What is the communist stance on religion?

What is the communist stance on religion?

Communists are Marxists, and Marxist philosophy is rooted in dialectical materialism. Materialism is the philosophy that reality is based on a measurable, material world independent of the observer. Materialism is the direct opposite of idealism, which views ideas and mental experiences as the primary basis of reality. Marxism understands ideas and mental processes as arising directly from material conditions but also as being able to reshape the material world through human labor.

This mutually impacting relationship between the ideal and material is the dialectical part of dialectical materialism. Dialectics is a way of analyzing the world with several key understandings:

- Everything directly or indirectly impacts everything else.

- Everything is constantly changing.

- Conflict between opposing forces drives change and development.

- No material thing can undergo infinite change without turning into something else (quantitative changes become qualitative).

There is no field of science that stands in conflict with dialectical materialism. This distinguishes Marxist scientific socialism from utopian socialism.

Every theistic religion is in conflict with materialism by insisting upon the existence of unobservable and non-disprovable phenomena. When phenomena attributed to these gods or spirits are systematically investigated, and their mechanisms are revealed, such as the origin of life or the motion of the planets, religion often moves to the next obscure corner of our understanding of the universe. There is no way to prove or disprove the existence of God, just as there is no way to prove or disprove the existence of a giant teapot floating at the edge of the universe. While there is no evidence for God, there is also no evidence that the universe will spontaneously implode tomorrow. Thus, it makes no sense to alter our daily behavior based on these unprovable claims.

Because of these philosophical oppositions, Marxism is at odds with religion as worldviews. One can be a religious Marxist or a religious person who believes in science, but there will be times when one has to choose between two contradictory modes of thought.

The development of religion alongside the economy

Religion has its origins in the day-to-day economic activity of people, even before class society. Hunter-gatherers lacked the intergenerational knowledge to understand phenomena like seasons, weather, biology, and celestial bodies. In their attempts to engage with these things, they projected conscious agency onto them. The productive roots of religion are apparent in the prevalence of deified animals of subsistence, such as elk or deer.

As society moved to the agrarian stage and productive specializations like farming and raising livestock emerged, polytheism arose with different gods of production, wine, fertility, cattle, rain, hunting, etc.

Next, as slave societies emerged, such as ancient Egypt with greater centralization and stark class hierarchy, monotheism began to replace the once-thousands of local gods. For example, the ancient Romans claimed that every god was just a manifestation of their god. Thus, monotheism arose as a consequence of religion existing in class society, where ruling classes began to use it as a means to ideologically justify their rule over the state and the people.

This can be seen in Christianity, where different names for God are used, such as Yahweh and Elohim. It is theorized that these are the different gods of different tribes that were retroactively united in scripture as the tribes united.

Once feudal economic models superseded slave societies, religion became fused with monarchical state machinery and wealthy institutions. It was contorted to justify the rule of kings and the oppression of serfs and peasants.

There is a famous quote often attributed to Marx: "Religion is the opium of the people." However, he never said that exact phrase. In Karl Marx's "Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right" (1843), he actually said: "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people."

Religion, like all other social phenomena, is the direct result of people's material conditions. Just as hunter-gatherers, with no knowledge of the cosmos, tried to explain their seemingly random suffering from disease and storms by invoking spirits and animism, the modern worker under capitalism faces alienation and hypocrisy everywhere. These crises and depressing conditions occur for complex reasons, and it is easier for people to cope with day-to-day life if they believe in an eternal afterlife where everything will be made right and their suffering is only temporary. Religion becomes an escapist coping mechanism for oppressive material conditions, the sigh of an oppressed creature. There are statistical benefits to this coping mechanism as well. Religion provides people with a sense of community, discourages substance use, and lowers suicide rates.

However, there is a negative correlation between the amount of education someone receives and their likelihood of being religious (Lynn, Harvey, & Nyborg, 2009). Additionally, there is a positive correlation between religiosity and the belief in conspiracy theories (Frenken, Bilewicz, & Imhoff, 2023). Thus, in many ways, religion holds people back. Religion is not necessary to reduce suicide rates or to improve quality of life, sense of community, and economic empowerment. Socialism can achieve all that and more. As these conditions improve statistically, people are less likely to become religious. In conclusion, Marxists view religion similar to excessive drinking or drug use. It emerges as a coping mechanism from oppressive social conditions and has some limited benefits as well as long-term material problems. However, the end of religion will not come with the communist community patrol showing up at your house and dumping all your fireball in the driveway and flushing your weed down the toilet. Instead, through the hard work of advancing production and distribution, making people's lives more fulfilling, and building socialism and eventually communism, these harmful coping mechanisms will cease to be necessary.

References: Lynn, R., Harvey, J., & Nyborg, H. (2009). Average intelligence predicts atheism rates across 137 nations. Intelligence, 37(1), 11-15. Frenken, M., Bilewicz, M., & Imhoff, R. (2023). On the relation between religiosity and the endorsement of conspiracy theories: The role of political orientation. Political Psychology, 44(1), 139-156.