Steve Irwin
Ethics and Metaphysics of Will Wright


Karl_marx For some eighty years, Marxism has been accused of being a religion. Certainly, it is hard for the casual observer not to notice some similarities between the behaviour of the more fanatical followers of Marxism and the behaviour of the more fanatical followers of various religions. But there is one crucial difference between Marxism and religion which cannot be ignored: no one who practices Marxism calls it a religion. How might we resolve this impasse?

To begin, we should review the basic tenets of this twentieth century political ideology. As set out by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, and recorded principally in Marx’s book Das Kapital, the Marxist doctrine claims that the state is a political device for the exploitation of the masses by a dominant class, and further that class struggle has been the principle agency of historical change. It also holds that the capitalist system is inevitably doomed, and that eventually the proletariat (the workers) will break free from dictatorship and be superseded by a classless society organized on socialist principles.

Furthermore, Marx’s plan for revolution presupposes that a direct transformation to a classless, socialist society is impossible. There has to be an intermediate transitional stage. Marx was never clear on the details of this process, however. In this sense, the USSR can be understood not as representing the goal state of Marxism, but rather as a transitional stage towards its ultimate goal (a goal which has never yet been realised).

Marxism contains a number of additional assumptions, including the idea that the socialist utopia it envisions requires the abolition of religions. According to Marx, anything that supports the status quo is a barrier to the transformation of society and hence must be eliminated. Marx also contended that religion impinges upon human autonomy by postulating a higher power thus making people more willing to accept the status quo.

Karl Marx’s most famous line in regard of religion, which is oft cited, states:

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.

The first major criticism of Marxism couched in terms of comparison to religion comes from philosopher Bertrand Russell, who wrote in 1920 (in The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism): 

One who believes as I do, that free intellect is the chief engine of human progress, cannot but be fundamentally opposed to Bolshevism as much as to the Church of Rome. The hopes which inspire communism are, in the main, as admirable as those instilled by the Sermon on the Mount, but they are held as fanatically and are as likely to do as much harm. 

This falls somewhat short of outright suggesting that Marxism can be seen as a religion, but other commentators have been more direct. Joseph Schumpeter in Capitalism, Socialism & Democracy wrote:

In one important sense, Marxism 'is' a religion. To the believer it presents, first, a system of ultimate ends that embody the meaning of life and are absolute standards by which to judge events and actions; and, secondly, a guide to those ends which implies a plan of salvation and the indication of the evil from which mankind, or a chosen section of mankind, is to be saved. We may specify still further: Marxist socialism also belongs to that subgroup which promises paradise on this side of the grave. 

To consider what extent Marxism can be considered a religion, we require a working definition for 'religion', and for the sake of this discussion we shall use the concise framework established earlier (and derived from Ninian Smart's more complete definition):

A religion can be understood as a belief system comprised generally of mythology (or a central narrative), metaphysics and ethics, and often relating to numinous or transcendent experiences.

How does Marxism compare to this definition?  

Firstly, there is no obvious connection to a numinous or transcendent experience, although it is possible that dedicated Marxists do experience something in this vein when they ‘feel the Truth’ of the ideology. However, this is the least critical element, since we are already aware of religions that do not necessarily contain this component such as Chinese traditional religious practices, and Christian atheism.

However, it does seem to fit the remaining tenets of our definition. There is indeed a mythology (or central narrative) – one which tells of the future liberation of the working class from the bondage of a class system. There is a metaphysical component underlying both the assumptions of the ideology itself, and in the specific criticisms of religions, which presupposes atheism. There is an ethical component contained in the general provisions for the idealised socialist society that Marx proposes. 

Can we conclude that Marxism is a religion? I still suggest that we cannot, for in one important sense it does not seem to qualify. No practicing Marxist considers themselves to be practicing a religion. Now we could choose to assert our own conclusion in defiance of this, but the only reason we were able to form a definition for religion in the first place was because people do customarily identify those things which they practice as religion (via census data, for instance).

Although we may choose to call something a religion that its practitioner does not, the consequence will likely be an outbreak of finger pointing, as those hostile to particular belief systems may choose to accuse them as being religions in disguise. It is hard to see how this could be helpful – especially as it presupposes a negative connotation to religion that may not be justified.  

Consider, for instance, Marx’s suggestion that religion serves only to support the status quo. This claim is flawed, since it ignores cases where those motivated by religion have caused positive social change – such as William Wilberforce (Christian), who was instrumental to the abolition of the slave trade in the 19th century, or Mahatma Gandhi (Hindu), who liberated India from British rule by peaceful protest.

Consider also the idea that religions should be viewed negatively because religious wars have resulted in millions of deaths. Putting aside the political and economic motivations behind the Crusades, the number of deaths caused across all the Crusades has been estimated by J.M. Robertson at nine million (about half of which were Christians). Compare this to R.J. Rummel’s estimates for democides (murder by government) in the twentieth century: 212 million dead, with Marxists accounting for 148 million of this total (significantly less than the 34 million who died in open warfare in that century). While modern Marxists are no more responsible for these atrocities than modern Christians are for the Crusades, it nonetheless contradicts the supposition that the rejection of religion leads necessarily to a better world.   

Similarly, the idea that suicide bombing can be used to indict religion is flawed. In fact, an analysis of suicide bombing shows that the leading instigator of suicide attacks is the Tamil Tigers, a Marxist-Leninist terrorist organisation in Sri Lanka. Robert A. Pape’s research into the subject of suicide bombings concludes that the one thing that suicidal terror attacks have in common is their goal: 

…what nearly all suicide terrorist campaigns have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel liberal democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland. Religion is rarely the root cause, although it is often used as a tool by terrorist organizations in recruiting and in other efforts in service of the broader strategic objective. 

These statistics leave us with a rather negative view of Marxism, but it is important to remember that the atrocities discussed above are the result of fanatical extremism – Marxism was only the motivating ideology. Individual Marxists are no more likely to resort to suicide bombings and mass murder than individual Christians are likely to instigate a new Crusade! Any belief system can lead to extremism, and it is important to remain focussed on preventing extremism from taking root, rather than attempting to apportion blame onto specific belief systems.

Where does this leave us on the issue of whether Marxism can be considered a religion? We have nothing to gain from forcing the term ‘religion’ onto Marxists, who clearly do not wish to be seen this way, therefore we need a different approach. I have been heartened by the ease with which the term ‘nongame’ has been adopted to refer to things that are like games in many respects, yet distinctly different in others. I suggest that since Communists and Marxists are content to be seen as ‘non-religion’ (as with Zhao Qizheng’s quote, posted last week) we have the option to consider Marxism as a nonreligion. 

Marxism, therefore, is similar to a religion in many respects, but is also distinctly different in certain key ways (including its decision to reject religion). By terming it as a nonreligion, we might resolve the general problem in philosophy of religion of the overt resemblance between Marxism and the collection of belief systems that it expressly rejects.

A nonreligion, therefore, might be defined as follows:

A nonreligion can be understood as a belief system that is not identified as a religion by its adherents and is comprised generally of mythology (or a central narrative), metaphysics and ethics.

Curiously, despite Marx’s original doctrine being expressly antagonistic towards religion, this situation has shifted in recent years. The change is perhaps exemplified by Fidel Castro’s comment that “…between Marxism and religion, there is no antagonistic contradiction.” This seems like a considerable change of tack for Marxists! 

Donald A. Nielsen notes:

The rapprochement of Marxism and Christianity among eastern European intellectuals in the postwar era (e.g., Leszek Kolakowski) and the amalgam of Marxism and Christianity in the social reform efforts of Liberation Theology in Latin America since the 1960s (e.g., Guttiérez) are only two examples of the continuing mutual fertilization of Marxism and religion. With the demise of world communism, Marxism's new, yet not unfamiliar, situation is likely to allow its proponents once again to forge links with religion.

Indeed, there are signs of a general softening of Marx’s original position amongst modern followers of this nonreligion. Alex Cowper writes: 

…the power of religion over people’s minds will not disappear before the social conditions that give rise to this form of alienation also disappear. That is why socialists cannot demand that people should be atheists. Many Marxists are also religious believers - such as senator Heloisa Helena of the Fourth International in Brazil, or some comrades of the Labour Party Pakistan who say Muslim prayers before their meetings. Left secularists should therefore be the best defenders of individual rights of religious thought and expression, including in situations where one confessional group seeks to dominate another. However, that does not mean they should not argue against the influence of religious ideas.

This means that we must be firm in our defence of individual rights of religious expression. It needs to be demonstrated to members of oppressed communities that left secularists are the most consistent fighters for equality and civil rights. This will then make it easier to develop the struggle against integration of religion and state. 

The idea of a nonreligion encouraging its followers to become staunch defenders of the individual rights of religious expression is surely a sign of a more mature belief system, one capable of accepting contrary viewpoints, rather than seeking to repress or oppose them. If this is the measure of where Marxism is headed, it is certainly encouraging, but it remains to be seen to what extent this recent, more liberal view of Marxist ideology can supplant the dogmas of the original Das Kapital. Nonreligions and religions share a common need: to minimise or eliminate fanatical extremism. Perhaps in mutual co-operation, this goal can be better achieved.


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Very interesting post - particularly the 'nongame' analogy ;). Incidentally, it reminded me a passage from Bertrand Russell´s History of Western Philosophy, which I quote below:

"To understand Marx psychologically, one should use the following dictionary:

Yahweh = Dialectical Materialism
The Messiah = Marx
The Elect = The Proletariat
The Church = The Communist Party
The Second Coming = The Revolution
Hell = Punishment of the Capitalism
The Millennium = The Communist Commonwealth

The terms on the left give the emotional content of the terms on the right, and it is this emotional content, familiar to those who have had a Christian or a Jewish upbringing, that makes Marx´s eschatology credible."

During many discussions of Marxism with my friends, I have many times said that the forced atheism was a non-essiential part of Marxism. Any religion or belief system that included a focus on the importance of community could easily integrate Marxism into its structure.

The concept of a 'Christian athiest' seems like an oxymoron to me.

Thanks for the comments everyone!

Chico: Russell really did see Marxism as a new fundamentalist atheist religion - he was not a fan. :)

Chill: I wholeheartedly agree! I'm certainly heartened to see a new softer Marxism emerging recently.

RodeoClown: I realise that 'Christian atheist' sounds oxymoronic, but it describes someone who identifies as an atheist, but who identifies Christianity as their religion. There appear to be many such people in the UK. I think many of them are actually Christian agnostics in my own terminology, but who am I to take away people's right to identify how they wish?

As an example, consider Atheists for Jesus.

Such people effectively reject Christian metaphysics but accept Christian ethics. I believe Christians should consider them allies, since they share ethical goals, but sadly some consider them to be enemies.

But what is the parable of the Good Samaritan, when interpreted in its original cultural context, if not an instruction from Jesus not to judge people on their faith and culture, but to love one another, as he loved everyone?

Best wishes!

I think Christian ethics without the metaphysics is ridiculous. All of Jesus' teachings came from his belief (I'm not debating whether he was or not, I think 'is', you believe not - as far as I can tell) that he was God's son, you have to throw away almost everything else if you leave that out.

I'll look into this later though - the concept is intriguing.

I'll probably make a blog post about it (eventually - like the rundowns on the parables... I haven't forgotten, just haven't got there... yet).

The good Samaritan:

Another take on the good Samaritan.

It's a thirty minute video clip! :o Any chance of a precis? ;)

The one reason why Marxism is not a religion is that you do not have to "belief" that Marx or Marxism is correct. His statements are verifiable unlike the statements of any religion. Marx just offers one way to analyse events around us - follow the money (surplus). God did not speak to him and provide him with all the answers. He just used something all of us already have - our ability to think - to analyse the world around us. Rationality is the key. He did not say, "This is so because I say so or because God told me so. If you do not believe in me you will go to hell." Instead, he said, "This is so because of the following ...." You can agree or disagree with his reasoning and if you obtain the relevant data prove or disprove what he said. The fact that Soviet Union fell is proof that Marxism is not a religion. People of that country did not say, "Oh it is ok that we are starving. Marx said that the classless society is coming, let us wait for it." No one waited for Godot.

Thanks for sharing your view, Anon binary 33. I'm not sure about your argument, however. Marx's statements might be verifiable, but practicing Marxists have not verified them - rather, they appear to have chosen to believe in them.

That the USSR rejected Marxism no more demonstrates that the question of religion and Marxism does not apply than the rejection of classical Greek religion during the era of European monotheism demonstrates that classical Greek religion was not a religion, if you see what I mean.

I still think the question being posed is valid. I concluded in the negative - Marxism is better understood as a nonreligion than a religion - but I think the question remains a fair one to ask.

I never said that the question was not a valid one. It is absolutely a valid question. The point that I wanted to make was that religion, by definition, is not verifiable - it is a faith. Marxism, on the other hand, is verifiable - whether you choose to verify that or not is upto you.

The question this raises for me is whether this is sufficient criteria for distinguishing a religion. A cult which promises aliens will transport its followers away on a particular date is also verifiable (and thus far, always in the negative!) but this does not seem sufficient to exclude said cult from being a religion. I'm sympathetic to the idea that a belief system can be excluded from being considered religion on account of verifiable claims, but instinctively I feel like this will create problems rather than solve them.

Thanks for the fresh perspective!

I may be totally wrong on this one but wasn't christianity around the year 1000 pretty convinced that the Book of Revelation were to be verified any minute?

I guess humans have been experiencing over time that physics can be turned into metaphysics as soon as proper experimentation is introduced ... how about the other way round, what about metaphysics turned physics?

translucy: yes, this is in fact the case; the early Christian church was convinced that Jesus was on his way back imminently, leading to a general state of inaction as they waited.

I assume you meant metaphysics is turned into physics by experimentation... can physics become metaphysics? I think the answer to this is yes: since any model in physics is a tentative explanation, it can later be invalidated by new research and theories. But people can hang on to the old interpretation if they wish, but if its in strict contrast to the experiemental data the only basis for doing so would be metaphysics.

Take a hypothetical person who rejected relativity and held onto a Newtonian model. One could argue that their rejection of relativity was a metaphysical choice, thus the Newtonian physics would (in a certain sense, at least) have been turned back to metaphysics.

Or at least, this is how it seems to me at first glance. I suspect I have overlooked something pertinent to the issue. :)


your answer seems fine to me but maybe somewhat incomplete ;) As always my intent is to spawn more questions rather than get definitive answers. I'll rephrase the puzzle a little bit:

How is science turned into meta-science?
How is meta-science turned into science?
How is it that the practice of meta-science and science can somehow coexist in a person's mind?

And on different a topic:

Is it possible that we left out from our discussions so far how modern common sense perceives (and often ridicules) the medieval period?

I find it fascinating to compare the events we witness now around 2k with the records that exist from around 1k, angst and terror included.

translucy: one of the interesting things about your perspective is that it is intimately historical. For myself, I tend to go spiraling off into the abstracts, and although I have a broad grasp of history it is by no means detailed. One of the interesting thing about reading Arendt is how she assembles things in a historical perspective - I'm finding it quite illuminating.

Best wishes!

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