A call for religious reform

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Karl Marx’s interpretation of religion should challenge us to strengthen our faith in the goodness of God, mankind and nature.

June 19, 2021

Indonesian Buddhists perform a pradaksina procession during the celebration of Tri Saint Vesak Day 2021 at Sewu temple in Klaten, central Java on May 29, 2021 (Photo by UCA News).


By Dr Justin Wejak

The name of Karl Marx is no stranger to academia and politics. He was born in Trier, Germany on May 5, 1818 and died in London on March 14, 1883. He was a multidisciplinary researcher in the fields of philosophy, history, sociology, political science and l ‘economy. His major works include The Communist Manifesto (1848) and Das Capital (three volumes, 1867-83).

Marx’s critical theories of society, economics and politics are synthesized in what is called Marxism, which explored how human societies were transformed by class conflict, namely between and within ruling classes (bourgeoisie) and working classes (proletariat). The bourgeoisie controlled the means of production, while the proletariat simply worked for wages.

By deploying historical materialism, Marx claimed that capitalism caused many tensions. These tensions grew in class consciousness, leading to the establishment of what Marx called “a classless communist society”. but what does that mean? Does a classless communist society mean a society without religion?

In 2002, John Raines published an insightful book titled Marx on religion. This book was a compilation of Karl Marx’s commentaries on religious matters. The version translated into Indonesian was then published in 2003, with an excellent introduction by a Jesuit priest and philosopher of German origin, Franz Magnis-Suseno.

The book, containing Marx’s critiques of religion, especially Christianity, is something to think about. Marx not only criticized the roles and functions of religion in his day, but also questioned the relevance of religion to spirituality, ethics, and morality. Marx was clearly uncomfortable with religion being used by those in power for their own political and economic ends.

This led Marx to conclude that religion is simply “the opium of the people” and that as opium it must therefore be eliminated. Eliminating religion is essential for people to find their true selves and happiness. However, Marx’s main challenge was neither to religion itself nor to the community of believers. In fact, he criticized the power structures and practices that allowed religion to be used as a legitimation for oppression and exploitation. Implicitly, according to Marx, religion can only be maintained if it has meaning for society. It was therefore imperative for religions, especially Christianity in Marx’s time, to meet again and renew themselves.

Marx’s ideas about religion were influenced by actual experiences during his upbringing, adolescence, and adulthood. The socio-economic and politico-religious situation of the time must be taken into consideration in order to understand Marx’s critique of religion. His stimulating thesis on religion was politically and economically conditioned. His theory must therefore be examined in the light of this context.

In our contemporary context today, Karl Marx’s notion of religion can be seen as a call to religious people to remain critical and to free religions from the hands of those who might be inclined to use it to justify oppression and exploitation, and even for violence and brutality.

In countries like Indonesia where religion tends to be taken for granted, Marx’s point of view is a positive challenge, not so much for a total abolition of religions, but more for honest and self-critical introspection. Marx calls us to religious reform from within.

Franz Magnis-Suseno, in his introduction to the translated edition of the book (2003), suggests that criticism of religion is essential. Echoing Marx, Magnis-Suseno asks us, as people of faith, to be critical of the structures and practices of political power. It also encourages us to recognize our involvement in social oppression and exploitation, past and present, in the hope that this awareness may prevent us from repeating harmful involvement in the future. Magnis-Suseno further asserts that religion should be a liberating force for people, experience and involvement in any type of systematic injustice. Religion which has lost its liberating function must therefore be called upon to review itself and reform itself.

Religion as an ideology is fertile ground for compromises of political power

Implicitly, in Marx’s view, religion as an ideology seems to have always been fertile ground for compromises of political power through the ages. These compromises can allow a kind of negative tolerance to exist in the face of social and economic injustices. Here, religion seems to have entered the political arena, and politics creeps into the religious space. The two, religion and politics, no longer become two separate entities and factions but are combined in a structure of reciprocity. They feed and exploit each other.

By observing closely the practice of religion and the social interactions of people during his lifetime, Marx therefore concluded that religion was a creation of those who wielded power for their own sake, an interest that continues. Naturally, this conclusion sparked much debate and controversy, especially when Marx called religion “the opium of the people” and that as opium it should be completely abolished, unless religion itself keeps working that way. A rhetorical question can be asked: can religion ever be completely abolished even if it continues to be experienced as opium?

A complete abolition of religion can also mean a complete elimination of humanity. Religion, in the broad sense, is as old as humanity. They coexist, and their coexistence indicates their interdependence, also depending on what religion is and how we understand it. Religion can be seen as a human affair concerning human interactions with both visible and invisible phenomena. It is important to distinguish between religion as power and social structure, and religion as an individual and community expression of faith and identity.

It is fair to argue that Karl Marx primarily criticized structured religion and challenged its misuse; he wasn’t too obsessed with religion itself in terms of experimenting with ways to eliminate it. He simply proposed that it was time for religion to be “buried” more in a metaphorical sense, so that new seeds could germinate for the good of all in societies. In fact, as in the case of Indonesia, not only are religions still alive today, but they have become increasingly powerful.

Marx was a radical thinker, but all efforts to eliminate religion altogether have turned out to be meaningless. He simply hoped and waited for a radical change for the betterment of mankind. He may be right in his critique of religion, but his critique must be understood in the context of his time and struggle. His controversial views on religion therefore cannot be seen as a universal representation of realities in different places and times.

It is crucial to keep in mind that religion has always been a complex phenomenon. Marx’s call for the complete abolition of religion in the 19th century should never be taken literally. Rather, it should be understood in context and interpreted as a call for religious reform. But can this call for reform be considered an important and urgent issue in Indonesia? Any reform takes a lot of courage.

After the fall of Suharto in 1998, Indonesia began its era of reform. The year 1998 marked the end of Indonesia’s “dark era” and the start of a new era of enlightenment for Indonesian democracy. The policy of hope for a new-look Indonesia reigning equality and inclusion, freedom of expression and the rule of law remains a work in progress. The loss of Ahok in the election of the governor of Jakarta in 2017 mainly due to his religion and ethnicity, and the choice of the vice president of Jokowi, a cleric and Islamic lecturer Ma’ruf Amin, can be considered as an indication that religion can still be used as a political means of power and ambition. Marx’s critique remains relevant.

Religious reform is first and foremost about the inner transformation of the way we conduct our lives according to the core of our faith. At every stage of history, including now, it is evident that there is also a constant need to reform powerful religious structures so that they also live out the mission of their faith, always on the side of the poor and marginalized, and not be used as a tool of oppression by the rich and powerful.

Karl Marx’s interpretation of religion should challenge us to strengthen our faith in the goodness of God, mankind and nature.––ucanews.com

(Dr Justin Wejak studied philosophy in Indonesia, theology and anthropology in Australia and currently teaches at the University of Melbourne. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position official from UCA News.)



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