Is It Religion? (part three): Communism and Capitalism

Sermon copyright (c) 2023 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation.


The first reading is from one of the Bibles of communism, the “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844” by Karl Marx:

“The worker becomes all the poorer the more wealth he produces, the more his production increases in power and size. The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates. The devaluation of the world of men is in direct proportion to the increasing value of the world of things. Labor produces not only commodities; it produces itself and the worker as a commodity — and this at the same rate at which it produces commodities in general.”

The second reading is from one of the Bibles of capitalism, “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations” by Adam Smith:

“To propose that Great Britain should voluntarily give up all authority over her colonies, and leave them to elect their own magistrates, to enact their own laws, and to make peace and war as they might think proper, would be to propose such a measure as never was, and never will be adopted, by any nation in the world. No nation ever voluntarily gave up the dominion of any province, how troublesome soever it might be to govern it, and how small soever the revenue which it afforded might be in proportion to the expense which it occasioned. Such sacrifices, though they might frequently be agreeable to the interest, are always mortifying to the pride of every nation, and what is perhaps of still greater consequence, they are always contrary to the private interest of the governing part of it….”

The third reading is from an essay about Karl Marx by Charles Hartshorne, a Unitarian Universalist philosopher of the mid-twentieth century. This is from his 1983 book Insights and Oversights of Great Thinkers:

“It is true that our mixed economic system has been kind enough to me, nor have I run any great risks in sometimes criticizing it. Also I can see some merits in the Soviet system, for Russia, and the Maoist system, for China, but with tragic limitations in both cases…. I still doubt that one man (or two or three, adding Engels and Feuerbach [to Marx]), writing early in the industrial revolution, can tell us in the Americas, Europe, Australia, or Japan, or even in the Third World, much of what we need to know about our problems. Population excess and pollution, or the exhaustion of fossil fuels, or the dangers of nuclear power and nuclear war, for example, were poorly foreseen by any of the philosophers or economists of the past. What they nearly all missed was that our species… alone among species is capable of destroying itself and an indefinitely large portion of the other life on this planet.”

Sermon: Is It Religion? (part three): Capitalism and Communism

Is communism a religion? Is capitalism a religion? Or, at least, do these two ideologies sometimes act like religions? I’m going to try to convince you that the answer is yes — both capitalism and communism can act like religions. And I’m also going to try to convince you that the answer should be no — we don’t want capitalism or communism to act like religions.

In the United States, we usually define religion as something that is — or should be — completely separate from politics, and from economics. Our current understanding of religion is based on the assumption that the religious realm is separate from the secular realm. We adopted the separation of religion and the state in the United States in order to promote freedom of conscience. But the separation of religious and secular only dates back a couple of centuries or so. Before that, the religious world and the secular world weren’t separate at all. As one example of this, recall that our own congregation was supported by tax dollars from 1721 when it was founded up until 1824.

Now if we define religion as something completely separate from the secular realm, then obviously capitalism cannot be a religion. Similarly, communism cannot be a religion. Capitalism and communism are economic systems. Since they are part of the secular world, they cannot be religious. But once you realize that the separation of the religious realm and the secular realm has never been a perfect separation, then you can see that capitalism and communism might in fact act like religions.

Let me begin by explaining how capitalism can sometimes act like a religion.

First of all, we can pretty quickly see the ways in which capitalism resembles Western Christianity. Capitalism deifies a mythical thing called “The Market,” which can be seen as a rough equivalent of the Holy Spirit, a force with powers beyond humanity that moves in mysterious ways. Capitalism has its holy scriptures, perhaps most notably “The Wealth of Nations” by Adam Smith; and just like the Christian Bible, “The Wealth of Nations” gets interpreted selectively. So, for example, we heard in the second reading how Adam Smith actually argued that overseas colonies were detrimental to capitalism, but this argument was conveniently ignored by the capitalists of the British Empire.

Capitalism has its prophets, economists who interpret the capitalist scriptures for us, and predict gloom and doom unless we follow their prescriptions for action. One of the the most interesting things about capitalism is how some of its prophets define sinfulness. Traditional Christianity argues that all our troubles come about because of sin, and sin comes about because humans diverge from God’s plan. Some religious followers of capitalism argue that all our troubles come about because we don’t follow the tenets of capitalism. The prophets of capitalism tell us to do one thing, and if we do something different — so they tell us — then we will suffer for it. This is true at the national level — if we don’t follow Keynesian economics, or neoliberal economics, we will suffer the torments of our sinfulness. But it’s also true at the personal level — if you live in poverty, it’s obviously because you are at fault; you have gone against the teachings of capitalism, and you’re being punished for your sins by being poor.

Obviously, for many people, capitalism is simply an economic system that seems to work better than any other economic system. Many people — perhaps most people — are pragmatists, and if they felt there was a better economic system out there, they would drop capitalism in favor of the better system. Yet there is also a minority of people who follow capitalism with a fervent and blind belief, people are sure that only capitalism can save humankind. By the way, some of the people who believe that only capitalism can save humankind are also conservative Christians, and some of them even argue that capitalism is affirmed by the Christian Bible — what an interesting mash-up of two seemingly incompatible religious positions!

Next, let me try to explain how communism can sometimes act like a religion.

As with capitalism, we can pretty quickly see the ways in which communism resembles Western Christianity. Communism has its holy scriptures, and its Bible is Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. Communism has its own equivalent of the Holy Spirit, found in the movement of the Hegelian Geist which will propel society inexorably out of capitalism into communism. Communism also has different denominations. In one example of these different denominations, communist nations have a tendency to deify their leaders. Perhaps the most important example of this is the cult of Mao Zedong in China. Mao was worshipped as an all-knowing leader, and icons depicting Mao appeared throughout Chinese society. Mao remains an object of worship even today.

As with capitalism, communism has had its prophets, people who interpret its scriptures and predict gloom and doom unless society follows their prescriptions for action. These days, it’s more difficult to be a prophet for communism than it is to be a prophet for capitalism. If you read Marx, he was predicting the imminent end of capitalism sometime in the nineteenth century. Yet capitalism continued to thrive through the twentieth century. Then with the demise of the Soviet Union in 1989, it became still more difficult for the prophets of communism to explain why communism remained a viable option.

While communism is usually vilified here in the United States, I will say that the communists I have known personally have all been highly moral individuals. The ones I have known have had a deep antipathy to economic injustice, and deep sympathy with people who are poor or economically disadvantaged. The first reading gives part of their justification for this attitude — they believe that capitalism has dehumanized people by turning them into mere commodities; instead of being ends in themselves, human beings become means to the end of capitalist profit. The principled morality of individual communists reinforces my sense that communism can act like a religion.

So it is that I feel both capitalism and communism can act like religions. The religion of communism is almost dead in the United States today, and it has little or no impact on our national life. However, the people who follow capitalism as a religion remain a strong force in our society.

Religious capitalism troubles me because the religious followers of capitalism demand unquestioning acceptance of their religious doctrine. They ask us to accept without question that capitalism is the best system, in a tone of voice that reminds me of conservative Christians who loudly proclaim, Thou shalt have no other gods before the God of Christianity. This annoys me both as a Unitarian Universalist, and as a pargmatist. As a Unitarian Universalist, I’m constitutionally averse to doctrine and dogma. When someone wants me to accept religious doctrine or dogma without question, I immediately doubt their religious doctrines, and I immediately suspect their motives. Then as a pragmatist, I know that any theory or proposition is subject to modification when new evidence arises. As a pragmatist, I won’t believe it when the religious followers of capitalism tell me to follow capitalism just because they say so; I want to see evidence; and if a new economic system comes along that performs better than capitalism I’m willing to adopt it.

All of this brings me to the third reading, by philosopher and Unitarian Universalist Charles Hartshorne. The title of his book, “Insights and Oversights of Great Thinkers,” tells you everything about his approach: he is willing to accept worthy insights from the great thinkers of the past, but he is also not going to gloss over the things they got wrong. Here’s part of what Hartshorne said in the reading:

“I still doubt [he said] that one man writing early in the industrial revolution, can tell us in the Americas, Europe, Australia, or Japan, or in the Third World, much of what we need to know about our problems. Population excess and pollution, or the exhaustion of fossil fuels, or the dangers of nuclear power and nuclear war, for example, were poorly foreseen by any of the philosophers or economists of the past. What they nearly all missed was that our species alone among species is capable of destroying itself and an indefinitely large portion of the other life on this planet.”

Hartshorne rooted his own philosophy in the understanding that the world is constantly changing. Perhaps the most familiar example of this principle of constant change is the theory of evolution: Unitarian sympathizer Charles Darwin theorized that living organisms have been constantly evolving towards states of greater complexity. But everything is changing: the continental plates are in constant motion (just ask anyone who lives on a fault line); the universe continues to expand; and, more to the point of this sermon, human society is constantly changing.

Hartshorne would say that both Adam Smith and Karl Marx had brilliant insights into how human society works. At the same time, both Smith and Marx were products of their times. Their brilliant insights were insights into human society of a century or two ago. Human society has changed a great deal since they wrote. Thus neither Smith nor Marx anticipated how environmental pollution would come to have a significant economic impact; and neither thinker had the faintest notion of the effects of global climate change. We can respect the brilliance and insights of these two long-dead thinkers, but we must also acknowledge their oversights. We cannot treat them as holy prophets whose every word we must accept without question.

Herein lies the danger of making either capitalism or communism into a rigid doctrine. We se the same sort of problems when religion is reduced to a rigid doctrine. These problems can be summed up by saying that once you have a rigid doctrine, people stop thinking critically. Sometimes they just stop thinking at all. They stop investigating and observing. They stop trying to make their mental models conform to reality, and instead demand of reality that it conforms to their mental models. People in the thrall of rigid doctrines can wind up abandoning their humanity to become rigid ideologues.

It would be wise for us to remember that any one of us could become an ideologue — yes, even you and me. We human beings like certainty, and we become anxious when faced with uncertainty. We human beings like to be right, and we get cranky when others point out where we might be wrong. It can be so difficult for us to remember that things are constantly changing. It can be so difficult for us to face up to the fact that a brilliant idea from a hundred and fifty years ago no longer fits our current reality.

So how do we keep ourselves from becoming rigid ideologues? One way to keep from falling into the trap of ideology is to remember that human beings are ends in themselves, not means to an end. Human beings do not exist to serve capitalism, or communism, or any other religion. Capitalism, communism, and religion are things that are only good insofar as they serve all human beings. An idea, or an economic system, or a religion, is only good when and if it serves real human beings, or when it helps pull real human beings out of poverty, or when it reduces human suffering, or when it increases love.

May we save ourselves from becoming rigid ideologues. When we’re confronted with a new reality, may we learn to adjust our mental models to fit that new reality. May we be constantly thinking and observing and investigating. And may all our actions, and all our thoughts, be guided by love.