Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of men, is a demand for their real happiness…
As soon as Jew and Christian come to see in their respective religions nothing more than stages in the development of the human mind—snake skins which have been cast off by history, and man as the snake who clothed himself in them—they will no longer find themselves in religious opposition, but in a purely critical, scientific and human relationship. Science will then constitute their unity. (Reader, 28, 54)
Thus wrote Karl Marx in the mid-1800s.
As a scholar in philosophical history, Marx was convinced that all religion amounts to little more than dubious superstition—fantasy, legend, and irrational inferences about the workings of the world. Whether one turns to the Southeast, Middle-East, West, or elsewhere, all of this talk about “spirits in the sky,” life after death, divine judgment for deeds, “God doing” this and that and the other, is not just wrong; it is a clear hindrance to human progress and the march of “science.”
For this reason, Marx openly confessed:
Certainly…when men strive to liberate themselves through political emancipation, the state can, and must, proceed to abolish and destroy religion, but only in the same way as it proceeds to abolish private property, by declaring a maximum, by confiscation, or by progressive taxation, or in the same way as it proceeds to abolish life, by the guillotine. (Reader, 36, emphasis original)
Marx had no idea how seriously following generations would take this call to violence. Even in “free” America today, citizens endure this second pillar of the Communist Manifesto—progressive taxes—every single year.
But it was Marx’s immediate disciples like Vladimir Lenin (among others) that would really go to town with “the guillotine” and the abolishment of private property. In this journey, few realized just how many of the communist’s economic predictions would prove false—literally within a few decades of Marx’s death. Today, millions are buried in the name of Marxist/socialist utopian dreams, the proletariat are drowning in air conditioners and iPhones, and the supreme Aryan race of Hitler’s visions is currently on the verge of social collapse because of bankrupt Greeks demanding their pensions. None of this was supposed to happen!
Somehow, however, the incredible religious metanarrative of Marx maintained its credibility: all religion—especially Christianity—is still said by prominent voices to be irrational make-believe in need of abolishment. One doesn’t have to look far to witness this preaching (and yes, it is preaching). Today’s popular atheist and anti-religious sectors of society, media, and the press repeat this mantra as if it is some kind of unquestionable doctrine passed down from a divine council. Less explicit is the overall “secular” atmosphere of the age, where using terms like “God” and “creation” in public is a sure way to invoke embarrassment—at least outside the cloistered halls of a monastery, church, or religious organization. Even for being explicitly violent, the masses seem to swallow up Marx’s portrayal like porridge on a cold day. To be simplistic but to the point: “Religion” is bad. “Science” is good. God is dead. Have a nice day.
The survival of this modern metanarrative is really not so surprising, however, because of its institutionalization. The priesthood of academic societies, the temple of the university, and the holy wizardry of the lab coupled with the latest, consecrated technology really are more than trendy opinion: they create a set of expectations, authoritative decrees, and along with it, consequences for nonconformity. If all of this sounds a bit religious and superstitious, it’s because it is.
We seem on occasion, at least a good number of us, to have embraced (often with a shocking dogmatism) the sterile superstition that mastery over the hidden causes of things is the whole of truth, while at the same time pursuing that mastery by purely material means….if the modern story of freedom is what I have said it is, then in a sense each of us is already a sorcerer, attempting to conjure a self out of the infinite vacuum of indeterminate possibility. And today’s magicians possess the powers they claim: the occult energies of matter have really been unlocked, the secrets of the cosmos truly fathomed, and the realms of physics, biology, chemistry, and so on—the chief glories of the modern age—are also now places where real monsters can be bred, and real terrors summoned out of the depths of nature.” (Hart, Atheist Delusions, Yale University Press, 233-234)
Indeed, there are questions just as to who is guilty of “superstition” and what ideology poses a threat to humanity.
Divide and Conquer: The Way of Progress?
There are also questions about just how the right method (typically dubbed “measurable,” “quantifiable,” “empirical,” “evidence-based”) may or may not produce desirable results.
The modern world began with the rise of the exact sciences. The sciences became exact through the ‘reduction of science to mathematics’ (reduction scientiae ad mathematicum). The concern that guided perception was freedom from natural forces that were not understood, and the mastery over them. For Descartes, it was the concern to make the human being ‘the lord and possessor of nature’; for the devout Francis Bacon it was the restoration of the likeness to God by way of lordship over the earth (dominum terrae). How can power over nature be acquired through knowledge? Through the application of the old Roman method, divide et impera—‘divide and rule.’ If natural formations are split up into their individual parts, and one perceives how they are put together and function, they can be ‘dominated,’ and a separate formation can be constructed from their individual parts. But has one thereby perceived the truth of nature, or merely overpowered it because it was weaker?” (Moltmann, The Living God and Fullness of Life, 185)
This is a good question. And perhaps the assessment of Rabbi Sacks was right (The Great Partnership): science takes things apart to see how they work, and religion puts them back together to see what they mean. Might this framework shape our modern-day perceptions about the purpose of each (if such a contrast is legitimate)? Might it at least soften the dialogue?
Whatever the case, Moltmann’s question is brilliantly sounded through a different chord by the Russian author Dostoyevsky: “It is not by locking up one’s neighbour that one convinces oneself of one’s own good sense.” In other words, just because you isolate or even eradicate your opponent or “other” doesn’t mean you’re “right.” It just means you’ve locked up your neighbor.
Yet, this fallacy saturates the aura and operations of such social establishments as wartime nations: the dead people are wrong because they’re dead; “we” are the winners because “we” are the one’s alive. [fill in blank] nation deserve allegiance by virtue of “locking up” the dissenters. Might equals right. (Drone-bomb away!)
The ivory towers academia are no exception to this blindspot—only here, it is not AK-47s and machetes at work (which are banned on-campus, of course), it is by forced resignations, membership cancelations, tenure denial, policy review, state-approval, and publication rejection. No blood or blades required, just a keyboard, leather chairs, and a conference room. These, today and in the intellectual community, constitute the means by which one convinces oneself of one’s own good sense.
It is a refined process for sure. Socially accepted and protected by numerous guilds. But it is still problematic and resistant to correction and functions as yet another way by which alternative forms of knowledge (e.g., religious, narrative, etc.) are systematically eradicated. Reducing something to causes does not simply yield an explanation, and successfully isolating someone or something else does not vindicate the perpetrator or their ideas.
The Myth of the God of the Gaps
Having touched some of the subtexts and social structures that give rise to the kind of attitudes embodied in Marx and anti-religious rhetoric, we have to ask directly: why are religious explanations for any phenomena so easily dismissed as fairy-tale-grade make-believe?
This question is not easily answered. But one explanation points to Epicurean philosophy lurking in the background. As NT Wright has explained in numerous publications, the “zero-sum game” view of action—either God does something or people do—has had fatal consequences in multiple layers of modern society. Most notably, the general attitude of the public (and even the church) is that God is assumed to be absent until proven otherwise. Why? Because, so the story goes, God has nothing to do with the world as we know it—just “weird stuff,” “miracles” and “spirituality.” Gravitation, biological processes, and a host of other mechanisms have long-ago displaced God as the one “running” creation.
Here in the 21st century, then, God is “out of a job” (although occasionally making an appearance by poking in to do something strange like the resurrection of Jesus). All of the “gaps” in our knowledge—where God has been plugged-in for an explanation—are quickly being filled. There really isn’t much left to be explained, and therefore no need for “God.” More decisively: anything can and will be explained without foolish retreat to God-talk. As Marx argued, our unity will soon be in “science,” secular mastery over the cosmos.
In this framework, it is apparent that to even invoke the existence of another reality behind what is visible is itself considered superstition—as if what can be observed is the only thing people “know.” (This introduces another culprit we don’t have time to explore now: the rise of naïve realist foundationalist epistemology). But the more important point is that this construction of action and knowledge is so far removed from historic Judaism and Christianity that its popularity is painful to even observe.
The Israelites had no trouble saying that it was an “east wind” that parted the Red Sea (Ex 14:21) while also attributing this “miracle” to “Yahweh.” Why? Because this world is God’s, and because of God, there is no amount of identifying physical causes that can displace the Creator and Sustainer of all things. The modern competition between the two is illusory. To think of situations like these as a contradiction and say “well, since we identified the natural cause of an east wind, obviously there’s nothing else going on here” is to demonstrate precisely the modern incapacity to think in alternative categories. What if God actually is omnipresent as Jews and Christians have always believed? What if the panentheist construction is true? Or what if creation is God’s body as other theologians contend?
One doesn’t even have to adopt a religious line of reasoning to introduce alternative modes of thought. What if Elon Musk is right and the universe is just a digital projection? Doesn’t that shape the way we think about events in creation? And what about a dozen other ontologies that aren’t even given a hearing in this entire discussion? Are we just to assume that they’re “ancient” and therefore invalid because they invoke god-like properties?
When one ideology (like materialist reductionism) becomes so deafening that no others can be heard, you know there’s a problem.
The materialist metaphysics that emerged from the mechanical philosophy has endured and prevailed not because it is a necessary support of scientific research, or because the sciences somehow corroborate its tenets, but simply because it determines in advance which problems of interpretation we can all safely avoid confronting. – Hart, Experience of God, 65
Perhaps, then, it is this modern presupposition that is guilty of superstition—with binarism, Epicureanism 2.0, physicalist reductionism, class warfare (Marx), sex and reproduction (Freud), or raw survival (Darwin) as the explanation for all things. Sorry Mars, Zeus, and Artemis: you’re out of a job.