Were he alive today, what would Marx likely think about the reactionary, jingoist, imperialist so-called “New Atheists,” the contemporary movement of proselytizing “anti-theists,” embodied in the figures of the self-professed “Four [White] Horsemen of the Non-Apocalypse”—Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett?
He doubtless would not like them.
Marx was himself an atheist, but he cared very little about godlessness. Already in his day, 150 years ago, he saw the obsession of some Western intellectuals with opposing religion as counter-productive and even infantile.
In an 1842 letter, Marx wrote
religion should be criticised in the framework of criticism of political conditions rather than that political conditions should be criticised in the framework of religion, since this is more in accord with the nature of a newspaper and the educational level of the reading public; for religion in itself is without content, it owes its being not to heaven but to the earth, and with the abolition of distorted reality, of which it is the theory, it will collapse of itself. Finally, I desired that, if there is to be talk about philosophy, there should be less trifling with the label “atheism” (which reminds one of children, assuring everyone who is ready to listen to them that they are not afraid of the bogy man), and that instead the content of philosophy should be brought to the people. Voilà tout.
In 1844, in his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, Marx insisted that atheism is irrelevant to socialism:
Since the real existence of man and nature has become evident in practice, through sense experience, because man has thus become evident for man as the being of nature, and nature for man as the being of man, the question about an alien being, about a being above nature and man – a question which implies admission of the unreality of nature and of man – has become impossible in practice. Atheism, as a negation of God, has no longer any meaning, and postulates the existence of man through this negation; but socialism as socialism no longer stands in any need of such a mediation.
Andy Blunden concludes a provocative 2006 essay noting “that Marx retained an uncompromising hostility to clericalism and all the institutions of the old regime which were used to keep the masses in subjection and ignorance, and never made any compromise with the institutions of clerical reaction.” In the Communist Manifesto, after all, Marx famously insisted “Christian Socialism is but the holy water with which the priest consecrates the heart-burnings of the aristocrat.”
Blunden writes that Marx “opposed the influence of religion in the working class but only as one of any number of forms in which mysticism manifested itself, among which he numbered also the atheism of his day.” In other words, he saw atheists’ ironic obsession with God—the embodiment of the non-material, to which his entire system of historical materialism was opposed—as in the same category as the religious.
After all, in the Introduction to his 1843 A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Marx writes that the “struggle against religion is therefore indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion,” or, in other words, the struggle against idealism (in the philosophical, non-materialist definition of the term, not the colloquial one).
Marx’s infamous “opium of the masses” quote is so often taken out of context. In context, one sees that Marx understands how religion can offer refuge to the oppressed and exploited.
Religious suffering is at one and the same time the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. 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.
Atheism—disproportionately frequent among the bourgeois, the privileged, the educated—is so often a product of one’s class. If the atheist truly wishes to do away with religion, the atheist should ergo address the material, class basis of religion, not write screeds about how “stupid” and “superstitious” the masses are (as many a New Atheist is wont to do).
In 1867, in the Preface to the first German edition of Capital, Marx also explained
In the domain of Political Economy, free scientific inquiry meets not merely the same enemies as in all other domains. The peculiar nature of the materials it deals with, summons as foes into the field of battle the most violent, mean and malignant passions of the human breast, the Furies of private interest. The English Established Church, e.g., will more readily pardon an attack on 38 of its 39 articles than on 1/39 of its income. Now-a-days atheism is culpa levis [a relatively slight sin, c.f. mortal sin], as compared with criticism of existing property relations. Nevertheless, there is an unmistakable advance. I refer, e.g., to the Blue book published within the last few weeks: “Correspondence with Her Majesty’s Missions Abroad, regarding Industrial Questions and Trades’ Unions.” The representatives of the English Crown in foreign countries there declare in so many words that in Germany, in France, to be brief, in all the civilised states of the European Continent, radical change in the existing relations between capital and labour is as evident and inevitable as in England. At the same time, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, Mr. Wade, vice-president of the United States, declared in public meetings that, after the abolition of slavery, a radical change of the relations of capital and of property in land is next upon the order of the day. These are signs of the times, not to be hidden by purple mantles or black cassocks. They do not signify that tomorrow a miracle will happen. They show that, within the ruling classes themselves, a foreboding is dawning, that the present society is no solid crystal, but an organism capable of change, and is constantly changing.
(Affluent, white, male, cishetero) New Atheists have a serious victimhood complex; they constantly complain about how they are supposedly “oppressed” by religious society (but certainly not by imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy). Yet they write for mainstream corporate publications; they work at prestigious institutions or universities; many are household names. Compared to criticism of capitalism, as Marx writes, atheism is hardly controversial at all. Socialists cannot write for mainstream corporate publications; socialists are often unable to get positions at prestigious institutions or universities, or are fired for criticizing the powerful (see the neo-McCarthyist witch hunt of radical Palestinian scholar Steve Salaita for just one of countless examples); few socialists are household names. Marx’s observation holds equally, if not more, true today.
Marx saw his approach to political economy—what Engels called scientific socialism, what we now refer to as marxism—as the scientific analysis of history. His economic theories were precisely “theories” in the scientific sense—not meaning “hypotheses,” with which they are idiomatically treated synonymously today, but rather empirically verified scientific explanations of physical phenomena. As I have written before:
Much to the leftist’s chagrin, the myth that capitalism is “inevitable,” based on “human nature”—or, even worse, on non-human nature—is rampant. Yet such an inane talking point is by no means a new one. The entire modern academic “economics” edifice was constructed upon the work (and therefore upon the ideological, non-scientific, and frankly irresponsible suppositions) of classical liberal economists, many of whom were interested and believed greatly in the notion of an immutable, graspable, perhaps even easily understandable “human nature,” independent of sociocultural and historical context.
Marx wrestled with these thinkers in his day, just as so many scholars today still scoff at the work of bourgeois economists who take as a given that human beings are invariably “rational actors” who act exclusively in their “rational self-interest” in markets with “equal opportunity” and “equal access to information” (not every economist makes these absurd presumptions, but they are the foundation of the neoliberal and neoclassical schools of economics that, although not as prominent as they once were, are still today all the rage; and these axioms are still presented and taught as supposedly incontrovertible concepts in the vast majority of Economics 101 courses).
In his 1857 Grundrisse der Kritik der Politischen Ökonomie (Outlines of the Critique of Political Economy), penned a decade before Capital, Marx wrote
The aim [of bourgeois capitalist economists is] to present production – see e.g. Mill – as distinct from distribution etc., as encased in eternal natural laws independent of history, at which opportunity bourgeois relations are then quietly smuggled in as the inviolable natural laws on which society in the abstract is founded.
The reactionary capitalist New Atheists abandon such scientific approaches in the realm of the social. In fact, many if not most New Atheists maintain positive contempt for the social sciences, which they so often insist are “not real sciences.”
The dangers of the reactionary New Atheists extend much further, nevertheless. The relatively (compared to the other three Horsemen) quiet Dennett aside, Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins (particularly the first two) marched lockstep in their right-wing politics. In his masterful deconstruction of the movement, “New Atheism, Old Empire,” published in Jacobin, Luke Savage notes how the “‘New Atheists’ have gained traction because they give intellectual cover to Western imperialism.” He writes:
In practice, it is a crude, reductive, and highly selective critique that owes its popular and commercial success almost entirely to the “war on terror” and its utility as an intellectual instrument of imperialist geopolitics.
Whereas some earlier atheist traditions have rejected violence and championed the causes of the Left — Bertrand Russell, to take an obvious example, was both a socialist and a unilateralist — the current streak represented by Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris has variously embraced, advocated, or favorably contemplated: aggressive war, state violence, the curtailing of civil liberties, torture, and even, in the case of the latter, genocidal preemptive nuclear strikes against Arab nations.
Its leading exponents wear a variety of ideological garbs, but their espoused politics range from those of right-leaning liberals to proto-fascist demagogues of the European far-right.
It is simply impossible to imagine the commercial and intellectual success of the New Atheist project in a pre-9/11 world without both rising anti-Muslim sentiments across Western societies or neoconservative geopolitics. It is against the backdrop of the war on terror, with its violent and destructive adventurism, that the notion of a monolithic evil called “Islam” has found a sizable constituency in the circles of liberal respectability.
Nevertheless, all are united by several common intellectual threads. Each espouses a binary worldview that pits a civilized, cosmopolitan, and progressive West against a barbaric, monistic, and reactionary East. Though varied in their political positions, Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins have all had very public dalliances with the Right, expressing either overt sympathy for, or enthusiastic endorsement of, some of its most vile and disreputable elements.
Each is outwardly a cultural liberal who primarily addresses liberal audiences — “respectable” to blue-state metropolitans and their equivalents elsewhere in ways Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh never could be — while embracing positions and causes that are manifestly illiberal in the commonly understood sense of the term.
Beneath its many layers of intellectual adornment — the typical New Atheist text is laden with maudlin references to Darwin, Newton, and Galileo — we find a worldview intimately familiar to anyone who has studied the language of empires past: culturally supremacist, essentializing and othering towards the foreign, equal parts patronizing and paternalistic, and legitimating of the violence committed for its own ends.
Beneath its superficial rationalism, then, the New Atheism amounts to little more than an intellectual defense of empire and a smokescreen for the injustices of global capitalism. It is a parochial universalism whose potency lies in its capacity to appear simultaneously iconoclastic, dissenting, and disinterested, while channeling vulgar prejudices, promoting imperial projects, and dressing up banal truisms as deep insights.
Hitchens, Harris, and Dawkins may masquerade as intellectual insurgents, leading a crusade against the insipid tolerance of liberal politics. But ultimately they are apologists for some of its most destructive tendencies.
Clearly, Marx would not have been a fan. To put it mildly.
It is remarkable how incredibly accurate Marx’s observations—of not just the capitalist mode of production, but too of atheism—remain today, in an industrialized, technological, global financial capitalist system that is so different from that of his day. Such constant, timeless relevance only further attests to the veracity and import of his systems of historical materialism, marxist dialectics, and scientific socialism.