Atheism in liberation Theology

Alfredo Fierro, The militant gospel a critical introduction to political theologies
(Orbis: NY 1977)

Many of today's theologians, and almost all those who have concerned themselves with political theology, seem to admit unreservedly the validity of the Marxist analysis insofar as socioeconomic realities are concerned. Current political theology takes for an accepted fact the historical-materialist interpretation of production relationships, social classes, political power, and the social processes of change. Up to that point a general consensus exists: Marxism is valid as a social and economic theory, and theological anthropology can count on it with the same assurance that it counts on the fact of phylogenetic evolution.
Now historical materialism includes an explanation of the religious phenomenon that reduces it to a mere ideological superstructure engendered by relationships based on economic domination. At this point it seems that theology cannot identify itself with Marxism, except under pain of losing its own identity. It is at this point that the relationship of political theology to Marxist thought begins to grow obscure. To begin with, theologians are not unanimous in the way they try to evade the Marxist criticism of religion. Furthermore, no matter what way out they choose, they do not offer satisfactory reasons for their particular choice or explain it in clear-cut terms.
Some theologians restrict the validity of the Marxist analysis to the socioeconomic order, though they do not offer reasons why. In their opinion the Marxist method is valid only in the analysis of societal relationships, not in the realm of religious signification. This restrictive interpretation of Marxism, which rejects its pretensions to extend its criticism to religious reality, usually goes hand in hand with an ideological understanding of Marxism. Marx himself is then seen as one more link in the chain of philosophers who have criticized the Christian religion in ideological terms. He is viewed specifically as an epigone of Feuerbach, adopting his thesis about religious alienation and introducing certain modifications and complementary ideas by underling productive, revolutionary praxis. When Marxist atheism is understood along such lines, there is every reason to suspect a basic misunderstanding of some sort. The early writings of Marx in particular do indeed contain features of religious criticism taken over from Feuerbach. But they are not the typical features of Marxism, which specifically ridicules any desire to combat one set of ideas (religious ones) by using another set of ideas (atheistic ones). Marx takes for granted the fact that ideological or philosophical criticism of religion has been fully completed, and he is not in that. What he is interested in contributing is a set of principles for a practical criticism of the socioeconomic base.

Many theologians, sharing this view, are taking advantage of the present-day theology of secularity to evade the blow dealt by Marxist criticism. If one starts off from the premise that there is a distinction between faith and religion, then one can say that the Marxist method dissolves the religious phenomenon but does not touch faith at all. The validity of Marx's religious criticism is one of the factors forcing us to accept a nonreligious Christianity, a secular faith. Such a secular faith would have the virtue of permitting us to evade the criticism levelled by Marxism against religion.
... The distinction, in short, is functional and effective only when used intramurally by Christians; it has no real apologetic or polemic value in confrontations with those outside Christianity. For Marxist thought, of course, this alleged distinction between religion and faith is an illusion without any real existence.

One may go all the way in accepting Marx's criticism of religion. The Christian believer may accept the conclusion that all religion, including the Christian religion, is an ideological superstructure engendered by certain specific production relationships, but a superstructure which is capable in turn of reacting to the economic base and thereby demonstrating its relative autonomy. This is the position of Marxist-Christians, who forthrightly state: "Our problematic depends entirely on the acceptance of historical materialism as an indubitable fact. As Marx himself puts it, 'In general the mode of material production dominates the development of social, political, and intellectual life.'"

There are few theological studies designed to integrate theology into a material-based dialectical anthropology. Marxism is tacitly assumed by many theologians, but there is no reflective or thematic treatment of the fact. The possibility of a theology based on Marxist theses or hypotheses still stands in need of full verification. ... Some Marxist theoreticians have attempted to lay hold of the fact of Christianity and theological ideology not in terms of dissolving them completely but rather in terms of critically recovering and rehabilitating the content embodied in them. Without meaning to slight the contributions of other contemporary authors, we might note here the work of Ernst Bloch and Lucien Goldmann. It is Bloch who has perhaps shown most earnestness and sympathy in trying to work out a historical-materialist theory of Christianity that would salvage its legitimate heritage. Bloch pictures Marxism, and Marxist hope in particular, as "religion in its heritage."

From that precise perspective, then, it may be of some advantage to consider a question which has loomed large in some discussions between Christians and Marxists. It has to do with atheism. Is atheism essential to Marxism? Is it as essential to Marxism as belief in God is to Christianity? In the 1965 discussion in Salzburg, there seemed to a consensus that one could answer those questions in the negative, or at least the second one, so long as one spelled out what one meant. A Catholic theologian, Marcel Reding, dedicated a whole presentation to trying to show that Marxists are not obliged, by virtue of their Marxism, to profess atheism. A scientist, Paul Weingartner, likewise maintained that "atheism is not a logical consequence of Marxism, if Marxism is taken to be a science." Finally a Marxist, Cesare Luporini, agreed that Marx's law of the base-superstructure relationship, which Reding saw as the essence of Marxism, is neither religious nor atheistic; hence Marxist atheism is not grounded in any scientific principle and is rather a "postulatory atheism" rooted in humanism and ethics.

The Marxist will be atheist almost as a foregone conclusion, just as the Christian will naturally tend to be a believer in God despite the more recent appearance of an atheistic brand of Christianity. At the level of tradition and initial stance, Marxists and Christians confront each other as atheists and believers in God respectively. Today this opposition remains irreconcilable, and those who call themselves Christian Marxists must be aware that they carry within them a historical contradiction awaiting resolution.

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