The MA & PA Case for De-Christianizing Culture: Marx, White, and all the Rest

Karl Marx didn't write all that much about religion, but what little he did was radical, programmatic, and rather clever. Here is almost his entire commentary on the meaning of religion as a cultural phenomenon: "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." He wrote this in 1843. 


The year is interesting. Opium had been available in Europe in limited amounts at least since the turn of the sixteenth century, but its reputation spread during the first half of the nineteenth century and by 1843 it was attracting literary attention: the addict Coleridge wrote his supposedly opium-inspired "Kubla Khan" in 1797 (published in 1816), de Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater appeared in 1822, Tennyson's "The Lotus-Eaters" in 1832, and in America Poe's "Ligeia" appeared in 1838. (Opium also had a cameo in Dumas's The Count of Monte Cristo in 1844.) 

But 1843 was a significant year in European opium consciousness for a more sinister reason. For several decades Britain's East India Company had been smuggling a superior form of the drug into China. The company contrived this lucrative operation to equalize the massive trade imbalance created by the English demand for tea, silk, and ceramics and Chinese indifference toward anything the English had to offer except silver. The amount of opium entering China surged in the 1830s. When the Chinese government adopted aggressive anti-drug measures, the United Kingdom declared war. After their decisive victory the British demanded China open up and cede Hong Kong (effectively ending China's ability to prevent the opium trade). They also demanded China pay Britain's war bill and, in dumbfounding arrogance, insisted they compensate opium smugglers for their losses. The year was 1842. 


This is the backdrop to Marx's opium metaphor at the center of his materialistic critique of religion: 

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo. 

Religion must be intensely criticized for at least two reasons: as an act of intervention for an already addicted population and to warn everyone not already addicted away from its subtle power. 

The criticism of religion disillusions man, so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses, so that he will move around himself as his own true sun. 

To extend Marx's metaphor along lines laid down by Lenin, capitalists are as eager to push religion on the proletariat as East India Company traders were to push opium on the Chinese people; and the oppressed and exploited proletariat is just as greedy for more religious product as the millions of addicted Chinese were for opium. 

Critique of religion as a form of intervention was clearly in order, from the marxist perspective, and that critique combines two claims: a moral argument (MA) that religion or at least certain religious beliefs entail a particular social injustice of one sort or another and a pragmatic argument (PA) that continued religious devotion, at least to the criticized beliefs, is a hindrance or obstacle to social progress in some significant way. Hence the MA & PA case for the de-Christianization of culture. (This combination is also applied to Islamic societies--more on that some other time perhaps.) 

The MA & PA case rests on several notable assumptions. Among them, that there is an eschatological mandate to pursue social justice, that there is a known transcendent moral order that defines justice, that each social injustice represents a systemic practical problem of culture, and that the religious beliefs being criticized are obviously false. Not everyone who employs the MA & PA case seems to recognize these assumptions and some may find it difficult to account for some of them without resorting to myth. 

Awkward assumptions aside, the MA & PA case is enthusiastically employed by those eager to de-Christianize their culture in one way or another or even altogether. 


I first began to see this combo in my undergraduate studies in Geography. We were assigned Lynn White's much-discussed essay, "The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis," in which he argues roughly this: 

MA: What Christianity traditionally teaches about nature (creation, human dominion, etc.) has led to the great injustice of the current ecological crisis. 

PA: To make any progress in addressing the ecological crisis we must overthrow those particular influential Christian beliefs that prevent effective action. 

White, an active presbyterian and son of a presbyterian minister, advocated revising traditional Christian doctrine along lines he detected in the writings of Francis of Assisi. Although his argument is surprisingly shoddy, it was radical, programmatic, and rather clever--as rhetorically potent qualities in 1967 as 1843. 

So, Marx used the MA & PA combo to criticize religion for economic oppression and White used it to criticize Christianity for the ecological crisis. Others have used the MA & PA case to criticize supposed Christian teaching on a host of other cultural issues, including equality for women, ethnic and religious minorities, and non-heterosexually identifying people. In each instance, the critique runs more or less like this: 

MA: What Christianity traditionally teaches about X has led to the current social injustice. 

PA: To make any progress in addressing this systemic cultural problem we must overthrow those particular beliefs that prevent effective action. 

Same sex marriage is a recent example of the rhetorical potency of this critique; transgender restroom use is apparently (and bizarrely) going to be the next. 

So What? 

We must admit that these criticisms are not always or altogether unfounded. Whenever the church is criticized by the world our first response should be self-examination before God to see if there are any sinful ways in us--any harmful beliefs we hold, for example, that really do generate or perpetuate actual injustice in the world. 

But we should also recognize the MA & PA case for what it is or is often intended to be: an ideologically mandated form of cultural intervention to "protect" people from the offense of the gospel as it is preached and lived out by the church in the world. This one-two combo for the de-Christianization of culture, in other words, goes far beyond questioning the role of religious conviction in the public square; it underwrites a campaign to check and even overthrow religious conviction wherever it is found, demanding we either revise our beliefs to fit the cultural climate or abandon our intolerable faith.