The Atheism of Karl Marx

Author: Rev. Gianbattista Mondin, S.X.


Rev. Gianbattista Mondin, S.X.

Marx was an atheist from his childhood and remained such for the whole of the rest of his life.

His atheism was not only practical but also theoretical. His theoretical atheism is due primarily to philosophical reasons and only secondarily to historical, social and political reasons.

Already in his thesis for the doctorate Marx proclaims in no uncertain terms that "in the country of reason" the existence of God cannot have any meaning. "Take paper money to a country in which this use of paper money is not known, and everyone will laugh at your subjective representation. Go with your gods to a country in which other gods are worshipped, and you will be shown that you are the victim of fancies and abstractions. And rightly. Anyone who had brought a migrant god to the ancient Greeks, would have found the proof of the non-existence of this god, because it did not exist for the Greeks. What is the case in a certain country for certain foreign gods, takes place for god in general in the country of reason: it is an area in which his existence ceases" (K. Marx, Frammento dell'appendice della dissertazione dottorale,in A. Sabetti, Sulla fondazione del materialismo storico, Florence 1962, p. 415).

Marx's theoretical atheism is the consequence of three postulates: 1) metaphysical or dialectical materialism which considers matter as the supreme and unique cause of everything;

2) historical materialism, according to which the economic factor is the principal and decisive factor, and the economic structure is the carrying structure of all the other structures that compose society;

3) absolute humanism, which sets man at the summit of the cosmos: man is the supreme being.

In my opinion the decisive reason on which Marx bases his atheism is the third one. Marx is an atheist because of his passion for man. What he wishes to safeguard with atheism is the greatness of man. With atheism he intends to exclude that there is any superior being, greater than man. It is in view of man's greatness that he considers it necessary to destroy religion, because in his judgment the latter is the opium, the drug, the substitute which prevents man from becoming aware of his dignity.

I will bring forward some quotations in support of this thesis.

In The Jewish Question we read: "For us religion does not constitute the foundation,but only the phenomenon of worldly limitation. For this reason, we explain the religious subjection of free citizens with their earthly subjection. We affirm that they will suppress their religious limitation as soon as they have suppressed their earthly limits. We do not transform earthly questions into theological questions. We transform theological questions into earthly ones" (K. Marx, La questione ebraica,Rome 1966, pp. 81-82).

The initial sentence of this passage is very expressive. It says that religion is a phenomenon (in the Kantian sense of the term) and not a reality. Therefore religion does not justify, does not found, a real limitation, man's actual status as a creature, but merely manifests a contingent historical condition, unjust and transitory. It expresses man's failure to reach his own greatness. When he achieves it, the religious phenomenon will disappear.

In the famous Introduction to the Critique of the Hegelian philosophy of public law,Marx gives an even more explicit and elaborate formulation of this outlook. "Religious misery", he writes, "is at once the expression of real misery and a protest against it. Religion is the groan of the oppressed, the sentiment of a heartless world, and at the same time the spirit of a condition deprived of spirituality. It is the opium of the people. The suppression of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the premise of its real happiness. It is first and foremost the task of philosophy, operating in the service of history, to unmask self-alienation in its profane forms, after the sacred form of human self alienation has been discovered. Thus criticism of heaven is transformed into criticism of the earth, criticism of religion into criticism of law, criticism of theology into criticism of politics". And just before: "Religion is the consciousness and awareness of man who has not yet acquired or who has again lost himself. But man is not an abstract being, isolated from the world. Man is the world of man, the State, society. This State and this society produce religion, an upside-down consciousness of the world, just because they are an upside-down world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopedic epitome, its logic in popular form, its spiritualistic point d'honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn completion, its fundamental reason of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of human essence, since human essence does not possess a true reality. The struggle against religion is therefore indirectly the struggle against that world of which religion is the spiritual aroma" (K. Marx, Per lacritica della filosofia del diritto di Hegel, Introduzione,Rome 1966, pp. 57-58).

Again in the same Introduction weread: "The criticism of religion leads to the doctrine according to which man is, for man, the supreme being; therefore it reaches the categorical imperative of overthrowing all relationships in which man is a degraded, enslaved, abandoned, contemptible being.

There are also many passages in Marx's works in which lie denounces the churches and their representatives as allies of governments, of the privileged classes, of the masters, and in which he reveals their faults and their abjection, invoking their suppression. But his works as a whole show that for Marx man's enemies are not priests and churches, but religion as such. It. is just religion in its purest essence, and not in the deviations of its representatives, that is the main obstacle to human advancement, to the liberation of man, to his conquest of maturity.

Christians who wish to dialogue with Marx and with his disciples must keep in mind this point of fundamental importance. And therefore they must not base the dialogue on metaphysical (dialectical) materialism or on historical materialism, or on the history of the Church (temporal power, crusades, inquisition, case of Galileo, etc.) but on humanism and religion, and on the humanistic value of religion and Christianity.

The Catholics who are not ignorant of the reasons of their faith will not have any difficulty in finding valid arguments to show Marx and his disciples that religion and Christianity in particular, far from being enemies of man, are on the contrary the instruments (the sacraments) that confer on him the possibility of fulfilling himself completely, far beyond the highest levels of greatness which reason alone permits him to represent.

In Christianity, man, raised to the dignity of God's son, becomes greater and not smaller, freer and not more enslaved, nobler and not more petty, more serene and not more tormented. The Christian, in fact, is a man who, knowing that he is infinitely loved by God, knows that he has become infinitely great. And that causes his heart to burst into the Franciscan song of perfect joy.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
20 April 1978, page 12

L'Osservatore Romano is the newspaper of the Holy See.
The Weekly Edition in English is published for the US by:

The Cathedral Foundation
L'Osservatore Romano English Edition
320 Cathedral St.
Baltimore, MD 21201
Subscriptions: (410) 547-5315
Fax: (410) 332-1069