Atheism and Human Development: The Political Economy of Secularization

By Ricardo R. Fuentes Ramirez 

Figure 1Introduction 

With “Political Economy of Secularization,” we refer to the analysis of the underlying economic processes embedded in the tendency of religiosity to decline across the world. The building blocks for this analysis are mainly found in Karl Marx’s understanding of religion. While contemporary secularization theory mainly rests upon Weber and Durkheim’s ideas on this subject, we argue that in Marx’s writings on the subject we also find important insights. The objective of this paper is to sketch a theory of secularization within a Marxian Political Economy framework, and support it with the most recent data on development and religiosity across the world. We argue this approach fills important theoretical voids in traditional secularization theory and contributes toward responding to the challenge of explaining the rise in religiosity in the world as a whole.

Religion as Human Estrangement

One of Marx’s earliest remarks on religion is found in a letter to Arnold Ruge, a German writer with whom he briefly co-edited a journal titled “The German-French Yearbooks.” In 1842, when he was 24 years old, Marx wrote that “religion in itself is without content, it owes its being not to heaven but to earth, and with the abolition of distorted reality of which it is the theory, it will collapse of itself” (1975). In this brief statement, we find Marx’s central thesis on religion and secularization. Religion is but the reflection of a distorted reality, or as he later on develops, of a society where humanity is alienated, or estranged.  With the transition to a society free of alienation, religion will eventually collapse. In 1843, he continued expanding on this idea in his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. There he argued that religion is “the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has lost himself again” (2008, p. 41) At this point, he writes one of his most memorable quotes on religion:


“Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions” (2008, p. 42).

“Real suffering,” may be of a mainly physiological nature, or a mainly psychological nature. Physiologically, human beings may suffer from hunger, disease, inadequate shelter or clothing, natural disasters, etc.; which all may lead to religious attitudes as explanatory or coping mechanisms. This is similar to Norris and Inglehart’s (2011) “existential security theory.” These authors sustain that “as societies transition from agrarian to industrial economies, and then develop into postindustrial societies, the conditions of growing security that usually accompany this process tend to reduce the importance of religious values. The main reason, [they] believe, is that the need for religious reassurance becomes less pressing under conditions of greater security” (2011, p. 18). On the other hand, Norris and Inglehart recognize that economic development, or greater “existential security,” do not necessarily ensure lower religiosity. We wish to stress this point even further, as it is crucial in Marx’s understanding of religiosity. As a result of what Marx called human estrangement, even people that are not living in the poorest conditions within their countries, and truly live in conditions of human security, might still find themselves in conditions that require sources of illusionary happiness. Therefore, to understand Marx’s theory of secularization, it is crucial to understand what he means with human estrangement, or the alienation of human labor. The objective in this section is not to provide a comprehensive analysis of the concept, but a brief introduction focusing on what is most pertinent to the subject of secularization. According to Marx, the source of alienation is found in the development of private property; that is, the transition from ancient communal modes of production toward modes characterized by private property over the means of production and the exploitation of human labor. Therefore, his concept of alienation is fundamentally related to the act of labor. As Erich Fromm (1992, p. 47) explained, work is “the active relatedness of man to nature, the creation of a new world, including the creation of man himself.” To illustrate Marx’s concept of alienation, it is best to juxtapose human labor in ancient communal modes of production, with labor within capitalism. In the first case, work was the expression of men and women’s power. The product of human labor, although primitive, was fundamentally linked to those who directly produced it, always based on their will and planning. In capitalism, workers are degraded into mere appendages of machines, destroying, as Marx described in Capital, every remnant of charm in work, and turning it into a hated toil. Aptly describing the work conditions of most laborers around the world today, Marx concluded that workers under capitalism find their work unfulfilling, miserable, and physically and mentally exhausting. Therefore, their work is experienced as something alien, and the worker becomes alienated from his or herself as a worker, as well as from the product of his or her work. For Marx, capitalism is the highest expression of alienated work since the origins of private property. Thus, alienated society fuels religion by creating diverse forms of suffering, ranging from physically brutal working conditions to menial and degrading work.

However, religiosity is also linked to our scientific knowledge. Taking this into account, we may conclude religion is a reflection of the relationship between human beings and nature in two distinct forms: how we transform nature and ourselves through labor, and our technical understanding of nature. Marx (2008, p. 36) argued that when the development of the productive power of labor is in a low stage, and the relations of humanity with itself and with nature are correspondingly constricted, this is “reflected in the ancient worship of nature, and in the other elements of the popular religions.” Similarly, Engels argued that as advances in natural sciences progress, “the more will men not only feel but also know their oneness with nature, and the more impossible will become the senseless and unnatural idea of a contrast between mind and matter, man and nature, soul and body” (2008, p. 188). Human religiosity therefore has inherent contradictory tendencies. While the development of our understanding and mastery over nature tends to undermine the belief in supernatural beings, the increasing alienation linked with this development enables religion. In contemporary terms, the latter translates into an issue of psychological or mental health. Under capitalism, scientific knowledge has exponentially grown to an extent arguably enough to have completely debunked religion. However, the negative effects on mental health brought upon by capitalism help religion persist.

In sum, Marxian secularization theory argues that religion is immersed in various processes that can both enable and disable it. First, the scientific and technical developments of human society tend to undermine religiosity through two processes: 1) an increasing understanding of nature eliminates the need of religion as an explanatory mechanism, while 2) increasing standards of living eliminate the need of religion as a coping mechanism. There has been a historic tendency of development in science and technology, which therefore translates into a historic tendency towards secularization. However, this same development in science and technology has gone hand in hand with the development of modes of production characterized by exploitation and alienation. This last process tends to serve as fuel for human religiosity. As we will show below, we understand that the most recent statistics on religion and human development support this theory.

We may now see a fundamental difference between the secularization theories of Marx and other 19th century thinkers such as Weber or Durkheim. While the latter argued that capitalism would ultimately destroy religion, Marx was clear that because capitalist industrialization represented a historical peak in human estrangement, it would do nothing of the sort. Humanity would have to transition to a post-capitalist mode of production, where men and women are self-realized and emancipated from alienation, in order for religion to disappear. Nonetheless, various processes could surely counteract alienation even within capitalism. Healthy workers, with access to education, and high living standards within egalitarian societies, will probably have less negative effects from estranged labor than workers with lower standards of living, lack of access to health and education, and living within highly unequal societies.

In other words, alienation is undermined by what recent theorists have termed human development. Human development generally refers to broadening the scope from strictly economic growth, so as to include elements such as education, health, and equality, which more aptly represent the conditions in which a population is living. Most Marxists would argue that although human development might be achieved in certain areas of the world economy, capitalism would ultimately undermine human development in the world as a whole. To discuss if global human development is achievable within capitalism would go beyond the scope of this paper. For our current objectives, it suffices to say that where human development is achieved, we should expect to find higher degrees of secularization, as it serves as a counteracting force to human estrangement. Thus, as Norris and Inglehart (2011, pp. 14-16) have also argued, developed countries should tend to show degrees of religiosity and secularization more proportional to human development rather than mere economic growth.

Lack of Secularization in the Third World

In the case of developing countries, their population growth rates and religious cultures have translated into a net rise in world religiosity that undermine the idea that religion will steadily decline. However, there is a tendency toward secularization, not an iron law of secularization. We argue that with all other things being held constant, religion would disappear as a result of economic and human development. Nonetheless, things are never constant, and sufficiently strong counteracting tendencies may undermine others. Two aspects contribute in explaining higher degrees of religiosity in the Third World: intense and highly exploitative working conditions, as well as problems related with hunger, sickness, and violence. In other words, processes related to alienation as well as low existential security plague developing countries. “Real suffering” in physiological and psychological terms translates into more people yearning for illusionary sources of happiness. As developing countries “catch up” to developed countries, increasing existential security enforces the tendency toward secularization. If their economic development were accompanied with human development, the tendency toward secularization would be reinforced even further. Capitalism tends to develop the forces of production on a global scale. In other words, it should tend to develop the “backward” regions of the world, developing countries should be catching up, and secularization should be rising. However, as stated above, sufficiently strong counteracting forces can nullify this tendency.

Many Marxian economists, such as Andre Gunder Frank (1978) and Samir Amin (1976), have studied why most poor developing countries remained poor during the 20th century. World capitalism took a particular imperialist character, dividing the world into two fundamental groups: core capitalist countries (the First World) and peripheral countries (the Third World). Their relation hampered the development of peripheral countries through a vast array of political and economic institutions and processes. While there is debate on the mechanisms, and the ways they may or may not be undermined, there is agreement on the fact that the relation between core countries and peripheral countries obstructed growth and development in the latter. Even when accounting for the so-called “emerging markets,” it is clear that growth and development are still difficult feats for most developing countries, and in great part because of their past and current relation with advanced developed countries. In other words, the tendency toward global secularization has been undermined by a particular counteracting force: economic imperialism and global inequality. This does not mean secularization theory is fundamentally flawed. On the contrary, with the analytical tools of Marxian Political Economy, we have a clearer understanding on why the tendency toward secularization was hampered, and the steps that may be taken in order to enable it.

Recent Statistics on Secularization

This understanding of secularization may be evidenced using recent statistics on development and secularization. In theory, secularization should not only rise with economic development, but it should rise at a higher rate where it is accompanied by human development. The utility of the proposed framework becomes evident when we focus on the United States. Previous assessments of secularization worldwide categorized the United States as an outlier, as it possessed both a highly religious population as well as high levels of development. However, when taking into account that US citizens have less access to health and education, and live within a more unequal society than most of their European counterparts, we actually expect to find higher degrees of religiosity. This idea is supported with Norris and Inglehart’s (2011, pp. 106-108) analysis of frequency of prayer and economic inequality in advanced capitalist countries. In addition, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has recently introduced a new measure, the Inequality-Adjusted Human Development Index (IHDI), that, as we will show below, shows that the United States is not an outlier, but actually fits our theory.

Using the 2005-2008 wave of The World Values Survey we may analyze the relation between human development and religiosity. Specifically, we may observe the relationship between the Inequality-Adjusted Human Development Index (IHDI) and the percentage of people in each country that consider religion is not important in their lives and the percentage of people who declare themselves as not religious or convinced atheist. In Figure 1 we may observe that the relationship between the percentage of convinced atheists in the population and the IHDI is not linear. Instead, we find a polynomial relation where the number of atheists begins to rise most significantly after the IHDI has surpassed a value of approximately 0.6. The UNDP categorizes countries as representing Very High Human Development (0.8<HDI), High Human Development (0.7<HDI<0.8), Medium Human Development (0.535<HDI<0.7), and Low Human Development (HDI<0.535). In other words, when countries enter a stage of Medium Human Development, the number of atheists begins to rise, and the rate at which they rise increases as they continue on to stages of High or Very High Human Development. The only outliers were South Korea, France, Germany, and Sweden. However, they showed percentages of atheists above what was expected, so they do not undermine our main thesis of increasing secularization. Another important aspect is the case of the United States. As previously mentioned, most studies found the United States as an outlier, with unexplainable high levels of religiosity given its stage of development. In our data, the United States is below the trend line, but it is nowhere near of being an outlier that undermines our thesis. Its levels of religiosity are explained with our theory and data as a result of lower human development and higher inequality.

This particular question in the World Values Survey provided three possible answers where those being surveyed should classify themselves: Religious Person, Not a Religious Person, Convinced Atheist. In theory, it is possible for the ‘Not a Religious Person’ group to be decreasing enough as to nullify the increase in atheists, so it is best to add the last two groups. This combined group of people that responded as not religious or atheists may be called the total of irreligious people. In Figure 2, we see the same trend observed in the case of atheists by themselves. As countries enter levels of Medium Human Development, the percentage of irreligious people begins to climb faster, and increasing even more in higher stages of human development. In this case, a new particular outlier stands out: Thailand. Even though this country has a very religious population of the Buddhist tradition, more than 60% of those surveyed answered they are not religious. This is probably a result of translation issues in phrasing the question, particularities of the branch of Buddhism and how it conceives itself as a religion, or a combination of both. In the case of the United States, once again, although below the trend line, it is not an outlier and does not contradict our theory.

Figure 2

Secularization may also be reflected in religion losing its importance in people’s lives, even though they are not necessarily outspokenly labeling themselves as irreligious. Thus, we also analyze the question in the survey where people state how important religious is in their lives (very, rather, not very, or not at all important). As in the previous exercise, first we will focus on those who answered not at all important, and then on the sum of those who answered not very and not at all important. In Figure 3, we find that the relation between the percent of the population that consider religion is not at all important in their lives and the IHDI follows the same trend as in the previous cases. The only outliers reflect higher secularization than expected, and the United States is not a problematic outlier.  Finally, in Figure 4, we do the same exercise but with the sum of those who answered religion was not very and not at all important in their lives, and also find the same pattern.

 Figure 3 Figure 4

What’s probably most interesting of this analysis is that, according to our theory and findings, if the world as a whole were to arrive at a level of human development and equality similar to that of Sweden or Norway, we would expect to find that religion stopped being of importance for more than half of the population, and openly irreligious people would be rapidly approaching becoming half of the population. In Marxian terms, our findings support the idea that as countries develop in terms of science and technology, secularization rises; but it increases most when human development and equality counteract the effects of alienation.

Concluding Remarks

Marx (2008, p. 42) stated “It is the immediate task of philosophy, which is in the service of history, to unmask self-estrangement in its unholy forms once the holy form of human self-estrangement has been unmasked. Thus, the criticism of Heaven turns into the criticism of Earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.” This idea resonates with the discussion on secularization and development in the Third World. If we operate under the assumption that secularization is desirable because it translates into sexual liberalization, women’s equality, LGBT rights, etc.; then achieving economic and human development in the Third World becomes even more of an imperative. The criticism of rising religious extremism today must turn into the criticism of the vast array of political and economic processes that hinder development in the Third World. In other words, the criticism of religion today is fundamentally linked with the criticism of political and economic imperialism and global inequality. For Marx (2008, p. 136), humanity will never fully strip its veil of mysticism and vanquish its religious reflex, until production takes place through the free association of men and women, “it is consciously regulated by them in a settled plan,” and “the practical relations of every-day life offer to man none but perfectly intelligible and reasonable relations with regard to his fellowmen and to nature.”  The disappearance of religion is therefore a very long run process. Nonetheless, Marx’s theory provides insight into how we may undermine the negative effects of religiosity in the short and medium run as well.


Amin, S. (1976). Unequal Development: An Essay on the Social Formations of Peripheral Capitalism. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Engels, F. (2008). Dialectics of Nature. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels On Religion (pp. 152-193). Mineola: Dover Publications.

Frank, A. G. (1978). Dependent Accumulation and Underdevelopment. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Fromm, E. (1992). Marx’s Concept of Man. New York: Continuum Publications.

Marx, K. (1975). Letter from Marx to Arnold Ruge In Dresden. Karl Marx, Frederick Engels: Collected Works V.1 (pp. 393-395). New York: International Publishers.

Marx, K. (2008). Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels On Religion (pp. 41-58). Mineola: Dover Publications.

Marx, K. (2008). Capital (Extracts). Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels On Religion (pp. 135-141). Mineola: Dover Publications.

Norris, P., & Inglehart, R. (2011). Sacred and secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

World Values Survey Association. (2013). World Values Survey 2005-2008. Retrieved from

United Nations Development Program. (2013). 2013 Human Development Report.

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