Marxism and religion

overview about how Marxism influences religion

19th-century German philosopher Karl Marx, the founder and primary theorist of Marxism, viewed religion as "the soul of soulless conditions" or the "opium of the people". According to Marx, religion in this world of exploitation is an expression of distress and at the same time it is also a protest against the real distress. In other words, religion continues to survive because of oppressive social conditions. When this oppressive and exploitative condition is destroyed, religion will become unnecessary. At the same time, Marx saw religion as a form of protest by the working classes against their poor economic conditions and their alienation. Denys Turner, a scholar of Marx and historical theology, classified Marx's views as adhering to Post-Theism, a philosophical position that regards worshipping deities as an eventually obsolete, but temporarily necessary, stage in humanity's historical spiritual development.


  • From the outset in 1917, the Communists believed in a utopian ideology, extreme, organised violence, atheism, a redefined place of the individual that served to reject Enlightenment precepts, and the rejection of preceding Russian history. During the Civil War and the 1920s, the Orthodox Church was crushed, with the slaughter of tens of thousands of priests and monks, and the desecration and destruction of churches, monasteries and the tombs of saints. The real and spiritual landscapes of Russia and the psychological life of the people were transformed as a consequence. Communism in its own way therefore constituted a major civilisational challenge to the notion in Europe and North America of a ‘Western Civilisation’, whether or not articulated explicitly in this fashion. This civilisation owed much to Christianity and placed considerable weight on liberalism and toleration. From this perspective, Communism, drawing both on a reconceptualisation of Russian authoritarianism and on a new, totalitarian ideology and practice, posed a counter-civilisational challenge with its own precepts, aims, methods and anticipated outcomes.
  • Dawkins is inexhaustibly outraged by the fact that religious opinions lead people to terrible crimes. But what, if there is no God, is so peculiarly shocking about these opinions being specifically religious? The answer he supplies is simple: that when religious people do evil things, they are acting on the promptings of their faith but when atheists do so, it's nothing to do with their atheism. He devotes pages to a discussion of whether Hitler was a Catholic, concluding that “Stalin was an atheist and Hitler probably wasn’t, but even if he was… the bottom line is very simple. Individual atheists may do evil things but they don’t do evil things in the name of atheism.” Yet under Stalin almost the entire Orthodox priesthood was exterminated simply for being priests, as were the clergy of other religions and hundreds of thousands of Baptists. The claim that Stalin’s atheism had nothing to do with his actions may be the most disingenuous in the book, but it has competition from a later question, “Why would anyone go to war for the sake of an absence of belief [atheism]?”—as if the armies of the French revolution had marched under icons of the Virgin, or as if a common justification offered for China’s invasion of Tibet had not been the awful priest-ridden backwardness of the Dalai Lama’s regime.
    • Andrew Brown, "Dawkins The Dogmatist", Prospect Magazine, 21st October 2006
  • On the eve of the Bolshevik coup d'état, the Orthodox Church claimed a hundred million adherents, two hundred thousand priests and monks, seventy-five thousand churches and chapels, over eleven hundred monasteries, thirty-seven thousand primary schools, fifty-seven seminaries and four university-level academies, not to speak of thousands of hospitals, old people’s homes and orphanages. Within a few years, the intuitional structures were swept away, the churches were desolated, vandalized or put to secular use. Many of the clergy were imprisoned or shot; appropriately enough the first concentration camp of the gulag was opened in a monastery in Artic regions.
    • Michael Burleigh, Sacred Causes: The Clash of Religion and Politics, From the Great War to the War on Terror (2006), p. 40
  • We must face the fact that, while we are trying to help build a world of freedom and justice among sovereign people, the masters of international Communism are working constantly to tear down this kind of world. Communism, according to all its own leaders, must be a system of international control and conformity. Thus, at its very heart, it is the complete opposite and enemy of any kind of nationalism. Its avowed program is to destroy totally the religion, governments, institutions and traditions of the Christian world, the Buddhist world, the Islamic world, the Judaic world, and the world of every religion and culture. The Communist rulers then propose to substitute a whole new system of thought and control dictated from Communist Party headquarters. They think that a few theorists and rulers know what is best for everyone, and they are determined to drive everyone toward that kind of world. One small country after another has been swallowed up by international Communism. Their freedom is lost. Their national pride is crushed. Their religion is trampled on. Their economies are mere feeders for that of Russia. And if they attempt to assert their tradition of freedom, their people are shot down by the thousands. Witness: Hungary.
  • But the Marxists think that religion is an evil, because it is anti-reason ; while reason is a good in itself, which moreover emancipates man by equipping him with the intellectual as well as technological means to determine his own destiny. Now this notion of reason and religion stems from a specifically European situation, that conditioned Marx' thought about religion. The fact that Indian Marxists have simply transposed Marx' limited view to the Indian situation is just another example of how dogmatic Marxists generally are. It also shows how utterly ignorant the Indian Leftist (and generally secularist) intelligentsia is of India's home-grown religious culture.
    • Elst K. Ayodhya and After: Issues Before Hindu Society (1991)
  • The Soviet Union was the first state to have as an ideological objective the elimination of religion. Toward that end, the Communist regime confiscated church property, ridiculed religion, harassed believers, and propagated atheism in the schools. Actions toward particular religions, however, were determined by State interests, and most organized religions were never outlawed. The main target of the anti-religious campaign in the 1920s and 1930s was the Russian Orthodox Church, which had the largest number of faithful. Nearly all of its clergy, and many of its believers, were shot or sent to labor camps. Theological schools were closed, and church publications were prohibited. By 1939 only about 500 of over 50,000 churches remained open. After Nazi Germany's attack on the Soviet Union in 1941, Joseph Stalin revived the Russian Orthodox Church to intensify patriotic support for the war effort. By 1957 about 22,000 Russian Orthodox churches had become active. But in 1959 Nikita Khrushchev initiated his own campaign against the Russian Orthodox Church and forced the closure of about 12,000 churches. By 1985 fewer than 7,000 churches remained active. Members of the church hierarchy were jailed or forced out, their places taken by docile clergy, many of whom had ties with the KGB.
  • Yet China remained a one-party dictatorship and its labour camps – the infamous laogai – continued to hold between four and six million inmates in shocking conditions. Mao’s gigantic image was still displayed in Tiananmen Square. There was no true pluralism of intellectual and political discourse at the highest official levels. Interest groups of employers were not allowed to function. Trade unions were emasculated. The importance of military power went on being promoted. Tibet languished under China’s despotism and its levels of literacy and material provision remained low; and the construction of a railway across its territory, much vaunted in Beijing as showing its wish to share the benefits of modernisation, was seen by Tibetans as a means of reinforcing central control. Great regions such as Xinjiang in the north-west of the People’s Republic were held in a suffocating grip. There the Chinese authorities feared that Islam and Uigur nationalism might breed a separatist movement. Freedom of religious expression was only patchily respected across China. Falun Gong, an indigenous faith of massive popularity, was systematically persecuted. Communist doctrines remained an obligatory ingredient in the school curriculum and a qualification for a serious public career. Marxism-Leninism was otherwise honoured only in the breach.
    • Robert Service, Comrades!: A History of World Communism (2010)
  • Orthodox churches were stripped of their valuables in 1922 at the instigation of Lenin and Trotsky. In subsequent years, including both the Stalin and the Khrushchev periods, tens of thousands of churches were torn down or desecrated, leaving behind a disfigured wasteland that bore no resemblance to Russia such as it had stood for centuries. Entire districts and cities of half a million inhabitants were left without a single church. Our people were condemned to live in this dark and mute wilderness for decades, groping their way to God and keeping to this course by trial and error. The grip of oppression that we have lived under, and continue to live under, has been so great that religion, instead of leading to a free blossoming of the spirit, has been manifested in asserting the faith on the brink of destruction, or else on the seductive frontiers of Marxist rhetoric, where so many souls have come to grief.
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