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Religion as Opium of the People

Karl Marx, Religion, and Economics

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Karl Marx bust, Berlin, Germany
Cultura Travel/Ingo Jezierski/The Image Bank/Getty Images

How do we account for religion — its origin, its development, and even its persistence in modern society? This is a question which has occupied many people in a variety of fields for quite a long time. At one point, the answers were framed in purely theological and religious terms, assuming the truth of Christian revelations and proceeding from there.

But through the 18th and 19th centuries, a more “naturalistic” approach developed. One person who attempted to examine religion from an objective, scientific perspective was Karl Marx. Marx’s analysis and critique of religion is perhaps one of the most famous and most quoted by theist and atheist alike. Unfortunately, most of those doing the quoting don’t really understand exactly what Marx meant.

I think that this in turn is due to not entirely understanding Marx’s general theories on economics and society. Marx actually said very little about religion directly; in all of his writings, he hardly ever addresses religion in a systematic fashion, even though he touches on it frequently in books, speeches and pamphlets.The reason is that his critique of religion forms simply one piece of his overall theory of society — thus, understanding his critique of religion requires some understanding of his critique of society in general.

According to Marx, religion is an expression of material realities and economic injustice. Thus, problems in religion are ultimately problems in society. Religion is not the disease, but merely a symptom. It is used by oppressors to make people feel better about the distress they experience due to being poor and exploited. This is the origin of his comment that religion is the “opium of the masses” — but as shall see, his thoughts are much more complex than commonly portrayed.

 

Karl Marx’s Background and Biography
To understand Marx’s critiques of religion and economic theories, it is important to understand a little bit about where he came from, his philosophical background, and how he arrived at some of his beliefs about culture and society.

Karl Marx’s Economic Theories
For Marx, economics are what constitute the base of all of human life and history — generating division of labor, class struggle, and all the social institutions which are supposed to maintain the status quo. Those social institutions are a superstructure built upon the base of economics, totally dependent upon material and economic realities but nothing else. All of the institutions which are prominent in our daily lives — marriage, church, government, arts, etc. — can only be truly understood when examined in relation to economic forces.

Karl Marx’s Analysis of Religion
According to Marx, religion is one of those social institutions which are dependent upon the material and economic realities in a given society. It has no independent history but is instead the creature of productive forces. As Marx wrote, “The religious world is but the reflex of the real world.”

Problems in Karl Marx’s Analysis of Religion
As interesting and insightful as Marx’s analysis and critiques are, they are not without their problems - historical and economic. Because of these problems, it would not be appropriate to accept Marx’s ideas uncritically. Although he certain has some important things to say on the nature of religion, he can’t be accepted as the last word on the subject.

 

Sources:

  • Seven Theories of Religion. Daniel L. Pals.
  • Explaining Religion: Criticism and Theory from Bodin to Freud. J. Samuel Preus.
  • Karl Marx’s Interpretation of History. M.M. Bober.
  • Manifesto of the Communist Party. Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels.
  • The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers. Robert L. Heilbroner.
  • The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. Peter L. Berger.
  • A History of God. Karen Armstrong.
  • Perspectives in the History of Religions. Jan de Vries.
  • Theories of Primitive Religion. E.E. Evans-Pritchard.

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