Secularism & Class Conflict

The key difference between the seventeenth- and the eighteenth-century examples is the consciousness of the emerging autonomy of secular life.  This autonomy is strengthened by the tendency apparent in secular life for economic growth to result in the splitting of society into new kinds of class division.  The relations between classes become in crucial ways relations of conflict.  It is of course true that throughout the course of these conflicts there are attempts to continue the appeal to common norms and to revive the older social and moral values, but the changing structure of society makes it only too obvious to all parties that the alleged authoritative norms to which appeal is made are in fact man-made, and that they are not the norms of the whole community to which in their own way men of every rank are equally subject.  In so far as the norms which do govern the new standard economic, political, and social relations between classes are given a religious significance, what happens is that religion is invoked to justify the norms which one class wishes and is able to use against another.  (13-14)

Alasdair MacIntyre | Secularization and Moral Change


Religion & Urbanization

In both the United States and Britain there has been, and there still is, a significant relationship between the size of a given city and the church membership and attendance in that city.  In general the larger the population of a city the smaller the proportion of church members in that population.  Why?  An answer that at first sight must appear only to take us round in a circle is that the larger the city the higher tends to be the proportion of working-class population; but what I in fact want to suggest is that the distinctive forms of urban working-class life in the industrial city, as they came into being, and as they are to be contrasted with, for example, working-class life in the domestic industries of the eighteenth century or in the earlier and smaller commercial city, marked a distinct change so far as religion is concerned.  What the urbanization of the Industrial Revolution meant was the destruction of the older forms of community, in many cases rapidly, and in particular the destruction of those features of them to which religion had given symbolic expression.  There is first of all the loss of the background of a given and largely unalterable natural order within whose limits men of different social rank all have to live.  There is secondly the disappearance of the relative continuity and stability of social order, a stability which makes that order appear continuous with the order of nature.  There is thirdly an end to the existence of shared and established norms, common to all ranks in the community, in the light of which everyone stands either vindicated or convicted by their own conduct.  Religion, when it is the religion of a whole society, may have functions other than the expression of the natural and social order, but it is always ate least an expression of a society’s moral unity, and it lends to that unity a cosmic and universal significance and justification. (11-12)

Alasdair MacIntyre | Secularization and Moral Change

When Religion Really is the Opium of the People

It must be granted that the Marxist critique holds true for a great deal of religion, and in particular for a great deal of nineteenth-century religion.  The doctrine of the Tractarians, for example, helps to illustrate the critique.  Suspiciously enough, the doctrines of priesthood and of apostolic succession were rediscovered by Anglicans just at the time when the state was beginning to deny in its practice any real difference between nonconformity and the Church of England.  High churchmanship replaced social eminence as the mark of the staunch Anglican.  The ascetic disciplines which the Tractarians commended were of a kind possible only to a leisured class; their sacramental doctrines were irrelevant in an industrial society.  F.D. Maurice wrote of their view of baptism in 1838: “Where is the minister of Christ in London, Birmingham or Manchester, whom such a doctrine, heartily and inwardly entertained, would not drive to madness?  He is sent to preach the Gospel.  What Gospel?  Of all the thousands whom he addresses, he cannot venture to believe that there are ten who, in Dr. Pusey’s sense, retain their baptismal purity.  All he can do, therefore, is to tell wretched creatures, who spend eighteen hours of the twenty-four in close factories and bitter toil, corrupting and being corrupted, that if they spend the remaining six in prayer — he need not add fasting — they may possibly be saved.  How can we insult God and torment man with such mockery?”  There was another side to the doctrine of the Tractarians; but of a great deal of what they and churchmen of every persuasion taught the Marxist critique was and remains true. (108-109)

Alasdair MacIntyre | Marxism and Christianity

What Liberalism Rejects

There have long been ample grounds for the rejection of this or that part of Marxism; what is interesting, however, is the way in which the rejection of Marxism normally entails the rejection of the possibility of constructing any view of the world which possesses the dimensions of Marxism.  Not only are the moral attitudes of Marx, or the analysis of past history, or the predictions about the future abandoned; so is the possibility of any doctrine which connects moral attitudes, beliefs about the past, and beliefs in future possibility.  The lynch pin of this rejection is the liberal belief that facts are one thing, values another — and that the two realms are logically independent of each other.  This belief underpins the liberal rejection of Christianity as well as the liberal rejection of Marxism.  For the liberal, the individual being the source of all value necessarily legislates for himself in matters of value; his autonomy is only preserved if he is regarded as choosing his own ultimate principles, unconstrained by any external consideration.  But for both Marxism and Christianity only the answer to questions about the character of nature and society can provide the basis for an answer to the question: “But how ought I to live?”  For the nature of the world is such that in discovering the order of things I also discover my own nature and those ends which beings such as myself must pursue if we are not to be frustrated in certain predictable ways.  Knowledge of nature and society is thus the principal determinant of action. (123-124)

Alasdair MacIntyre | Marxism and Christianity

Liberal Divisions

The bourgeois society of the nineteenth century articulated itself in terms of concepts and beliefs, which, although they took on differing theoretical forms, were all apart of the apparatus of secular liberalism.  Liberalism is the theoretical mirror in which the nineteenth century was able to see its own face; and just as the social structures of the nineteenth century depend upon division and compartmentalization, so liberal theory similarly develops a view of the world as divided and compartmentalized.  The most fundamental of the distinctions inherent in liberalism is that between the political and the economic.  Just as in its actual social practice the bourgeoisie’s goal is that of a purely negative, non-interventionist relationship between the state — conceived narrowly as a device for protecting the citizen from foreign invasion and internal disorder and for upholding the sanctity of contract — and the economy of the free market, so in liberal political theory it is thought possible to divorce a man’s political status from this economic status.  Thus liberalism can combine within itself a drive towards ideals of political equality with an actual fostering of economic inequality.  And just as the political is separated from the economic, so morality, too, tends to become a realm apart, a realm concerned with private relationships. (132-133)

Alasdair MacIntyre | Marxism and Christianity

Feuerbach all over again

Nothing has been more startling than to note how much contemporary Christian theology is concerned with trying to perform Feuerbach’s work all over again.  For if Christianity, in even the semi-secular society of the present, is to be able to present itself as having a relevant content and function, it is forced to present itself as having a secular content and function.  Hence the many attempts to demythologize Christianity, to separate relevant kernel from irrelevant husk.  The tragedy of these attempts is that what is disentangled as the essential human meaning of Christianity is so platitudinous, and it is platitudinous precisely because what is presented is a way of life in accordance with the liberal values and illiberal realities of the established order.  That function of religion which consisted in providing a radical criticism of the secular present is lost by those contemporary demythologizers whose goal is to assimilate Christianity to the secular present. (142-143)

Alasdair MacIntyre | Marxism and Christianity

Religion & Social Change

It was Durkheim who saw that primitive religions present a concept of divinity in which the divine is a “collective representation” of the structure of social life; so that what the members of a society worship is the ensemble of their own social relationships in disguised form.  One need not suppose that this is the whole truth about religion to see that in a society of which Durkheim’s thesis is true, the religious consciousness will be profoundly conservative.  It will at once express and reinforce the social, political, and moral status quo.  It is only insofar as religion ceases to be what Durkheim said it was that it can become an instrument of change.


But religion is only able to have this latter transforming function because and insofar as it enables individuals to identify and to understand themselves independently of their position in the existing social structure.  It is in the contrast between what society tells a man he is and what religion tells him he is that he is able to find grounds both for criticizing the status quo and for believing that it is possible for him to act with others in changing it.  For the most part lacking a religious perspective, the members of modern industrial societies have also mostly lacked any alternative framework of beliefs which would enable them to criticize and transform society. (3-4)

Alasdair MacIntyre | Marxism and Christianity

On Hegel

The three fundamental concepts in Hegel are “self-estrangement” or “alienation” (Selbst-Entfremdung), “objectification” (Vergegenständlichung), and “coming to one’s own” (Aneignung).  “Self-estrangement” is a description of man in his fallen state.  Men are divided against themselves and their fellows.  This division is seen both in the conflicts within a man’s thought and in the conflicts between man and man.  Man does not obey the moral law that he makes for himself.  He has a bad conscience as a result of this failure.  He sees the moral law — the product of his own mind and will — set over against him, external to him.  Man is at odds with to society of which he is a member, which indeed would not exist but for his participation.  Because man does not live up to the standards of the society that he has made, he has a bad conscience with regard to it also.  So he sees a conflict between himself and the society which he, and others like him, have created by their common participation.  Society, created by individual men, is seen as set over against the individual man, in opposition to him.  Society is external to him, just as law is.  It is this externalization of what man has produced, this regarding as external objects what are in fact part of man’s own being, that Hegel calls “objectification.”  To understand the world men must envisage what they perceive and try to comprehend as a set of objects.  But in doing this they falsely reify their experience of the human world and treat people and social institutions as if they were “things.”  This reification of the human world is a symptom of the estrangement of subject and object. (7-9)

Alasdair MacIntyre | Marxism and Christianity