MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Terms
Atheism is the system of views denying the existence of God and usually other religious ideas such as life after death. Inasmuch as the concept of God generally represents the dominant forms of consciousness of an age, atheism is historically associated with political radicalism.
Atheism dates from the time of the Ancient Chinese (Lao-Tzu, Leih-tzu, Chuang-tzu), Indians (Siddartha Guantama) & Greeks (including Heraclitus, Democritus and Epicurus) and is generally associated with philosophical materialism. (See also Monotheism, Theism, Deism, Agnosticism and Pantheism.)
The ancient philosophers listed above speculated that phenomena had natural causes, in opposition to animist or other religious or teleological beliefs. This kind of atheism was necessarily naïve and speculative as they did not have a sufficient basis of empirical knowledge to develop a consistently atheistic view.
The Middle Ages in Europe were dominated by the Church and atheism made little progress, while in China atheism experienced a series of setbacks and forward steps, where no church ever gained a serious foothold. Progressive social currents tended to attack the legitimacy of the Church in Europe or to restrict the relevance of Church doctrine, unable to reject the existence of God outright. Meanwhile, in the Middle East, the golden age of Islam embraced questioning and all forms of scientific pursuit, thus Islam never faced a direct philosophical assault.
The European assault against Christian Theism: Saint Augustine for example, was the first Christian to question the literal interpretation of the Bible, opening the way for Copernicus and Galileo to develop a Deist view of the world: i.e., that the God and Scripture was relevant only to faith and morals and could not be the source of knowledge about Nature, which could be obtained only by reason and experiment. Or, to put it in another way, the word of God was relevant to morality and virtue but not nature and science.
The most astounding development in atheism in Europe was made by Spinoza who formulated a Pantheistic system of views. According to Spinoza, God did not create Nature, God is Nature, and in agreement with both the empiricist Bacon and the rationalist Descartes, the ways of God can be understood by observing His works. For Spinoza, the vexed question of Free Will is solved by the fact that people express the Will of God in their own Will, while at exactly the same time, their actions are determined by cause and effect. This view, systematically worked out by Spinoza in the 17th century, fairly well sums up the view of many people today who differ from Spinoza only by turning Spinoza’s formula around in words: “Nature is God”.
Spinoza was ahead of his time in Europe, and opposition to Theism (i.e., belief in a God which interferes in and controls the material world) developed along the lines of agnosticism. Hume was the principal advocate of scepticism, saying that the causes of things could not be known; humans could only work out a sufficient knowledge of phenomena for practical purposes, never knowing what really lay behind things. Hume was a major influence on the philosophers of the French Revolution, prominent among them being the Encyclopedists.
The Encyclopedists believed that the development of scientific knowledge (both natural and social) would inevitably undermine feudalism and religion, and disseminated knowledge as a revolutionary weapon against the French autocracy. Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason argues along similar lines. Jean Meslier (1678-1733) was perhaps the first modern atheist. Many of the Encyclopedists, such as Rousseau, were Deists, but the leader of the Encyclopedists was Diderot – was one of the first, the most famous and consistent modern Atheist. According to Diderot, human consciousness was like a piano that developed the illusion that it was playing itself. This atheism translated the program for the overthrow of the European Monarchies into the language of philosophy.
Diderot was concerned also to counter the danger of dogmatism; he asserted that everything has a natural cause and that every cause can be discovered by science, but you still have to prove it in detail. Kant sought to rescue the ideology of the rising bourgeoisie from the seemingly irreconcilable and dogmatic opposition between agnosticism and atheism, and developed his critical philosophy. But Kant in effect restored agnosticism (or scepticism), leaving the existence of God to individual Faith.
Hegel developed the critical philosophy further: rather than either denying or affirming God or leaving God to the beyond, Hegel saw God in the whole succession of different definitions of God elaborated throughout history.
“In the history of philosophy the different stages of the logical idea assume the shape of successive systems, each based on a particular definition of the Absolute. ... in the history of philosophy – the refutation of one system by another, of an earlier by a later. Most commonly the refutation is taken in a purely negative sense to mean that the system refuted has ceased to count for anything, has been set aside and done for. ... first, every philosophy that deserves the name always embodies the Idea: and secondly, every system represents one particular factor or particular stage in the evolution of the Idea. The refutation of a philosophy, therefore, only means that its barriers are crossed, and its special principle reduced to a factor in the completer principle that follows. [Hegel’s Logic § 86]
But as Feuerbach said:
“The contradiction of the modern philosophy, especially of pantheism, consists of the fact that it is the negation of theology from the standpoint of theology or the negation of theology which itself is again theology; this contradiction especially characterises the Hegelian philosophy.” [Feuerbach, Philosophy of the Future, § 21]
Feuerbach wanted to elaborate a consistent atheism, and dedicated his life to exposing the myths of Christianity as being nothing more than Heavenly justifications for abominations that existed on Earth. For example, that the Holy Family was an image of the paternalistic bourgeois family, but made to seem as if it were the source and justification of this same Earthly family.
Marx rejected Feuerbach’s atheism however. “The criticism of religion is the prerequisite of all criticism” [Introduction to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right]. Religion was a belief which was central to how billions of people had lived throughout history. To prove simply that it was wrong and that it was a fraud, missed the whole point, and in fact, could only replace religion with just another unprovable, irrational belief. As Hegel had correctly shown, the concept of God in a given society was nothing more than the central concept of a whole system of living, of producing and reproducing life.
In Theses on Feuerbach, Marx synthesises the best achievements of bourgeois philosophy and lays the basis for a genuine communist, critical standpoint.
“The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth – i.e. the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking that is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.” [Thesis II]
“Feuerbach starts out from the fact of religious self-alienation, of the duplication of the world into a religious world and a secular one. His work consists in resolving the religious world into its secular basis.
“But that the secular basis detaches itself from itself and establishes itself as an independent realm in the clouds can only be explained by the cleavages and self-contradictions within this secular basis. The latter must, therefore, in itself be both understood in its contradiction and revolutionised in practice. Thus, for instance, after the earthly family is discovered to be the secret of the holy family, the former must then itself be destroyed in theory and in practice.” [Thesis IV]
“All social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice.” [Thesis VIII]
In working out the best way of criticising religious illusions, Marx is working out how to criticise capitalism. Money fetishism, for example, is not just a quasi-religious and mystical belief in objects having human and super-human powers, it is an illusion which, because it is shared by the entire population, is able to act as the organising principle for a whole society. “Theory also becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses” [Introduction to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right] Criticising money fetishism is not just a question of proving the absurdity of the idea; in fact, the idea proves to be as valid and real as bourgeois society.
Marx saw Atheism as associated with crude communism and sought to transcend Atheism by revolutionising the social conditions which create the need for people to believe in God, rather than atheistic polemics against belief in God.
Marxism is neither atheistic nor agnostic nor pantheist, but practical-critical. It does not counter the theist by dogmatically asserting that God does not exist, but rather, asks why it is necessary to believe in God and how it is possible to live without God.
Just as Pantheism continues to take on ever new forms, with Nature or Gaia taking the place of God, likewise, Atheism continues in new forms. Friedrich Nietzsche, famous for having declared that “God is dead,” (The Gay Science §125, 1882), wrote in 1888:
The notion of “God” has been invented as an antithesis of “Life” – in God is subsumed, in a terrible unity, all that is unhealthy, venemous, calumnious, all hate for Life. The notion of “the above,” or “the true world” has only been invented to depreciate the only world there is – in order to retain for our earthly reality no purpose, no reason, no work to be done! [Ecco Homo §8]
Further Reading: Letter from Marx To Arnold Ruge. November 30 1842, Critical Battle Against French Materialism from The Holy Family, Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts: Private Property & Communism and Theses on Feuerbach, and Introduction to Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.
Ancient Greek school of philosophical materialism. See Leucippus