Academic journal article Journal of Thought

Reevaluating Marx and Spirituality: Emancipation and the Search for Meaning

Academic journal article Journal of Thought

Reevaluating Marx and Spirituality: Emancipation and the Search for Meaning

Article excerpt


This piece looks at the beliefs and convictions of one of history's most notable atheists, Karl Marx, and the historical context of his sentiments concerning religion. I argue that while Marx certainly was no friend of organized religion as it existed in his day, his philosophy, especially that of young Marx, represents a quest for meaning not incompatible or dissimilar to spiritual quests for purpose in our lived experiences. I will not venture a comparison of the world's religious traditions. Rather, I will attempt to seek a connection between Marx's dialectical philosophy, religious beliefs, and secular searches for relational meaning, writ large.

This essay, although in many ways sympathetic to Marx's critique, does not intend to justify the exclusion of religion or the elimination of spiritual language from our world discourse. What follows attempts to illustrate Marx's position concerning religion and the limitations of his argument, and generally strives to examine the profound differences between what Marx termed human emancipation and civil emancipation (these terms will be defined in a later section of the paper) in their respective implications for life's curriculum. Pursuant to this, there are two central questions: can we live with true human emancipation and adhere to religion and its institutions and rituals? Can we live in harmonious community without the bonds of religious spirituality and organization? Ancillary yet important to this inquiry, I have also included an appendix addressing Marx's tendency toward anti-Semitism.

Marx's Religious Background

Marx was born in Trier, Germany, in 1818. His father, a lawyer, converted from Judaism to Evangelical Protestantism, very probably for reasons of vocational aspiration (McLellan 1987, 8). Heinrich Marx (ne Hirschel ha-Levi) was a follower of the enlightenment thinkers, especially Voltaire and Rousseau (Cuddihy 1974, 119). His lack of strict religious adherence, and influence by the aforementioned intellectuals, is evident in an 1835 letter to his son:

   [A] good support for morality is a simple faith in God. You know I
   am the last person to be a fanatic. But sooner or later a man
   [sic] (1) has real need of his faith.... Everyone should submit
   to what was the faith of Newton, Locke or Leibniz. (Cuddihy, 8)

Karl Marx and his five sisters were baptized into the Evangelical Lutheran Church in 1824 and he was confirmed in 1834 (Kamenka 1983, lii.). Marx's early writings suggest that he was familiar with some Christian theology. For example, he wrote a paper on the Gospel of John while at school at the Trier Gymnasium. Marx's religious interests changed while attending the Hegelian-dominated Universities of Bonn and Berlin. Revealed in a letter to his father, the critical course of much of his subsequent writing becomes evident. He states,

   A curtain had fallen, my holy of holies was rent asunder, and new
   gods had to be installed. I left behind the idealism which, by the
   way, I had nourished with that of Kant and Fichte, and came to seek
   the idea in the real [italics added] itself. If the gods had dwelt
   above the earth, they had now become its centre [sic].
   (McLellan, 8-9)

Marx now had an orientation that started and ended with the physical and discursive interrelation of humans and their interaction with the natural world. This materially, rather than spiritually, determined framework became the foundation for most of his future writing, especially those concerning religion.

The Origins of Marx's Religious Thought

Marx's writings concerning religion are in general polemical. These texts challenge the validity of religion not only in its institutional context, but also in terms of its benefit to human society. They range from direct attacks to more subtle critiques, but rarely lack aggressive rhetoric. This style can be traced to very early writings of Marx. …

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