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Atheism, Marxism and Socialism
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determined, that the class struggle is the basic agency of historical change, and that capitalism will ultimately be superseded by communism."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.