Karl Marx on Religion

Is Religion the Opiate of the Masses?

Karl Marx
Courtesy of US National Archives

Karl Marx is famous — or perhaps infamous — for writing that "religion is the opium of the people" (which is usually translated as "religion is the opiate of the masses"). People who know nothing else about him probably know that he wrote that, but unfortunately few actually understand what he meant because so few of  those familiar with that quote have any understanding of the context. This means that so many have a significantly distorted impression of what Marx actually thought about religion and religious belief.

The truth is that, while Marx was very critical of religion, he was also in some ways sympathetic.


Religion and Oppression

Karl Marx, writes in Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right:

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.

Usually all one gets from the above passage is "Religion is the opium of the people" (with no ellipses to indicate that something has been removed). Sometimes "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature" is included. If you compare these with the full quotation, it's clear that a great deal more is being said than what most people are aware of.

In the above quotation, Marx is saying that religion's purpose is to create illusory fantasies for the poor. Economic realities prevent them from finding true happiness in this life, so religion tells them that this is OK because they will find true happiness in the next life. Although this is a criticism of religion, Marx is not without sympathy: people are in distress and religion provides solace, just as people who are physically injured receive relief from opiate-based drugs.

The quote is not, then, as negative as most portray (at least about religion). In some ways, even the slightly extended quote which people might see is a bit dishonest because saying "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature..." deliberately leaves out the additional statement that it is also the "heart of a heartless world."

What we have is a critique of society that has become heartless rather than of religion which tries to provide a bit of solace. One can argue that Marx offers a partial validation of religion in that it tries to become the heart of a heartless world. For all its problems, religion doesn't matter so much — it is not the real problem. Religion is a set of ideas, and ideas are expressions of material realities. Religion and belief in gods are a symptom of a disease, not the disease itself.

Still, it would be a mistake to think that Marx is uncritical towards religion — it may try to provide heart, but it fails. For Marx, the problem lies in the obvious fact that an opiate drug fails to fix a physical injury — it merely helps you forget pain and suffering. Relief from pain may be fine up to a point, but only as long as you are also trying to solve the underlying problems causing 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 gets them to look forward to an imaginary future when the pain will cease.

Even worse, this "drug" is administered by the same oppressors who are responsible for the pain and suffering in the first place. Religion is an expression of more fundamental unhappiness and symptom of more fundamental and oppressive economic realities. Hopefully, humans will create a society in which the economic conditions causing so much pain and suffering would be eradicated and, therefore, the need for soothing drugs like religion will cease. Of course, for Marx such a turn of events isn't to be "hoped for" because human history was leading inevitably towards it.


Marx and Religion

So, in spite of his obvious dislike of and anger towards religion, Marx did not make religion the primary enemy of workers and communists, regardless of what might have been done by 20th century communists.

Had Marx regarded religion as a more serious enemy, he would have devoted more time to it in his writings. Instead, he focused on economic and political structures that in his mind served to oppress people.

For this reason, some Marxists could be sympathetic to religion. Karl Kautsky, in his book Foundations of Christianity, wrote that early Christianity was, in some respects, a proletarian revolution against privileged Roman oppressors. In Latin America, some Catholic theologians have used Marxist categories to frame their critique of economic injustice, resulting in "liberation theology."

Marx's relationship with and ideas about religion are thus far more complex than most realize. Marx's analysis of religion has flaws, but despite them his perspective is worth taking seriously. Specifically, he argues that religion is not so much an independent "thing" in society but, rather, a reflection or creation of other, more fundamental "things" like economic relationships. That's not the only way of looking at religion, but it can provide some interesting illumination on the social roles that religion plays.