Religious 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.