Marx, Religion, and Sociology of Religion

Continued from here


While Marx's humanist radicalism is at the core of his critique of religion, his critical stance, ironically it also places Marx in another stance as an unconventional sociologist of religion, a prophetic stance. However, before explaining what IS meant by "prophetic stance," it should be indicated what is NOT meant. By presenting Marx as standing in a prophetic tradition, this should not be construed to mean that a prophet is necessarily a predictor. While there is certainly an element of prediction in both prophecy and Marx, this will not be of central concern.

Also, no claim will be made for any prophetic "calling" (as in "divine calling") for Marx. Any such designation or characterization of Marx as having perceived a "divine calling" would be inconsistent with his views indicated above. A distinction between "Marx the prophet" and the Old Testament prophets who "received" their instructions and messages from their god is necessary.

What is it then which allows us to view Marx in a prophetic stance? It would seem that in both his theoretical results and in his life activity, Marx did have some sense of a "mission," if not a "calling." That Marx did have a sense of mission can be seen clearly in his early life. As a student in 1837, Marx wrote a letter to his father in which he discussed what he had been doing and his future. Macmurrary feels that Marx thought of himself as "special." He says about Marx's letter:

He is deeply conscious of the time in which he lives as a climax and turning point in world history, and he sees his own intellectual problem as a reflection of this universal crisis. He has to make a new departure in thought, and he sees this personal decision as if the whole previous history of humanity had to take a critical decision in and through himself. (Macmurrary 1935: 211)

Further, in his essay, "The Prophetic Mission of Karl Marx," Howard L. Parsons says:

His whole life was dedicated to a prophetic mission: first, to the task of tearing down the false gods, the idols he considered to constrain man's progress; secord, to the burden of building the conditions of man's fulfillment. (Parsons 1964: 160)

Parsons' position is one which accepts the conclusions reached by Macmurrary some 30 years earlier and holds that Marx was clearly in the prophetic tradition of the most stringent of the Old Testament prophets. Parsons' conclusion is based on his explication of what a prophet is and a comparison of Marx with this criteria.

Parsons begins his examination of Marx with his views on idolatry, which Parsons says:

...consists in man's production of a good on which he depends, which commands his devotion without his entirely knowing that it does, whlch man accepts with a certain degree of consciousness (and hence choice) as the center of his life, and which progressively destroys man because it stands in the way of man's free, unalienated labor, his fulfillment, and the creative transformation of the economic and social order. (Parsons 1964: 144)

For Marx, the particular economic forms of a man's society are the primary objects of man's idolatry and the religious consciousness derived from those economic forms embodies this idolatry. Birnbaum states it as follows:

Just as people on the market were forced to sell their labor power in systems of exchange which they did not create, so people on the spiritual market would be cast into psychological dependence upon a supernatural order for want of the ability to perceive the natural and social order. (Birnbaum 1969: 18-19)

Idolatry implies illusionary thinking and Parsons says the prophet is one who is first, a " radical realist." Marx's prophetic purpose was the laying bare of the illusions of the bourgeois Western world. The primary illusion under attack by Marx was the belief that religion or God had its source outside of man and history. Marx was explicit about this when he said, " man makes religion; religion does not make man." (Marx 1964B: 43) Marx's prophetic call to men was for them to acknowledge that religion is the " bourgeois betrayal of man in the name of God." (Parsons 1964: 146)

Parson's second criterion of a prophet, that he " perceives an ultimate order of goodness," also applies to Marx. The underlying order of goodness for Marx is not some dreamy utopia, but refers to his materialism. Marx's materialism means man makes his own history, not that man's only or primary desire is to "have" things. Thus, Parsons can say:

...he paints life as it is; you can recognize the human characters. But he sees below the surface to the corruption in the vitals of man, and below the corruption he sees yet the goodness. He judges man as he appears, by what man really is and might be. (Parsons 1964: 149)

Marx constantly contrasted what man "is" with what he "could" be. Marx's materialism was far from what man "should" be. His materialism made man's freedom meaningful by showing man what he COULD accomplish in history.

Parsons's third criterion is that the prophet " criticizes and judges the existing social order." The prophet is a radical, a dissenter from the ideologies which mask the full truth, the truth of reality. For Marx, ideology (and religion in general as the prototype and model of all ideology) is a screen or barrier to a true and full apprehension of man's situation. Ideology is not a false account of the human condition, but a partial and distorted one, the " truth of a false condition."(Birnbaum 1969: 14) As Parsons says:

Marx's critique and judgment of his society concentrates upon those points where the human norm of free, creative, social activity is most deformed. (Parsons 1964: 150)

The radical criticism and judgment of the prophet, in this case Marx, is not tantamount to the imposition of a value judgment upon a statement of fact. Rather, it is a criticism that goes to the root and for Marx, the root is man. As Parsons says, the bigger the lie that man lives, the larger the truth must be which the prophet speaks. Parsons contirues:

He lifts up the standard of what is supremely significant for the human situation. He brings down that standard upon concrete situations (where it is all the time), rightly dividing the word of truth, laying the ax to the root of the tree of human iniquity and human presumption. (Parsons 1964: 149)

Marx the prophet, by criticizing the social order, is calling men to recognize their state of alienation and, beyond this, to recognize alienation is not just a normative or psychological condition of men, but has consequence in their daily lives. Its most effectual form is religion, which as Birnbaum indicates " a spiritual response to a condition of alienation." (Birnbaum 1969: 12)

The fourth criterion of the prophet is that he is " committed to action and demands the same of others." The prophet is popularly viewed as an agitator, a disseminator of ideas that disturbs the peace of people and the social order. " He is considered (and is) dangerous..." (Parsons 1964: 151) However, " the prophet does not cherish ideas and social changes for their own sakes. His goal is a great revelation of reality." (Parsons 1964: 151) Parsons contends that:

Marx moves in the tradition of Biblical prophets who mightily strove to purge from the comings and goings of men all that hinders thelr honest-to-goodness human exlstence. (Parsons 1964: 153)

As indicated above, Marx's critique of religion and all of man's social relations was total. That critique was expressed in more than words or theories, he affirmed it in the activities of his life. Even a cursory examination of Marx's biography reveals a man who lived what he believed. He DID what he asked others to do. His journalistic, political, and intellectual endeavors define his character as prophetic. His lifelong economic sufferings and his singleminded devotion to the cause of the working classes are indicative of this stance.

The last criterion of a prophet is that he " warns of destruction and promises fulfilment." As this relates to Marx, it is surely impossible to miss either the doom or the hope in his message. True to his materialism, Marx's analysis of capitalism affirms that things will continue to get worse before they will get better. Under the given conditions of exploitation, Marx's message is clear and distinct: " Capitalistic society is headed downhill in a wild ride that can end only in the break-up of the system." (Parsons 1964: 153) There is no need to recount the details of its demise here. Suffice to say that Marx believed that he had laid bare the contradictions of that system.

Yet, the prophet blesses as well as curses. Marx's "blessing" is that man already IS what he CAN become. This is not to be a "heavenly" utopia for man, but the end result of a concrete process. If Marx is teleological, for which he is often criticized, it is quite a different kind of teleology than the "fixed end" of religion. Religion's teleos is already accomplished FOR man and he needs only acknowledge it. However, for Marx, the "end" is defined only by the process of moving toward it, not the other way around.

On the basis of these criteria, Parsons concludes that Marx can be firmly located within the prophetic tradition. His was a call to "his people," all people, to realize their situation and to achieve the freedom which already exists in the process toward the "good society." Marx's prophetic mission was to arouse people to realize and do something about what Peter Berger characterized in the following:

All human productions are, at least potentially, comprehensible ln human terms. The veil of mystification thrown over them by religion prevents such comprehension. (Berger 1967: 90)

The perspective about Marx being in a prophetic stance is permeated with his humanist radicalism, the core or rationale of his critical stance. The unity of the two stances is exemplified in the following:

Marx's mission was to free the human species--and hence each and every man--of the burden of his own self-deception and self-slavery, evident in both man's way of life (capitalism) and his way of thought (religion). For class structure is the alienation and incapacitation of each individual writ large, and the 'ruling' few represent outwardly the inward rule of each man by an alien master. (Parsons 1964: 159)

Glven this unity, calling Marx the "last of the Hebrew prophets" might not be AS farfetched as it might appear to be. The question of why men have not heeded the call of their prophets can equally apply to Marx as well as to the Old Testament prophets.


I believe Marx has much to offer a sociology of religion which is practically void of a critical perspective. I have tried to indicate this void is the result of an uncritical, pro-religious bias within the discipline and a definitive lack of understanding of Marx's complex views on religion.

I have tried to show that the "call" in Marx's critical return to non-illusory living, for man to return to the same as the "call" to return to the god of religion in the prophetic stance. Ironically, for Marx, both objects were the same.

Finally, the comments in this paper do not imply that only Marx is necessary to understand our world. He, alone, is not sufficient, but he IS indispensible. Conventional or mainstream sociologists of religion donít seem to realize that...yet.

Selected Bibliography

About this Paper

This paper was written while I was a graduate student at Louisiana State University in 1983. It was delivered at the American Sociological Association meeting in Detroit in September, 1983. It is a condensation of a larger paper I wrote for a Sociology of Religion course I took at LSU...a "conventional" course, I might add. This means that Marx wasn't discussed in class and this was my way of including him into the course. So, while it was written some time ago and while I was a graduate student...thereby suffering from graduate student writing style...I'm still satisfied with its basic content and purpose. I've used its ideas in lectures many times. I present it here not as a shining example of my writing skills, but as an example of what can and should be done with Marx in regards to religion. Maybe some day I will "update" it, but for now it will stand as it was written. DHK