Human alienation goes deeper than Marx allowed.

Karl marx taught that religion dehumanizes man. The more one puts into God, the less there is left over to put into man. How can man be free to project his own social utopia if there is a God ruling over him? To that assumption Marx added a second conviction for which he is famous: that religion is the opiate of the poor and the oppressed. Unjust societies produce it, and the just society will cause it to disappear. Hence, he predicted that religion was certain to wither away.

Three telling criticisms, however, can legitimately be raised against the Marxist viewpoint.

First, Marx never really faced up to Jesus Christ and the prophetic tradition in the Bible. It is preposterous to speak of the religion of Amos or Jeremiah, Isaiah or Jesus, as a narcotic of the oppressed. Their words were designed to make the rich oppressors uncomfortable rather than put them at ease, and surely were good news to the poor. Jesus did not side with the authorities against the poor. He did not go off somewhere in the desert, fleeing society to pursue a pure life. He advocated and lived out a revolution of love that oriented him to a stand on the side of the needy as he dedicated himself to God’s kingdom and its justice.

Max Weber distinguishes between world-rejecting religions and world-affirming ones; the latter see themselves as responsible to transform culture in the service of God. The Christian message should be seen as this kind of faith, having within it a powerful impulse to change social conditions. Something Pascal said applies to Marx: “Let them at least learn what is the religion they attack before attacking it.”

The one-sidedness of Marx’s critique of religion is tragic. Had he placed his passion for social justice in the framework of the faith of his fathers instead of dialectical materialism, he might have become the great modern prophet so needed in church and society. Had he done so, many of the sad features of his thought that stem ultimately from his materialism might not have eventuated: the metaphysical emptiness, the ethical barrenness, the contempt for life, the self-righteousness.

Marx was off target as far as Christianity is concerned. Our gospel is not an opiate, but a source of great hope for all people. We must, however, be willing to admit that Christians at times have defended God at the expense of man, that we have not always paid attention to the cries of the oppressed, and that large numbers of church people still need to be awakened to the social implications of the gospel. Marx was partly right—religion can be an opiate. But he was wrong in thinking it had to be, and in not seeing its potential for hope.

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Second, Marx was mistaken when he predicted the demise of religion. Actually, he made a number of predictions that have not come to pass. He thought the state would wither, whereas it has only gotten larger in Communist lands. He also thought capitalism would soon disintegrate, and did not anticipate its ability to adjust to new situations and to reform itself by correcting the evils pointed out in the original Communist Manifesto.

Certainly his prediction that religion would wither away was wrong, despite intense propaganda and even persecution in Marxist lands. That it has not faded away owes to a certain superficiality in Marx’s thought about human alienation and the role of religion. Religion is essentially a system that gives people confidence that the world and their lives in it are intelligible and meaningful. Religion will exist as long as man is man. Marx erred in not seeing that religion can ennoble and humanize life, and need not degrade or trivialize it. He even made a logical blunder at this point. He argued that man wishes for meaning, therefore believes in God, therefore God does not exist.

But the conclusion does not follow. Although nothing exists merely because we wish it did, it is not true that things cannot exist because we wish them! God may exist even though man wishes it—indeed, to turn it around, the deep need for meaning itself might bear some significance as to the nature of ultimate reality. The universe would be a madhouse if man was starved for meaning, and there was no hope of meaning to feed on.

Human alienation also goes deeper than Marx allowed. Self-centeredness and deceit exist in socialist countries too, and create a severe problem for Marx’s utopian vision. How can the classless, sharing society come into existence unless mankind is somehow changed to become loving and other-directed? What is lacking in Marx—a doctrine of salvation—is obviously present in the gospel he despised. His prophecy failed because the analysis was faulty. He opposed the One Thing that could have solved his problem. This tragically missed opportunity in the history of ideas has awesome consequences for us all.

Third, in 1840, though it might have looked to Marx as if religion was the opiate of the people, now, 60 years after the revolution, things seem to be reversed. We see in Communist society a huge totalitarian state, which forces people into a harsh regime, and which, while promising paradise in the future, denies elementary human rights in the present.

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Is Marxism not the opiate of the people today? Indeed, Marxism is very much like a militant type of religion—authoritarian and dogmatic, strictly organized, infallible in its teachings, steeped in sacred sources, and spread by the sword. It offers people what amounts to a substitute theology, a total perspective on the world, a Weltanschauung. As a religion, Marxism is the “god that has failed” as Arthur Koestler found it. Alongside its empty promises are grim realities. Marx turned away from Christianity when he could not see in it any real concern for suffering people. Now people are turning from Marxism for the same reason. And while Christians have been rediscovering the socially relevant gospel of Jesus, the serious inadequacies of Marxism have been showing up plainly. It is a humanism without a human face.

None of these criticisms fills me with glee. If only Marx had faced up to Jesus Christ, had understood the true scope of religion in human life, had anticipated the grim results of the choice he made that has brought untold suffering to the world in our time! But is it not still true that people turn away from the gospel without knowing what it is and run the risk of repeating the same mistakes? If only we could communicate that there is a better way: the good news that there is a loving Father who cares about justice for the oppressed and the dignity and worth of human life. Ours is a religion that is as likely to make us uncomfortable as comfortable. But in view of the alternatives, surely it is also the most intelligent choice a thinking person could make in deciding what to do with his life.

CLARK H. PINNOCKDr. Pinnock is professor of systematic theology at McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.

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