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"Atheism and Theism" is not a Class Contradiction

Recently, EDB, comrade blogger of The Fivefold Path, wrote an insightful post about controversies within the New Atheist movement.  Her commentary on blog atheist Jen McCreight's account of chauvinism within this movement explained what so many of us leftists have known, for quite a while, about the inherent contradictions of this movement: that it is a club primarily for privileged pro-imperialist petty bourgeois males who imagine that they're subversive for rejecting God while, at the same time, accepting everything capitalist-imperialist society has socialized them into believing is holy.  EDB's article, along with the McCreight article she was referencing, got me thinking about the long-standing [non-]issue of atheism and communism.  Moreover, it made me again think through the reasons why Marx and Engels, who did not believe in God or any non-materialist account of reality, at the same time rejected atheism as a viable political project.

As many of my readers are probably aware, the communist movement has had a rather heterogeneous approach to religion and religious commitment.  Religious conservatives like to claim that communism has always endorsed some sort of "state atheism" but this is clearly an oversimplification––for even those communist-led socialisms that have declared something like this always were more concerned with pushing primarily for a secular separation of church and state, targeting proselytization rather than private religious commitment, and in some cases going after specific religious commitments rather than every religious commitment.

For example, Lenin believed that Christianity should be outlawed from the public sphere, but he also thought that it should be permitted in the private sphere––the belief was that it would whither away just like the state… this might seem tantamount to "state atheism" (evangelically minded people of all religions believe that a religion is "under attack" if it is not allowed to proselytize, after all), but it does not precisely fit the definition.  This is not some "Anti-Theocracy" that, like a Theocracy, enforces a religion even upon the private lives of citizens; it simply asks for people to stop pushing their fire and brimstone narratives upon others outside of spaces where people privately agree that this is all fine and dandy.  Another example would be the Chinese Revolution where Confucianism was targeted (since its ideology enforced semi-feudalism) but other religions were generally left alone (though, in the case of Christianity, those types of Christian missionary-ism that were connected to imperialism were also targeted).

Outside of these two world historical revolutions, however, communist history is not entirely certain on the question of religion.  The Irish revolutionary James Connolly (friend of Lenin and Luxemburg, another rebel of the Second International) argued that you could be a socialist and a Christian, and that the two commitments were not mutually exclusive.  There is also a long history of liberation theology, another way of approaching the Jesus of the Gospels and that I've blogged about before, that derives its communism from a radical understanding of Xtian doctrine.  Then there are those who argue that, while you can be a socialist and a theist, the fact that you are committed to the latter should mean that you can never be part of a revolutionary party since you lack the advanced consciousness necessary for qualification––but still, even this camp, wouldn't disqualify one from claiming a socialist outlook, or from even participating in a socialist society, only from party membership.

Where is "communism" on this sign post?  It has nothing to do with these options.

In any case, communists have never, as a whole, been atheists in form even if they have often been atheists in essence.  More specifically, while communists have often refused to believe in the existence of God––some even theorizing that such beliefs would necessarily wither away once the material grounds for these beliefs (anything that allows for religion to be the "opium of the people, the sigh of the oppressed") were annihilated––they did not treat religion and spirituality as the prime contradiction of social struggle.  Indeed, as Roland Boer has pointed out, Lenin even regularly attended church services while he was in exile because he saw these churches as places where the proletariat gathered and discussed, though in religious language, the terms of their exploitation.  [Note: Boer has also written some great books on the long-standing marxist fascination with theology.]  And though Lenin was always clear about the fact that he did not believe in any god or gods, he was not an atheist-qua-atheist in that he did not make atheism into the basis of his ideology.

So what does it mean when I say that communists can be atheists in form but not atheists in essence?  This might seem like some sort of pernicious "commie double-talk" but, as with all accusations of Orwellian "double-talk", it is merely critical dialectical thinking.  And one of my international comrades explained this distinction in a very simple way that I will paraphrase here: "we are not 'atheists' not because we believe in God but because we feel that the issue of God's existence [or non-existence] is not a class contradiction."  That is, neither the capitalist mode of production nor the capitalist world system is dependent upon the contradiction between oppressing theists and oppressed atheists: the former depends upon the contradiction between proletariat (theist or atheist) and bourgeoisie (theist or atheist); the latter depends upon the contradiction between oppressed nations and oppressor nations.  What sort of revolutionary movement can be led by atheists who define their movement simply by atheism?  Well, obviously, a movement that is more secular than the brutal theocracy their opposites would erect but not a movement by itself that can overthrow capitalism.  This is because there are many atheists who are comfortable bourgeois and/or imperialist assholes and, because of this, are not subversive but are simply people who have a different ideology but possibly the same class commitments as the religious assholes they're trying to overthrow––a palace coup, a realignment of ideology but not the material basis of oppression.

I mean, look at the New Atheist movement: pro-imperialist, eurocentric, and anti-feminist to the core.  The McCreight article cited above is a typical account of the core ideology of this movement in that it describes a woman (McCreight) who attempts to talk about her own feelings of oppression within this movement and is met with scorn, chauvinist belittlement, and rape threats.  One only needs to read the comment strings of her posts that have to do with feminism to realize that the movement she wants to save––that she still imagines is politically viable and can be reclaimed––is a movement filled with retrograde bourgeois fucks who think that atheism is tantamount to advanced consciousness.

Obviously religion can be an ideology that endorses class oppression; only a fool would think otherwise.  But we communists have more in common with a theistic proletariat who knows that capitalism has to go than an atheistic bourgeois who wants to maintain hir class position.  The former possesses an advanced consciousness, and understands more about reality than the latter who imagines that hir atheism makes hir superior.  For communists, it is not the fact of religion or non-religion that, at root, makes one more aware of reality; it is the understanding that capitalism and imperialism, rather than religion, is what primarily stands in the way of human progress.

So we must ask why people like McCreight want to waste their time trying to reform a movement that is only united on the basis of [anti-religious] ideology.  Because of rationalism?  Far better to pick the rationalism that understands that one can never be allies based on a commitment against religion, a commitment that will still be divided by class and everything that composes class.  It is not rational to assume that there can be solidarity with one's class enemies, even if you both believe there is no god or gods.  Far better to take your atheism into a different sphere and focus on the end of class rather than the end of religion.  Here, in the communist world, we already have a long history of working out these contradictions.  Here, in the communist world, we know that the atheist who is only committed to atheism might be our class enemy.  Here, in the communist world and despite our messiness, at least we understand that "atheism and theism" is not, and can never be, a class contradiction.


  1. Thanks for this. It's interesting to see the various debates that have come up within communist theory over the years--in particular, the section about capitalism not depending upon a theist/atheist division (though clearly capital has done a bang-up job of injecting itself into religion here and in many other places).

    Obviously I agree that movement atheism by itself is an answer to absolutely nothing other than the belief in deities. They don't even get skepticism and critical thinking right a lot of the time, as evidenced by basically any discussion of socioeconomic issues. And I agree with your whole last paragraph. I've never quite understood atheist communities that have nothing else in common. There has to be some level of political awareness and conviction in order to understand why church-state separation is necessary, and if one can get to the point of understanding that, why not bring that energy and critical analysis to, say, a queer rights or anti-imperialist activist group? It's not like there isn't already a non-theistic presence in these sorts of groups, anyway.

    Out of the views you've outlined here, I tend toward Lenin's public/private division, keeping the revolutionary party religion-free, and predicting that it will wither away after other needs are met. I would like to see religion disappear. It does considerable harm to many, it isn't necessary for a just society, and (a good enough reason in and of itself) it's very unlikely to ever reveal the reality of the cosmos. Education, support systems, and making critical analyses of religion widespread and relatable have shown to be effective at weakening religion's hold on individuals. That's the slow change that I think would have to happen in the background after the quick change of hard line state secularism. Harm reduction has to be our first priority--and there is a whole lot of harm for the reducing where I live. (Not that I think we're going to see most of that in the US or many other countries any time soon; I'm speaking ideally here.)

    Of course, all of our perspectives on religion are formed in part by our experiences with it. I was indoctrinated as a child and harmed in a permanent way, and my religious upbringing was comparatively moderate. Preventing and mitigating similar harm to others is therefore a critical pillar of my ideology. This is usually the way it goes, from what I do know of movement atheism. It's a good thing that I'm talking about anti-theism and not feminism, though, or my personal experiences would be proof that I'm all emotion and no objectivity! (Just had to get one last dig at MRAtheists there. I'll be here all week, folks!)

    1. Glad you liked it, and I like your term "MRAtheist"…

      I was mapping general positions on religion within the communist movement to show how it had a rather heterogeneous approach, which was often nuanced, to the issue of religion, and there are even more positions I could have outlined. Lenin's position about the withering away of religion is one that is rather widespread, even amongst those who don't take a very direct public/private understanding of things. I think one of the possible problems of this cut-and-dried public/private understanding is that this binary is very hard to enforce, and clearly the revolution in Russia had this problem––that is, how do you define what is a public and private expression of religion, what counts as proselytization, etc. For example, many people who are committed to a specific religion, even if they are socialist-minded and not uber-missionaristic [is that even a word?] will tend to talk about what they believe with other people in public: just as someone who is really into a specific author will want to talk about that author and hir books with all of hir friends, so too will someone who is really into Jesus [or whatever], though not necessarily in rightist way, will want to talk about it with their friends… does this count as proselytization? Things do tend to get messy, but I guess messiness is unavoidable.

    2. Yeah, there's definitely a fine line between speaking about personal beliefs and proselytizing. Sometimes it can only be determined on a case-by-case basis, which is hardly efficient! At least there are some easy distinctions, such as no state funds going to build missions and not opening government functions with prayer.

      This blurriness reminds me of another roadblock to enforcing strict secularism: how much religion, specifically Christianity, has informed the cultures that communist theory 'grew up' in, as well as the ones we're living in now. I think this relates to some of what Jason H said below--if we live in a Protestant culture and only remove God, many Protestant values still remain intact and unseen, and can be mistaken for or relabeled as having secular origin. (And really, it's turtles all the way down, since so much religious philosophy was informed by the culture it developed in.) Perhaps this all isn't terribly important from a practical standpoint, but it does pose an interesting philosophical problem.

  2. An interesting post. I too found the blog by Jen McCreight a revealing - though not overly surprising - look at the New Atheist movement. As Benjamin Nelson can attest, I've often been a critic of their criticism of religion, but at this point I want to take a different tact. I would actually state, contra JMP, that atheism and theism both represent a contradiction that has implications for class struggle.

    I believe Nietzsche is owed the credit for noting that both theism, and the atheism that declares "God is dead," both cling to the same metaphysical structure. Heidegger referred to the latter as the onto-theological. This structure, Platonic in essence, revolves around the dichotomies of necessity/contingency, transcendence/immanence, idealist/materialist, etc.

    What Nietzsche was aware of was that many so-called "free thinkers" - a term that almost seems to anticipate "New Atheists" - simply replaced the 'ludicrous' idea of "God" as the repository of all meaning with the 'sensible' idea of History, or Reason, or Necessity, or Class Struggle, etc. Thus, from one unquestioning source of all authority, came another.

    I think this 'theological' (or Platonic) temptation still haunts us today. It certainly is apparent with the New Atheists who seem to think that an Absolute Reason 'lords' it over everything. Unfortunately, it still seems widespread within Marxism(s) as well.

    Thus, it seems to me that the problem with New Atheism and indeed the whole atheism/theism debate is that it treats the issue - which since the Greeks has been tied to metaphysics and ontology (i.e. the very roots of our conception of the world) - merely as ideological or preferential. Its like a debate between coke and pepsi. In this regard, JMP is right to dismiss it. However, there are far deeper implications to the atheism/theism debate - which warrant more serious attention.

    I'll also add this, which is an editted version of my original response to Jen McCreight's blog:

    Perhaps a recognition that there is and are many rational thinkers within religion, and hence that religion per se is not the enemy, but rather the enemy is the sort of irrational thinking one may find in religion (though not exclusively). In this way, without the strict camps, one might be freer to recognize the creeping irrationalism within one's own camp (even and especially if that camp claims the mantle of rationality all to itself).

    Understanding that rational thinking is also first and foremost a charitable thinking (hence an ethics) will go a long way to understanding how religion can serve a meaningful role in a rational life by encouraging and emphasizing those very ethics that are often the first to fall away in the rationalist life – just take a look at the sociological analysis of anomie, atomism, and solipsisms or the relevant vices from totalitarian regimes (paranoia, incessant fabrication of internal enemies, uniformity).

    1. Interesting response. My only [significant] difference would be in how you interpret Nietzsche's "God is Dead". I don't think very much in the capitalist mode of production depends on a belief in God and, rather, that capitalism's demystification of the world implies that capitalism can persist within a very atheistic milieu. While it is true that capitalism can prop itself up according to religious ideology, it also doesn't need religious ideology to reproduce: all it needs is the division between the proletariat and bourgeoisie, the extortion of surplus, and overproduction. One can imagine this happening without any appeal to a god or gods and this is why I say it is not a fundamental contradiction of capitalism. Nor do I think idealism is contingent on a theistic world view [and also, as an aside, I think the dichotomy between necessity/contingency is actually a very materialist and important dichotomy, but only if it is understood as a dialectical tension].

      However, whether or not some sort of enlightened atheism is necessary for communism to come to fruition is a salient point… But, then again, this is why Lenin argued that it would wither away once the basis for its existence was removed. There is still debate about this within the communist movement, though, and theorists such as Samir Amin have argued that humans are also "metaphysical animals" who might, for a very long time, imagine theistic views of reality in their desire to make sense of reality.

      On the whole, however, I still would argue that atheist communists have more in common with theistic proletarians who believe that capitalism needs to die than atheists bourgeois individuals who don't think there's a problem with the current structure of society. And this is why I argue that capitalism will not fall simply because of some atheistic struggle––and thus the world won't get any better––and that there is no class contradiction between atheism and theism.

    2. Correction (because I wrote this reply late and posted before I could look it over): I actually don't disagree on your "interpretation" of Nietzsche, but rather on your *use* of Nietzsche, and Heidegger, in this context. This is because they prove my point: they are both committed to bourgeois ideology and their philosophy reifies the categories of bourgeois thought. For instance, Nietzsche can proclaim that "God is dead" while still endorsing the hallmarks of bourgeois society in his philosophy. Neither of them are useful for class struggle––Heidegger even went so far as to join with the enemies of the proletariat––and this makes any of their insights, in my opinion, extremely suspect when it comes to a concrete analysis of a concrete situation.


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