Religion in Science for Darwin and Marx
Both Karl Marx and Charles Darwin have proven themselves to be strong voices against the chorus in their respective fields, particularly in their quintessential works, The Communist Manifesto by Marx, and The Descent of Man by Darwin. Both writers are recognized as accomplished scientists, who hoped to better the understanding of the world around them through their works, albeit in ways distinct from one another. Yet a clear similarity is their repudiation of religion. Both authors suggest that religion is a concept incompatible with science. Marx is less concerned with the ideas and concepts addressed by religion, but by the medium through which they are presented.
As a social construct, Marx believes that organized religion would be a remnant of the bourgeois ruling class, if it continues to exist in a communist state. If people in a communist state still had a need to congregate and express religious sentiments, then Marx would opine that the people were oppressed in their everyday lives and the revolution had failed to do what it sought to. Marx concludes therefore, that religion is incompatible with Communism, which, as a scientists, he believes is the most equitable social structure. Darwin, though his ideas seemingly bear the most contrast to traditional Christian views, does not discount the usefulness of organized religion. He states, especially in defense of his work, that religion and the natural sciences are used to solve distinct issues. He believes that science should answer questions within our field of understanding, so we can better understand and interact with our environment, while religion should (and is) used for questions beyond our perception, such as death, and purpose of life. Darwin’s views are superior to Marx because they clearly define boundaries between religion and science and more realistically acknowledge the limits of both the scientific and religious world, in comparison to Marx’s somewhat idealistic expectations of a religion-free, communist society.
Karl Marx begins The Communist Manifesto with powerful and poetic prose: “A spectre is haunting Europe- the spectre of communism,” (Marx 71). Marx refers to his political theory of Communism, which he attempts to persuade the reader is both necessary and inevitable, through the course of his text. In Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Marx powerfully declares that “[r]eligion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people,” (Marx Introduction, 1). Marx’s language expresses what could be called heresy for the time, for it dissents against one, if not the most, powerful social and economic force in the world. Marx never published this work, quite understandably, but he delivers a similar, though diluted, message to reach as many people as possible in The Communist Manifesto. Marx states that “man’s ideas, views, and conceptions, in one word, man’s consciousness, changes with every change in the conditions of his material existence, in his social relations and in his social life…” (Marx 90). Clearly, Marx believes that with the changing of the political system, from Capitalism to Communism, a change he advocates, certain ideas and sentiments that once were prevalent, must come to an end.
However, the reader is told explicitly that those ideas are religious: The history of all past society has consisted in the development of class antagonisms, antagonisms that assumed different forms at different epochs. But whatever form they may have taken, one fact is common to all past ages, viz., the exploitation of one part of society by the other. No wonder then, that the social consciousness of past ages, despite all the multiplicity and variety it displays, moves within certain common forms, or general ideas, which cannot completely vanish except with the total disappearance of class antagonisms (Marx 91). Put simply, Marx believes that ‘general ideas’ in society, which tend to have religious connotation or tone, change form following the change of that society. These ideas tend to be in retaliation to the current ruling class at the time, or at the very least seek salvation from the ruling class. However, with every change of society, the one constant is that a ruling class has remained. Now, with the advent of Communism, a change will take place in society so that there is no ‘ruling class’, which will, consequently, see the end of what is known to be ‘organized religion’. In essence, the communist society that the people will live in replaces the need for organized religion as a medium for those ideas that retaliate against the ruling class to be expressed, because class distinctions have fallen away.
Some may wonder if Marx would be open to having organized religion in a communist state even if Communism is successful. Perhaps one would offer the counter argument that even if remnants of organized religion remain in a successful communist state, it is a helpful place for community worship or reflection. While the sentiment seems persuasive, Marx would most likely state that remnants of organized religion prove that a communist state isn’t successful. So long as organized religion still exists, the people are still oppressed, and the communist revolution has failed. Marx’s argument falls apart at this juncture: while there are no apparent logical flaws, he makes the crucial mistake of assuming complete adherence by the people to the principles of the communist state without accounting for corruption, greed, and a desire for power. Ironically, the faith he puts in his political system is what compromises the integrity of his argument. Marx’s argument is reliant on the unconditional success of the communist revolution in bringing peace and prosperity to the oppressed proletariat. While theoretically this would seem to be an optimal situation, subjecting these ideas to the realities of human nature reveals their inherent flaws. A few examples include an imperfect communist state, where the political system acts more like a socialist state or dictatorship. This can, especially with hindsight examples of failed communist states, be proven to be a confounding variable in Marx’s plan.
Additionally, Marx assumes that the people is he ushering into Communism will be accepting of losing a familiar place of worship, and being told to place their faith in a political system for their prosperity or security. The successes of Marx’s political theory depends on the overly optimistic view that people can easily abandon such deeply held religious principles. Marx acts as an optimist in this situation, to a fault.
Darwin, however, understands that a reliance on a single mode of thought or way of living to provide societal structure is not practical or realistic. Darwin demonstrates this understanding in his work, The Descent of Man:
I am aware that the conclusions arrived at in this work will be denounced by some as highly irreligious; but he who denounces them is bound to shew why it is more irreligious to explain the origin of man as a distinct species by descent from some lower form, through the laws of variation and natural selection, than to explain the birth of the individual through the laws of ordinary reproduction. The birth both of the species and of the individual are equally parts of that grand sequence of events, which our minds refuse to accept as the result of blind chance. The understanding revolts at such a conclusion, whether or not we are able to believe that every slight variation of structure,- the union of each pair in marriage, -the dissemination of each seed, -and other such events, have all been ordained for some special purpose (Darwin 249).
Darwin, in a somewhat defensive paragraph expresses that his theory of evolution does not need to be ‘godless’. In his own words, Darwin challenges his critics in asking why proving the origin of species is more irreligious than understanding the science behind human birth. For Darwin, the study of birth and the study of the origin of species serve a similar purpose: to better understand how the environments of living species work in order to more efficiently live in those environments. He explains that he is not contradicting the whole of religion, but perhaps that his works contradict one account of Christian creation in the Bible.
Additionally, he explains how understanding the process of evolution does not substitute for the concept of divine purpose, the idea that everything was created for a reason by God, because his scientific theory does not explain every aspect of life. He recognizes, in this, that religion attempts to answer the questions that science can’t answer. “What is the meaning of life?” “Who or what created the Universe?” Where concepts of science (such as the theory of evolution) fall short, religion steps in to offer suggestions towards understanding. It is in this way, that Darwin’s argument demonstrates superiority to Marx’s. Darwin does not make the crucial mistake of having unrealistic expectations of his scientific systems. He acknowledges that his system has limits, in that it cannot answer a certain type of question, that religion offers answers to. While not offering his opinion on whether or not those answers are right, he allows the ideas of religion to exist legitimately. Because he allows for these two distinct systems to exist without conflict, they act as a fail safe for each other, allowing ideas to float between the two. If something cannot be explained by science, it may be explained by religion.
Both Marx and Darwin present convincing arguments as to the place of religion in a scientific world, but Darwin’s argument has some significant advantages over Marx’s. Marx makes the mistake of assuming that his scientific system of Communism will be completely and totally accepted by those who are subjects of it. Marx also fails to adequately address concerns his audience would naturally have about losing religion. He counters simply with an argument about the benefits of Communism. In all likelihood, this would make his dissenters more irate. Darwin, however, manages to avoid these mistakes by readily acknowledging and explicating the differences between religion and science, and accepting each system without finding conflict between them. Additionally, the differences between religion and science that Darwin outlines, allow for new information to prompt something once explained by religion, to be explained by science, and vice versa. Therefore, the ideas of science and ideas of religion can coexist. Darwin’s ideas remain superior because they are the most realistic, and they would most likely find more supporters, in both the religious and scientific communities.
Marx, Karl. The Communist Manifesto. 1848. Penguin Group, 2011.
Marx, Karl. Introduction. Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, by Marx. 1844, pp. 1.
Philip Appleman, editor. Darwin. W. W. Norton & Company, 2001.
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