Karl Marx on Religion

marxReligious people sometimes express disdain for Karl Marx and his philosophies because he supposedly characterized religion as “the opiate of the masses.” It turns out that this isn’t exactly what Marx said. Furthermore, he wasn’t necessarily negative about religion and its role in social life.

Appearing in Marx’s projected but never completed A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy, Marx’s words on religion are of course in German. He uses the German word “Volk,” which usually translates as “the people” rather than “the masses” as his detractors choose to claim.

Then, too, it’s important to remember that opium and opium derivatives were for the most part legal during the period in which Marx wrote and that they were thought of largely as medicinal. Any suggestion that Marx was equating religion to an illegal, addictive narcotic is therefore off-target.

Marx’s actual words regarding religion deserve reflection. My best translation of those words is as follows: “Religion is the opium of the people. It is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of our soulless conditions.”

Overall, Marx is speaking not as a man of faith but rather as a secular humanist. However, he does appear to suggest a largely positive role religion could play in an exploitative and alienating society. Human beings have the distressing habit of killing one another because of religious differences, and some of our most religious citizens wear the biggest of blinders. But Marx is right that our society can use a “heart” and a “soul” wherever we might find it.

This Post Has 32 Comments

  1. Randolph C Smith

    In other words Religion serves a medicinal purpose.

    1. David R Papke

      Yes, and that purpose need not necessarily be a negative one.

    2. Ray Naylor

      He meant that it numbs and distracts the people from their oppressors, and blamed religion for the class warfare and global labor uprising he dreamed of not materializing. He characteristically blamed an outside influence and not his own shortcomings, not least of which being laziness, and the absurdity of his theories ever succeeding. He dreamed up perhaps the best Ponzi scheme of all time, convincing the gullible to invest not money but morality, ambition, responsibility and ultimately their souls to his “the world owes me a living” approach to life. Religion, the nuclear family, sense of self all aligned against poor Karl, thwarting his dream and therefore justifying the abolishment of all but devotion to the state.

      1. Wesley Shiflet

        But class warfare and global labor uprising HAS materialized– it happened throughout the early 20th century especially, but it’s been happening somewhere pretty much continuously. And didn’t he only have like one guy sending him money, his co-author? I’m pretty sure Madoff’s actual Ponzi scheme was a lot better, and lasted longer than whatever Marx had set up, too. So I’m not sure what you could be referring to by that part.

        Anyway, while England did have the nuclear family in practice, the. And while Marx and Engels saw the abolition of the family as beneficial, they saw it as more of a natural later step unlike Fourier and Owen before them, as they theorized the concept of the family would almost necessarily dissolve were private property successfully abolished.

      2. Troy Hilder

        Organized religion is a means of social warfare. Those in power in religion maintain wealth through that power, and create another separate ruling class.
        Add to that that they are more freely able to indoctrinate their constituents, and the world becomes embroiled in a conflict of ideologies.

        Organized religion is the practice of willful discrimination.

        You want a threat to peace? Walk around saying choose my God or die.

        One world, one people, one pool of resources. To divide that is a detriment to all.

        No man or God has the right to judge an entire population in this way.

        Why would you support something that will never support you?

      3. Dennis

        The really best Ponzi scheme is Christianity and religion in general. Oh the money they have collected and for what, a trip to the promised land

      4. Stephen Grossman

        Marx’s intuition of a transcendental dialectic is merely a pseudo-rational restatement of Christian faith in God. Both Marx and Christianity reject the active, focused mind for the empty, passive, unfocused mind receiving a revelation from beyond it. Christianity regards the individual as a lost fragment of God. Marx regards the individual as an unreal abstraction from society. Both advocate sacrifice. Both condemn capitalism.

    3. Iby De George-Gearey

      Perfect interpretation. I am a mental health practitioner and consider religion as a validating psychological process that allows identification with a larger than life healing power.

    4. James Read

      Not really: “Religion… is the opium of the people, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of our soulless conditions.” If Marx considered Religion serving a ‘medicinal purpose’ why did he consider it a threat to be destroyed?

  2. AEve

    Opium is a narcotic. It relieves physical and emotional pain as well as lowering blood pressure. What Marx is saying is that the world is cruel and religion helps ease the pain. He did not say religion makes the world a better place. To the contrary; historical facts clearly show religion has often been a motivating factor for cruelty.

    1. John O'Riordan

      AEve, would you not consider that it is implicit in Marx’ words that it DOES make the world a (somewhat) better place, is relieving pain not beneficial, is balm for the soul (or spirit) not beneficial in the face of a ‘cruel’ world? Of course, this was only a qualified endorsement by Marx, as he thought the ‘opium’ merely made people acquiesce in the face of cruel or tyrannical capitalism.

      It is undeniable that religion has been responsible for cruelty, for wars even! (the 30 years war was a blot on the concept of religion- but, even there, religion was used, and unforgivably allowed itself to be used, by the so called ‘temporal powers’. The spectacle of priests on all sides in conflicts blessing their own sides prior to all out war amply illustrate how ‘irreligious’ belief systems can become. But then, consider that all the modern mega civil conflicts, and campaigns of genocide were waged by atheistic despots- Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot. Despots don’t like religion, with fairly good reasons. Religion did allow itself to support establishments but religiously inspired people were, for two millennia, predominantly the ones who were the beating ‘heart’ of society.
      It is easy in these times, when we constantly encounter anti-religious sentiment, to forget the positives enshrined in the Christian precepts “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” or “turn the other cheek” – the very precepts that guided those who built hospitals, schools, universities.

      I think that that we need the presence of religion if only as a beacon, a lighthouse, to illuminate the way forward, so we do not fall entirely into the clutches of some latter-day despots or wholly embrace the notion that science can answer all our questions, provide all our solutions.

      1. MORGAN

        Stalin strongly embraced the Russian orthodox church, Hitler was publicly blessed by german catholic bishops in mass gatherings and Napolean strong re religion. All belief systems are human created, all, no exceptions, all

      2. michael berry

        Thanks. Very good balance and direction!

      3. Minnie O'Malley

        “all the modern mega civil conflicts, and campaigns of genocide were waged by atheistic despots- Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot” ≠ truth. Really, *all* modern mega civil conflicts?!? What about Israel and it’s illegal occupation of Palestine? Under the banner of ‘‘never again”, the religious Jews have slaughtered Palestinians, established an illegal apartheid system, and are hell-bent on dominating the entire region. There are countless other examples of genocide and ethnic cleansing by highly religious nation-states. Why put it all on your select list of “atheistic” despots? Look at history. Look at evidence.

      4. Bart Stinson

        Absurd for Morgan to suggest the German church was onboard with the Nazi mass murder program. One of their first assassination victims was the Catholic Bishop of Munich, and anti-Nazi resistance by the Protestant “confessing church” is well-documented.

      5. Antoine Harvey-Boudreault

        To summarize religion as you have is silly. It’s also a constant satanization of beautiful scientific fact. It’s written to convince, not to be true therefore will forever only create heretics unless it’s seen through spinoza.

      6. Ken Bastron

        John, You are right,”pure religion in the sight of God” is compassion, ie. “Caring for the widows and orphans in their distress”. The Spirit of God said it through Jesus’ 1/2 brother James (in the bk of James, in the Bible).

    2. Minnie O'Malley

      Thank you!

      1. Bart Stinson

        Surely you don’t deny that Arabs attacked Jews, thus provoking the wars that they lost? And you do realize that the Arabs deploy weapon systems behind human shields, thus ensuring that any Israeli counter-attack resulted in the “slaughter” of Palestinian civilians?

    3. Saad Daroub

      You are right. I saw an add dated to 1910 of German pharmaceutical company Beir saying: opium the medicine for all kinds of pain! But let us take a look at the orthodox church in Russia, the church did not,or could not ask the Tzar to be fair with the people, yet it could get to the minds of the people. And was a priority to the communists to get rid of religion that was deceiving, according to the masses and would be the revolution’s worst enemy!

  3. Nabarun Ghoshal

    Please read the next paragraph. It reads–

    “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.”

  4. James Nusiforo

    You’ve got be nuts to believe anything this drunken moron spewed. He is a fool burning in eternity in Hell.

    1. Benjamin Gasque

      You go to hell for writing economics/philosophy books?

      1. Minnie O'Malley

        You win the internet here!

      2. Bart Stinson

        Depends on the book.

  5. David Chavez

    Karl Marx might have also thought of religion as a way for governments to manipulate and subject the people to their rule. Somewhat like how Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity to conquer. Agree? Disagree?

    1. Bart Stinson

      He never said so, so far as I know.

    2. Brock Keyes

      Your are correct sir. An opiate drug being so powerful and addictive that anyone who controls such a thing(head of the church) controls the people. This is why organised religion was outlawed in USSR-the state did not let anything exist that might serve to question its authority.

  6. Migeeb Ekam

    The phrase attributed to Karl goes for the heart of philosophy. Let’s look at it again: “religion is the opium of the people.” He is right considering what is happening nowadays with rulers and the way they lead their people. The only way rulers and leaders mislead their people of anything is simply by linking it religion. Who, of the people, could say no to the ruler if it is issued under religion’s cover, which people seem to react as if drug-affected. If you happen to say no you would even face the people themselves standing against you. In my country, dictators continue ruling and oppressing the people by this opium. They bring religion’s teachings to use and interpret them for their own sake. They make use of absolute respect of the people to their faith for their own purposes. The thing that a terrorist is convinced through to commit suicide is through religion. Nothing bad about religion, rather it’s exploitation of the teaching. So Karl never underestimated religion, rather he wanted to reveal such misuse of it by decision-makers comparing the state of people like that of a drug.

    1. Suzi Seuss

      I agree with you Migeeb. There needs to be an important distinction made between religion and those who use religion to achieve their own agendas. Religion is only one of many means that governments and individuals use to manipulate people. Such behaviour does not of itself, make religion evil. Now that people do not have so much religion in our post-modern society, they are numbing the pain of injustice and oppression by using opiates – literally. Hence the drug epidemic we currently face in Western societies.

    2. Albert Njoh

      Indeed, even the apartheid regime of South Africa challenged those who opposed it by quoting Romans 13. Quite often some oppressors have used religion for the wrong purpose.

  7. Barry McCall

    My take is that Marx was simply observing the fact that religions, by and large, attempt to provide sanctuary from the ills of the day. Whether it be a pandemic or despots, religions provide a way to escape the “catastrophe du jour.” The hijacking of religion for political purposes is an entirely separate issue.

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