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Marx, Religion, and Sociology of Religion

by David H. Kessel***


Karl Marx has been progressively included in general sociology in recent years.. Yet, in certain sociological specialties his ideas seem to be missing or given only brief attention. One such specialty is the sociology of religion. Despite the importance accorded to religion by Marx, a careful reading of the sociology of religion literature reveals few references to his views. The purpose of this paper is to understand why this is so and to explicate Marx's views on religion in order to facilitate the use of a Marxist perspective in the discipline.


As just indicated, there is a paucity of attention paid to Marx in the current sociology of religion. While acknowledging the persistence of an anti-marxian ideological climate in the West, to adequately assess this situation one must turn to the specialty itself, its assumptions and methods.

Thomas Luckmann provides a fruitful analysis of the discipline. He maintains that there is today an absence of developing theory in the sociology of religion. This absence of theory is both a conceptual and methodological problem. Conceptually, Luckmann points out the main assumption of the discipline has been and still is the erroneous identification of religion and church. This erroneous identification has resulted in the equation of religiosity with, and only with, its organized and institutionalized form. The result, Luckmann maintains, is obvious: religion then becomes amenable to scientific analysis " ...only to the extent that it becomes organized and institutionalized."(Luckmann 1967: 22) The conceptualization problem turns into a methodological problem. If the concept of religion is equated with the institution called the church, only a methodology suited to linstitutional measurement can adequately measure religion. Research problems are determined by the institutional church organizations and any attempt to conceptualize religion differently is prevented by methodological requirements.

Luckmann's main point is the discipline has " ...neglected its theoretically most significant task: to analyze the changing social...not necessarily institutional...basis of religion in modern society." (Luckmann 1967: 22) Luckmann is saying the sociology of religion has sold out to the demand for " usable research results on the part of church institutions."(Luckmann 1967: 21) He maintains that the sociology of religion has replaced theoretical analysis with "tacit assumptions", which have " crystallized into a scientific ideology, which hinders an unprejudiced view of the problem of religion in modern society." (Luckmann 1967: 22) Luckmann's most telling criticism is embodied in his following declaration:

It is fair to say that at present the sociology of religion is divorced from the main issues of social theory. The assumptions underlying most research are based upon an identification of religion with its prevalent fully institutionalized form. The discipline, thereby, accepts the self-interpretations and the ideology of religious institutions as valid definitions of the range of their subject matter. (Luckmann 1967: 26)

C. Wright Mllls warned sociologists about the very danger Luckmann is addressing. Mllls said the method used will determine the issues to be researched. If a subject is not amenable to the method in vogue, then that subject will not be dealt with in research. If the subject is one that does not fit the existing methodology, well then, the ideas or theory put forth is relagated to the rank of the philosophical, or even worse, to the realm of metaphysics. Mills has not been heeded when he warned:

But no method as such, should be used to delimit the problems we take up; if for no other reason than the most interesting and difficult issues of METHOD usually begins where established techniques do not apply. (Mills 1959: 72)

The comments above should not be taken to mean there has not been attempts to shed the albatross of method and the equation of religiosity with church-oriented religiosity. The attempts by J. Milton Yinger, Luckmann, Geertz and Berger before them have been in this direction. The irony is these attempts have been refuted by the very methods and concepts their studies were designed to transcend. "Invisible religion" or "ultimate corcerns" cannot be measured, so they either do not exist or are unimportant.

Luckmann is not making his criticisms from a Marxist perspective. Yet, his criticisms of the discipline apply directly to the absence of a Marxist perspective in the discipline. This is so both on the level of the absence of theoretical development and on the level of Luckmann's criticism that the discipline " ...fails to concern itself with the most important, essentially religious, aspects of the location of the indivldual in society."(Luckmann 1967: 27) This is a central concern of Marx in his general thoughts and in his religious thoughts, in particular.

Linked to the above criticisms is the situation in the sociology of religion concerning a built-in bias. Luckmann maintains that because the discipline has uncritically maintained the equation of religion and church:

It has prejudiced the answer to the question whether, in contemporary society, any socially objectivated meaning structures but the traditional institutionalized religious doctrines function to integrate the routines of everyday life and to legitimate its crises. (Luckmann 1967: 26)

Luckmann is saying the soclology of religion has a bias in favor of a religious perspective on life. This bias is reflected in the almost absolute absence of a questioning of religion itself. There seems to be a tacit assumption that religion simply IS. The task is merely to investigate it as it is and that's that. Inherent in this position is a refusal to entertain any supposition that religion is an inessential factor in human existence. The belief in a god is tacitly accepted and promoted and any perspective which includes the notion that religion could just as well not be there, is ignored. This is what Luckmann was refering to when he said "any socially objectivated-meaning structures."

This bias or prejudice has connections with the absence of a Marxist perspective in the discipline. It is especially interesting to consider that the same sociologists who would exclude a Marxist viewpoint because of its own "dogmatism" and "anti-religious" bias, would probably be the first to maintain their own "value-free" status. The uneasiness one might feel, if one reads the literature of the current sociology of religion while taking Marx serious, concerns the very point under consideration. That uneasiness revolves around the recognition of a bias in favor of religion as it exists and its incorporation or assimilation into the sociology of religion without question or even mere recognition.

The question of whether there is or is not a being beyond man has nothing to do with the sociological question of the place, role or function of religion in a human society. The human phenomena called religion is observable and subject to both theoretical and empirical investigation above and beyond the existence of a God. The consequences of human action on religion and religion on men are the proper locuses of attention for social inquiry, unfettered by recourse to "belief" or "faith." Sociologically, faith must be viewed from the perspective of human existence, not the reverse.

Consistent with this situation in conventional sociology of religion today is the superficial use of Marx. Where Marx is mentioned at all it is usually in terms of his portryal of religion as part of the superstructure of society, or in terms of his famous, but incompletely quoted, statement that religion is the opiate of the masses, or in terms of religion being used as a tool of social control by the elected or ruling elites of a society. While it is doubtful that even these "conventional" Marxian ideas are clearly or accurately understood, the point is they are the only parts of Marx utilized. Systematically ignored is Marx's insight that the critique of religion is the premise of all critlcism.


If Marx is viewed only superficially as a "conventional" sociologist of religion, what is there in Marx's thoughts which qualify him as an "unconventional" sociologist of religion? What does Marx have to offer "conventional" sociology of religion which it now lacks?

As mentioned above, the answer to these questions begins with his critique of religion, his critical stance. Marx's opening sentence of his "Contribution to a Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right" reads:

For Germany the criticism of religion is in the main complete, and criticism of religion is the premise of all criticism. (Marx 1964B: 43)

It is the second part of this sentence which is of major importance here. The obvious question is why is religion to be viewed as such? What is it about religion which makes it the premise of all criticism? We can exclude one possible reason at the start; that is, the criticism of religion is the basis on which to establish what religion ought to be. For as Delos B.McKown points outs:

Marx thought it ought not to be at all and proceeded to adumbrate a future society in which it would not and could not exist. (McKown 1975: 46)

McKown feels that the true answer lies in the fact that Marx found it a useful tool, but McKown also feels that the criticism of religion as the premise of all criticism is going a bit too far. However, it would seem that McKown has missed the point somewhat. Of course the criticism of any aspect of society is possible without mentioning religion. This much can be agreed with safely. Yet, to say that it is the premise of all criticism is not the same as saying it is the "logical presupposition" of all criticism. Rather, it is the premise or prerequisite because religion reveals the condition that man is in. Henri Lefebvre says it well:

According to Marx, the foundation of all criticism is the criticism of religion. Why? because religion sanctions the separation of man from himself, the cleavage between the sacred and the profane, between the supernatural and nature. (Lefebvre 1968: 10)

The criticism of religion embodies the state of alienation which is derived from man's material conditions. Because religion sanctions this alienation, because religion and religious institutions have had such a powerful influerce in the lives of humans, it is necessary to criticize the "effect" in order to get to the source. John Macmurrary adds to this understanding by declaring:

By criticism, in this phrase, we must be careful to understand what Marx understood by it, not the blank denial of religion, but the historical understanding of its necessity and function in society, which leads to its dialectical negation when its function is completed. Marx meant that the understanding of religion was the key to the understanding of social hlstory. (Macmurrary 1935: 219)

If religion sanctions the separation as Lefebvre has indicated, then the "historical-critical analysls of religion must start with reestablishing the unity of these two worlds." (Macmurrary 1935: 229) Marx DID find it a useful tool or "opening gambit," but not merely because it was useful. It should be kept in mind that Marx found things useful because they were true, not the other way around.

The second aspect of Marx's critique of religion concerns atheism. It would probably be hard to imagine a more prevalent or commonsense belief about Marx than that he was an atheist. Afterall, even those who know nothing substantial about Marx "know" he was an atheist. D. W. D. Shaw believes he does, although he acknowledges a brief period of belief, albeit "cerebral" belief. Shaw says, " ...while he was a student in Berlin...he became philosophically a naturalist, a realist, a materialist and an atheist." (Shaw 1978: 29) This seems to be conventional wisdom about Marx. The only problem is that Marx did not call himself an atheist and in fact, found the whole matter quite irrelevant. In the "Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts" (1844), Marx said:

Once the essence of man and of nature, man as a natural being and nature as a human reality, has become evident in practical life, in sense experience, the quest for an ALIEN being, a being above man and nature (a quest which is an avowal of the unreality of man and nature) becomes impossible in practice. ATHEISM, as a denial of this unreality, is no longer meaningful, for atheism is a NEGATION OF GOD and seeks to assert by this negation the EXISTENCE OF MAN. Socialism no longer requires such a roundabout method; it begins from the THEORETICAL and PRACTICAL SENSE PERCEPTION of man and nature as essential beings. It is positive human SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS, no longer a self-consciousness attained through the negation of religion. (Marx 1964A: 166-67)

Rather than merely labeling Marx an atheist, it would seem to be more accurate to say Marx was as much opposed to atheism as to religion. Marx did not really feel it was all that important to deny God and as McKown says:

...he wished to transcend all circumstances in which either the affirmation or denial of a being beyond man was at issue. (McKown 1975: 20)

If Marx was not denyiny God, what was he doing? Contrary to Shaw's belief that Marx was indeed denying God, Quentin Lauer says:

Marx is not out to get rid of God; he is out to free man--not free him from God but from himself and from his enslavement to religion, whlch is his own creation. It is not God but the belief in God which must go, if man is to be free. (Lauer 1968: 54)

As Howard L. Parsons points out, Marx (like Camus) " refuses to take atheism seriously. It misses the point."(Parsons 1964: 156)

The whole concept of atheism is one derived from the religious sphere itself. Atheism itself comes from a religious stance and is a religious term. Louis Dupre characterizes atheism as no more than an ideology itself, " idle and ill-directed theoretical attitude that only drains much needed energy away from the battle for a true humanization." Dupre continues by pointing out that Merleau-Ponty " refused to be called an atheist, because atheism is still an inverted act of faith." (Dupre 1982: 22) Marx did not start with the denial of God, but with the affirmation of man, the sole source of meaning.

Thus, calling Marx an atheist may be seen as an "admission" by the caller that he is defining Marx in religious terms and not on Marx's own terms. To use phrases which indicate that Marx was "denying'' god, "attacking" religion, or "attacking the faith," is more an admission of religious bias on the part of the commentator than it is an accurate portrayal of Marx himself. The whole matter of atheism involves a willingness to take Marx at face value, on his own terms.

The third aspect of Marx's critical stance concerns his views about the end of religion and how religion should be treated until it does end. This involves Marx's views on the necessity of religion in the first place. It has already been pointed out that religion sanctions the separation of man's life into an "earthly" existence and a "heavenly" one. The criticism of religion is predicated on reuniting these two existences. This separation means that religion maintains the distinction between the "idea of man" and the actual "fact of man." For Marx, man in his "actual" existence is largely incapable of realizing himself because of the social/economic conditions in which he finds himself. Religion is no mere mistake, but rather, in a most spiritual sense is the ideal expression of man, but in illusory form. Macmurrary explains this aspect of Marx's views as follows:

Its function is to preserve and maintain in human life, over against the actual denial of it, man's recognition of his own true essence ard destiny. It is an ideal solace for the denial of his own nature in the miseries and frustrations to which social conditions subject him. (Macmurrary 1935: 230)

Thus, even if religion is, in its own way, the "essence ard truth of humanity," its necessity is predicated on the very separation of man's existence which it helps to maintain. The destruction of religion would mean the destruction of the ideal expression of man and would reinforce the status quo of man, his alienated actual existence. Marx held that when the conditions of actual existence were no longer maintained, when the distinction between essence and actuality disappeared, the essence of religion would no longer be needed. (Macmurrary 1935: 231) Far from a "moral denigration" of religion, Marx's moral revulsion was directed at the conditions which made it necessary. If religion was the illusory and therefore partial truth of human development, then as Norman Birnbaum says, " ...the radica1 humanism of Marx and Engels proposed a trenscendence of religlon, not the repression of it. This transcendence involves the reconquest of humanity by itself." (Birnbaum 1969: 16) The necessity of religion would cease with the reunion of man's essence and his actual material being. Marx described the situation best when he said:

The abolition of religion as the ILLUSORY HAPPINESS OF MEN, is a demand for their REAL HAPPINESS. The call to abandon their lllusions about their condition is a CALL TO ABANDON A CONDITION WHICH REQUIRES ILLUSIONS. (Marx 19646: 44)

Contrary to the view that Marx would have us destroy all vestiges of religion by active repression:

Man's object for Marx ought to be the transformation of his social existence; those who repress religion only assure its martyrdom and its prolongation. Those who understand religion can afford to await its natural death. (Lichtmann 1968: 82)

Marx is making a distinction between the "religious interests" of men and the "religious institutions", which mold those "interests" into "needs" which only the Churches can supply. As Birnbaum puts it, " the end of religion, in the Marxist theory, is perhaps best understood as part of the problem of concrete transcendence..."(Birnbaum 1969:19) Rather than repress or abolish the institutional manifestations of religion, the Churches, they must be dialectically superseceded in actual history. The problem man has in doing so is, as Macmurrary points out, that:

The Churches, however, as a religous bureaucracy, will naturally resist their own supersession. And to do this they must maintain that ideal separation between the ideal world of religion and the real world of earthly life upon which their function in society and their mode of life as private individuals depends. (Macmurrary 1935: 232)

It is in the vested interests of the churches to maintain the distinction between this world and the "other," between manís earthly existence and his heavenly existence, between the "sacred" and the "profane," because their very survival depends upon it. This is accomplished by deceiving men into believing their very "salvation" is at stake.

An aside must be mentioned concerning the implications of Marx's ideas with regard to viewing the persistence of religion in the supposedly "Marxist" countries of the world today. The implication is, as based on Marx's actual vlews, that religion persists in Poland, the Soviet Union etc., BECAUSE of persisting alienation, NOT in spite of it. Any attempt to equate the systems of these countries with Marxism is a forced and false equation. Birnbaum's comments in reference to these countries will serve to entice further thought on this matter:

If alienation there is, religion or something like it must (on Marxist hypotheses) follow. We are forced to consider the hypothesis that Marxism itself, in its official or Constantine form, serves as a successor to religion in ways not anticipated nor wished for by Marx himself. (Birnbaum 1969: 54)

Marx did not advocate the active repression of religion. In fact, he explicitly warned against it. For Marx, religion was not an accident or mistake, but rather, the logical result of man's inability to realize himself concretely in his actual existence. Religion embodies the true essence of man, but in illusory form. To destroy religion would be to destroy man's essence before it had a chance to realize itself in history. The end of religion would come when man's actua1 conditions were transformed to recognize that the spirituality of man is a "material" entity, just as "real" as man's labor. It is in this sense that religion will "fade away," that is, through human activlty.

The final aspect of Marx's critique of religion to be considered most nearly touches the "pulse" of current-day religious desires. For Marx, there was no necessity that there HAS to be a god, a creator, a source or ultimate meaning to life. Underlying Marx's views is the recognition that the DESIRE for a god is separate from the NECESSITY of such. The translation of "human desire for meaning" into a necessity reveals a twofold situation: that man is either incapable of imagining himself as being "alone in the universe," or that man refuses to acknowledge himself as the locus of meaningful existence and thereby refuses to acknowledge the growth in what man DOES know about his world and universe.

Today we are confronted with humans who insist that there simply HAS to be a God, an overall meaning to existence. This "desire = necessity" translation is never acknowledged as being derived from the religious institutions which in effect supply the problem and then claim exclusive ownership to the solution.

This aspect of Marx's critique is analogous to the reification process inherert in capitalism. Reification here refers to the hardening of basic human needs into the demand/necessity for commercial products (i.e. human thirst becomes the demand for a Coke ). Likewise, the human quest for meaning is hardened into the necessity for a god.


In order to fully understand Marx's critique of religion and its potential for the sociology of religion, one must understand its core, Marx's hurnanist radicalism. However, it is not merely the core of his critique of religion, but is integral to his total perspective.

The first point in Marx's humanist radicalism is that man is an active, not a passive, being in socia1 life. This is reflected in the stance that man makes history, both his own biograrhy and collectively, human history. Marx is saying man is responsible, ultimately and moment by moment, for his own existence. If man is to unfold himself he must start by recognizing and acknowledging that he has no recourse to an outside source for solace or help. This active role, this role of self-creation of individuals and of human history, is not without a context. Marx realized that in addition to man creating his own circumstances, he was at the same time created BY those circumstances. While man is responsible for himself, this self-responsibility is firmly embedded in a social context which also acts upon him. The reciprocity of this situation neither excuses man from his self-creating task, nor does it mean that his circumstances must be blindly accepted. The point is that man is an ACTIVE participant, not a PASSIVE bystander. This does not mean that man is either perfectable or omnipotent. He IS responsible and the beginning of responsibility is awareness of his own situatlon.

The second point in the characterization of humanist radicalism is man's susceptibility to being in bondage to his circumstances and others around him. Instead, the relationship of men to men must be based on cooperation rather than exploitation. Fundamental to Marx's views is the tenet that man's autonomy is subverted by the conditions which surround him and these conditions often reflect the needs or interests of others who are able to dominate the greater number, often in such a way as to be portrayed as inevitable, necessary, or natural. Central to Marx's humanist radicalism is that man's exploitation of his fellowman is not something inherent in his nature, but rather, reflects an historically-specific molding of that nature by others. This means that man's circumstances are exploitative because of men, not because society is coercively "out there."

The third point is that for Marx, the welfare, growth and happiness of human beings must be the measure or starndard against which all sociaI arrangements are judged. Given the first two points above, Marx believed man was in fact being judged against the social arrangements, which he himself created or had permitted to be created. Marx's humanist radicalism necessarily includes a recognition that the cart is indeed pulling the horse. His radical critique was that the humanly-created circumstances of social existence were believed to be "apart" from man and that the "needs" of the "system" were in fact the guiding principle rather than human needs. Marx's observations were consistertly made on the basis of this stance. Where he found man to be relegated to "function" or "subjugation" in and to a greater "system," which fostered a sense of passiveness, Marx, in effect, declared that this need not be so.

Marx's humanist radicalism is based firmly on the primacy of human responsibility. In his day Marx was properly aghast at what he saw and could do nothing else but spellout what he saw, man as only a measure of what he could be and that most men did not have the slightest idea that this was so. His critique was total, he was a radical.


Selected Bibliography