Religion as Opium of the People

Karl Marx, Religion, and Economics

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 certainly has some important things to say about the nature of religion, he can’t be accepted as the last word on the subject.

Karl Marx's Biography

Karl Marx was born on May 5, 1818 in the German city of Trier. His family was Jewish but later converted to Protestantism in 1824 in order to avoid anti-semitic laws and persecution. For this reason among others, Marx rejected religion early on in his youth and made it absolutely clear that he was an atheist.

Marx studied philosophy at Bonn and then later Berlin, where he came under the sway of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich von Hegel. Hegel’s philosophy had a decisive influence upon Marx’s own thinking and later theories. Hegel was a complicated philosopher, but it is possible to draw a rough outline for our purposes.

Hegel was what is known as an “idealist” — according to him, mental things (ideas, concepts) are fundamental to the world, not matter. Material things are merely expressions of ideas — in particular, of an underlying “Universal Spirit” or “Absolute Idea.”

Marx joined the “Young Hegelians” (with Bruno Bauer and others) who were not simply disciples, but also critics of Hegel. Although they agreed that the division between mind and matter was the fundamental philosophical issue, they argued that it was a matter which was fundamental and that ideas were simply expressions of material necessity. This idea that what is fundamentally real about the world is not ideas and concepts but material forces is the basic anchor upon which all of Marx’s later ideas depend.

Two important ideas which developed bear mentioning here: First, that economic realities are the determining factor for all human behavior; and second, that all of human history is that of class struggle between those who own things and those who do not own things but must instead work to survive. This is the context in which all human social institutions develop, including religion.

After graduating from university, Marx moved to Bonn, hoping to become a professor, but the policies of the government made Marx abandon the idea of an academic career after Ludwig Feuerbach had been deprived of his chair in 1832 (and who was not allowed to return to the university in 1836. In 1841 the government had forbidden the young Professor Bruno Bauer to lecture at Bonn. Early in 1842, radicals in the Rhineland (Cologne), who were in touch with the Left Hegelians, founded a paper in opposition to the Prussian government, called the Rheinische Zeitung. Marx and Bruno Bauer were invited to be the chief contributors, and in October 1842 Marx became editor-in-chief and moved from Bonn to Cologne. Journalism was to become a chief occupation of Marx for much of his life.

After the failure of various revolutionary movements on the continent, Marx was forced to go to London in 1849.

It should be noted that through most of his life, Marx did not work alone — he had the help of Friedrich Engels who had, on his own, developed a very similar theory of economic determinism. The two were of like mind and worked exceptionally well together — Marx was the better philosopher while Engels was the better communicator.

Although the ideas later acquired the term “Marxism,” it must always be remembered that Marx did not come up with them entirely on his own. Engels was also important to Marx in a financial sense — poverty weighed heavily on Marx and his family; had it not been for Engels’ constant and selfless financial aid, Marx would not only have been unable to complete most of his major works but might have succumbed to hunger and malnutrition.

Marx wrote and studied constantly, but ill-health prevented him from completing the last two volumes of Capital (which Engels subsequently put together from Marx’s notes). Marx’s wife died on December 2, 1881, and on March 14, 1883, Marx passed away peacefully in his armchair. He lies buried next to his wife at Highgate Cemetery in London.

The Opium of the People

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.

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 certainly has some important things to say on the nature of religion, he can’t be accepted as the last word on the subject.

First, Marx doesn’t spend much time looking at religion in general; instead, he focuses on the religion with which he is most familiar: Christianity. His comments do hold for other religions with similar doctrines of a powerful god and happy afterlife, they do not apply to radically different religions. In ancient Greece and Rome, for example, a happy afterlife was reserved for heroes while commoners could only look forward to a mere shadow of their earthly existence. Perhaps he was influenced in this matter by Hegel, who thought that Christianity was the highest form of religion and that whatever was said about that also automatically applied to “lesser” religions — but that isn’t true.

A second problem is his claim that religion is wholly determined by material and economic realities. Not only is nothing else fundamental enough to influence religion, but influence cannot run in the other direction, from religion to material and economic realities. This is not true. If Marx were right, then capitalism would appear in countries prior to Protestantism because Protestantism is the religious system created by capitalism — but we don’t find this. The Reformation comes to 16th century Germany which is still feudal in nature; real capitalism doesn’t appear until the 19th century. This caused Max Weber to theorize that religious institutions end up creating new economic realities. Even if Weber is wrong, we see that one can argue just the opposite of Marx with clear historical evidence.

A final problem is more economic than religious — but since Marx made economics the basis for all his critiques of society, any problems with his economic analysis will affect his other ideas. Marx places his emphasis on the concept of value, which can only be created by human labor, not machines. This has two flaws.

First, if Marx is correct, then a labor-intensive industry will produce more surplus value (and hence more profit) than an industry relying less upon human labor and more upon machines. But reality is just the opposite. At best, the return on investment is the same whether the work is done by people or machines. Quite often, machines allow for more profit than humans.

Second, common experience is that the value of a produced object lies not with the labor put into it but in the subjective estimation of a potential purchaser. A worker could, in theory, take a beautiful piece of raw wood and, after many hours, produce a terribly ugly sculpture. If Marx is correct that all value comes from labor, then the sculpture should have more value than the raw wood — but that is not necessarily true. Objects have only the value of whatever people are ultimately willing to pay; some might pay more for the raw wood, some might pay more for the ugly sculpture.

Marx’s labor theory of value and concept of surplus value as driving exploitation in capitalism are the fundamental underpinning upon which all of the rest of his ideas are based. Without them, his moral complaint against capitalism falters and the rest of his philosophy begins to crumble. Thus, his analysis of religion becomes difficult to defend or apply, at least in the simplistic form he describes.

Marxists have tried valiantly to refute those critiques or revise Marx’s ideas to render them immune to the problems described above, but they haven’t entirely succeeded (although they certainly disagree — otherwise they wouldn’t still be Marxists. Any Marxists reading this are welcome to come to the forum and offer their solutions).

Fortunately, we are not entirely limited to Marx’s simplistic formulations. We do not have to restrict ourselves to the idea that religion is only dependent upon economics and nothing else, such that the actual doctrines of religions are almost irrelevant. Instead, we can recognize that there are a variety of social influences upon religion, including economic and material realities of society. By the same token, religion can in turn have an influence upon society’s economic system.

Whatever one’s final conclusion about the accuracy or validity of Marx’s ideas on religion, we should recognize that he provided an invaluable service by forcing people to take a hard look at the social web in which religion always occurs. Because of his work, it has become impossible to study religion without also exploring its ties to various social and economic forces. People’s spiritual lives can no longer be assumed to be totally independent of their material lives.

For Karl Marx, the basic determining factor of human history is economics. According to him, humans — even from their earliest beginnings — are not motivated by grand ideas but instead by material concerns, like the need to eat and survive. This is the basic premise of a materialist view of history. At the beginning, people worked together in unity and it wasn’t so bad.

But eventually, humans developed agriculture and the concept of private property. These two facts created a division of labor and a separation of classes based upon power and wealth. This, in turn, created the social conflict which drives society.

All of this is made worse by capitalism which only increases the disparity between the wealthy classes and the labor classes. Confrontation between them is unavoidable because those classes are driven by historical forces beyond anyone’s control. Capitalism also creates one new misery: exploitation of surplus value.

For Marx, an ideal economic system would involve exchanges of equal value for equal value, where value is determined simply by the amount of work put into whatever is being produced. Capitalism interrupts this ideal by introducing a profit motive — a desire to produce an uneven exchange of lesser value for greater value. Profit is ultimately derived from the surplus value produced by workers in factories.

A laborer might produce enough value to feed his family in two hours of work, but he keeps at the job for a full day — in Marx’s time, that might be 12 or 14 hours. Those extra hours represent the surplus value produced by the worker. The owner of the factory did nothing to earn this, but exploits it nevertheless and keeps the difference as profit.

In this context, Communism thus has two goals: First it is supposed to explain these realities to people unaware of them; second, it is supposed to call people in the labor classes to prepare for the confrontation and revolution. This emphasis on action rather than mere philosophical musings is a crucial point in Marx’s program. As he wrote in his famous Theses on Feuerbach: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.”

Society

Economics, then, 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.

Marx had a special word for all of the work that goes into developing those institutions: ideology. The people working in those systems — developing art, theology, philosophy, etc. — imagine that their ideas come from a desire to achieve truth or beauty, but that is not ultimately true.

In reality, they are expressions of class interest and class conflict. They are reflections of an underlying need to maintain the status quo and preserve current economic realities. This isn’t surprising — those in power have always wished to justify and maintain that power.