Once again, my Humanities and Western Civilization TA gave us an awesome topic for an essay assignment. In this case, she merely asked us to give the punch-line to the joke "Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, and W.E.B. Du Bois walk into a church..."
I thoroughly enjoyed writing this essay, so I decided to post it up here. For those who don't know, I'll provide a short summary of each character's view on religion
As far as I can understand, Nietzche considered religion, and especially Christianity, to be one of the "idols" which hampered humanity with its narrow definition of morality. He considers its series of "Do not..." rules in the Bible to be chains that hold down humanity.
Marx viewed religion, again focusing on Christianity, to be a drug for humanity, an illusion to help comfort a people oppressed by reality.
Du Bois was the only one who seemed to have any sort of positive view of religion. As an African American, he recognized how Christianity was used to keep the slaves obedient to their masters, but he also realized that it was the hope of many slaves when freedom seemed impossible.
As you might guess, this is a less cheerful post, considering the content, but I still enjoyed writing it. Feel free to comment.
Sweating Like a Philosopher in Church
“Why are we here again?” Friedrich Nietzsche groused, stomping up the steps to the entrance to the church. I trailed silently after him, just glad that they’d allowed me to come along. “You know how I feel about these places, especially Christian ones.”
“Have patience, Nietzsche,” answered Karl Marx. “Considering how prone I am to forcible exile from new places, I thought it profitable to explore this one in as much detail as possible before that inevitable occurrence. Much knowledge can be gleaned from studying how a populace goes about its religion.”
“You don’t even like religion,” Nietzsche mumbled under his breath.
“No, I don’t like religion, but I don’t particularly like you, either. I continue to tolerate your company because I find your viewpoints edifying, if only in a utilitarian fashion. There is no harm in studying the aspects of human folly. As you know, I feel that religion ‘is the opium of the people,’ but that…,” He trailed off, wincing (Marx, “Contribution”, 126). “My apologies, Du Bois. I meant no offense.”
“Naturally, some offense is taken, but I too share your inclination for the study of other people’s fallibility,” said W.E.B. Du Bois, joining in with good grace. “Therefore, I always find it fascinating to study you.”
Du Bois calmly entered the church, while Marx and Nietzsche trailed after him. I had to stifle a laugh at the faces the two philosophers made at his back.
Taking a quiet place in the back pew, Du Bois immediately directed his attention forward, to the couple trading their marriage vows. I could see that he did his best to ignore Marx’s pointed snorts, and Nietzsche’s stomping, as we came to join him, though some other attendees craned their necks to see who was making such a disturbance. Du Bois was very used to weathering on under the effect of negative opinions, though it would have been difficult to find two less agreeable people to visit a church with than Marx and Nietzsche. However, he gasped a moment later, getting a closer look at the couple at the other end of the aisle.
“What…But…Is that a black man, marrying a white woman, in a Christian church?” he whispered, shocked. “Have times truly changed so much? That cannot be so. ‘Blacks and whites—They go to separate churches, they live in separate sections, they are strictly separated in all public gatherings’… how can it be that these two shall be allowed legal marriage (Du Bois, 111)?”
“As much as I dislike religion, you have stumbled upon a fascinating phenomenon. ‘Man makes religion, religion does not make man,’” stated Marx (Marx, “Contribution,” 126). “So, since religion is merely an illusion and a reflection of Man, this situation is an excellent example of how Man has changed, in the years since we lived. Such open-mindedness there is in this church today!”
“Oh, don’t be naive!” snapped Nietzsche. “‘Life ends where the ‘kingdom of God’ begins…’ (Nietzsche, 28). By getting married in a Christian church, under the eye of God, if you believe that, this couple is dead from the start. Of course, if they’ve already let themselves be forced into this religious mold, along with all of its castrating self-denial, they’re already so far from their natural instincts that they might not even mind.”
At this point, many pointed glares were being directed towards our group, so Du Bois hustled the other two out into the adjacent corridor. I tagged along, not even sure that they remembered I was there. Still, I had opinions and questions of my own to air.
In the momentary silence, I ventured to speak.
“Religion in general has improved, though. As you saw, people of all races can worship together, at least in the U.S. In fact, there really aren’t many developed countries that haven’t opened up to religious acceptance, to some extent.”
The philosophers stared at me in surprise, but now that I’d gotten the courage to speak, I certainly wasn’t stopping.
“And it’ll keep getting better, I think. With the easy communication and information availability that we have today across the globe, people are being exposed to a variety of different viewpoints. The natural progression is that religion will continue to become less of a strict subject, and more an aspect of welcomed diversity.”
“You are a fool,” growled Nietzsche. “Religion has been the cause of so many hateful actions in this world. Would you accept oppression, torture, alienation, and ultimate restriction in the name of your precious diversity and morality? How can something so supposedly pure give birth to such negativity?”
“Exactly!” shouted Marx. We quickly shushed him.
“Furthermore,” he continued, at a much lower volume, “people who lay a foundation of religion in their lives will only find that it is an illusion, an untrustworthy farce. ‘All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind’ (Marx, “Communist Manifesto,” 68). Man only fools himself, to assume that there is an outside force that can make sense of the world’s inequalities.”
“None of us is unaware of religion’s impurities,” Du Bois said. I nodded in agreement beside him. “Concerning the slavery of my people, ‘nothing suited [the slave’s] condition then better than the doctrines of passive submission embodied in the newly learned Christianity’ (Du Bois, 120). However, there are also innumerable ways in which religion helped the slave to survive. As the time of emancipation approached, there ‘still brood[ed] silently the deep religious feeling of the real Negro heart, the stirring, unguided might of powerful human souls’ (Du Bois, 125) which manifested itself as undying hope. How could we have become free, without something so uniting to buoy us? You simply can’t ignore the utility of religion, even if some of its effects have been negative.”
“Yeah, you can’t just lump all of the effects of religion into one, Nietzche,” I interjected, rising with indignation in the face of his disdain. “Sure, it’ll probably still be used to control people in certain places, but it won’t be nearly so much of a problem in the future, and the negative aspects could be canceled out by the positive ones. Also, looking back, religion has served as a foundation for our knowledge in many respects. Many of the most basic ways we think about the world, considering the possibility of its dual nature and the causes that affect it, have a religious basis. Though it may tend to stifle some scientific questions, it has also helped shape how scientists view the world to begin with.” I could feel my face getting red, but I felt strongly enough about the subject to continue.
“Furthermore, though you detest Christian morality, and feel that each person should decide their own version, what would that lead to? Would you champion that cause if the morality of a person dictated that they could harm anyone with impunity? Our knowledge of good and bad, which is crucial in protecting us from each other, is also based quite solidly in religion!” My voice had risen to a shout by now, and I clapped a hand over my mouth as I heard people shift restlessly out in the pews.
“You use the word ‘knowledge’ as if what you believe must absolutely be true,” Nietzsche stated flatly. “And that is just your first mistake.”
“No, she may have actually hit on something crucial, Nietzsche,” Marx protested. “‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions’ (Marx, “Contribution,” 126). Though you may not like it for yourself, religion is sometimes the only option for a people oppressed. I still feel that it is a counterfeit representation of the true issues of a negative situation, but sometimes Man must embrace such things to survive. It is a lie, but it can help preserve sanity, and in that it has value.”
“Fine!” snapped Nietzsche. “Continue to believe what you wish, ignorant as it is. Let’s quit this place. I have exhausted my strength.”
However, as we left the church, Nietzsche couldn’t resist twisting back around and giving out one last piece of his mind.
“‘God is dead’!” he shouted.
The church subsided into complete silence, with every eye on the three philosophers.
“Silence yourself, Nietzsche!” hissed Marx, grabbing him under the arm. “You’re going to get us all beaten.”
“Yes, well, ‘what doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger,’” he said, sneering at the outraged parishioners rising behind them (Nietzsche, 6). I had a feeling that was the most fun he’d had all day. I didn’t feel the same, though, as we broke into a sprint from the angry roar behind us.
In the end, it didn’t kill us, but it did get the three men exiled. Poor Marx was quite resigned to this inevitability, but at least this time he had company.
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