real hymn to the God-ordained authorities such as no boot-licker of absolute monarchy had ever been able to achieve. (Ibid., p.108)

Nor did Marx and Engels regard German Anabaptism as a special exception, as Niebuhr implies. If he only had read with some care the book he was introducing, he would have found that they saw rebellious movements of the oppressed as taking their own distinctive religious forms from the earliest days of Christianity. ‘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’ (ibid., p.316). ‘Revolutionary opposition to feudalism lasted throughout the Middle Ages. It took the shape of mysticism, open heresy, or armed insurrection ... The heresies gave expression partly ... to the opposition to feudalism of the towns that had outgrown it (the Albigenses, Arnold of Brescia, etc.), and partly to direct peasant insurrections (John Ball, the Hungarian teacher in Picardy, etc.)’ (ibid., p.99). In those two varieties of medieval heresy ‘we see, as early as the twelfth century, the precursors of the great antithesis between the burgher and peasant – plebeian oppositions, which caused the failure of the Peasant War’ (ibid., p.100).

At that time the plebeians were the only classes that ... stood outside both the feudal and the burgher associations. They had neither privileges nor property ... This explains why the plebeian opposition even then could not confine itself to fighting only feudalism and the privileged burghers; why, in fantasy at least, ... it questioned the institutions, views and conceptions common to all societies based on class antagonism ... In this respect, the chiliastic dream-visions of early Christianity offered a very convenient starting-point ... This sally beyond both the present and even the future could be nothing but violent and fantastic. (Ibid., p.102)

The ‘chiliastic dream-visions of early Christianity’ – the idea of the second coming of Christ, which would bring a thousand years of the Kingdom of God on earth – inspired, then, the struggles of the poor and the oppressed for centuries. This sheds a new light on Marx’s ‘Religion is the opium of the People.’ This is generally taken to mean that religion is a drug which enables the masses to bear their misery by losing themselves in dreams that deprive tjhem of the capacity to revolt. This is the conception, as we have seen, of the Enlightenment philosophers, and it is undoubtedly a good deal of what Marx meant, but it is not all that he meant. Immediately preceding his famous sentence is the sentence ‘Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress’ (Ibid., p.42). Opium dreams can rouse to protest and struggle, can stimulate as well as stupefy Opium, however, is never conducive to realistic perception, and it is precisely because communism could not be achieved at that time, because the struggle for it could only be an anticipation of the future, that the yearning for it took the form of fantasy.

But even the revolutionary English bourgeoisie of the 17th century used religion – although not in so ‘violent and fantastic’ a form – to provide ‘the self-deceptions’ that the adherents of the revolution needed in order to ‘conceal from themselves the bourgeois limitations of the content of their struggles and to keep their enthusiasm on the high plane of the great historical tragedy.’ ‘Cromwell and the English people,’ therefore, ‘borrowed speech, passions, and illusions from the Old Testament for their bourgeois revolution. When the real aim had been achieved, when the bourgeois transformation of English society had been accomplished, Locke supplanted Habakkuk [the book of the Old Testament dealing with the triumph of divine justice over evil].’ [11]

With the rise of the bourgeoisie there came the development of science, which furthered industry; 17th century Calvinism, the religion of the revolutionary English bourgeoisie, paved the way for science [12], and the bourgeoisie and science soon went beyond religion.

The flag of religion waved for the last time in England in the seventeenth century, and hardly fifty years later appeared undisguised in France the new world outlook which was to become the classical outlook of the bourgeoisie, the juristic world outlook. It was a secularization of the theological outlook. Human right took the place of dogma, of divine right, the state took the place of the church ... And because competition, the basic form of trade of free commodity producers, is the greatest equalizer, equality before the law became the main battle-cry of the bourgeoisie. (Ibid., pp.270-71)

The idea of the ‘inalienable rights’ of man, which fired the imaginations of the American and French revolutionists, was, however, a rationalization of the bourgeoisie, just as Puritanism had been a religious rationalization of the English revolutionists. ‘The sale and purchase of labour-power ... is in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. There alone rules Freedom, Equality, Property.’ [13] Ostensibly, both capital and labour enter into a contract as free agents in which they exchange on an equal basis that which is the possession of each, money and labour. In reality, since the worker must starve if he does not sell his labour-power, he is under constraint to be exploited. Capitalists and workers are theoretically equal before the law, but that equality received its best comment in the famous sentence of Anatole France: ‘The law in its majestic equality forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets and to steal bread.’

However, if the bourgeoisie in its revolutionary heyday gave up religion for a secularistic ideology, in the 19th century it returned to religion although it could not summon up the old fervour. The British bourgeoisie had been terrified by the Jacobins and the sans-culottes of the French Revolution and attributed the whole nasty affair to the spread of irreligion. ‘By 1795,’ says Bertrand Russell, ‘almost all the well-to-do in England saw in every un-Biblical [geological] doctrine an attack upon property and a threat of the guillotine. For many years British opinion was far less liberal than before the Revolution.’ [14]

Soon enough, however, the English bourgeoisie did not stand alone in its acceptance of religion. With the growth of socialism ‘British respectability,’ says Engels, triumphed over ‘the free thought and religious laxity of the Continental bourgeois.’

Nothing remained to the French and German bourgeoisie as a last resource but to silently drop their free thought, as a youngster, when sea-sickness creeps upon him, quietly drops the burning cigar he brought swaggeringly on board; one by one, the scoffers turned pious in outward behaviour, spoke with respect of the Church, its dogmas and rites, and even conformed with the latter as far as could not be helped ... Religion must be kept alive for the people – that was the lonely and last means to save society from utter ruin. (Ibid., pp.312-13)

That Engels is correct in seeing the Continental bourgeois turn to religion as a consequence of the growth of socialism is attested to by so eminent an historian and so sympathetic a friend of religion as Arnold Toynbee:

Towards the close of the 19th century, a section of the French bourgeoisie that had been anti-clerical or agnostic or atheist since at least as far back as the time of the French Revolution reverted to a profession of Roman Catholic orthodoxy in a more or less cynical mood, because they had come to think that the Roman Catholic Church’s deeply ingrained conservatism was now making the Church a bulwark of private property in an age in which socialism was on the march. [15]

Thus the European bourgeoisie, after having in its most progressive sections rejected the drug of religion, became its ‘pushers’. The Enlightenment thinkers’ view of religion as a cynical ruling-class conspiracy was – although ‘pushers’ are themselves often drug addicts – closer to reality at this time than during the Enlightenment itself.

Since the French Revolution, however, religion has become, said Engels, speaking of the advanced capitalist countries of Europe (his statement must be qualified when one speaks of the predominantly peasant countries in the periphery of world capitalism) [16], ‘incapable of serving any progressive class as the ideological garb of its aspirations’ (ibid., p.266). The working class has no need of the illusions of religious ideology or any other kind of ideology to make its revolution. Marx’s materialistic concept of history, the world outlook of the politically conscious workers, has in fact served to dispel such illusions, bringing about for the first time a consistent concordance between the aims of a revolutionary class and its general outlook, free of religious and other ideological obfuscation.

Marxism and Modernist Christianity

Among the religious illusions which Marxist materialism dispels are those of modernist Christianity, a modification of the earlier Christianity attacked by the French materialists.

As a result of the advance of science Christians had to surrender bit by bit what had been regarded as essential elements of their faith. The warfare between science and religion took place in the 16th and 17th centuries on the front of astronomy and in the 19th century on the fronts of geology and biology. Fighting on these fronts was fierce, but the successive retreats of the Christians enabled believing scientists to continue to adhere to the religion of their time as that religion became modified. Today, as at most times in the last three hundred years, it is said that science and religion have established a peace [17], although Protestant fundamentalists and some Catholic theologians are still fighting a rearguard action. Scientists on such fronts as biochemistry and psychology, where such matters as the origin of life and the indivisibility of mind and body are involved, continue, however, to wrest territory from theology.

Engels, surveying the process taking place in his own time, observed ironically:

God is nowhere treated worse than by the natural scientists who believe in him ... One fortress after another capitulates before the march of science, until at last the whole infinite realm of nature is captured for science, and there is no place left in it for the Creator ... What a distance from the old God – the Creator of heaven and earth, the maintainer of all things – without whom not a hair can fall from the head! (Ibid., pp.192-3)

Just as Henry IV said of his conversion to Catholicism to gain the throne, ‘Paris is worth a mass’, so the contemporary theologian can say ‘Maintenance of the church is worth the sacrifice of the old God.’

Not only has religion retreated before the onslaught of natural science; it has retreated before the advance of the philological study of the Bible. Using methods literary scholars have used on other texts, Biblical scholars have shown that the Bible was written over a period of more than fourteen centuries, the earliest parts going back to before 1200 BC, the latest having been written in the middle of AD 200. The first five books of the Old Testament, which had been attributed to Moses, were actually written by several people at different times in an order which was not the same as the order in the Bible. Thus at least three people wrote Genesis, the first chapter of which was written some centuries after most of the second chapter. So too the gospel of the New Testament, which had been believed to be eye-witness accounts by Jesus’s disciples, have been found to be compilations of oral tradition that had accumulated over a period of time. [18]

Liberal theologians have accepted these findings but have continued to regard the Bible as in some sense the word of God even though it is not a direct communication from Moses who got it straight from Jehovah or a recital of events by the disciples of Christ who had witnessed them. This kind of liberal theology was already present in the time of Marx and Engels. Engels speaks of ‘that latitudinarian criticism’ of the Bible ‘which prides itself upon being unprejudiced and thoroughgoing, and, at the same time, Christian. The books are not exactly revealed by the holy ghost, but they are revelations of divinity through the sacred spirit of humanity, etc.,’ (ibid., p.205).

Characteristic of this liberalism is the article on the Bible by the theologican Sanday in the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics. ‘Given a spiritual interpretation of the universe,’ writes Sanday,

assuming that behind the world of phenomena there is a supreme spirit which has brought it into being, there has been a wide-spread belief that this Spirit desires to be known, and has caused itself to be known, by the most intelligent of its own creatures ... The whole idea of Spirit ‘speaking to’ spirit is, of course, metaphor ... But if we are to suppose that God has ‘spoken to’ man, how should He speak? ... Surely it is very credible that the method of communication chosen might well be through the influence of the higher Spirit upon the lower, not in equal degree upon all individuals but pre-eminently upon some. That is the way in which the Bible appears to describe the relation of God to man ... When we come to consider him [man] as a religious being, we find ... that his career has been on the whole one of gradual and progressive advance ... If we look steadily upon the contents of the Bible from this point of view of ‘an increasing purpose,’ they seem quite worthy to have come from God ... There are certainly some ways – many ways – in which the Bible is not infallible, and therefore not in the strict sense authoritative. More and more the authority of the Bible has come to be restricted to the spheres of ethics and religion. But more and more it is coming to be seen even within these spheres, allowance must be made for difference of times.

Sanday rejects the old anthropomorphic God who spoke to Moses, as the Bible says, ‘just as a man speaks with a friend’ but did not permit him to see his ‘face’, only his ‘back’ – it must have made communication awkward – since no one could see the face of God and live (Exodus 33: 11, 20-23). The idea of spirit speaking to spirit is only a metaphor since speech implies a larynx and a material body. Nevertheless God supposedly exerted his ‘influence’ on the authors of the Bible although how he communicated ideas without language (‘Ideas do not exist apart from language’, as Marx pointed out) [19] is not specified.

The message of the Bible which is the result of God’s communication to a few choice spirits is said to be becoming increasingly clear in the course of man’s spiritual evolution, which is part of the divine plan. Its authority is now seen to be restricted to ethics and religion – that is, to the enunciations of the commandments of the God whose existence Sanday had begun by assuming, not proving. What it has to say about the things which are contradicted by natural science are to be regarded as the crudities adapted to the ignorance of the men whom God ‘influenced’, not as eternal truths.

This is the doctrine of accommodation by which the absurdities of the Bible are explained by the need of God to accommodate himself to the limited intelligence of man. The trouble with this explanation is that it makes God accommodate himself much too much: the supposed concession to man’s limited intelligence is really a stumbling-block in the way of the progress of that intelligence. Blind belief in the Bible has been the prime source of obscurantist resistance to the acquisition of knowledge concerning the universe and humanity. Not only was it used to forbid the teaching of Copernican astronomy, to engage in witch-hunts, and to oppose the concept of biological evolution, in our day it has been used by South African Boers to defend apartheid and by Mormons to exclude Blacks from the priesthood, thereby consigning them to a lower place in the Celestial Paradise, that is, to a segregated heaven. It really seems as if an all-wise God could have done better.

Even in the spheres of ethics and religion the modernist theologian concedes that allowance must be made for differences in times. This spares him the embarrassment of defending such things as the commands that men who will not obey their parents should be stoned to death (Deuteronomy 21: 18-21), as should brides who are ‘proven’ not to have been virgins on their wedding night by their not being able to exhibit blood-stained sheets (Deuteronomy 22:15-20). But what then remains after such allowances have been? The answer given by the modernist theologian is that the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount teach us a morality that is true for today and always and is so sublime that it must have in some sense come from God.

Engels, on the other hand, rejects ‘every attempt to impose on us any moral dogma whatsoever as an eternal, ultimate, and forever immutable moral law’ (Reader, p.252). In rejecting moral absolutes Engels anticipates what the great anthropologist Sir James Frazer found from his study of many cultures: ‘The old view that the principles of right and wrong are immutable and eternal is no longer tenable. The moral world is as little exempt as the physical world from the law of ceaseless change, of perpetual flux.’ [20] But, although there are no moral absolutes, ends and means are dialectically interconnected, with ends determining means and with the achievement of an end becoming the means of achieving a further end. Since, for instance, the liberation of the working class can only come about through the workers themselves, socialism cannot be achieved by the deception and coercion practised by Stalinist ‘leaders’. [21]

Engels, unlike Frazer, sees the changes in morality as arising from the economic development of society:

All former moral theories are the product, in the last analysis, of the economic stage which society had reached at that particular epoch. And as society has hitherto moved in class antagonisms, morality was always a class morality; it has either justified the domination and the interests of the ruling class, or, as soon as the oppressed class has become powerful enough, it has represented the revolt against this domination and the future interests of the oppressed. That in this process there has on the whole been progress in morality, as in all other branches of human knowledge, cannot be doubted. But we have not yet passed beyond class morality. A really human morality which transcends class antagonisms and their legacies in thought becomes possible only at a stage of society which has not only overcome class contradictions but has even forgotten them to practical life. (Reader, p.252)

If we examine the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount, we find that they do not constitute in truth an immutable and acceptable moral dogma. The Second Commandment, for instance, which announces that God will ‘tolerate no rivals’, states: ‘I bring punishment on those who hate me and on their descendants to the third and fourth generations’ (Exodus 20:5). Would liberal theologians defend this vengefulness upon the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of criminals as a guide to human conduct today?

The Tenth Commandment states: ‘Do not desire another man’s house; do not desire his wife, his slaves, his cattle, his donkeys, or anything else that he owns’ (Exodus 20:17). Here the existence of slavery is accepted as moral, and women are regarded as possessions similar to cattle. The low place of women is manifestly derived from the same patriarchal culture of a nomadic tribe which caused Lot, the upright man of God, to offer his two daughters to the wicked men of Sodom if they would not rape the two male strangers who were Lot’s guests (Genesis 19: 7-8). Among nomads in a desert country hospitality is all-important, but women do not count for much.

The commands ‘Do not steal’ and ‘Do not commit murder’, derived from Hammurabi’s codification of the Babylonian laws that had come down to him from earlier times, are more enduring moral precepts, necessary for the normal functioning of civilized society. Because of social tensions and class contradictions, however, these precepts cannot be absolute and will be at times regarded differently, especially by opposing classes.

The Bible relates, for instance, how Joseph, favoured by God, was able to foretell years of famine and advised the pharaoh to accumulate a large store of grain. When the famine came, the people of Egypt and Canaan were forced by hunger to give their livestock and their land to Joseph, acting as the pharaoh’s governor, and to become the pharaoh’s slaves in return for food. They bound themselves and their descendents, moreover, to give the pharaoh one-fifth of the harvest they cultivated for him (Genesis 47: 18-26). The Bible evidently regards this extortion as commendable conduct on the part of Joseph. Rebellious slaves, however, would have regarded it as a form of stealing, whereas if they were to have expropriated the land they or their forefathers had relinquished under duress this would have been regarded as stealing by the pharaoh and his underlings, including the privileged priests, who had not been required to give up their land and who received allowances from him.

Moreover, as Engels points out, ‘Do not steal’ is not an eternal moral law. Stealing presupposes the prevalence of private property and its concepts of ownership. ‘In a society in which the motive for stealing has been done away with, in which therefore at the very most only lunatics would ever steal, how the preacher of morals would be laughed at who tried solemnly to proclaim the eternal truth: Thou shalt not steal’ (Reader, p.252).

The Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, who observed at close range the Stone Age Eskimos of Coronation Gulf from 1906 to 1918, tells in fact of such a society, a society of primitive communism.

The system which I watched breaking down under the combined influence of Christianity and the fur trade was on its economic side communism. Natural resources and raw materials were owned in common, but made articles were privately owned ... You don’t have to accumulate food, apart from the community’s store; for you are welcome to all you reasonably need of the best there is. You do not have to buy clothes; for they will be made for you by some , woman member of your family or by some woman friend ... You do not have to accumulate wealth against your old age; for the community will support you as gladly when you are too old to work as it would if you had never been able to work at all – say because you had been blind from infancy. [22]

In this society the Judeo-Christian injunction ‘Do not steal’ did not have any meaning – or at least it did not until Christianity and capitalism disrupted the old ways.

Even less than the injunction forbidding stealing has the injunction forbidding killing been an absolute, even to the faithful. Catholics thought that they were performing a religious duty in killing every Huguenot in sight on St Bartholomew’s Eve. Although the Huguenots presumably differed with them on this doctrinal point, Protestants were nevertheless not always averse to killing. Luther felt the same way about the German peasants during their uprising as the French Catholics did about the Huguenots. ‘They must be knocked to pieces, strangled and stabbed, covertly and overtly, by every one who can, just as one must kill a mad dog!’ he exhorted (On Religion, p.107).

The churches, of course, have always condoned mass murder, using the doctrine of the ‘just war’. Coincidentally, each church has found the war conducted by its own state to be a just one. While the Kaiser in World War I spoke of ‘Gott und mich’, the English poet Rupert Brooke summoned his countrymen to fight ‘for God, King and Country’. Each regime is confident that the old ‘God of Battles’ is on its side. On the other hand, the war which the ruling class of the imperialist nations presented as a holy war, the Russian Bolsheviks rejected as a capitalist war, calling upon the working people of all countries to oppose it. Different classes, different moral criteria and conclusions.

The Sermon on the Mount is no more a moral doctrine whose superiority proves that it is a revelation of God than is the Ten Commandments. If the test of truth is experience, then the morality of the Sermon on the Mount has been refuted by life. As Marx said,

Does not every minute of your practical life give the lie to your theory? Do you consider it wrong to appeal to the courts when you are cheated? But the apostle writes that that is wrong. Do you offer your right cheek when you are struck upon the left, or do you not institute proceedings for assault? Yet the Gospel forbids that ... Are not most of your court proceedings and the majority of civil laws concerned with property? But you have been told that your treasure is not of this world. (Ibid., p.35)

The claim that the doctrine is so lofty that it cannot be realized in life is only an expression of underlying contempt for it: ideas which are so pure that they are sullied by contact with reality are not worth anything. One pays lip-service to them, but they are not a guide for one’s conduct; they are sterile abstractions.

In reality, the Sermon on the Mount expressed a doctrine which enabled the oppressed of the Roman Empire to find consolation for their lot. To those who suffered constant humiliation it preached the glory of submission. [23] The psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, who was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp, has revealed the shocking fact that some of the prisoners there were so broken that they fell in love with their guards. This is the sick masochism of the slave who loves those who abuse him. The slave who struggles against his slavery, however, thereby frees himself of his slave psychology.

Far from showing moral superiority, the Sermon on the Mount expresses the sneaking resentment of those who are wretched but cannot give vent to their sense of injustice.

Happy are you who weep now; you will laugh! Happy are you when people hate you, reject you, insult you, and say that you are evil, all because of the Son of Man! Be glad when that happens and dance for joy, because a great reward is kept for you in heaven... But how terrible for you who are rich now; you have had your easy life! How terrible for you who are full now; you will go hungry! How terrible for you who laugh now; you will mourn and weep! (Luke 6: 21-25)

Is there not a suppressed vindictiveness here that is masked by the statement ‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who mistreat you’? (Luke 6: 27-28). To his followers Christ says, ‘Pray for your enemies, and you will go to heaven, but your enemies, who are now laughing, will weep and wail in hell.’ To his opponents he says, as we might put it in the vernacular employed by the Good News Bible, ‘That’s all right, bud – go ahead and laugh. You’ll get yours some day. He laughs best who laughs last.’ The palming off on God of one’s own unacknowledged desire for justice leads to a patent self-contradiction. ‘Do not judge others,’ says Christ, ‘and God will not judge you; do not condemn others, and God will not condemn you; forgive others, and God will forgive you ... The measure you use for others is the one God will use for you’ (Luke 6: 37-38). But he had just before said of God, ‘He is good to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful just as your Father is merciful’ (Luke 6: 35-36). In saying that if you are unforgiving God will be unforgiving to you, he is contradicting the statement that God is merciful to the wicked. God, the model for mercy, whom humanity is urged to imitate, is himself vengeful. In actuality, the revelations that purportedly come from God are merely an expression of human desires and dreams.

Marxism and Agnosticism

In the 18th century religious disbelief often took the form of deism, belief in a God which denied scriptural revelation or established religion; in the 19th century it often took the form of agnosticism. The word ‘agnosticism’ was invented by Thomas Henry Huxley from the Greek agnost(os) (‘not known, incapable of being known’) to refer to the doctrine that it is impossible to gain knowledge concerning the existence or non-existence of God.

Engels said of agnosticism:

What, indeed, is agnosticism but, to use an expressive Lancashire term, ‘shamefaced’ materialism? The agnostic’s conception of nature is materialistic throughout. The entire natural world is governed by law, and absolutely excludes the intervention of action from without. But, he adds, we have no means either of ascertaining or of disproving the existence of some Supreme Being beyond the known universe ... Thus, as far as he is a scientific man, as far as he knows anything, he is a materialist; outside his science, in spheres about which he knows nothing, he translates his ignorance into Greek and calls it agnosticism. (On Religion, pp.295-8)

Humanity, however, will never acquire a complete knowledge of the universe, which is inexhaustible. Dialectical materialism holds that every scientific theory is only a rough approximation of reality, an approximation which becomes more and more close to the truth as scientific knowledge advances, but that this greater closeness to the truth is that only compared to the previous theory. But, says Engels, quoting Spinoza on the obscurantist argument for believing on the basis of ignorance, ‘Ignorantia non est argumentum’ (ibid., p.193). Ignorance, whether we translate it into Greek or Latin, is not an argument for God. In the dialectic of humanity’s enlargement of its understanding of nature, ignorance becomes in the process of time knowledge, which has, however, a new though lesser element of ignorance in it. If we explain what is at the moment unknown by reference to God, we are blocking the way to new discoveries. The development of our understanding of nature, then, is in contradiction with the idea of God. This is implicitly recognized by the agnostic in practice although in theory he leaves open the possibility that there is a God, whom, however, we shall never get to know.

Such a theoretical possibility serves no purpose but a mischievous one. If, for instance, carried away by Bardolotry, I were to claim A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a new Bible which reveals to us the actual existence of Oberon, Titania, and their court, opponents to this claim could not absolutely disprove it. Since the fairies are invisible to ordinary mortals’ eyes, the fact that trustworthy witnesses have not seen them is not proof that they do not exist. Moreover, it could be argued against opponents of our new Bible, that, as the Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica says in its article ‘fairy’, ‘one of the most interesting facts about fairies is the wide distribution and long persistence of the belief in them’. Here we have an example of that consentium gentium, that common agreement by peoples everywhere, by which theologians set such store as an argument for God.

However, since there is no evidence at all that Oberon and Titania exist except as creatures of the imagination, since it is easy enough to see how they and their court are derived from the real-life Renaissance monarch and his court, and since the belief that bad weather occurs as a result of domestic quarrels between them gets in the way of our study of how the weather changes and how we may control it, it would seem proper to dismiss the notion of the actual existence of Oberon and Titania out of hand and to say that the person who takes this fairy tale for reality is like that ass Bottom and his crew, who confuse the play they are putting on with real life. The same is true of the belief in God. We may add that mistaking fiction for reality is not conducive to appreciating the artistry of the fiction as well as to understanding reality – and that this is true for both the Bible and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Engels and Freud on Religious Alienation

What Marx and Engels had to say about religion anticipates remarkably what Freud says about it in The Future of an Illusion although Freud knew very little about Marxism. Religion, states Freud, is a ‘wish fulfilment’ that was ‘born from man’s need to make his helplessness tolerable’ and ‘was built up from the material of memories of the helplessness of his own childhood and the childhood of the human race. It can be clearly seen that the possession of these ideas protects him in two directions – against the dangers of nature and Fate, and against the injuries that threaten him from human society itself.’ [24] So, it will be recalled, did Engels speak of the gods as reflecting the ‘forces of nature’ and ‘social forces’ which were ‘alien’ and ‘inexplicable’ and which humanity called upon to protect it, not to destroy it.

‘Religion,’ Freud goes on, ‘is comparable to a childhood neurosis.’ Freud is, however, ‘optimistic enough to suppose that mankind will surmount this neurotic phase, just as so many children grow out of their similar neurosis’. [25] So too Engels wrote, echoing Ludwig Feuerbach (from whom he and Marx profited although they found that Feuerbach’s materialism did not go far enough):

Religion is essentially the emptying of man and nature of all content, the transferring of this content to the phantom of a distant God who then in his turn graciously allows something from his abundance to come to human beings and to nature ... Man has in religion lost his own existence, he has renounced his humanity, and now is aware (since through the progress of history religion has begun to totter) of its emptiness and lack of content. But there is no salvation for him, he can once more win his humanity, his (essence only through a basic overcoming of all religious assumptions and a Decisive, honest return not to ‘God’, but to himself. (Reader, pp.234-8)

Prostrating themselves before the God of their own creation, human beings are alienated from themselves and their fellows. The protection they gain from this God is at the cost of the integrity of the self. Just as with a child submitting to a domineering and capricious father, submission to God only increases insecurity by creating dependence on an arbitrary force and fosters a suppressed rebelliousness against Big Daddy that adds to fears of retaliation. It is only when humanity has finally freed itself from this dependence that it can be free.

‘By withdrawing their expectations from the other world and concentrating all their liberated energies into their life on earth,’ says Freud, human beings ‘will probably succeed in achieving a state of life in which life will become tolerable for every one and civilization no longer oppressive to any one.’ [26] The Marxist adds that this will only be accomplished when the present society, which brings the evils of unemployment, inflation, and war, before which the masses of people are impotent, has been overthrown and a new society, in which social relationships are clear and unveiled and human beings are not alienated from the products of their labour, has been constructed.

It is true that in any kind of society human beings will still be subject to injury, disease, and death. But where these are seen to be the working of natural law, not arbitrary acts, they are endurable and in part remediable. ‘Necessity is blind only in so far as it is not understood.’ Freedom does not consist in the dream of independence of natural laws, but in the knowledge of these laws, and in the possibility this gives of systematically making them work towards definite ends’ (Reader, p.266).

Since, however, religion will vanish only after ‘the last alien force which is still reflected in religion’ vanishes, it would be wrong for a revolutionary regime to prohibit the practice of religion. Thus Engels, attacking what he called the ‘Prussian socialism’ of Dühring, who advocated just such a prohibition, said: ‘Herr Dühring ... cannot wait until religion dies this, its natural, death ... He incites his gendarmes of the future against religion, and thereby helps it to martyrdom and a prolonged lease of life.’ (On Religion, p.149).

Similarly, Freud wrote:

It is certainly senseless to begin by trying to do away with religion by force and at a single blow. Above all, because it would be useless. The believer will not let his belief be torn from him, either by arguments or by prohibition. And even if this did succeed with some it would be cruelty. A man who has been taking sleeping draughts for tens of years is naturally unable to sleep if his sleeping draught is taken away from him. [27]

In the realm of religion at least there is no point to making a drug addict, whether of sleeping draughts or of opium, go ‘cold turkey’. It is better to remove the conditions which have caused him to take up his habit.




1. 20th century physics sees the atom as a miniature solar system within which negative electrons move around a positive nucleus. Instead of saying that motion is inherent in matter, it says that matter and energy are one. The so-called disappearance of matter and its reduction to electricity, said Lenin, does not contradict materialism, for the materialist is not committed to any kind of structure of matter, only to the concept of matter as an objective reality existing outside of the mind. On the contrary, it corroborates dialectical materialism, which ‘insists on the approximate, relative character of every scientific theory of the structure of matter and its properties’ and ‘on the absence of absolute boundaries in nature’ (Reader, pp.88-90).

2. One of the foremost contemporary authorities on biological evolution, George Gaylord Simpson, emphasizes its dialectical character. There are, he asserts, two ‘interwoven patterns’ of ‘constant occurrence and major importance’ in evolution, the ‘pattern of trend’, which is ‘progressive’, and the ‘pattern of change in adaptive type’, which is ‘more rapid and sporadic, recurrent rather than continuous’. ‘The times of rapid expansion ... are the “explosive phases” of evolution.’ Such an explosive phase, ‘the adoption of a new and distinct way of life’, occurred when reptiles left the water for land. Cf. George Gaylord Simpson, The Meaning of Evolution (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1950), pp.238-9.

3. Diderot, Interpreter of Nature: Selected Writings, ed. Jonathan Kemp (New York: International Publishers, c. 1943).

4. Franklin L. Baumer, Religion and the Rise of Skepticism, (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1960), pp.47-8.

5. George Novack, Pragmatism Versus Marxism, (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1975), p.9.

6. The preceding six paragraphs are drawn from my Marxism and Shakespearean Criticism, Shakespeare Newsletter, 24 (September-November 1974), 37, in which I presented as simply and concisely as I could the basic tenets of Marxism and the way they can be used in the study of literature. The essay is reprinted in Shakespeare’s English and Roman History Plays: A Marxist Approach, (London and Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1986).

7. George Peter Murdock, Our Primitive Contemporaries, (New York: Macmillan 1946), pp.11, 126, 183, 253, 313, 502, 585-6.

8. Ibid., pp.78, 127, 185, 346-7, 502, 545, 586.

9. Quinter Marcellus Lyon, The Great Religions, (New York: Odyssey Press, 1957), pp.28-29.

10. Weston La Barre, The Ghost Dance: Origins of Religion (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1970), p.562.

11. Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, Marx & Engels, Basic Writings on Politics and Philosophy, ed. Lewis S. Feuer (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1959), pp.321-2.

12. Cf. Christopher Hill, Science and Magic in Seventeenth Century England (mimeographed text of a lecture given to the J.D. Bernal Peace Library, 19 October 1976), pp.6,9: in rejecting ‘the magical elements in medieval Catholicism’ – ’holy water, relics, incantations, crucifixes, exorcisms’ – Calvinism ‘prepared for the reception of the mechanical philosophy.’

13. Marx, Capital, (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1957), p.155 (vol.1, ch.6).

14. Russell, Religion and Science, p.64.

15. Arnold Toynbee, Traditional Attitudes towards Death, Man’s Concern with Death (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968), p.127.

16. See below, pp.162 (Buddhism in Asia Today), 164 (Hinduism and the Nationalist Struggle), 184-6 (Islam and Anti-Imperialist Struggle, Islam and Modernization), 206-07 (The Sandinistas and Religion).

17. Concerning the reaching out toward religion by scientists, the English scientist Lancelot Hogben comments (The Nature of Living Matter, 1930, p.28):

The apologetic attitude so prevalent in science today is not a logical outcome of the introduction of new concepts. It is based upon the hope of reinstating traditional beliefs with which science was at one time in open conflict. This hope is not a by-product of scientific discovery. It has its roots in the social temper of the period ... Contemporary philosophy has yet to find a way out of the intellectual discouragement which is the heritage of a World War. (Quoted by Bertrand Russell. The Scientific Outlook [Glencoe, Ill. Free Press, 1931], p.132.)

For a devastating analysis of the religious yearnings of Eddington and Jeans, of religionists’ use of Heisenberg’s Principle of Indeterminacy to deny natural law, and of their finding a divine purpose in biological evolution, see pp.101-33 of The Scientific Outlook.

18. The Interpreter’s Bible, ed. George A. Buttrick, Nolan B. Harmon, et al. (New York: Abingdon Press, 1952-57), I, 439-40, 465; VII, 242, 630.

19. Quoted by S.S. Prawer, Karl Marx and World Literature, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), p.291.

20. James Frazer, The Golden Bough, (London, 1911), III, vi.

21. Cf. Leon Trotsky, Their Morals and Ours, (New York: Merit Publishers, 1969), pp.36-9.

22. Vilhjalmur Sjefansson, Lessons in Living from the Stone Age, A Treasury of Science, ed. Harlow Shapley et al. (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1946), pp.508-10.

23. It should be noted, however, that there are indications in the New Testament of a different Christ than the one who is represented as delivering the Sermon on the Mount, the Christ who drove the money-changers out of the temple and who probably was the authentic historical figure before he was enveloped by legend and myth. (See below, p.72 [Christianity’s Inception among the Jews]).

24. Sigmund Freud, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, (London: Hogarth Press, 1962), vol.21, p.18.

25. Ibid., p.53.

26. Ibid., p.50.

27. Ibid., p.49.


Last updated on 17.2.2005