Religion, Authoritarianism and the Perpetuation of Capitalism: The Role of Atheism in a Marxist Critical Pedagogy

  • John M. Elmore West Chester University of Pennsylvania
Keywords: Critical Pedagogy, Atheism, Authoritarianism, Capitalism, Marxism


A central tenant of a Marxist critical pedagogy is a critique of the role education can, and does, play within a superstructure that validates and maintains a capitalistic base. Recognizing the great hegemonic potential of education, such critical pedagogues have long sought to usurp its power – especially in the case of mass, compulsory schooling – and reverse its current; transforming it into a tool of enlightenment and empowerment for those whose exploitation serves as fuel animating the capitalist tyranny. In seeking to manipulate, if not outright commandeer, the role that education plays within the superstructure, we acknowledge that the maintenance of the capitalist base requires the development of a specific human character and, in turn, a specific “form of social conscience” – informed by what Marx and Engels (1932/1996) described as the “ruling ideas” that represent the “ideal expression of the dominant material relationships” (p.61). As Erich Fromm (1941) indicated, there is a dynamic correlation between the structure of human character within a given society and the economic base of that society. In other words, the maintenance of any particular “way of life” requires a compatible, if not mirrored, version of human consciousness and character. Fromm (1941) argued that even intellectuality itself “…aside from the purely logical elements that are involved in the act of thinking, [is] greatly determined by the personality structure of the person who thinks” (p. 305). This, Fromm (1941) continued, “holds true for the whole of a doctrine or of a theoretical system, as well as for a single concept, like love, justice, equality, sacrifice” (p. 306). Education therefore, when carefully shaped and crafted, can serve the pernicious goal of providing those in power with an invaluable tool for nurturing and shaping a particular human character, consciousness and epistemology that is tuned to the specific needs of a respective base. Although such a revelation seems obvious, should one require further convincing, we need look no further than the desperate efforts to control education by some of the most authoritarian regimes in history, from Hitler to Stalin to Kim Jung-un. As Anton Makarenko (1955), architect of Stalin’s educational system, wrote, “It was clear to me that many details of human personality and behavior could be made from dies, simply stamped out en masse… although of course the dies themselves had to be of the finest description, demanding scrupulous care… by the communist party” (pp.267-268). Conversely, when education is conceived as an act of liberation, illuminating systems of oppression, it becomes an equally powerful threat to the dominant. For such liberatory education, as Marx (1843) contended, "…our motto must be: reform of consciousness not through dogmas, but by analysing the mystical consciousness that is unintelligible to itself, whether it manifests itself in a religious or a political form" (p. 46). In short, a liberated mind has never been the outcome of dogmatic training - regardless of its source.