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B. Marx

Marx’s most famous pronouncement on religion:

The basis of irreligious criticism is man makes religion, religion does not make man. In other words, religion is the self-consciousness and the self-feeling of the man who has either not yet found himself, or else (having found himself) has lost himself once more. But 141man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man, the state, society. This state, this society, produce religion, a perverted world consciousness, because they are a perverted world. . . .

Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. 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 abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusions about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which requires illusions. The criticism of religion is therefore in embryo the criticism of the vale of woe, the halo of which is religion [Marx’s emphasis].162162   “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Introduction,” in On Religion, by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, tr. Reinhold Niebuhr (Chico, Calif.: Scholar’s Press, 1964), pp. 41–42. Engels echoes Marx:
   All religion, however, is nothing but the fantastic reflection in men’s minds of those external forces which control their daily life, a reflection in which the terrestrial forces assume the form of supernatural forces. In the beginnings of history it was the forces of nature which were first so reflected and which in the course of further evolution underwent the most manifold and varied personifications among the various peoples. . . . But it is not long before, side by side with the forces of nature, social forces begin to be active—forces which confront man as equally alien and at first inexplicable, dominating him with the same apparent natural necessity as the forces of nature themselves. . . . At a still further stage of evolution, all the natural and social attributes of the numerous gods are transferred to one almighty god, who is but a reflection of the abstract man. Such was the origin of monotheism. . . . It is still true that man proposes and God (that is, the alien domination of the capitalist mode of production) disposes. . . . What is above all necessary for this is a social act. And when this act has been accomplished, when society, by taking possession of all means of production and using them on a planned basis, has freed itself and all its members from the bondage in which they are now held by these means of production which they themselves have produced but which confront them as an irresistible alien force; when, therefore man not only proposes, but also disposes—only then will the last alien force which is still reflected in religion vanish; and with it will also vanish the religious reflection itself, for the simple reason that then there will be nothing left to reflect. (Anti-Dühring, pp. 147–49 in On Religion)

Marx suggests that religion arises from perverted world consciousness—perverted from a correct, or right, or natural condition. Religion involves a cognitive dysfunction, a disorder or perversion that is apparently brought about, somehow, by an unhealthy and perverted social order. Religious belief, according to Marx, is a result of cognitive dysfunction, of a lack of mental and emotional health. The believer is therefore in an etymological sense insane. Because of 142a dysfunctional, perverse social environment, the believer’s cognitive equipment isn’t working properly. If his cognitive equipment were working properly—if, for example, it were working more like Marx’s—he would not be under the spell of this illusion. He would instead face the world and our place in it with the clear-eyed apprehension that we are alone, and that any comfort and help we get will have to be of our own devising.163163   There is another possibility as to how to understand Marx here: see below, p. 162.

And here we can see an initial difference between Freud and Marx: Freud doesn’t necessarily think religious belief is produced by cognitive faculties that are malfunctioning. Religious belief—specifically belief in God—is, indeed, produced by wish-fulfillment; it is the product of illusion; still, illusion and wish-fulfillment have their functions. In this case, their function is to enable us to get along in this cold and heartless world into which we find ourselves thrown. How then is this a criticism of religious belief? Freud speaks elsewhere of a “reality principle.” Beliefs produced by wish-fulfillment aren’t oriented toward reality; their function is not to produce true belief, but belief with some other property (psychological comfort, for example). So we could initially put it like this: religious belief is produced by cognitive processes whose function is not that of producing true beliefs, but rather that of producing beliefs conducive to psychological well-being. We will look into this in more detail below; for the moment, perhaps what we can say is that the Marxist criticism of religious belief is that it is produced by disordered cognitive processes, while the Freudian criticism is that it is produced by processes that are not aimed at the production of true beliefs.


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