Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Atheism of Marx

During the lifetime of Karl Marx (1818-83), most of the institutional churches and christian monarchs were opposing the labor movements. Because of his revolutionary humanism, Marx embraced atheism and denounced the religions that were condemning the struggle of the working class and which were extolling the status quo as divinely instituted.

Argentinean theologian Jose Míguez Bonino considers the atheism of Marx a functional critique of religion and not a denunciation of religion as such. The churches today should be open to this functional critique, for it parallels the biblical denunciation of idolatry.

Prophetic denunciation has been directed at such holy gifts as the temple (Jeremiah 7:1-15), the sabbath (Matthew 12:1-14), the law (Romans 3:19-31), faith (James 2:14-26), and the love of God (1 John 3:17-18). These are divine gifts, but God’s word condemns them whenever they are turned into mystifications of, and sacred veils for, injustice, inhumanity, legalism, and the amassing of things needed by roofless heads and unfed looks.

In the midst of dehumanizing mystifications, and in the midst of any god we ourselves have made whether it be capital, weaponry, the Leader, or the Party, “only an atheist can be a good Christian,” in the same way that “the early Christians were accused of being atheists and were judged and condemned as such for refusing to believe in the ruling gods of their society” (Míguez 1979).

These mystifications and gods represent a denial of the presence of the Holy Spirit either in our sensuous humanity or in the neighbor, who is a true temple of God (1 Corinthians 3:16-17, 6:19). “This is real atheism: God is denied in the neighbor and the neighbor in God” (Míguez 1976).

The basic ethic of the humanism of Marx can be summed up this way: “solidarity is better than egoism” (Míguez 1976). This basic ethic, however, is opposed by a deep-rooted element in Marx’s critique of religion which he most concisely expressed thus: “religion is precisely the recognition of man by detour through an intermediary” (On the Jewish Question).

In Marx was entrenched the yearning for absolute immediacy. He yearned for the removal of all mediations and intermediaries in social life, for he regarded even the best intermediary as partially alienating or subordinating. This is the heart of his rejection of both religion and the State. He envisaged the totally emancipated society to comprise of individuals who will be both co-operative and self-conscious. Social consciousness and self-consciousness will coincide completely.

For Marx, the genuinely free individual will know oneself fully, know one’s fellows fully, and be known by them fully. As he put it: “the religious reflex of the real world can, in any case, only then finally vanish, when the practical relations of everyday life offer to man none but perfectly intelligible and reasonable relations with regard to his fellowmen and to nature” (Capital, vol. 1). There will be no need for any Church or State to indoctrinate or to force people to be fit for social life.

Marx’s aspiration for absolute immediacy contradicts his ethic of solidarity, for solidarity can only be genuine when it is a unity among real others. Otherness would disappear if immediacy became absolute. “Solidarity is based on differentiation, on the existence of a real ‘other’ whom I do not absorb into myself or use instrumentally for my own self-realization” (Míguez 1976). Every real other has some aspect external to me, some capacity outside my control, and some degree of discretion, which I neither have given nor can take away.

Marx’s aspiration for absolute immediacy, more than his atheism, is a point of divergence between humanistic Marxism and Christian faith. Christians cannot disavow either the uplifting and humanizing mediation of Christ or the otherness of God. Christians believe that, if someday humanity became fully emancipated and united, it would be due to a great humanizing force that does not fully abide within either humanity or nature.

Sources Consulted:

Míguez Bonino, Jose. Christians and Marxists: The Mutual Challenge to Revolution. London, 1976.

Míguez Bonino, Jose. Room To Be People: An Interpretation of the Message of the Bible for Today’s World. Geneva, 1979.

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