The following article was first published in Proletarian Revolution No. 66 (Winter 2003).

Why Marxists Are Atheists

We print below a letter we received from a young reader on the existence of God and the reply by an LRP comrade.

I read the COFI political resolution. It looks like I would fit perfectly into the party except for one thing. Before I bother you further, I should ask if it’s acceptable for me to join if I believe in God? I believe I should be allowed, and I will give some defense.

I understand wholeheartedly that all the major religions and denominations therein have been used to maintain the status quo and the wealth of the ruling classes throughout history. I also understand that religious intolerance and persecution have been effective in keeping the oppressed working class divided throughout history. However, my belief in God has nothing to do with religion any more.

In fact, it has been through thinking about the religious texts that I have come to the conclusion that communism is what we need to fight for. Robert Macafee Brown wrote a book titled Unexpected News in which he points out to modern American wealthy that God is not “on our side.” He explains how the central theme running throughout the Bible is not religion, but class struggle! He explains that if the biblical trend holds true, the oppressed workers of the world must rise up and defeat their oppressors, and God will be on their side. The only reason this has not been realized is because of the ruling-class elite within the religious hierarchies, and preachers of most capitalist churches changing, deemphasizing, or overemphasizing parts of the texts in order to allow room for capitalism.

Finally, I would like to point out that I believe any true follower of God need not be concerned about religious differences, or converting people to a particular religion. They need to convert people to communism. No person who is against true, permanent, proletariat socialist revolution is a true follower of God.

In closing I would like to say that there should be no resources necessary for religious worship. Religious worship should never take any resources away from the people.

I don’t feel my belief will be a hindrance. God desires the oneness of all humanity in love and justice. It is because of my belief that I want to join in the revolution, please allow me to do so. Thank you.

Reply by the LRP

Thanks for your email expressing your desire to join our organization. We are glad that you raised the question of your belief in God because it is important that we discuss this question frankly and thoroughly. As you probably know, we are atheists and materialists. The fact that you recognize that religion in general supports the ruling classes is important.

First, I would like to explain why we do not in general accept people who believe in God. Then I would like to give you a few of arguments against belief in God.... I hope that they give you reason to re-examine your belief in God.

A fundamental tenet of our organization is our conception of consciousness, and specifically class-consciousness. We believe revolutionary proletarian consciousness is a product of the class struggle itself. While others may adhere to and even formulate revolutionary principles, the spirit and letter of such are themselves owed to the struggle of the working masses. And for the masses of workers who will join the class vanguard, it will be more directly through their own experiences in deep class struggles. This commitment is indeed a moral one, but morals as framed and determined by class interests.

It is important to see revolutionary politics in this way, and important to see our organization as an institution of the working class itself. Part of our political clashes with other left organizations involves their notion of revolutionary politics as coming from outside the working class, in their case not from God but from the radical bourgeois intelligentsia. This both reflects and reinforces a manipulative attitude towards the working class. It tells workers to look to other sources (intellectuals, God, etc.) for their fundamental strength, as opposed to their own objective power. It is counterposed to the necessary development of revolutionary consciousness.

This whole matter has added importance given the state of the class struggle and our organization. We are a small, propaganda organization with an enormous task of cohering the vanguard of the working class. This requires a coherent, disciplined manner of intervention in the class struggle, which in order to be effective and democratic involves a tight set of shared values and political perspectives by the membership. (At a different stage of struggle and organization, when masses of workers are moving into revolutionary motion, such recruitment standards regarding religious beliefs may be relaxed, but even then the program of the party itself will remain militantly atheist.)

Of course we don’t demand that people agree with us on every point in order to work together. We realize that there are many levels of consciousness, and people have to go through all kinds of stages. So for now it would not be appropriate for the most part for people who believe in God to join our organization. This is especially true in a case such as yours, in that you feel that your belief in God is in fact at the core of your reasons for wanting to fight for the revolution.

Now I would like to present some basic concepts for you to consider regarding the concept of God.

Let’s start first with your statements that “No person who is against true, permanent, proletariat socialist revolution is a true follower of God” and that “God desires the oneness of all humanity in love and justice.” These statements are about your own personal conception of the nature of God. What is the origin of this conception – for you? Even if it seemed to come to you through some revelation from God himself (herself?), the basic content really comes from your experiences in the world, especially in terms of your social experiences and your reactions and interactions that have brought you to want to fight against class exploitation.

The content of any conception of God, if it is to have any particular meaning besides the very abstract “infinite” or “all-powerful” or “all-knowing,” has to come from the believer’s own experience in the world. For example, the believer may think that if God is infinite, then God must be perfect. If God is perfect, then God is “good.” If God is good, then God must support what I know to be good and oppose what I know to be evil. But what I know to be good and what I know to be evil come from my experience, not from revelation from God. So the believer projects into the conception of God all kinds of attitudes which in fact were originally generated within the believer himself.

Similarly and more abstractly, God as supreme consciousness is a projection of human consciousness. The human mind seeks to understand and explain the world. Prior to any scientific development, various creation myths provided an explanation for how the world began through various kinds of metaphors, projections arising from very basic experience into areas that cannot otherwise be conceived by the human brain. In some cases creation is thought of as giving birth. In other cases the metaphor is taken from the very human operation of making tools. God made the world the way people make tools, etc.

The particular conception of God necessarily flows from the real conditions of society. Often God is conceived as a “father” – sometimes as a “mother.” If one’s model for family life is based on having a tolerant, loving, nurturing parent whose main goal is to prepare the child to be a loving, nurturing parent in the future, God as father or mother is seen in analogous terms. If one’s model for the family is based on a strict parent, who must prepare the child through discipline to follow strict rules, then God is seen as demanding strict obedience to divinely given laws and as being punitive towards law-breakers. Again the conception flows from social reality; the social reality does not flow from God’s nature.

OK, let’s take a different tack. One of the most common arguments as to why there “must” be a God is that the nature of the universe requires a creator as an “explanation.” For example, the fact that there is predictable causation in the universe is said to require a “first cause.” If you have read some of the classics in Western philosophy, you may already know David Hume’s famous refutation of this type of argument. This kind of “explanation” doesn’t really explain anything. Causation is “explained” by kicking it upstairs to a new mystery. There can be no explanation for the “first cause.” Theologians love to say that science cannot explain how the universe began, or why the universe exists in the first place.

This is true. Science cannot provide this kind of explanation. But neither can theology! Theology’s attempts to explain such questions always beg the question, “explaining” a mystery by creating a new one.

Another argument commonly used to support the idea of God and to oppose materialism is the idea that consciousness as experienced by us cannot be explained by examining purely material processes. Another great philosopher in the Western tradition, René Descartes, argued that no matter how sophisticated a machine might be, it could never have a mind as we know it. He concluded that the mind must be composed of a “substance” completely different from matter (physical “substance”). This led him to the dead-end of “dualism”: that we are composed of two totally different kinds of “substances”: one mental or spiritual and the other physical.

The reason this is a dead-end is that if these two substances are alien to each other there is no way to explain their interaction. At bottom Descartes was forced to say that the interaction between the mental substance (the “soul”) and the physical substance (the “body”) occurs through the activity of God. So the view that consciousness cannot be explained through examining physical, material processes led to another example of an “explanation” that doesn’t really explain anything. It simply presents the mystery in new clothes.

Some theologians would say, yes, these spiritual concepts don’t really explain anything, in the way science seeks to explain, but these theologians say that these spiritual ideas provide a place for the “essential mystery” that they claim is at the “core of reality.” Our response would be that it is certainly true that there are still many problems of nature, including human nature, that science doesn’t yet explain. It doesn’t even try to explain “why” the universe exists. (Most contemporary philosophers say that questions like “why does anything exist” are “meaningless” questions, in that any possible answer cannot be tested through experience.)

But many of the questions that people have long thought to be unanswerable have been answered by science. For example, many of the objections raised historically to the theory of evolution have been answered through new evidence. In the field of consciousness and cognition, research done in the last twenty years by neurologists and cognitive scientists have made great advances in exploring the human mind.

So science may not be able to explain everything, but then again in any particular aspect of nature we have no reason to draw a line and say that science cannot advance beyond this point. The idea that there is a value to maintaining a zone of mystery beyond which the human mind should not go is quite reactionary and can only help those whose interests lie in opposing scientific and technological progress, i.e., the most reactionary elements in the ruling classes.

Finally you might ask, even if one cannot embrace the concept of God, how does one know that there is no God? Why atheism, as opposed to “agnosticism,” the view that there may by a “God” but we have no way to know one way or the other, or to know the nature of God. Friedrich Engels characterized agnosticism as “shamefaced atheism.” In other words, where religious thinking is socially dominant, agnosticism is socially more acceptable.

The problem with agnosticism is that once the concept of God is exposed as being a morass of confusion, there is no reason to pose the possibility of its existence. “Something” (labeled “God”) may exist. What does that mean? For a proposition to be “true,” then it has to have meaning. A proposition that could be true but which can never be proved one way or the other has no practical meaning.

Your beliefs are in fact quite similar to my own process of religious thought. I was raised in a fundamentally Protestant household. Over time, I began shedding many of the cornerstones of this faith. But at about your age and in similar circumstances, I still held to an abstract concept of God, while attempting to reconcile this with the basics of Marxism I was beginning to adhere to. I was in effect creating my own religion. I came to this insight at the point that I dropped my religious beliefs.

I hope that these considerations are useful to you.... You say your “belief in God has nothing to do with religion any more,” so I gather that you were formerly religious in the conventional sense.... In any case, we can continue to discuss these questions, and even if you should find that you cannot abandon your belief in God, there is no reason why we cannot work together towards common political goals. I hope you understand, given the nature of our organization and its tasks, why it would probably not work for you to join so long as you hold to the belief in God.