When Marx writes in the same early essay that ‘man has found in the imaginary reality of heaven where he looked for a superman only the reflection of his own self,’ he deduces that humanity ‘must seek his true reality’ elsewhere. Since religion is, for Marx, a ‘general theory of the world,’ the world’s ‘logic in popular form,’ its ‘moral sanction’ and ‘universal basis for consolation and justification,’ he concludes that, ‘the struggle against religion is indirectly the struggle against the world whose spiritual aroma [i.e. deodorant] is religion.’
This is why he writes that the critique of religion presupposes all criticism, since ‘[t]he criticism of religion ends with the doctrine that man is the highest being for man, that is, with the categorical imperative to overthrow all circumstances in which man is humiliated, enslaved, abandoned, and despised’ (Marx, Selected Writings, p.69). The critique of religion must play its proper role in the critique of the world as it is currently socially, politically and economically ordered.
Marx’s critique of religion can thus be seen as intricately linked to his critique of the state, and understanding the latter can shed further light on the nature of the former.
Marx turns his attention to both the Christian and the secular states. Of the Christian state, he observes that religion merely operates as ‘a sacred cloak to hide desires that are… very secular’ (Selected Writings, p.17), since ‘[r]eligion is to support secular matters without the latter’s being subject to religion’ (Marx, Writings of the Young Karl Marx on Philosophy and Society, pp.77-78). The Christian state is, therefore, not really Christian but idolatrous since it forms, in practice, ‘the religion of domination, the cult of the will of the government’ (Marx and Engels, On Religion, p.36). Whilst manifestly Christian, the latent god of the Christian state is the state itself.
Of the secular state, Marx notes the schizophrenic ‘separation of man into a public and private man’ (Selected Writings, p.47). This dissection means that ‘we have a private, exclusive, self-seeking role to play and a public, communal, common-good-seeking role to play at the same time.’ These demands are functions of our dual existence within both civil society – ‘the capitalist marketplace of individual economic self-interest’ – and the political state – a domain in which we experience community and pursue the general good. (Westphal, Suspicion and Faith, p.148). Privatised within the secular state, religion becomes ‘the spirit of civil society, the sphere of egoism, the [war of all against all];’ it is therefore ‘the expression of the separation of man from his common essence, from himself and from other men.’
For Marx, religion in a religious state is self-restrictive and oppressive, whilst religion in a secular state is self-alienating and repressive. In both forms of state, however, religion therefore plays a large role in legitimising the political status quo – the contingent, rather than natural, social order.
In a crucial passage linking his critique of religion to his critique of politics, Marx explains further the nature of the ‘double life’ – ‘a heavenly one and an earthly one’ – that we lead,
[Man] has a life both in the political community, where he is valued as a communal being, and in civil society where he is active as a private individual, treats other men as means, degrades himself to a means, and becomes the plaything of alien powers… The political state… stands in the same opposition to civil society and overcomes it in the same manner as religion overcomes the limitations of the profane world, that is, it must likewise recognize it, reinstate it, and let itself once more be dominated by it (Marx, Selected Writings, pp.45-46)In other words, in the same way that religion claims to overcome the profane (or sinful) world, yet remains dominated by it, the political state claims to overcome civil society, the (profane or sinful) world of self-interest, yet remains dominated by it.
As Westphal explains, ‘this is what makes politics so “heavenly.” For it is in the same way that religion overcomes the evil in the world, in theory but not in fact’ (Suspicion and Faith, p.151).
As an example, Marx asks, ‘[d]o you offer your right cheek when you are struck upon the left, or do you not institute proceedings for assault? Yet the Gospel forbids that’ (Marx and Engels, On Religion, p.35).