Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Does Marx Make a Religious Turn?

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Does Marx Make a Religious Turn?

Article excerpt

Does Karl Marx maintain that religious belief and oppressive social forces align? The query would strike many as vacuous given his image as a fierce religious critic. Yet, I contend, his critique reveals a surprisingly nuanced theological commentator. Exploring Marx's religious critique, I will pay particular attention to his thoughts regarding belief in personal immortality.1 In this essay's initial section, such attention will reveal the basis for the prevailing anti-religious interpretation of his work. The idea of immortality will be shown to perpetuate a passive attitude in the face of an inherently abusive economic system. Confronted with such passivity, I will then explore the counter-intuitive question of whether Marx is more sympathetic to religion than one may have assumed. I will center my attention on his claim that religion emerges as a protest.2 1 will, along with several Marxian commentators, argue that such a foundation is able to reject oppression and challenge religiously induced passivity.

Provided the argument is plausible, we can then ask whether Marx would have been amenable to a positive utilization of religious belief. This essay will answer the question negatively. It will conclude that Marx's ardent opposition remains intact. The question then becomes why, in the face of a principle that could undermine oppression, Marx does not seat religion at his revolutionary table. The pursuit of this question is significant because it both draws on and exhibits the complexity of his religious critique. To put it briefly, we will discover a critique that both challenges the unequivocally anti-religious image of his work as well as denies his amenability to a life of faith.

Having outlined my investigation's purpose and structure, two preliminary clarifications are worth noting. First, Marx's thought emerges from and remains within a JudeoChristian heritage.3 Given this horizon, his rejection of religious life should be understood as pertaining to these formations. Other faith traditions must, therefore, determine the relevance of Marxian critique to their own teachings. As a second point, I am not entering the debate as to whether we should consider Marxist philosophy religious. Whether he represents, as Camus claims, a "Utopian Messianism" is not my concern.4 My sole aim is to understand why he views religious discourse as contradictory to the political and economic revolution he sees as inevitably preceding the advent of communism.

Evacuating Value

To understand religion's oppressive potential via belief in immortality, I will first explore the notion that a religious milieu evacuates the world's value. From this perspective, a sense of ultimate worth is transferred from the incarnate here to a supersensible beyond. The destructive potential harbored by immortaUty arises from an interrelation between immanence and transcendence that favors the latter at the expense of the former. This contention is championed by thinkers such as Feuerbach, Nietzsche, Freud, and Norman O. Brown.5 Nietzsche, for example, states the case unambiguously:

If one shifts the centre of gravity of life out of life into the "Beyond" - into nothingness - one has deprived life as such of its center of gravity. The great lie of personal immortality destroys all rationality, all naturalness of instinct, all that is salutary, all that is life-furthering.6

According to Nietzsche, placing life's reality in the "nothingness" of some "Beyond" inevitably operates against the affirmation of Ufe in the present. Personal immortality exists as a "great lie" precisely because it facilitates such a displacement. It "shifts the . . . gravity of life out of Ufe" and one's commitment to incarnate existence is undermined by their focus on, awe of, and subservience to the next one.

Marx expresses a similar sentiment. He contends that religion is "an inverted worldconsciousness."7 This inversion expresses itself when experiences of reality, value, worth, etc. …

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