If you’ve ever met a smug, overconfident atheist (or been one!), you’ve almost certainly heard Karl Marx’s famous dictum: “Religion is the opium of the people.” Most people who repeat this quote are wholly unaware of its context, and take it to imply that religion is a large part of the cause of the people’s suffering. The full quote, in fact, says the opposite:
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.1
Marx is saying that religion is a response to real human suffering, not its primary cause. This suffering comes from social relations that are part of the fabric of our material world, and religion, like all other human ideologies, reflects the material world. Earlier in the same text, he says that “[t]his state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world.” That is, if religions often include oppressive beliefs as part of their dogma, it is only because the society we live in is founded upon material oppression, and religion can’t help but reproduce this same oppression, but at the level of ideas.
To put this within a larger context, much of Marx’s early writings2 were a reaction to the form of criticism espoused by the Young Hegelians, who directed most of their critique towards people’s ideas about the world. If the state oppressed people, they blamed it on their belief in the state, and if religion oppressed people, it was because they espoused religious beliefs. Parodying this way of thinking, Marx and Engels wrote:
Once upon a time a valiant fellow had the idea that men were drowned in water only because they were possessed with the idea of gravity. If they were to knock this notion out of their heads, say by stating it to be a superstition, a religious concept, they would be sublimely proof against any danger from water. His whole life long he fought against the illusion of gravity, of whose harmful results all statistics brought him new and manifold evidence. This valiant fellow was the type of the new revolutionary philosophers in Germany.3
Against the Young Hegelians, Marx and Engels’ revolutionary philosophy claimed that oppression has its root in material reality, not our ideas about reality, and that if we wish to challenge that oppression, we must attack reality itself as it exists today. They wrote primarily about class oppression, but much of what they said is also applicable to many other forms of oppression. An idealist, for example, would argue that racism exists because people believe in a hierarchy of races. Instead, a Marxist would say that these ideas have their roots in material realities, such as the need for Black slaves in the Americas, or cheap labor in the South and West sides of Chicago. Thus, a fight against racism necessarily involves a fight against the material realities that produce it.
All of this is not to say that Marx was in favor of religion, or anything of the kind. He was emphatically against religion and all forms of ideology, which he saw as giving legitimacy to the established order. In his words:
The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance.4
According to Marx, dominant ideologies such as religion are necessarily deployed by, and in defense of, the ruling classes. This may seem a bit extreme, but again, it was written in reaction to the extreme idealism of the Young Hegelians. According to many interpreters, the later Marx would adopt a more nuanced position, which gave ideology5 a “relative autonomy” over the material world.6 While it is true that dominant ideologies have a tendency to serve the ruling classes, they are also subject to contestation, and furthermore, the oppressed can (and do) come up with their own ideas which they may use to further their own interests. If this were not the case, why would Marx bother writing to begin with?
History has shown that some of these emancipatory ideas that the oppressed use in their defense can take the form of religion. Most of the early struggles in resistance to Spanish colonialism in the Americas were Messianic in their ideological content, at least certainly in my own little region of South America.7 The ideology of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States often had strong religious elements. And many struggles today are carried forward in the name of the liberation theologies that the last century has brought to existence.
Still, it is undeniably the case that religion has often impeded political mobilization. Not long before the Southern Christian Leadership Conference became a central pole of resistance during the Civil Rights Movement, Black preachers were often in the pockets of Southern landowners, both through bribes and violent intimidation. As Mays and Nicholson say:
Economically, it was profitable to the landowners to keep the Negroes satisfied and have them honest. The Negro preacher and the Negro church were instruments to this end. And the methods often employed were to boost and encourage the Negro preacher who taught the Negro the “right” doctrine . . . these Negro preachers could be relied upon to convey to their Negro congregations the advice of the leading whites of the community.8
The difference between the two forms of theology is that the second, the theologies of the ruling class, place people to the service of religion, and ask them to make sacrifices in the name of their religious beliefs. The first, the religions of liberation, place religion to the service of people, and use religion as a catalyst of political action in the interest of the oppressed. If there is any kind of religion which is compatible with political Marxism,9 it is these religions of liberation. Marxism requires that we espouse only those beliefs which may serve to make sense of the suffering of the oppressed, and help them abolish the system that oppresses them.
Finally, there is still the question of whether religion will have any use after class society is abolished, and with it the suffering that made religion necessary in the first place. Marx certainly thought that it would not.10 But religion also responds to other forms of suffering that do not have social ills as their basis, such as death and love. It seems pretty reasonable to me to believe that even in communism, humans will still have to suffer at least one death per person. And if they choose to deal with it with religion, I don’t see why we should have a problem with that. Personally, I will still always respond to my suffering by grabbing a nice book of poetry or watching a film, but if others choose to open up their favorite religious book, I am nobody to judge them.
- Karl Marx. “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.” 1843. <http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/critique-hpr/intro.htm> ↩
- This was written when Marx was only 25. ↩
- Karl Marx. Preface, “The German Ideology.” 1845. <http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/german-ideology/ch01a.htm> ↩
- Karl Marx. Part I, “The German Ideology,” <http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/german-ideology/ch01b.htm> ↩
- More precisely, the superstructure, a catch-all term that includes ideology, the laws, culture, and the state. ↩
- Louis Althusser. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation).” 1970. <http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/althusser/1970/ideology.htm> ↩
- Alfred Métraux. “The Guaraní,” Handbook of South American Indians. Ed. Julian H. Steward. 1948. 93-94. ↩
- Benjamin Mays and Joseph W. Nicholson. The Negro’s Church. 1969. 7. ↩
- Complete, philosophical Marxism is probably too inherently materialist to be compatible with any form of transcendental religious belief, though perhaps not with some form of spirituality. ↩
- Karl Marx. “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.” ↩