A Marxist Perspective on Religion

Photo by Ricky Turner on Unsplash

The average person is likely familiar with Marx’s description of religion as “the opium of the people”. This comment is typically interpreted to mean that religion leads sheep astray and proliferates false consciousness. Marx’s view on religion is simplified into one of religion as a blindfold, used by the ruling classes of each epoch to beguile the laboring classes. This is not the totality of Marx’s view, however. To truly understand what he meant, we must examine the whole of the original remark, taken from the introduction to Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right:

“The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man — state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.

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.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo”

The Marxist view of religion is not merely that it is a blindfold. Religion is a complex body, a medium through which social relations and antagonisms within find their expression in abstract form. Further, that religion promises enlightenment, ascendance to a higher plane of existence, and life after death in paradise is a means through which the laboring classes numb the misery of their lives.

Marx uses a description of it as an opium for a reason. He did not mean to simply convey religion as a harmful, blinding addiction, as a more contemporary view on opium might lead one to believe. Rather he meant to convey all the complexities of what drives people to use opium onto what drives the laboring classes into religion. Marx himself was a user of opium, so it is not surprising he would use a familiar image. To Marx, this phrase meant that religion is used by the masses to lessen their suffering by finding comfort in the idea of something higher. At the same time, it leads to a dependence, one which can be exploited by the ruling classes. As the British imperialists exploited opium addiction in China, so the ruling classes exploit the religions of the laboring classes, using religion as a medium to produce and reproduce the dominant ideology.

It is very important to not limit one’s view of religion as merely a reproductive organ for the dominant ideology of the ruling class. Religion, as with all other facets of society’s superstructures, is an expression of real material relations, tendencies, and antagonisms. Religion can be a roundabout expression by the laboring classes of their material interests. This is conveyed where Marx says, “Religious suffering is… a protest against real suffering.” This idea holds true in examination of historic movements of the laboring classes. For example, the Diggers in England expressed the class interests of the peasantry in resistance to the enclosures, although this was communicated through the body of Protestantism. Indigenous American and African resistance movements to colonization and enslavement have used their religions for rejection of colonial domination and forced assimilation. Liberation theology via Catholicism in Latin America was used in revolutionary movements such as the Sandinistas of Nicaragua, the Party of the Poor in Mexico, and elements of the Bolivarian revolutionary movement.

Yes, Marxism is atheistic. But unlike the typical bourgeois atheism which blames religion for wars and oppression, Marxism acknowledges that religion is not the arbiter for these miseries, rather it is a medium of expression for their material bases.

Religion is a conduit. It is not inherently reactionary or progressive. Though it tends toward the interests of the ruling classes, since they control the means of communication of mental production and thereby produce the dominant ideology. While we must acknowledge this, we must also not condemn religious movements and peoples entirely as fools or reactionaries. Religion does not cause wars, material desires for the accumulation of resources, property, and labor do, and those have simply historically been frequently expressed or shrouded in religious terms. Religion does not cause patriarchy or the gendered division of labor, it simply adorns it with an ornate visage as a virtue. Its doctrine about the gendered division of labor comes from that division, not the other way around.

The idea does not create reality, reality creates the idea. To believe that such states of affairs come about from people getting such ideas into their heads, as is common in bourgeois atheism, is to be foolish enough to believe that ideas simply fall from heaven into the minds of people rather than ideas developing as responses to people’s realities.

As Marxists, this understanding of religion must be incorporated into our attitudes and policies. We should not simply advocate a universal repression of religious life, especially the religious life of the colonized world. We must remember that religion is characterized contexts by the social relations and material developments of said contexts, and we must adapt our policies accordingly.

For example, Evangelical Christianity in the US is a clear example of reactionary religion, as an expression of bourgeois interests, the values and desires of white settlers, and individualism. It does not hold such reactionary doctrine simply because it is wrongheaded, however, but because the demographics of its creators, proliferators, and parishes come from demographics whose interests are reactionary. Christianity as a whole is not uniformly of this reactionary character, and can be progressive when it is a Christianity that expresses the interests of an oppressed people. After all, Christianity began as a movement among slaves, and was an expression of their class interests in defiance of the Roman Empire.

Often, Western atheists, even Marxists, consider Muslims to be just the same as Western Evangelicals. To put the Islamic faith of the colonized proletariat in the Middle East on the same level as the Evangelical faith of the white settler petite-bourgeoisie in the US is disingenuous. There is a common perception of Islam as naturally reactionary. Western bourgeois atheism tends to believe that conservative states like Saudi Arabia are as such due to widespread Islamic faith. Reactionary strains of Islam, such as Salafism and Wahhabism, are expressions of semi-feudal, patriarchal, and petite-bourgeois interests. To believe that such reaction is inherent to Islam itself is a colonial view, and fails to see the nuances of varying material interests influencing the expression of religious faith.

Far more productive than simply universally repressing religion would be to evaluate which religious institutions and movements are reactionary, and therefore warrant repression, and to attack the material conditions which warrant the laboring classes turning to religion as an escape in the first place. Organized religion has been and will very much be repressed by the dictatorship of the proletariat, because it is a conduit of the dominant ideology of the ruling classes. Religious life among the masses as a whole, however, is far more nuanced, and our evaluation of it should always take into account what material relations and interests it is an expression of.

The view Marxism holds of religion is not so simplistic as bourgeois atheism. Religion is a body through which many tendencies and relations of reality pass through, it is not a uniformly reactionary thing. While we must combat religious formations exploited by the ruling classes, we must also understand that religious life among the laboring classes cannot simply be destroyed by repressing religious expression, and that belief in religion will continue among those classes as long as there is misery in their lives to escape from. With communist development, the abolition of commodity production and the adoption of production for direct immediate consumption, the misery which drives people to escapist aspects of religious faith will be diminished. Thus, religion will become more and more a cultural expression, rather than an escape from the pain of the conditions of life.

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