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Marx’ 19th Century Critique of Religion
in a
21st Century Asian Context
David Alexander, Tainan Theological College and Seminary

March 2007
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Karl Marx’ critique of religion as a social narcotic and reactionary ideology can

be understood clearly only in the context of the historical moment in which its author

lived and formulated the notion. Marx was born in 1818 to a family that valued

education and community position. Though religion may have been important within

the wider kinship in previous generations, it was of little importance to the nuclear

family in which he grew up. The household’s baptism and reception into the German

state church was less a matter of faith than of social advancement. Critiques of

philosophy, religion and politics that Marx published in his 20’s led to his exile from

Germany. By the time he was 30 he had been forced out of continental Europe and

spent the rest of his life in Britain where he befriended Frederich Engels, an

industrialist, who shared his convictions and provided poverty-level financial support

for Marx, his wife and his children.

Europe in the 19th Century was riding the crest of the industrial revolution. In

Manchester, where Engels’ factory was located, the working class lived in squalor.

Though their labour produced great wealth, a major part of it was siphoned off into

the hands of the capitalist owning classes. The result, for the proletariat, was an

existence as a soulless factor of production deprived of humanity. Churches at that

time and in that place, though showing sympathy for the poor, did nothing to change

the physical conditions or social arrangements of the environment.

Does Marx’ 19th Century European critique of religion as social narcotic and
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reactionary ideology fit in 21st Century Asian contexts? Today Western imports are

everywhere in Asia. A contemporary Taiwanese asked to wear his or her “national

costume” at an international event is likely to come clad in a business suit. A Korean

asked to talk about his or her religion may spout 19th century Calvinism, and a

Burmese asked to present a song for a group may take something from the American

cowboy corpus. Though the suit may fit the body of the Taiwanese, the religion

satisfy the inner needs of the Korean and the music be well performed by the

Burmese, each is profoundly out of place or has displaced something authentic to the

background of the person who has adopted it.

European history from the 15th through the 19th centuries passed through three

great periods, the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment. Marx was

heir to various influences of each of these. But, “Asia has never gone through these

great changes…”1 Attempts to understand Marx’ critique of religion require a

framework that takes in the social, economic and philosophical contexts of 19th

century industrial Europe. Attempts to see if the critique applies to Asia must take into

account the pluralistic social, economic, philosophical, ethnic and religious contexts

of Asia. One must set aside the idea that “the one can stand for the many” or “the part

can stand for the whole” and engage in a dialectic process by which the whole is seen

as the sum of its parts (as a pointillist painting) and each part is significant in and of

itself.

Suffering as the Asian Social Reality

In his essay Tapovan, Rabindrath Tagore opined

“Contemporary western civilization is built of brick and wood. It
is rooted in the city. But Indian civilization has been distinctive
in locating its source of regeneration, material and intellectual, in
the forest, not the city. India's best ideas have come where man

1
Daniel J. Adams, Biblical Hermeneutics: An Introduction (Taipei: Taiwan Theological College, 1976)
p. 35.
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was in communion with trees and rivers and lakes away from the
crowds. The peace of the forest has helped the intellectual
evolution of man. The culture of the forest has fueled the culture
of Indian society. The culture that has arisen from the forest has
been influenced by the diverse processes of renewal of life which
are always at play in the forest, varying from species to species,
from season to season, in sight and sound and smell."2
Buddhism, not Marxism, grew out of this environment. Like Marx, the Buddha and

his disciples recognized the reality of suffering upon which Buddhist teaching focuses

as it discerns a path for freedom and liberation.3 Not all of Asia can be characterized

as Buddhist (not by a long stretch of the imagination). Nevertheless, Buddhism had its

origins in India and has spread, in various forms, from Mongolia and Japan in the

north, China and Taiwan in the East, Sri Lanka in the South, Afghanistan in the West

and has its modern geographical center in Thailand, making it one of the most

widespread living religions in Asia.

In 1977 the Christian Conference of Asia (CCA) made “Jesus Christ in Asian

Suffering and Hope” the theme of its Assembly. Bishop Julio Xavier Labayen, O.C.D.

addressed the Assembly noting that Asia’s suffering was sweeping and miserable,

ancient, the inspiration of the region’s great religions and that it is for the most part

“non-Christian”.4 Not willing to leave his hearers wallowing in suffering, the Bishop

also pointed out signs of hope, but these, he said, were “secular”.5

Asian Economic Understandings

Asian Economic understandings vary in conjunction with the predominant

religious contexts of differing regions. For example, Buddhism has been argued by to

2
Quoted in Sulak Sivaraksa, “Buddhism, Art and Society” in Crusz, Rernando and Tilakaratne eds.
Encounters with the Word (Colombo:EISD, 2004) p. 286.
3
Mahinda Palihawadana “The Buddha in our Lives” in Crusz, Rernando and Tilakaratne eds.
Encounters with the Word (Colombo:EISD, 2004) p. 271.
4
D. Preman Niles, “Asian Religiosity and Asian Poverty: An Asian Protestant Comment” in Crusz,
Rernando and Tilakaratne eds. Encounters with the Word (Colombo:EISD, 2004) p. 108.
5
Ibid.
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present a model for limited growth economics compatible with ecological concerns.6

Such ideas have been encouraged the Dalai Lama. Myanmar (Burma) is an example of

Buddhist economics in action. For several decades its rulers followed a form of

Buddhistic socialism that led to low and frequently negative overall growth7. Other

deeply Buddhist societies that have taken sharply contrasting paths, notably the largely

market capitalist Thailand.8

The economic ideology of India’s Hindu fundamentalist political party, the BJP,

derives from the ideas of Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi, who tended to oppose modern

technology and idolize the village spinning wheel. Gandhi’s successors have tended to

modify this view to emphasize what development economists now call "appropriate

technology."9 In line with Gandhi’s support of local self-sufficiency the BJP supports

protectionism at the national level. But Gandhi’s support of highly redistributionist

programs has been overturned so that internal laissez-faire and defense of the caste

system prevail under the BJP.

The Torah contains numerous rules regarding economic behavior for Jews. Today in

Israel there exist strong political movements associated with Orthodox Judaism.

Nonetheless, the imposition of ancient Biblical economic rules has not been on the

agenda of these groups. Historically Judaism has been in practice closely associated with

the development of market capitalism. The Biblical rules include acceptance of markets

and a strongly redistributionist ethic. A full system has been worked out based on these

principles10 but in Israel the secular tendency emphasizes practices aiding the survival of

6
Schumacher, E.F. (1973), Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Really Mattered, Harper and
Row, New York.
7
Spiro, M.E. (1970), Buddhism and Society: A Great Tradition and Its Burmese Vicissitudes,
Harper and Row, New York.
8
Keyes, C.F. (1993), "Buddhist Economics and Buddhist Fundamentalism in Burma and Thailand", in
Marty, M.E. and Appleby, R.S. (Eds.), Fundamentalisms and the State: Remaking Polities,
Economies, and Militancy, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp. 367-409.
9
Upadhyaya, D. (1965), Integral Humanism, Navchetan Press, Dehli.
10
Tamari, M. (1987), "With All Your Possessions": Jewish Ethics and Economic Life, Free Press,
New York.
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the nation, and among most of the Orthodox the emphasis has been more on forbidding

activities on the Sabbath.

Islamic economics puts itself forward as a complete system embedded within a fully

developed religious framework. In several nations, including Iran and Pakistan,

governments are officially committed to implementing such a system. The

comprehensiveness of the Islamic economic system initially arose from the Prophet

Muhammad's having himself been a practicing merchant. It also reflects the views of

modern Islamic economists arguing that it is a potential Third Way form between

capitalism and socialism for developing economies emerging from colonial rule.11

Among Asian Roman Catholics, although elements of the Church support quasi-

Marxist liberation theology, official positions are largely reconciled to modern market

capitalism while calling for government intervention to help the poor and for limits to

rampant consumerism.12

Theology and Philosophy and History

It has been claimed that Western theologies have philosophical underpinnings,

and Asian philosophies have religious underpinnings. Radhakrishnan pointed out the

inadequacy of Western philosophical trends as substitutes for religion.13 In Asia,

discerning religious backgrounds of philosophical schools enables one to see

philosophical limitations and integrate the religious and philosophical visions.

Fundamentalists have made use of this phenomenon to eliminate dissenting voices

and deter the progress of societies in several Asian countries where political power

capitalizes on religious sentiments.14

11
Pryor, F.L. (1985), The Islamic Economic System", Journal of Comparative Economics, Vol. 9,
No. 2, pp. 197-223.
12
J. Barkley Rosser, Jr and Marina V. Rosser “THE NEW TRADITIONAL ECONOMY: A NEW
PERSPECTIVE FOR COMPARATIVE ECONOMICS?” (International Journal of Social Economics,
1999, vol. 26, no. 6) p. 766.
13
Radhakrishnan An Idealist View of Life. (Harper Collins: India, 1994) Ch 2
14
Anand Amaladass “Intercultural Philosophising in the Asian Context” in in Crusz, Rernando and
Tilakaratne eds. Encounters with the Word (Colombo:EISD, 2004) p.452.
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There are the distinctive ways that Buddhists view history. Kosuke Koyama calls

the Thai Buddhist view ‘anti-historical empirical realism,’ characterized by a passive

attitude based on natural rather than historical or personal dimensions. It reflects a

natural environment where the seasons are cyclical and predictable and generate a

‘pathy-anthropology.’ The only way to escape is to break out of the cycle.15

Meditation is the channel taught by the Buddha, but popular practice in reality

perpetuates the cycle, placing faith in merit-making and “doing good to receive

good” as a means of delaying this confrontation with a life of denial to future,

reincarnated lives.16
Koyama contrasts this Buddhist view of history with that of Christianity,

which he suggests expresses a ‘pathos-anthropology’ based on the saving God who

breaks in to the history of Israel and rescues her from the natural and human enemies

that surround her. In this view, history is linear (rather than cyclical and repetitive).17

In such a system, one person can make a difference. Just as God broke in through

Christ, the ‘break-in’ continues today through Christ’s followers.18

What it means to be human varies with the philosophical and religious contexts of

the varied peoples of Asia. In the 1960’s, rural Taiwanese village anthropology was

summed up as follows.

A man’s body lives by virtue of its animation by two or more
souls; this is clear beyond question to a Taiwanese farmer. Scholars
may dispute, as they have for centuries, about how many souls
there are; Two, four or a myriad thousands. For simple folk the
details are irrelevant. Everybody knows there are at least two. One
soul is the Poh/phek 魄. It is the lower soul, associated with the
earth, with femaleness, with darkness, and in general with all
things In 陰. This soul is necessary to life, but is unimportant in the

15
Kosuke Koyama, Water Buffalo Theology: A Thailand Theological Notebook.( Singapore: 1970) pp.
12-13.
16
Philip Hughes, “The Assimilation of Christianity in the Thai Culture.” Religion 14, 1984 pp. 316-
317.
17
Koyama, op. cit., p. 13.
18
J. Mark Hensman “Beyond Talk: The Dialogue Of Life As The Locus Of Non-Verbal
Interreligious Dialogue” http://eapi.admu.edu.ph/eapr99/mark.htm accessed 15 March 2007.
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greater scheme of things. It tends to linger in coffins or around
graves, and eventually to burn itself out and expire. A man has
another kind of soul too—an ethereal soul, of brightness and
maleness and celestial realms, in other words of Yang 陽. This soul
is called by scholars a hun 魂 or a leng 靈, and in ordinary parlance
a linghwen 靈魂.19
Conclusion

Whether one considers Asia as a continent or a region matters little, for however

one classifies it, the place is rife with pluralism. Language, ethnicity, philosophy,

religion, economy, and all other phenomena come in variety after variety. There is no

more a single Asian example of any of these as there can be a single European

language or political system. And in Asia, no one system in any category is dominant.

Therefore, Marx’ critique of religion, which grew out of his Western European context

wherein each nation had a state church and hosted a dominant (though not single)

form of Christianity, cannot apply in Asia (whether or not it was able to be applied in

Europe at all). Further, the Christian doctrine of salvation by grace, which was part of

Marx’ environment, does not exist in Asian religions wherein, if there is salvation at

all, it is arrived at through a synergy of efforts between the believer and his/her god.

When asked about Western civilization, Gandhi is reported to have replied that

he thought it would be a good idea. Though he had been educated and certified to

practice Western law, he eventually came to see the deficiencies of Western ways

when applied to non-Western societies. Marxism is a Western product, forged in 19th

century and applied in 20th century Eastern Europe, in China, in Cuba, and in Korea.

To ascertain its value and applicability to places outside of its natal region, one must

look at the results in those places.

Marx’ Critique of religion as social narcotic and reactionary ideology may “ring

a few bells” in the Asian context, but it is no more fitting for uncritical application to

19
David Jordan, Gods Ghosts and Ancestors Berkeley, University of California Press, p. 31.
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the reality of the multiple contexts of Asia than it was for the semi-feudal Russian and

pre-industrial Eastern European peoples upon whom it was imposed, as a window

dressing for Fascism, in the early and middle decades of the 20th century. Its failure in

those regions calls into question whether or not it is indeed normative for any of the

Asian nations which claim to practice Marxism, or whether in those contexts as well it

is merely a cover under which Fascism rules.