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The Sigh of the Oppressed?: Marxism and Religion in America Today
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A 2008 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that more than half of Americans rank the importance of religion very highly in their lives, attend religious services regularly, and pray daily. Despite the predictions of some eighteenth- and nineteenth-century social observers, the riotous success of capitalism and the democratization of higher education did not diminish religious life. If anything, the modes of capital have merely incited religious energies, with the markets of one feeding off of the promises of another. This is fertile territory for the Marxist observer, since it seems to fulfill Marx's prophecies as well as resist his plotted rebellions. For Marx, capitalism was a systematic misrecognition. Individuals are taken not as human beings, but as means of production. To comfort themselves amid their objectification as labor, individuals may embrace a variety of false ideologies, none of which—according to Marx—finally resolve the primal misrecognition of capitalism. Marx imagined that if their alienation grew great enough, workers might, finally, resist all such ideological distraction and seize the modes of production themselves. To live in the contemporary United States is to live in an era of extraordinary income disparity and abundant religious life. Is this a disappointment of Marx's prophecies? Or a fulfillment of them?

If I know religion to be man's alienated self-consciousness, then what I know to be confirmed in it as religion is not my self-consciousness but my alienated self-consciousness.

The monk belongs to the world, but the world belongs to him insofar as he has dedicated himself totally to liberation from it in order to liberate it.

The conjunction of these italicized quotations intends to establish the complexities found in the concept of religion as described by Marx. If we focus on the first quotation, we find ourselves in familiar Marxist territory. This is the Marx that argued for the abolition of religion as a form of illusory happiness. In his writings, Marx explained how people came to believe certain confused ideas about themselves in the world, and how those ideas were successful precisely because they seemed liberating, and not oppressing. This is how ideology finally works in a capitalist society: not as bold-faced barking propaganda, but as cheerful reminders to be joyful in the light of Jesus, or to be made well by wearing the rightly-fitting jeans. Whether it is talk about a divinity or a consumer good, the seduction of such ideology results in you (as worker, believer, or consumer) being alienated from the real material facts of things, and, consequently, from real happiness. You may feel conscious, but you are not. You are alienated from your wakefulness by competing claims to your consciousness. One word for such a proxy consciousness is religion.

Yet Marx is hardly totalizing in his dismissal of religion. He famously wrote: "Religious suffering is at one and the same time the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is a sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions." Here we see Marx consider religion as a reply to the world as it truly is. Religion is an "opium" insofar as it is a wrongheaded fix for a true experience—the wrong way of protesting something that deserves to be protested. In the early twentieth century, Antonio Gramsci argued that religion need not only be understood as an ideology for the elites to suppress those that materially support their power. He suggested that popular forms of religion could function as subaltern protests against hegemony: against the hegemony of clergy, of industrialists, of the structures that seem to determine consciousness through delimiting freedom. In the second quotation, we see another speaker reaching for the same conceptual point, as he suggests that whatever religions exist—wherever and however they exist—they may contain the possibility of real consciousness.

Over the last two centuries, religious figures have considered the writings of Karl Marx to be more kin than nemesis. Those believers found that within religion itself there may be the possibility of ridding oneself of ideological illusions. For example, the speaker in the second...


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