Organized Religion and the Marxist Critique

I worry that my hyper-rational friends are misunderstanding belief and the role of organized religion, and in doing so are hurting their lives. I can’t help but thinking that a lot of this ties back to the Marxist critique of religion.

Yes, the Marxist Critique captures the obvious – any time an activity is critical to human life, a structure will evolve around that activity and that structure will become self-perpetuating. The need to coordinate activities eventually leads to the formation of a state, and the state can become more focused on its needs, keeping itself in power, than the need that led to the formation of the state. The need for spiritual nourishment eventually leads to the establishment of a church. And yes, arguably the values of the structure of the church can come to be in conflict with the purpose of the church, of providing spiritual nourishment to its members.

But Marx’s critique of organized religion goes far beyond recognizing institutional tendencies. For Marx, the church played a special role in maintaining our economic system. If people are spiritually nourished, they are happier with their lives, regardless of their circumstances. And if they are happy, they are far less likely to want to overthrow their economic system. The church, by making people happier than Marx thought they should be, was perpetuating the capitalist system that Marx thought would eventually collapse. Organized religion, by causing people to accept their circumstances, helped the ruling class keep the working class in their place.

Philosophers like Marx mix in their religion with their science. With most philosophers, we throw out the religion and keep the science. With Marx, unfortunately, it seems we throw out the science but keep the religion. It was his religion, his belief in socialism, that distorted his view of organized religion. It is exactly because it was so good at providing nourishment for the soul – even with its human failings – that caused Marx to be so adamantly against organized religion.

Many of the things that Marx wrote about organized religion are certainly true – it does tend to become separated from its original purpose, and it can cause people to be more accepting of the class structure. But it’s also just as true that humans do need nourishment of the soul, and organized religion has been proven over thousands of years to be the most effective vehicle for delivering that nourishment.

And this is why I worry about my hyper-rational friends. They have applied their skepticism and the Marxist Critique to organized religion. But have they applied that same skepticism to the Marxist Critique? Have they questioned why it makes sense to them personally to reject out of hand the one thing in history, organized religion, that has proven to be effective at providing nourishment for the soul? Are they allowing the pressure to subscribe to a critically flawed intellectual theory stand in the way of a more joyful, spiritually satisfied life?

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