The myth of atheism and socialism
One of the most common misconceptions about atheism among religious believers is that it is deeply connected with Marxism and socialism. To begin to unravel this myth, let's first take a look at the definition of these terms:
Atheism is simply the lack of belief in a god, or the active belief that there is no god. The latter, more "positive" atheism is the more commonly used version of the term today. Atheism is a metaphysical position.
Marxism is "the economic and political theory... that actions and human institutions are economically determined, that the class struggle is the basic agency of historical change, and that capitalism will ultimately be superseded by communism." (Dictionary.com)
Socialism is "a theory or system of social organization that advocates the vesting of the ownership and control of the means of production and distribution, of capital, land, etc., in the community as a whole." (Dictionary.com)
We can immediately see that the metaphysical theory or idea of atheism definitionally has nothing to do with the political and economic theories of Marxism or socialism.
Atheism has existed since the start of human history, as there have always been people who didn't believe in a god. Socialism and Marxism are much younger by contrast, beginning only in the 19th century. How did these very different concepts come to be associated with each other?
The connection between Marxism and Atheism
The connection between atheism and Marxism begins with Karl Marx himself, an avowed atheist. Marx believed that religion was a manifestation of the distress and suffering of the people. Thus it was the "opium of the people," a way for them to forget their miseries, and to divert their attention away from the cause of their suffering--the oppressive upper classes.
Indeed, religion was a convenient tool for the elite to keep the masses docile and distracted. Marx did believe that religion was irrational, but it was not a primary concern. In Marxism, religion enjoys far less attention than capitalism or the plight of workers, for instance.
Many Marxists have been atheist and have promoted atheism, believing religion to be incompatible with their political project. But this is a one-way relationship. Atheism itself in no way leads to or necessitates Marxism or socialism.
However, a tight relationship between atheism and socialism benefits religious believers intellectually for two major reasons. The first reason is for morality. It allows theists to argue that the immoral communist regimes of the 20th century are representative of atheism in general, and that the supposed "nihilistic" character of atheism inevitably leads to an empty and meaningless view of humanity.
In this vision, our fellow human beings are not people to be respected, but simply pawns of whatever tyrant can usurp the most power. Despite this narrative's popularity in religious circles, reality is totally different. The least religious societies today are also the most peaceful, stable, prosperous and free. It is generally in the most committed religious populations where we find the greatest poverty, violence and human rights abuses.
The second reason is convenience. This association allows the theist to lump together a host of perceived negative things into a single opponent. Devout Christians tend to have right-of-center politics, so it makes sense that their zeal for religion would be matched with a zeal for capitalism and right wing policies. It's worth noting that among leftist Christians, a common ground is just as easily found between the message of Jesus and the interests of the worker.
Protecting the poor and criticizing the rich and well-off are major themes in the message of Jesus. Thus many Christians have agued that Jesus and his earliest followers were effectively socialist or communist. They often consider Jesus' message to be socialist in nature or at least heavily focused on social justice. The Catholic Worker Movement, the Christian Socialist Movement, and Liberation Theology are prominent examples.
And there have been and are many atheists critical of socialism and supportive of right wing politics. Most atheists and agnostics in the rich world today, as citizens of market democracies, do not believe in Marxism. Ayn Rand, a vehement libertarian capitalist and one of the most prominent 20th century critics of socialism, was also a very staunch atheist. In American politics, some conservatives are atheist and agnostic, seeing no need for a religious basis for their political views. And the European right generally has far less use for religion than the American right.
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David Marshall on September 02, 2016:
The author of this article knows practically nothing about Marxism and its relation to religion. I say that as someone who got my BA, under a leading historian of communism, partly in Marxism, has lived in both Soviet and Chinese communist societies, and has been studying the topic, off and on, for 30 years. These are simply New Atheist talking points for ignorant young westerners. If you want to learn something about the subject, start with David Aikman's Atheism in the Marxist Tradition.
secularist10 (author) from New York City on May 19, 2015:
Hitch--you should educate yourself a little on a topic, before spouting off with such emotion about it.
Paladin_ from Michigan, USA on May 18, 2015:
The trolls are ravenously hungry today! :-D
Hitch on May 18, 2015:
Calling atheism a mere "lack of belief" is like calling communism a mere lack of democracy.
What a truckload of rank ignorance and idiocy is present in this sites pages.
Atheists - the most blind, irrational, unthinking dupes on earth.
secularist10 (author) from New York City on July 23, 2014:
What evidence do you have that most socialists are atheists?
I do not assume I am smarter than everyone else. And I am not a socialist.
"... if you don't believe in God then you naturally assume the ultimate authority is the government."
A hilariously absurd statement. Atheism allows many ideas of "ultimate authority," not just a government. It also allows for a belief in no "ultimate authority" at all.
The "wisdom of man" has led to more peace, prosperity and growth in a few hundred years than the "wisdom of God" did in many thousands of years.
Venezuela and Cuba are mostly Catholic/ Christian like all other Spanish-American cultures, so there's that assumption out the window.
I specifically said in the article the most prosperous and peaceful countries today tend to be the least religious (examples are Denmark, Canada, Netherlands, Germany, Norway, Japan and others).
The facts are actually the exact opposite of your assumptions.
rick on July 20, 2014:
We need some diversity around here! I don't think it's a coincidence that most socialists are atheists and it's a bit arrogant to assume it's because your all smarter than everyone else. It's about our alternate outlook on life, for a theist God is the ultimate authority and we are only truly accountable to him but if you don't believe in God then you naturally assume the ultimate authority is the government. Thus theists tend to believe in individualism and limited government and atheists tend to put all their hope in the wisdom of man ending in corrupt totalitarian governments, presently known as socialism. Just look at the difference between Venezuela, Cuba, Soviet Union vs. the freedom, goodwill and success of the liberty loving United States of America!
secularist10 (author) from New York City on November 03, 2013:
GM, thank you!
Exactly, the definitional, categorical equivalence (or at least close association) makes absolutely no sense. It makes more sense to look at the overlaps when they do occur, try to understand them and their historical context, without jumping to conclusions they way many analysts do.
Grace Marguerite Williams from the Greatest City In The World-New York City, New York on October 19, 2013:
This is one of the most insightful, intelligent, and thought provoking hubs I have the pleasure of reading in a long time. The connection between religion and ideology is oftentimes pure coincidental although there is a connect in many cases. For example, many conservatives are traditional and staunch religionists while liberals are less traditional religionists or nonreligionists. However, it is not in all cases. There are many conservatives who are atheists while there are liberals who are very religious. Excellently put hub. Voted UP!
Mklow1 on February 27, 2013:
Sure did! didn't catch that one.
secularist10 (author) from New York City on February 26, 2013:
Thanks a lot, I appreciate it.
You mentioned socialism in the last sentence of your comment, but certainly, atheism has played a prominent role in many schools of communist thought. It's funny though, because all of the major communist movements have been in non-English-speaking countries, and yet nobody seems to argue that not speaking English is a sign of being predisposed to communism or a contributing factor to communist thinking. So, I understand where the association comes from, from a theistic perspective, but it's nevertheless illogical.
Mklow1 on February 26, 2013:
You are correct in your timeline about communism and atheism, but I gathered from your article you were wondering why theists associate communism with atheism, which is why I am sharing my thoughts as a theist.
I am sure there are some examples of communism that don't have conflict with religion, but the ones that the mainstream are exposed to do, such as China, Russia, and Cuba is why the popular belief associates communism with atheism.
And at no time in my comment did I mention socialism and atheism because I know one is not essential to the other. Well written article and great discussion. Thumbs up.
secularist10 (author) from New York City on February 25, 2013:
I don't think you can simply say that "atheism is part of the communist doctrine." There are a number of different versions of communism, some more vehemently atheistic than others. Atheism is almost completely irrelevant in some narratives.
And it is certainly not tenable to say that atheism is essential to socialism. Again, you have socialist beliefs among Christians and other religious believers, and there is no intellectual conflict there.
I think over time as atheism and agnosticism become ever-more mainstream and popular in their own right, it will become more and more obvious that they have nothing to do with communism or Marxism. The former have been around for millennia, indeed longer than theism itself, while the latter have only existed for a few hundred years.
Mklow1 on February 25, 2013:
I guess a lot of religious people associate atheism with communism is because it is part of the communist doctrine. Although Marx didn't find it so important to eradicate religion, Stalin did. In his reign, it is estimated he killed 20 million with a possibility of up to 62 million, most because of religious beliefs. This is how they control the people because they want the state to be first, not God.
My wife is from a communist country and although they didn't kill people for practicing religion, they did threaten with labor camps. In other words, if you had a good job, you could practice religion, but you would work in the fields instead of being a doctor.
I agree that atheism and communism are not the same belief, but they will always be tied together because of the socialist doctrine.
secularist10 (author) from New York City on September 10, 2012:
Absolutely, Jandee. Simplification is not as simple as some would want to think. Thanks.
jandee from Liverpool.U.K on September 10, 2012:
Then we have the Catholic Marxists ! What a mess is 'created' in this brain-washing game.(also Catholic Marxist-Leninists)
secularist10 (author) from New York City on May 21, 2012:
Thanks, Paladin. Glad you liked it.
Paladin_ from Michigan, USA on May 20, 2012:
An excellent and very informative hub, secularist. Great job!
secularist10 (author) from New York City on April 20, 2012:
Thanks Chaya, and thanks for the mail.
Less religious belief is indeed correlated with higher education and material wealth. Such individuals have less use and less need for the stories and rituals of religion.
Chaya Parmessur from FRANCE on April 20, 2012:
very interesting hub! Agree with your point that athesim has nothing to do with political beliefs. I would also like to add here, there is a higher number of atheists amongst the professionals & intellectuals. Most probably because they are not easily brain-washed. And as people grow older and have more time to reflect, there is a tendency to start believing in God.
Great hub and voted up!
secularist10 (author) from New York City on April 19, 2012:
Much of the Marxist critique of religion does make a lot of sense. And a mass of impoverished illiterate followers certainly did benefit the Catholic Church, and its secular political allies, immensely for centuries. To say nothing of countless priests in other times and places across history.
Josak from variable on April 19, 2012:
Excellent hub, the issue that many Marxists had with religion was not so much that they believed it illogical or that it was evil in and of itself but that it was used to preserve the standing order, the church lent it's support to monarchs and religious leaders and often in the past century took an active role in encouraging people to believe that it was good to be poor, (see mother Theresa for example) because if one was poor in this life and suffered it made him or her more likely to be accepted into heaven in the next life, furthermore the church was an organisation that supported the status-quo and as such was seen as an enemy of the Marxist cause, so really the issue was not with faith (indeed many socialists praised the message of equality and love for the fellow man that Jesus espoused) but with the organised church and it's social impact.