According to Karl Marx, religion is like other social institutions in that it is dependent upon the material and economic realities in a given society. It has no independent history; instead it is the creature of productive forces. As Marx wrote, “The religious world is but the reflex of the real world.”
According to Marx, religion can only be understood in relation to other social systems and the economic structures of society. In fact, religion is only dependent upon economics, nothing else — so much so that the actual religious doctrines are almost irrelevant. This is a functionalist interpretation of religion: understanding religion is dependent upon what social purpose religion itself serves, not the content of its beliefs.
Marx’s opinion is that religion is an illusion that provides reasons and excuses to keep society functioning just as it is. Much as capitalism takes our productive labor and alienates us from its value, religion takes our highest ideals and aspirations and alienates us from them, projecting them onto an alien and unknowable being called a god.
Marx has three reasons for disliking religion. First, it is irrational — religion is a delusion and a worship of appearances that avoids recognizing underlying reality. Second, religion negates all that is dignified in a human being by rendering them servile and more amenable to accepting the status quo. In the preface to his doctoral dissertation, Marx adopted as his motto the words of the Greek hero Prometheus who defied the gods to bring fire to humanity: “I hate all gods,” with addition that they “do not recognize man’s self-consciousness as the highest divinity.”
Third, religion is hypocritical. Although it might profess valuable principles, it sides with the oppressors. Jesus advocated helping the poor, but the Christian church merged with the oppressive Roman state, taking part in the enslavement of people for centuries. In the Middle Ages the Catholic Church preached about heaven, but acquired as much property and power as possible.
Martin Luther preached the ability of each individual to interpret the Bible, but sided with aristocratic rulers and against peasants who fought against economic and social oppression. According to Marx, this new form of Christianity, Protestantism, was a production of new economic forces as early capitalism developed. New economic realities required a new religious superstructure by which it could be justified and defended.
Marx’s most famous statement about religion comes from a critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law:
- Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.
- The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions.
This is often misunderstood, perhaps because the full passage is rarely used: the boldface in the above is my own, showing what is usually quoted. The italics are in the original. In some ways, the quote is presented dishonestly because saying “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature...” leaves out that it is also the “heart of a heartless world.” This is more a critique of society that has become heartless and is even a partial validation of religion that it tries to become its heart. In spite of his obvious dislike of and anger towards religion, Marx did not make religion the primary enemy of workers and communists. Had Marx regarded religion as a more serious enemy, he would have devoted more time to it.
Marx is saying that religion is meant to create illusory fantasies for the poor. Economic realities prevent them from finding true happiness in this life, so religion tells them this is OK because they will find true happiness in the next life. Marx is not entirely without sympathy: people are in distress and religion does provide solace, just as people who are physically injured receive relief from opiate-based drugs.
The problem is that opiates fail to fix a physical injury — you only forget your pain and suffering. This can be fine, but only if you are also trying to solve the underlying causes of the pain. Similarly, religion does not fix the underlying causes of people’s pain and suffering — instead, it helps them forget why they are suffering and causes them to look forward to an imaginary future when the pain will cease instead of working to change circumstances now. Even worse, this “drug” is being administered by the oppressors who are responsible for the pain and suffering.