Karl Marx on Religion

Posted on Categories Political Processes & Rhetoric, Public

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.

5 thoughts on “Karl Marx on Religion”

  1. 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. 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.

  2. 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.”

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