By Philip Cottraux
In 1843, Karl Marx wrote one of his most famous (though often misquoted) lines: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” We tend to forget what follows, which is perhaps even more chilling: “The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness.”
And under the banner of this philosophy, one of the worst reigns of terror in human history began.
Within five years of the Bolshevik Revolution, 1200 Orthodox priests had been executed. Millions more of their congregations were imprisoned and tortured in the Soviet gulags. During the Soviet Union’s history, it is estimated that 12 million Christians were killed…twice the number of Jews killed during the Nazi holocaust (in fact, Hitler secretly modeled his “final solution” after Stalin’s mass purges). Believers were subject to being sent to labor camps or mental hospitals for punitive psychiatric “therapy.”
And it wasn’t just Russia. When China turned Communist, Chairman Mao started a war against religion that made Stalin’s look like child’s play and still continues to this day. Even after the Eastern bloc was gone, Cambodia, Cuba and North Korea have continued a blood-soaked legacy of persecution against religious faith. All-in-all, it would be fair to estimate that tens of million have died in the past century in Communism’s efforts to exterminate religion from the face of the earth.
First, we have to understand Marx’s psychology, which boils down to a hatred of two things: religion, and pursuit of wealth. And we have to examine his mysterious early life to come to terms with this.
Karl Marx was born to Jewish parents in Prussia in 1818. His father originally bore the Yiddish name “Herschel.” Herschel Marx, a lawyer, would convert from Judaism to Lutheranism and change his name to the Germanized “Heinrich” for business purposes. This insincerity towards religion as a convenience for increasing wealth could have had a lifelong negative impact on the impressionable young child.
Perhaps more so, however, was a particularly nasty incident from young Karl’s school years. In his teens, we can already see his interest in leftist politics taking shape. While in high school, he befriended headmaster Hugo Wyttenbach, known for indoctrinating his students with radical beliefs. He also employed many secular humanist teachers, inviting the suspicion of the conservative and predominantly Christian local government in Trier. When Wyttenbach was caught handing out anti-government literature, the school was raided and the headmaster, along with most of his teaching staff, was fired under the accusation of sedition. No doubt this had a hand in spiraling Marx down his dark path.
The company he kept for most of his life is also telling. At the University of Berlin, he developed a keen interest in studying Hegelianism, and became close friends with Bruno Bauer and Ludwig Feuerbach. Feuerbach is especially noteworthy as the primary author of what we call materialism, the belief that physical matter is all there is in the universe (a key component in atheist philosophy). Marx’s atheism was not only being molded, but increasingly radicalized.
But Marx is only one element of a deadly concoction that would lead to a century of turmoil.
To bring things into proper historical context, let’s dig a little further into Russian history. As you may know from one of my previous blogs, a split occurred in early Christianity when Constantine moved the capitol of Rome to the city of Byzantium in 330 BC. While the Catholic Church dominated the Western half, the Eastern churches began a unique form of Christianity that we today call Eastern Orthodox (more commonly known as Greek Orthodox).
The Eastern Orthodox Church became immensely powerful as the Byzantine Empire spread across the Slavic nations. When the Romanovs, one of the most powerful and long-lasting dynasties in human history, took control of Russia (“czar” is Russian for “Caesar”), obedience to the king was considered akin to obedience to God.
But by the late 1800s, the Russian monarchy’s power was beginning to wane. Russia, still reeling from the Napoleonic Wars, was now cruelly forcing taxes and limiting the personal freedom of its citizens. The Orthodox priests were richer and more powerful than ever. Years of hatred and resentment was breeding radical revolutionaries among Russia’s lower class.
On March 1, 1881, things boiled to a fever pitch when Alexander II was brutally assassinated by a Russian mob, blown apart by a hand grenade. His son, Alexander III, became king and vowed revenge. This became a dark hour in Russian history as the Czar, hand-in-hand with the Russian Church, began a reign of terror. All across the nation, peasants were rounded up, tortured and executed for even the slightest suspicion of disobedience to God and king.
On May 8, 1887, a little-known event took place that would change the course of history. A 21 year-old revolutionary named Aleksandr Ulyanov was arrested and hanged for suspected involvement in revolutionary activities. You’ve probably never heard of him; at the time, he seemed like just another among scores of secularist rebels who were being put to death for heresy.
His 17 year-old brother was taking a high school geometry test when he received the news that his older brother had been executed as a traitor, and he too would have to flee the country due to association. Obviously, this traumatic event would shape the young man’s outlook forever.
His name was Vladimir Lenin.
By the time he escaped Russia, Lenin was already a devout atheist. In Marx’s writings, Lenin found a philosophy he could easily embrace; both men shared a deep hatred of religion fueled by childhood tragedies. With his newfound Communist beliefs, Lenin swore revenge against the Russian government as well as the Orthodox Church.
We could spend countless hours comparing and contrasting Marxism and Leninism. The important point is that both espouse the same philosophy that religion is a plot by the wealthy to keep the lower class stupid and content, living for an eternal afterlife while being exploited by the rich. Lenin echoed Marx when he said:
“Those who toil and live in want all their lives are taught by religion to be submissive and patient while here on earth, and to take comfort in the hope of a heavenly reward. But those who live by the labor of others are taught by religion to practice charity while on earth, thus offering them a very cheap way of justifying their entire existence as exploiters and selling them at a moderate price tickets to well-being in heaven. Religion is opium for the people.”
Many atheists still echo this sentiment. One of the favorite mantras of critics of Christianity is that it’s a money scheme designed to rip off congregations and make pastors wealthy. They never explain how this “gospel money scam” works in countries where Christians are a persecuted minority.
Towards the end of World War I, with the monarchy of Nicholas II in disarray, Lenin seized his opportunity. Returning to Russia, he led the Bolshevik Revolution that brought one of the longest and most powerful royal families in history to a bloody end. The Czar and his family were arrested and brutally murdered. It was testified that after Nicholas and his wife and son were shot, the executioners gruesomely bayonetted his beautiful daughters to death.
Marxism and atheism have always gone hand-in-hand. The belief that man can create the great worker’s paradise himself depends on kicking God out of the equation. Communism has a tendency towards a deadly cycle based on Saul Alinsky’s claim that the ends always justify the means. No matter how many terrible atrocities we must commit, the utopia of equality will be worth it. It’s what motivated the Soviet bomb plots, drove Lee Harvey Oswald to shoot the president, and led to every single Communist genocide. It’s why Nicaragua’s Marxist guerillas, the Sandinistas, arrested and tortured Christians, Jews, and private property owners, seizing their possessions and placing them in detention camps (the Sandinistas were supported by former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders).
Of course, I’m not trying to say that atheists are all Communists. This would ignore the Ayn Rand branch of objectivism. Libertarians are certainly not Communists. But when atheists attack Christianity over the Salem Witch Trials or Spanish Inquisition, they tend to stereotype all Christians as 16th century cardinals or fanatical Massachusetts settlers. This broad caricature of a very diverse group of people, while ignoring the atrocities of one’s own ideology, is a tremendous double-standard.
I would love to see more Ernest Hemingway atheists, who didn’t believe in God but were content to live-and-let-live. But atheism has been hijacked by radical Richard Dawkins-types who file lawsuits every time they see a plastic manger scene. They insist that atheism is not a belief system, while behaving like evangelical fanatics daydreaming of a great utopia where they’ve eliminated all religion.
Because Communism is not just a political and economic theory. Rejection of God’s existence is at its core, and it can never be successfully implemented without clearing away all religious faith (which is why it’s never been successfully implemented).
During the Soviet persecution, Russian Christians who’d been fortunate enough to escape the gulags testified that while being tortured, their prison guards would taunt them by saying “There is no God, and no moral right or wrong! We can inflict as much harm on you as we wish with no consequences!”
And it wasn’t just by coincidence that they thought this. It is one of the pillars of the philosophy of pioneering German atheist Friedrich Nietzsche. According to Nietzsche:
“There is no other way: the feelings of devotion, self-sacrifice for one’s neighbor, the whole morality of self-denial must be questioned mercilessly and taken to court…There is too much charm and sugar in these feelings of ‘for others,’ ‘not for myself’ for us not to need to become doubly suspicious at this point and to ask: ‘are these not perhaps—seductions?’”
Nietzsche’s refreshingly honest dystopian vision, where only the strong survive and have every right to exploit the weak, work their way into every facet of Marxism and Leninism. Just like it did into Hitler’s philosophy, and into the minds of the sadistic Soviet prison guards.
And just like Marx and Lenin, it all started with a traumatic childhood event that skewered his views of Christianity. His father, a Lutheran pastor, died when he was five. His brother died the following year. He was warped by the perceived unfairness of life. And as a result, he authored a nightmarish worldview that many are still suffering through today.
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-Morgan, Timothy. Thank God for Atheists: How the Greatest Skeptics Led Me to Faith. Eugene, Oregon. Harvest House Publishers, 2015, page 159.
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-“Karl Marx.” Wikipedia.com, last edited August 8, 2017. Accessed August 11, 2017. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karl_Marx>
-“Alexander Ulyanov.” Wikipedia.com, last edited May 25, 2017. Accessed August 11, 2017. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aleksandr_Ulyanov>
-L, Melanie. “The Sandinista War on Human Rights.” Heritage.org, July 19, 1983. Accessed August 12, 2017. <http://www.heritage.org/americas/report/the-sandinista-war-human-rights>