From Marx’s materialistic perspective, religion serves to mystify the real relations between men and inanimate objects.
In reality, according to Marx, nature is an impersonal force which imposes limitations on man’s capacity to act, but nature can be understood scientifically and manipulated rationally, via technology, potentially for the benefit of man-kind.
However, through religion, humans project personal characteristics onto nature: they invent gods which they believe have control over nature, and come to believe that the way to manipulate nature is to appeal to these gods through ritual or sacrifice.
Religion as the ‘Opium of the People’
In Marx’s own words:
‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions. it is the opium of the people’.
According to Marx, one of the main ‘functions’ of religion is to prevent people making demands for social change by dulling pain of oppression, as follows:
- The promise of an afterlife gives people something to look forwards to. It is easier to put up with misery now if you believe you have a life of ‘eternal bliss’ to look forward to after death.
- Religion makes a virtue out of suffering – making it appear as if the poor are more ‘Godly’ than the rich. One of the best illustrations of this is the line in the bible: ‘It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of heaven.
- Religion can offer hope of supernatural intervention to solve problems on earth: this makes it pointless for humans to try to do anything significant to help improve their current conditions.
- Religion can justify the social order and people’s position within that order, as in the line in the Victorian hymn ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’:
- The rich man in his castle
- The poor man at his gate
- God made them high and lowly
- And ordered their estate.
Such lines make social inequalities seem as if they are ‘God’s will’ an thus unchangeable.
From the Marxist Perspective, religion does not only ameliorate the sufferings of life, it also effectively creates false consciousness.
Marx believed that the ‘objective’ truth was that the proletariat (i.e. most people) suffer deprivations because of their exploitation by the Bourgeois (namely the extraction of surplus value empowers the minority Bourgeois class and leaves the majority of the proletariat with insufficient money to lead a decent quality of life), however, people fail to realise this because religion teaches them that all of the misery in life is God’s will.
Or in Marx’s own words:
‘In religion people make their empirical world into an entity that is only conceived, imagined, that confronts them as something foreign’.
Religion and Social Control
Religion also acts as a tool of social control in a more direct sense: according to Marx and Engels:
‘The parson has ever gone hand in hand with the landlord’.
This was especially true in feudal England when the landed classes’ decisions were frequently legitimated be religious decree: as Marx and Engels saw it, the bourgeois and the church supported one another: the former generously funded the later, and church legitimated social inequality, thus maintaining the established social order.
The non-necessity of religion under communism
Religion is only necessary under exploitative systems where the majority of men do not control the conditions under which they labour, under systems where men work for someone else rather than for themselves: in such systems, religious doctrines which teach that ‘you are insignificant in the eyes of gods/ the supernatural’ make sense, and serve a useful function for those who are in control of and who benefit from said exploitation.
Under communism, where man controls the conditions of his labour, he is essentially ‘for himself’, and thus will have no need of religion. Under communism, where reality is ‘fair’ religion will not be required, and so will simply whither away.
Evidence to support Marxism
There is a considerable body of historical evidence which supports the Marxist view of the role of religion in society: for example the traditional caste system in India was supported by Hindu religious believes (in reincarnation for example); and in Medieval Europe Kings ruled by the ‘divine right of God’. Possibly the most ‘extreme’ example, however, is in ancient the ancient Egyptian belief which held that Pharaohs were both men and gods at the same time.
A more recent example, drawn from the USA, lies in the support that Republican politicians have enjoyed from the ‘New Christian Right’ who, according to Steve Bruce (1988), support ‘a more aggressive anti-communist foreign policy, more military spending, less welfare spending and fewer restraints on enterprise’.
The new Christian right have persistently supported more right wing (neo) liberal candidates – such as Ronald Regan in 1984 and George Bush in 2004 – when the later was elected, an exit poll found that two thirds of voters who attended church more than once a week had voted for him.
While it might be debatable how successful the religious right in the USA are in getting their candidates elected to political power, what does seem clear is that they do tend to support more economically powerful sectors of the political elite, suggesting support for the Marxist view of religion.
Criticisms of the Marxist perspective on religion
Firstly, it is clear that religion does not always prevent social change by creating false class consciousness. There are plenty of examples of where oppressed groups have used religion to attempt (whether successful or not is moot here) to bring about social change, as we will see in the neo-Marxist perspective on religion.
Secondly, religion still exists where there is (arguably) no oppression: the USSR communist state placed limits on the practice of religion, including banning religious instruction to children, however, religious belief remained stronger in the 20th century in Russia and Eastern Europe than it did in the capitalist west.
Thirdly, and building on the previous point: just because religion can be used as a tool of manipulation and oppression, this does not explain its existence: religion seems to be more or less universal in all societies, so it is likely that it fulfills other individual and social needs, possibly in a more positive way as suggested by Functionalist theorists such as Durkheim, Malinowski, and Parsons.
Adapted from Haralmabos and Holborn (2008) Sociology Themes and Perspectives, 7th Edition, Collins.