header icons

Religion – Ally or Enemy of Change

Old-fashioned Marxists considered religion to be a major obstacle to social economic change, branding it as the opiate of the people. In a debate in the 70’s with a representative of the Communist Party in New York, I proposed the contrary. I claimed that the Marxist sense of revolution was shallow and that the Theistic sense was much more profound. The basic position of Theistic theologians is that the Marxist analysis is at the level of material economic structures in society resulting in a kind of materialistic determinism. However, the Theistic analyst claims that the human reality is fundamentally spiritual. Activities at the level of the merely material do not necessarily affect the deeper spiritual realities of human person.

In discussing such questions, I prefer to use the term Abrahamic concept. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are historically rooted in the prophet Abraham. As a result of this I consider that their basic concepts of humanity and the universe are the same, and I will use the generic term “Theistic.” There are many differences in detail and interpretation, but they all claim to inherit the message of Abraham. The best proof of this basic agreement is found in the ancient libraries of southern Spain. In the high Middle Ages brilliant philosophers from the three traditions, such as Avicenna (Islamic), Thomas Aquinas (Christian) and Maimonedes (Jewish), carried on intensive discussions concerning such questions as the impact of Aristotelian science upon faith in the infinite God. The mere fact of such debates presupposed agreement on fundamental conceptions.

During the last decade of the 20th century it did look like the Marxists were right. Religious leaders such as Pope John Paul led an unrelenting campaign against Communism. Eventually, the powerful communist systems of Eastern Europe collapsed. It looked as if religion had defeated Communism and capitalism had triumphed. However, this reading is wrong, in spite of the writing of some reactionary American writers. Leaders like Pope John Paul are deeply opposed to capitalism. This is most confusing for those who think that the only economic possibilities are Communism and capitalism. They think in black and white terms.

For many in the republican tradition the debate is out of order on the grounds of the absolute separation of Church and state. Admittedly, this modern separation made sense in the light of the theocratic tradition where religious and political power were one. It took a long time to separate the two in politics. In the Middle Ages the Pope and lands and armies to compete with other European powers. The sword and the cross were intertwined. Many Islamic countries are still living this system where the crescent and sword are intertwined in deeply theocratic systems.

Most of us agree that the political separation of Church and State has been good for personal freedom and also good for religion itself. Yet some of us think that it is time to bring them back together. However, this is not to be done through imposed laws about moral behavior. Rather than relating through a relationship of legal power and political force, the relationship would be based on principles and values. Sharing of values and principles can only be done by persuasion. Obligation through law can change behavior, but not values.

For many people in the world both Communism and capitalism have failed to provide a full and abundant life for the majority of humankind. Most people in the world today have to live on less than two dollars per day. In this context some people consider that religion may be our best hope for fundamental change in the world. The argument goes as follows:

Both Communism and capitalism assume that humans are subject to laws beyond their control. While the Marxist will speak of the iron laws of history and the inevitable class struggle, the capitalist will talk about the iron truth of the free market. For Marx the process of historical and materialistic determinism will eventually bring about a final revolution and usher in a new society of justice and peace. History is presumed to advance in stages with the capitalistic class and the laboring class marching to the final confrontation whether they are conscious of it or not. In a parallel way Adam Smith claimed that there were objective laws of supply and demand that governed economic outcomes. When societies interfere in these laws of nature, then poverty will result. When allowed to work freely, individual competition will result in new wealth creation.

In a sense, it is fair to say that both Marx and Smith accept a certain determinism. Modern economists like Milton Friedman of the Chicago school seem to confirm this when they say that the only rule for successful business is increase of shareholder value:

“The only obligation which business has in and to society is to get on with the job of producing profit for its shareholders. . . and that the mangers are the agents appointed to carryout the purpose of the shareholders.” Friedman, Milton, 1980. Free to Choose. Harcourt Brace, New York.

Many political parties insist that prosperity can only be attained by allowing the free market system to function without interference. They assume that there is an implicit law of nature with which we cannot interfere.

Seen in this way these two traditional systems limit human choice. Nineteenth century thinkers proposed that the complex laws of social economic change were rigid and impervious to human intervention. They were established processes of nature in the sense that gravity is a law of nature that was discovered by scientists. Theistic thinkers opposed this limitation. They called it reductionism.

In the Theistic view the social economic order is a surface reality. There is a much deeper reality that is spiritual and absolute. The old systems of Marx and Smith can be considered to be games. They are very different, but they both have defined patterns and rules. Each side considered their own game to be the only rational game possible. For each there was no reference point beyond their particular game. For them there is no transcendent reality.

The Theistic view is radically different. In this view the existence of an absolute reality renders every social economic game to be relative. It is always possible to step outside of the game for the theist and to set up a new system. Because of this, Theists never feel bound by any system. Every social economic system that exists is subject to change and can be replaced with an alternative system. Belief in a sacred absolute deprives all social economic systems of any absolute authority. There is always an authority that is beyond all of us. Theists use the term “transcendence” to describe the capacity to go beyond systems that exist. All human structures are transient and temporary; they can be transcended. If there is nothing beyond the social economic system, then it cannot be transcended.

The strongest basis for economic change is the Theistic view. Indeed, many theists say that social economic systems should be in continual transition. Belief in a transcendent reality that is perfect deprives the believer of attachment to any economic structure.

While committed to a belief in changeability, the theist does not count on intervention by God. It is not enough to pray for change, as many fundamentalists urge. For mainline theists, social economic change depends upon human agency. It is up to people to organize and change the system. Humans caused the problems and have the duty to solve them.

Besides believing in the permanent possibility of change, some Theists believe in an obligation to bring about change. Even though they know that the new changed order will never be perfect, they accept the obligation to promote change when the existing order is seen to conflict with Theistic values.


History abounds with evidence of the Theistic commitment to change. One of the most famous is St. Thomas More of the sixteenth century. In his book Utopia he describes what a Christian society should look like. It is one based upon radical sharing. In this ideal there is no necessity of money, because all contribute according to their capacities and all receive according to their needs. Some Christians go back even further and point to the Acts of the Apostles as a model of a society where the members shared all goods in common.

Of course, these ideal communities existed only in the minds of the writers. What we need is more living examples of economic enterprises which actually exist and which attempt to play a different game. My favorite model is the Mondragon worker-owned complex. It has faults, but it is closer to my ideal than the typical stock-market-owned corporation. Throughout the world there are a surprising number of experimental business enterprises that are successful and which exemplify principles of social justice. These are harbingers of hope. Hope is the key and it gives us the spiritual energy to keep trying and trying to build up the kingdom.
(This talk was given to the Center for Religion and Society, University of Victoria, B.C., Canada, March 2001). Greg MacLeod is the author of From Mondragon to America: Experiments in Community Economic Development, Univ. College of Cape Breton Press, P. O. Box 5300, Sydney, Nova Scotia, Canada B1P 6L2.


Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. 21, No. 4, July-August 2001.