Chapter 6: Marx’s Critique of Religion as Challenge to Christianity

Encounter in Humanization: Insights for Christian-Marxist Dialogue and Cooperation
by Paulose Mar Paulose

Chapter 6: Marx’s Critique of Religion as Challenge to Christianity

Perhaps there is no other aspect of Marxist ideology which has drawn the attention of Christians as much as atheism. Christians are disturbed and feel threatened when they meet atheists. But let us not forget that when we confront atheism, we are actually inquiring about the destiny of our generation as a whole. For this reason it must be clear from the very beginning that in no way does this confrontation of atheism express only a specific Christian concern. Whether Christians bother about it or not, the theme of atheism concerns all equally. As long as Christians seek to present a strong and vital testimony of their faith, they must know that the world of which they are a part is influenced by an atheistic climate.

It is highly important that Christians must guard themselves against merely defaming atheism with a blunt, propagandistic attitude. Many see in atheism only an error, the most dangerous error in history; they find its roots in moral deviation, and their prime concern is to proclaim its condemnation. This is indeed not an encouraging encounter with atheism. If we are to understand atheism in its right perspective we have to quit the approach of condemnation. Giulio Girardi brings out this point succinctly:

Since man is fundamentally orientated towards truth and authentic values, it is to be expected that, for the atheist himself, the meaning of atheism consists more in the truths which it involves than m the errors in which it finds expression; more in the real values which it affirms than in those it denies. To understand atheism means, therefore, to ask what are the truths which the atheist intends to adhere when he denies God.1

This does not mean, however, that atheism can be reduced to the rejection of a deformed image of God and of religion, as done by some Christians. They reach a paradoxical conclusion that the atheistic denial is directed at a falsely conceived God, and therefore atheism is not in fact error, but truth. This approach is as distorted as that of condemnation. What is needed on the part of the believer is an acute and balanced power of discrimination, equidistant from either a condemnation or an acceptance. Atheism may not be reduced either to its errors or to its truths. It results from both.

Those not well acquainted with Marx often believe that the founder of Marxism was a militant atheist who considered the extermination of religion and, in particular, of Christianity one of his major tasks. This is not true. Marx, of course, was an atheist. It is to be noted here, however, that his atheism is quite different from the classical atheism of eighteenth and nineteenth centuries which are ‘political’ and ‘scientist’ in nature. Marx’s atheism was neither a purely methodological one, nor merely a skeptical one. Nor does it seem correct to say that his atheism was an historical accident rather than an essential feature of the Marxian worldview. Marx’s atheism is distinctly dogmatic, in the sense that Marx always denied decidedly and uncompromisingly the existence of a divine being, and this denial is one of the major cornerstones of Marx’s outlook. Marx, however, was far from ascribing to the anti-religious fight the importance which it has, for example, in the eyes of many contemporary communists. He looked on religion as a consequence of a more basic evil, the evil of a society in which man "has either not yet found himself or has already lost himself again." As Marx saw it, religion in general and Christianity in particular were in extremis, if not already dead.

Marx’s atheism is essentially humanistic. It starts not from a negation, but from an affirmation. It affirms the autonomy of the human being and it involves as a consequence the rejection of every attempt to rob of human person creative power. It concentrates our feelings, our thoughts and our actions around humanity. This aspect of humanism found m Marx’s atheism can be elucidated in these words of Erich Fromm:

The problem today is not so much whether God is dead, the problem is whether man is dead. Man, not physically at this moment -- although that is threatened too -- but spiritually. Whether man has not become and is becoming more an automation, which will eventually leave him completely empty and without vitality. The new humanism in its various forms is united in its determination that man should not die.2

The vacuum created by the elimination of God in classical atheism has now been filled by humanity. Humanity has been substituted for God.

Marx’s atheism is not pessimistic in nature. It tends on the contrary to be optimistic. This is because it is motivated largely by man’s self-assertion. The modern secular man is an autonomous man. He believes that there is no higher Being than man himself, so man must create his own values, set his own standards and goals, and work out his own salvation. There is nothing transcending man’s own powers and intelligence, so he cannot look for any support from beyond himself. He suspects that faith in God would be awakening of his own sense of responsibility and finds that God begins to appear as his rival. Too long have men been subject to God or to gods, and only as they have learned to take matters into their own hands have they made any advance. So we are told that man cannot really be free to order their world and to build a better future unless God is deposed and men assume complete responsibility. Man has gotten rid of God in order to regain possession of the human greatness which, as it seems to him, is being unjustifiably withheld by another. By discarding God he has overthrown an obstacle in order to gain his freedom. Proudhon, the Robinson Crusoe of Socialism, calls this position "anti-theism". It is this anti-theism that we find in Marxism. We can summarize Marx’s atheism, which is anti-theism in content, in these words of Milan Machovec:

What is the deepest meaning of atheistic Marxism? Certainly not the mere negation of the idea of ‘God’, for no mere negation can fill men with deep and enduring enthusiasm. Nor the mere abolition of hunger, need, exploitation. Those were and unfortunately still are the primary concrete tasks in some countries. But they will be solved one day, and what then? The ultimate meaning of Marxism is not politics or the cult of power, for that too has to be abolished. Nor did Marx want to turn all men into economists, quite the opposite. By the predominantly economic character of his greatest works Marx aimed at freeing men from economic cares. The enduring positive ideal and meaning of Marxist teaching is the fully authentic human life, the free human personality, or rather the ‘message’ that we must seek real ways of attaining the humanist ideals by scientific analysis and patiently overcome any, not just the capitalistic, forms of human self-alienation.3

If we were to judge Marx’s atheism solely on the basis of Marxist propaganda, the picture would be just as poor as would be a judgement on religious consciousness based on attendance figures at religious services. Marx’s atheism is striving for a revolutionary worldview, which is not dependent on its formal rejection of religion. Marx is trying to restore to people a purpose in life and to give the whole struggle of mankind a higher meaning. We cannot completely ignore this effort, to the extent that it is directed at the progress of humanity. This reminds us that the church must be ready to witness to the lordship of Christ by cooperating with people of goodwill of all religious and non-religious groups who are genuinely concerned to seek better ways of living and working.

From the church’s point of view, atheism has always been regarded as a negative phenomenon. Anyone who did not believe in a particular religious faith was called an atheist. This was the general view in the medieval and modern ages of intolerance when freedom of opinion did not exist. At the time of Enlightenment Thomas Paine defended himself against this kind of logic: "If I do not believe as you believe, that only proves that you do not believe as I believe, that is all." 4 Atheism does not primarily mean to believe in nothing at all, but to believe in a way which is not that of religion. Modem Marxists can say the same thing in defense of their own form of belief. To recognize that fact in a sober and critical way and to discuss the matters at issue belong also to church’s encounter with atheists. But it is a pity that the appropriate critical relation toward atheism has been uncritically expanded into a kind of negativism. It has been the practice of the church to summarize atheism as something inhuman, absolutely perverted and even almost demonic. So for centuries the atheist has been regarded as someone basically irresponsible and untrustworthy, even immoral. Atheism itself has consequently been viewed in a juridical way as a sacrilege, a transgression, something which should be resisted with utmost retaliation. As a Christian community we have to recognize and acknowledge the relativity of atheism.

The Greeks designated as atheists not only those who denied openly God and the materialists but also those who in the name of another faith separated themselves from the established religion. Socrates is an example to this. Many a Christian martyr encountered the battle cry. "Down with the atheists". Even in Christianity itself we find the tendency to call those who differ from orthodox faith as atheists. "It is worthwhile" as Lochman suggests, "to remember this lesson of our historical orientation and resist that inquisition and crusade spirit precisely when we meet those who think differently from us, especially in our encounters with atheists."5

Atheism is a dialectical phase of life. "I believe; help my unbelief!" 6 This situation is significant. Doubt is an integral part of living faith. If we rightly understand this psychological relativity, we will not be so easily tempted to consider the atheistic possibility as something totally alien to us, as a curse which only drives and threatens other people. In one of his novels, The Possessed, Dostoyevsky makes Bishop Tihon say to Stavrogin: "The complete atheist stands on the penultimate step to most perfect faith (he may or may not take a further step)."7 This has been made one of the most profound statements that has ever been on the subject of atheism. All people, the pious and the worldly, here find themselves together in the same situation.

The theological relativity of atheism directs us to the foundations of the life of faith. The beginning and ground of human existence does not lie within us, but lies instead in the reality which is the basis for faith -- in the reality, action, and history of God. The essence of Christianity is founded not by faith but by the work of God more exactly, in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Thus this essence of faith cannot in any way be destroyed by unfaith. Both faith and unfaith are not the matter itself, but instead they are response to it. The Gospel remains sovereign over faith and unfaith. Therefore the task of the church is not to denounce the atheists but to declare the Gospel to them.

The spiritual situation of the world, especially in those societies hitherto nominally Christian, shows that not just the Marxists, but all modern people are conditioned by an atheistic atmosphere, and that evolution of science and technology is a permanent assault on the traditional structure of the church and everything we call religion. From the perspective of theology as we understand it, all human divisions, systems, social and political institutions, all philosophical thoughts, find themselves on the same level, on the side of the created world in its corruption and promise. As Czech theologian Josef Hromdka, the pioneer of Marxist-Christian dialogue, puts it:

The dividing line runs not between communists and non-communists. It runs between the Lord of glory and mercy, on the one hand, and human sinners (whether communists or non-Communists) on the other. Theologically, it is all wrong to see the main line of division between the Christian ideology and civilization, on the one hand, and the non-Christian Weltanschauung on the other.8

This is something which we must always remember. As Hromadka pointed out in a different context:

What matters is whether a Christian in the purity of his faith and his understanding of man joins the struggle and demonstrates by the audacity of his faith, by his love for his neighbour, and his optimism about the future, that he is not just the passive object of history or even of the new society, but rather the co-author and co-architect of the new order.9

At the same time it is our responsibility to examine ourselves, to allow Marxism and modern science and technology in general to challenge our idols and fetishes, our superstition and backwardness, and our lazy attitude toward the real events taking place in our society.

Earlier we found that Marx’s critique of religion is derived from a detailed analysis of the manifestation of nineteenth century religion, and his negation of religion has a predominantly social character. By calling religion an ideology, Marx implies that it provides a transcendent escape for the victims of the class struggle and thus deadens their revolutionary passion for changing their existing order. This is a challenge Christianity must meet. If we examine Marx’s critique carefully, we will recognize that its most important argument is the fact that Christianity during its almost two thousand years of existence, has failed to do away with poverty, servitude, wars and social disorder. Christians have betrayed their mission in the world. They have allowed their faith to be used to support the powerful against the weak, to become a weapon against the small, contributing to their bondage. There is, indeed, much truth in the provocative statement of Martin Luther King, Jr. "How often the church has been an echo rather than a voice, a taillight behind... secular agencies, rather than a headlight guiding men progressively and decisively to higher levels of understanding."10 We cannot erase easily these facts from the history of Christianity. In the face of these facts, there can be little doubt that Christianity itself has been one of the major causes of atheism in the modern world. We can learn from these past mistakes, and in a spirit of deep humility and penitence before our God acknowledge the guilt of past generations which clings to us who strive today to bear the joyous message of Christ. Christianity must ever be on guard lest it give ground for the suspicion that it is cultivating an ideology which can be exploited by the ruling classes.

Any theory, any idea and philosophy, can be understood in its essence only if we understand the concrete situation in which it originated and if we relate it to our concrete circumstance of life. But the truth of the matter is, very often we Christians forget that an abstract interpretation of prophetic and apostolic message deprives the divine word of its real meaning and relevance. We also forget that the Word of God can be adequately understood and interpreted only in its vital relation to our present human situation. Marx’s critique of religion reminds us that theory must correspond to life needs. This means that religion must arise from the actual life experiences of people and not be dogmatically imposed upon them. Theory and practice must be unified, which involves seeing Christian concepts in their development out of historical experience, and discovering the deeper meaning of the Gospel message by using it to change society. It is with this historical and social consciousness Paul Tillich gave the clarion call to Christians to engage in social action:

The Kingdom of God is not a static heaven into which individuals enter after death; it is the dynamic divine power in and above history which drives history toward ultimate fulfillment. It refers to groups as well as to individuals, and demands continuous efforts toward justice, which is basic in it.11

To be a Christian is not just "to serve God," but it is also a dynamic social ethic, a service to humankind. We may not agree with Feuerbach when he says that theology is anthropology; but we have to admit that there is certainly much anthropology in theology. Although Christianity is directed to the ‘beyond’, it nevertheless must influence our actions in the realm of the "here below". It must give a deeper meaning to our bond with the world and with history. Solidarity with the agonies and problems of modern men and women become the sacrament of God’s serving presence in the midst of the world. Christians cannot escape into a false mysticism or an illusory transcendentalism, where the affairs and needs of their brothers and sisters are left "here below". It is true that Christians do look beyond the terrible realities of the "here below", but this is not to evade them or to regard them illusory. Rather, by loving and serving people, they prepare for the Lord’s parousia in the very act of love for their brothers and sisters. As Christians, we are always human beings, and human dignity and endeavours must always be of supreme importance. In this sense there can be no radical division between believer and atheist. Marx’s critique of religion challenges Christians for a vision of the human being rooted more deeply in reality. It exhorts Christians to act out the implications of the human being made in the image of God who has become incarnate. It reminds the church of the real concern of the Gospel. The true renunciation of ecclesiastical privileges, a giving up of the gifts of the church to the world, therefore, corresponds to the central movement of the Gospel, the path of God to people, i.e., the saving renunciation of the Son of God on behalf of the world.12

Marx’s critique of religion is in many ways similar to those of the prophets of the Old Testament. Like the biblical prophets Marx fought against the established religion. Marx’s critique of religious and other forms of alienation is not primarily impelled by metaphysical or even scientific purposes. It is humanistic and prophetic -- in the sense of exposing the depths of good and evil in those issues with which people struggle, suffer, despair, hope, live and die. Prophets have ever been the adversaries of evil gods. They fought against all gods who were not congruous with man’s highest good. Marx’s favourite maxim, "Nihil humani a me alienum puto"13 (I believe that nothing human is alien to me) is illustrative of his concern for humanity.

Theology as self-examination on the part of the church will have to distinguish what is valid in Marx’s critique of religion from what is out of place and false. The valid element in Marx’s critique includes both the observation of the universal sociological conditioning of religious life, and the charge that frequently religion serves the interests of the ruling classes. It also draws our attention to the fact that most Christian movements of renewal limit the thrust of their attack and challenge to the sphere of the private person, remain socially conservative, attacking the heathenism of individuals, but not of institutions. Christians believe that God loves each human being with a unique personal love. Accordingly, Christians will also need to assert the primacy of personal worth in new communitarian modes.

Thus, the question arises, will they incarnate more historically than before their own belief in the "mystical body" of Christ, and the collective destiny of the fully redeemed or ‘liberated’ human race? Let us not forget that the biblical injunction to be watchful is not first of all to be directed to external opponents and temptations, but to those inner dangers and possibilities of degeneration within us. In this connection one would recall how Paul Tillich stressed the importance of this kind of self-examination. Emphasizing the importance of the study of the theoretical foundations of communism, Tillich said:

Since the churches aspire to speak in the name of God, they have to direct every criticism, first of all, against themselves, admitting in this way that they are met by the same judgment as those criticized by them.14

Marx’s critique of religion should be considered as a symbol of our lack of prophetic spirit. We have to recognize that the divine judgement over the world was not pronounced by ourselves strongly enough and, consequently, was given into the hands of a secular movement, inimical to the churches. We have to acknowledge this as a divine judgment over ourselves.

What shall, then, be the approach of Christians to Marxist atheists? Helmut Gollwitzer puts it this way:

The non-religious man of the present does not require first to be led to religion, transformed into a religious man, in order then to take a second step along this way to come to the Christian faith. Without his putting himself in a religious frame of mind, creating for himself religious experiences, awakening within himself a so-called natural consciousness of God, thus without his being compelled to adopt forms of consciousness which he can no longer recapture, he must be encountered in his life, which has become secular, by the good news from the Lord of the world, who has committed himself in the man Jesus of Nazareth to the world and the secularity of the stable and the gallows ("without the camp" of religion, Hebrews 13:13)15

It is with the powers of this world, positive and negative, that we have to deal with in religion. For this reason we cannot use the gospel and our theology as defensive weapons in the fight between the religious and the non-religious; rather they are to be used, without prejudice, to discuss with the non-religious the phenomenon and problems of religion and the everlasting love of God. In this way Christian theology becomes both the defender of religion over against the onesidedness and superficiality of Marx’s critique of religion, and at the same time the ally of this critique against the ‘alienation’ of man. Since Marx directs his attacks on religion in the name of man, against the alienation of man from his own potentialities and purposes, it constitutes, for that reason, the greatest challenge to Christianity in our time. It has been pointed out that this challenge could help to purify our descriptions, both of God and Christianity, of all that is human in them. Rather than have recourse to an unproductive apologetics when faced with contemporary atheism, we ought to concern ourselves with weeding out from Christianity what is not authentic, should even be grateful to Marx’s critique of religion for the purifying function which it performs in this way.

The Marxists believe that the church rejects Marxism not primarily because it is atheistic, but because it is revolutionary and because violence has a place in this revolution. It is to be noted here that Marx did not idealize violence as such. His error may be called rather an error of judgment. Believing that the bourgeoisie would not yield their class position without armed resistance, he naturally believed also that overthrow by violence would be necessary. His followers took this point more seriously than the master himself, and they found that religion and class society were slower in dying than expected. That is why communism, a totalitarian form of Marxism, became militant in our time. Of course, Christians will deplore the use of violence, but still they must make up their mind where they will stand should violent revolution or counter-revolution break out, just as they have always had to decide what their position on war should be. It is not then on the use of violence per se that Christians and Marxists part company, but rather on the advocacy of violence and the preaching of its necessity.

The basic trend of their biblical heritage has always pushed Christians to social action. Compared with other religions and spiritual movements, the biblical faith has, displayed an incomparable historical and social initiative. It is up to us, now, in the light of Marx’s critique of religion, to examine whether the church has taken this element seriously. Johannes Baptist Metz underlines this notion in these words:

Only in the consciousness of their public responsibility can faith and Church take seriously their task of criticizing society. Only thus can the Church avoid becoming merely an ideological superstructure built above a certain existing social order. Only thus can she avoid becoming the final religion of our fully secularized society to which credit is given for certain functions of relief for the individual, but no power to criticize society.16

Thus it is our responsibility to prove that to be a Christian does not mean to be the defender of the established order. The church, certainly, can play a vital role for the transformation of the society.

By means of his critique of religion Marx is directing our attention to the "real distress" of man the "oppressed creature" living in a "heartless world". In so far as Marx is seeking to bring the idea of "real distress" (as understood by religion) into relation with their human condition of distress (as understood by human beings) so as to transform the human condition, his critique of religion reveals an existential pathos", and it is religiously edifying. Marx’s concern for the "self-consciousness of man" lies very close to the religious task of being relevant in the world. Seen in this light Marx’s critique of religion may very well be a "religious criticism" of the world.

Marx’s critique of religion cannot be accepted or refuted merely on the basis of religious dogmas, for the dogmas themselves are to be evaluated on the basis of the "truth of man" and not outside it. Therefore, insofar as Marx’s critique of religion pertains to the "truth of man" it remains in the realm of "religious criticism" since religion proclaims the truth of man and of the world. Marx cannot be ignored as a religious critic simply because he might offend the sentiments of conventional religiosity. He can be ignored only if and when his critique of religion ignores the "truth of man".

We are living in a world come of age. Today nothing can be achieved any longer by means of the traditional location of the concept of God in the gaps of natural science, by means of the assertion that the concept of God is necessary to explain the world, by means of any transformation of the world by theistic proofs. Charles West had this in mind when he remarked:

That realm of nature which used to be beyond human understanding and control, with which, therefore, one could only establish a creative relation by means of this hypothesis ‘God’, is now more and more being conquered by reason and technique.17

Whatever we are to make of Marx’s critique of religion, Christian theology must see in the Marxist identification of Christianity and idealism a warning for the church. It has given us a fruitful impulse for a thorough going self-criticism.

Despite our agreement with his proposed solutions, Marx’s concern falls along the same line as some of the contemporary schools of thought in theology. Perhaps the single most significant result of the new school of liberation theology18 is that it represents the final Christian coming-to-terms with Marx, the positive appropriation of Marx’s contribution to modern thought and life.

Today, as ever before, human beings seek authentic human life. In the preceding chapters we found that Marx, through his Promethean role, was trying to achieve this "authentic human life" which human beings seek. We also found that Marx’s critique of religion was in fact an affirmation of human autonomy. It is hoped that the socialist society, as visualized by Marx, gives people more social justice and security, more human dignity, more free time, better standards of living etc. So far so good. But this same society will have to answer an essential question: What is the authentic human life? What is the ultimate meaning of human existence? Here Dietrich Bonhoeffer comes to our aid. Bonhoeffer also proclaimed the autonomy of the human being in a world come of age. But, according to him, it was the crucified and risen Christ who made the autonomy of the human being and the coming of age possible. Bonhoeffer found that the recognition of world’s autonomy is nothing but the knowledge of God which seeks to follow God where He has already preceded us. He also criticized religion, but did not want to abolish religion. He maintained that if the church is to be relevant to our time it must be ready to criticize itself and re-examine its traditional beliefs and practices. He reminds us that the tremendous task and responsibility placed on Christians is to make the secular world recognize the full reality of human life and to show how the Gospel proclaims and realizes it. We must make it clear by our life and theological approach that as Christians we do not live in the air but on earth and that we wish to serve human beings because of Jesus of Nazereth who humbled himself and made himself of no account. This is the contribution that we can make to Marxist- Christian dialogue. We shall now examine to what extent Bonhoeffer’s theology will help in making a corrective of Marx’s critique of religion.



1. Guilio Girardi, Marxism & Christianity, op.cit.,p.2f

2. Erich Fromm, "A Global Philosophy of Man," Humanist, Vol. 26, July/August, p. 122.

3. Milan Machovec, "Atheism and Christianity-Their Function of Mutual Challenge," Concurrence, Vol. 1, No. 3, 1969, p. 188.

4. Cited By Jaroslave Krejci, "A New Model of Scientific Atheism". Concurrence, Vol. I, No. 1, 1969, p. 96.

5. Cf. Jan Lochman, Church in a Marxist Society (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), p.158.

6. Mark 9:24.

7. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Possessed (New York: The Modern Library, 1963), p. 698.

8. Josef L. Hromadka, Theology Between Yesterday and Tomorrow (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, MCMLVII), p. 67.

9. Josef L. Hromadka, Impact of History on Theology, trans. by Monika and Benjamin Page (Notre Dame: Fides Publishers, 1970), p. 83.

10. Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), p. 98.

11. Paul Tillich, "How, Much Truth is There in Karl Marx?" Christian Century, Vol. 65, No. 36, 1948, p. 907.

12. Cf. Philippians 2.

13. Reminiscences of Marx and Engels, op. cit., p. 226.

14. Paul Tillich, "The Church and Communism", Religion in life, Vol. VI, No. 3, 1937, p. 351.

15. Helmut Gollwitzer, The Christian Faith and the Marxist Criticism of Religion, op. cit., p. 155f.

16. Johannes Baptist Metz, "The Controversy About the Future of Man-An Answer to Roger Garaudy," Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Vol. 4, 1967, p.234.

17. Charles West, Communism and the Theologians (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1958), p. 338.

18. Some of the key figures in this school of thought, who have taken Marx’s critique of religion seriously, are: Jurgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, Trans. by James W. Leitch (New York; Harper & Row, 1967); Johannes Baptist Metz, Theology of the World, trans. by William Glen-Doepel (New York: The Seabury Press, 1973); Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation, trans. by Sr. Caridad Inda and John Egleson (New York: Orbis Book, 1973); and Rubem A. Alves, A Theology of Human Hope (Indiana: Abbey Press, 1972).