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Marxism and Religion

I am dedicating this essay to my friend Lance Deaton. Lance and I have had many conversations about politics and religion and one point he has always made to me when I argue for socialist programs that would lift the financial burdens of working people is the history of leftist, communist (and there is a critical difference) regimes that were violently hostile to religion. I thought I'd take it on first hand here.

I have been interning with Tikkun, a progressive religious magazine out of Berkeley, for a couple weeks now. Since starting I have devoured several books, including two of Rabbi Michael Lerner's books - Embracing Israel/Palestine and The Left Hand Of God. The former I read within less than a week and the latter I am 60 pages in to. Lerner is very readable, knowledgeable about theology and other matters and very engaging. A winning combo for me.

One part in The Left Hand Of God that stood out to me is when Lerner talks about previous hierarchical systems before capitalism. While these systems were not ideal, they are interesting since capitalists act as if capitalism is the natural way of things and are hostile to any sort of alteration as heresy from normality or the act of some sort of liberal dementia.

In feudal societies, he notes, in order to stifle rebellion, many feudal societies were allowed to have churches for commoners and commoners were allowed to use these churches for various recreational activities. Without these churches, the harshness of their society may have been far more crisp and undeniable, he infers, and this seems to be a big facet of the hostility that manifested itself in Marxism. Karl Marx dictated that religion "was the opiate of the masses" and that reflected something Napoleon Bonaparte said - that religion was what "kept the poor from murdering the rich."

Marx wasn't entirely far off, of course. All religions get taken in many different directions and my own, Christianity, is the worst culprit. Christianity is much more vague in its declarations than Islam or Judaism. Whereas Muslims still identify themselves with the adherents who came to be right after Mohammed's death and Jews still carry rituals going back thousands of years, Christ was such a rebel to establishment that his message can be taken in thousands of different directions and has been. It's been used as a message for oppression and liberation, imprisonment and freedom.

The feudal mentality of people going along with an oppressive system with religion has carried on with a lot of evangelicals. When I was watching Joel Osteen years ago, I noticed that he married altruism with selfishness in strange ways. He seemed to allude that by utilizing social services and asking for resources from government, you were stealing from others and in fact being selfish. (No report yet on whether the same morals can be attached to the millions he has fleeced with his megachurch.) When we hear about Pat Robertson using money raised for Rwanda on a diamond mining deal in Sierra Leone, it is hard not to think Marx had a point. Likewise the Catholic Church itself was involved in all sorts of sick abuses - some of which are only now seeing the light of day.

Nevertheless, I don't need to remind you of the abuses of Marxism. Its hostility toward religion resulted in new gods being built out of its leaders and oppression of religious groups, especially in China, got damn near codified in to law. What Marxists did not get is that even if oppressive systems used religion to help the bitter pill of a technocratic society go down, that didn't make it inadequate in and of itself.

There's nothing really gorgeous or life fulfilling about the distribution of resources, whether socialist or capitalist. It's all about numbers when it gets down to it. The risk of a deadened society occurs in any society that becomes limited in scope to how resources are distributed. Godless technocrats didn't just show up on the left either - Ayn Rand is one of the American right's most significant philosophers and she was extremely hostile to religion, refusing many times to alter her writing for a Christian audience.

In my honest view, the hostility to religion is a key part of why Marxism failed and why it became as horrible as it did. Hostility and hate can never achieve what universalism can. In addition, instead of realigning various social tools that organized religion provides to a better end, Marxism just through them out and replaced them with top down technocratic governmental management as soulless as unfettered capitalism.

When coupled with an answer to spiritual yearning, however, progressivism won and won really hard. Many cities carry the names of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and Ceasar Chavez. These were extremely religious men who dedicated their lives to God. They had a paramount effect on the way we see migrant workers and African Americans. They succeeded in their goals - the Berlin wall moment was on the right's hands in desegregation - as the various desegregating of schools showed how morally bankrupt Southern segregationists were. The list goes on - Upton Sinclair's book The Jungle is filled with talk of the Social Gospel and that book likewise had a significant impact on the regulation of the food industry.

As Lance said to me before, there is never an era of unbelief and religion continues to hold a valuable place for everyone who is curious about the great mystery of life and wants something out of it besides just a life of managing resources from one place to the next. Social movements usually win when they appeal to this desire and progressive causes, when they do so, are almost indestructible.


  1. Hi Michael, We've had some interesting material in Tikkun that suggests that Marxism was not originally as anti-spiritual as many think -- it was just one interpretation that took it in that direction. Thought you'd be interested in this article:


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Michael Orion is a blogger, writer, artist and photographer based in the Bay Area. Besides his maintenance and promotion of Radical Second Things, he contributes to the San Francisco newspaper SF Western Edition, where he writes about local non-profit organizations.

Mark Cappetta is a practicing Catholic and active LGBT activist. He has been instrumental in keeping Radical Second Things and updates the Facebook account almost daily.

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Radical Second Things is a liberation theology themed blog that has clear cut goals - we see the structural decline of the United States and much of the west and hope to present alternatives that will offer "a preferential option for the poor" as more become vulnerable.

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