Engels on Religion

Let us now give a slight glance at religion since it appears to stand furthest away from and to be most foreign to material life. Religion arose at a very remote period of human development, in the savage state, from certain erroneous and barbaric conceptions of men with regard to themselves and the outside world of nature around them. Every ideological notion develops, however, when once it has arisen; it grows by additions to the given idea, and develops it further, otherwise there would be no ideology, that is, no occupation with thoughts as with independent thought-existence, developing independently and subject only to its own laws. That the material conditions of life of the men within whose heads this thought force is at work finally determine the course of this thought-process necessarily remains still unknown to these men, otherwise there would be an entire end of the ideology. These original religious notions, therefore, which are for the most part common to each kindred group of peoples, develop after the separation of the group in a special manner peculiar to each tribe, according to its particular conditions of existence, and this process is for a class of groups of people, and particularly for the Aryans (Indo-Europeans) shown individually by comparative mythology. The gods developed by each tribe were national gods, whose power extended no further than to protect the national territory; beyond the frontier other gods held undisputed sway. They could only be conceived of as existing as long as the nation existed. They fell with its decline. This doctrine of the old nationalities brought about the Roman Empire, whose economic conditions we do not need to examine just now. The old national gods fell, as those of the Romans did also, which were only attached to the narrow limits of the city of Rome. The desire to make the empire a world-empire, by means of a world-wide religion, is clearly shown in the attempts to provide recognition and altars in Rome for all the respectable foreign gods, next to the indigenous ones. But a new world-religion was not to be made in this fashion by imperial decrees. The new world-religion, Christianity, had already arisen in secret by a mixture of combined oriental religions, Jewish theology and popularized Greek philosophy and particularly Stoic philosophy. We must first be at the pains to discover how it originally made its appearance, since its official form as it has come to us is merely that of a State religion, and this end was achieved through the Council of Nice. Enough, the fact that after two hundred and fifty years it was a state religion shows that it was a religion answering to the circumstances of the times. In the Middle Ages it showed itself clearly. In proportion as feudalism developed it grew into a religion corresponding with it, with a hierarchy corresponding to the feudal. And when the rule of the bourgeois came in, it developed into Protestant heresy in antagonism to feudal Catholicism, at first in the South of France, among the Albigenses at the time of the highest growth of the free cities. The Middle Ages had annexed all the surviving forms of ideology, philosophy, politics and jurisprudence, to theology as subordinate parts of theology. It constrained, therefore, all social and political movement to assume a theological form; finally, to the minds of the masses stuffed with religion it was necessary to show their interests in religious guise, in order to raise a tremendous storm. And as the rule of the bourgeois from the beginning brought into being an appendage of propertyless plebeians, with day laborers and servants of all sorts, without any recognized position in their cities, the forerunners of the later proletarians, so the heresy was very early subdivided into a moderate one, on the part of the citizens, and a plebeian revolutionary one, which was an abomination to the bourgeois heretics.

The failure to exterminate the protestant heresy corresponded with the invincibility of the rising power of the bourgeois of that time; as this power grew, the fight with the feudal nobles, at first pre-eminently local, began to assume national proportions. The first great conflict occurred in Germany, the so-called Reformation. The power of the bourgeois was neither sufficiently strong nor sufficiently developed for an open rebellious stand, by uniting under the standard of revolt the city plebeians, the smaller nobility, and the peasants of the country districts. The nobility was struck first, the peasants took up a position which was the high-water mark of the entire revolution, the cities left them in the lurch, and so the revolution was left to the leaders of the country gentry who gathered the whole victory to themselves. Thenceforth for three hundred years Germany disappeared from the ranks of independent, energetic progressive countries. But after the German Luther, arose the French Calvin. With natural French acuteness he showed the bourgeois character of the revolution in the Church, republicanised and democratised. While the Lutheran Reformation fell in Germany and Germany declined, the Calvinistic served as a standard to the republicans in Geneva, in Holland, in Scotland, freed Holland from German and Spanish domination, and gave an ideological dress to the second act of the bourgeois revolution which proceeded in England. Here Calvinism proved itself to be the natural religious garb of the interests of the existing rule of the bourgeois and was not realised any further than that the revolution of 1689 was completed by a compromise between a portion of the nobility and the middle-class. The English Established Church was restored, but not in its earlier form with the king for Pope, but was strongly infused with Calvinism. The old-established Church had kept up the merry Catholic Sunday and fought against the tedious Calvinistic one, the new bourgeois Church introduced the latter and added thereby to the charms of England.

In France the Calvinistic minority was subdued in 1685, either made Catholic or hunted out of the country. But what was the good? Directly after that the free [Pg 124]thinker Pierre Bayle was at work, and in 1694 Voltaire was born. The tyrannical rule of Louis XIV. only made it easier for the French bourgeoisie to be able to make its revolution in the political form finally suitable to the progressive atheistic bourgeoisie. Instead of Protestants, free-thinkers took their seats in the National Assembly. Thereby Christianity entered upon the last lap of the race. It had become incapable of serving a progressive class any further as the ideological clothing of its efforts, it became more and more the exclusive possession of the dominant classes, and these used it merely as a simple means of government to keep the lower classes in subjection. So then each one of the different classes employed its own suitable religion, the landholding squires catholic jesuitism or protestant orthodoxy, the liberal and radical bourgeois rationalism, and it makes no difference therefore whether people themselves believe in their respective religions or not.

Thus we see religion once arisen contains material of tradition, hence in all ideological matters religion is a great conservative force. But the changes which take place in this material spring from class-conditions, that is from the economic circumstances of the men who take these changes in hand. And that is enough on this part of the subject.

—“The Roots of Socialist Philosophy.”

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