Karl Marx, Religion, and Atheism - Michael Heinrich TV Boitempo Interview
When we talk about Marx’s relation to religion in these times, we have to understand that especially in the late 1830s in Prussia, religion was a very political issue. It was not an issue of private belief where one could believe this or that. The Prussian state defined itself as a Christian state, but not in some general way where Christianity played a role in state affairs. No, by Christian state they meant a protestant state and there is a kind of symbiosis whereby Protestantism was a kind of state religion in Prussia. The priests and bishops were employees of the state and the state also used Protestantism to defend itself against Catholicism because, in these times, Catholicism was also a political power. The Pope was not simply the head of a church - he was also the head of a state. While it may have been a small state, this state was an ally of France and France was mostly an opponent of Prussia during these times. So, religious questions and political questions intersected and overlapped across many dimensions.
Now, what can we say of Marx’s religious beliefs and religious development? We know that the family of Marx was Jewish and that especially Marx’s ancestors on his father’s side were rabbis. Some of them were even famous scholars 200 or 300 years before, so it was a family with strong Jewish roots. However, Marx’s father was baptized as a Protestant Christian. Some authors say this was a big blow and that the young Marx suffered trauma because his father did this and so there was an indirect influence of Jewish belief which led him to split from the Jewish community (and so on). But such arguments ignore the condition of Jewish life in Prussia at the beginning of the 19th century. Therefore, in my book, I not only give the facts that the father was baptized, I also investigate what it actually meant for a Jewish person to be baptized in these times. This was also the period of modernization of Jewish communities - there was a Jewish enlightenment - and already Marx’s father was not a real Jewish believer. He was more of a deist - someone who believes there is a God that created the world but that this God is not permanently doing something in (or influencing) this world. For deists, there is also not one correct religious position - you should know there is a God, you should have morals and rules, but whether you are a Jew or a Catholic is not important. With this background, for Marx’s father, it was not so difficult to get baptized. It was not such a big step, as it might be for a true believer in the Jewish religion. I think it was more a kind of humiliation since Marx’ father had to get baptized to remain a lawyer. But he did this and his family were also baptized. I didn’t find any sources or traces that Jewish belief or Jewish traditions played any role in the education of the young Marx. Also, protestant belief and Christian belief did not play a decisive role. Of course, the young Marx had to take lessons at school in religion and protestant belief. He also had to write an essay (at the end of school) on religion, but it seems very clear that he simply repeated what he had to repeat in order to pass the exam. Nevertheless, from his essay he had to write on the subject of “German Studies” in school (an essay which appears in the appendix of this volume of the biography) I think we can find sources that Marx was really a believer, but like his father, a believer in a very abstract God (not a Christian God, not a Jewish God but just in a God as a creator of the world).
But this must have changed rather quickly because in one of the first letters his father sent to the young Marx as a student in Bonn, his father wrote: “It would fit that you believe in the God of Newton, Leibniz. This, for every human, brings some benefit.” We don’t have the letters Marx wrote at this time to his father so we don’t know what he really wrote, but since his father made such a remark, it is very possible that Karl articulated some doubts in the belief. So, very quickly after school those doubts must have started. When Marx wrote his PhD thesis, where he celebrates Prometheus as the man who fought against the Gods and writes that atheism is the most noble statement of every philosopher, it is clear that he had a very strong commitment to atheism.
I try to give some hints as to where this developed. The poems of the young Marx certainly offer some hints and they also articulate a certain critique of notions of God. He shows in his poems, desperate people, stressing that no God will help them and that they will fall into the abyss without any savior. What he is doing there is the opposite to the usual late Romantic poems where God is the savior, making sure people do not fall into the abyss. I try to reconstruct some of the religious development of the young Marx and what becomes very clear is that Marx saying goodbye to religion was not a big problem to him because even when he was a believer, he was a rational believer rather than an emotional believer. This is a big difference to the young Engels. The young Engels came from a family of strong believers and, as a young pupil at school, he also was a strong believer. We know from his early letters to his friends he had from school that religious themes played an important role in his life. So, for Engels, saying goodbye to religion was a much much bigger step than for Marx. In the second volume of my biography, I discuss all of these problems of the young Engels. It starts with a whole chapter about the youth of Engels, not only because Engels was an important person for the young Marx but also because the comparison between the youths of Marx and Engels shows a lot of interesting features - Marx’s youth becomes clearer when viewed in comparison with Engels’.
The religious development of the young Marx (I think) also had a certain philosophical relevance. One of Marx’s early close friends was Bruno Bauer. We know he studied theology, was older than Marx (he studied in the 1820s), and attended seminars of Hegel’s. Bauer was kind of a Hegelian theologist, but in the early years, he was a rather orthodox theologist. While many Hegelian theologists already criticized the idea of the virginity of the virgin Mary, the young Bruno Bauer, in one of his early writings, tries to defend this virginity by means of Hegelian philosophy. He tried to show that there was a certain necessity for Jesus to be born by a virgin and so on. Then Bauer very quickly developed to the left side of Hegelian theologists and then he became an atheist - and a very fierce atheist at that. Together with Marx, he sought to found a journal of atheism. I try to show in the first volume of the biography that Marx perhaps fueled Bauer’s development into an atheist. All of the other members of the Doctor’s Club were believers in their youths and even Köppen, Rutenberg, and Bauer studied theology when they entered university. So, for them it was much harder to say goodbye to their Christian beliefs than for Marx. I suppose this caused a very productive coming together in the Club. The older members had much better knowledge about Hegelian philosophy (and philosophy in general) than the young Marx. However, the young Marx had, much earlier, an atheist position and he could defend this position in a much more relaxed way than they could discuss it. In other words, Marx benefitted from Bauer’s knowledge of Hegelian philosophy and Bauer benefitted from Marx’s atheism. This created a very strong relationship between them and made them want to work together, write together, and found a journal. Bauer, for many years, was the closest friend and closest comrade for Marx in this time. And so, the early religious development of Marx is not only a very special point in the life of Marx. I think it also had a decisive influence upon Marx's intellectual development in the years 1837-1842.