According to Karl Marx, religion is like other social institutions in that it is dependent upon the material and economic realities in a given society. It has no independent history; instead it is the creature of productive forces. As Marx wrote, “The religious world is but the reflex of the real world.”
According to Marx, religion can only be understood in relation to other social systems and the economic structures of society. In fact, religion is only dependent upon economics, nothing else — so much so that the actual religious doctrines are almost irrelevant. This is a functionalist interpretation of religion: understanding religion is dependent upon what social purpose religion itself serves, not the content of its beliefs.
Marx’s opinion is that religion is an illusion that provides reasons and excuses to keep society functioning just as it is. Much as capitalism takes our productive labor and alienates us from its value, religion takes our highest ideals and aspirations and alienates us from them, projecting them onto an alien and unknowable being called a god.
Marx has three reasons for disliking religion. First, it is irrational — religion is a delusion and a worship of appearances that avoids recognizing underlying reality. Second, religion negates all that is dignified in a human being by rendering them servile and more amenable to accepting the status quo. In the preface to his doctoral dissertation, Marx adopted as his motto the words of the Greek hero Prometheus who defied the gods to bring fire to humanity: “I hate all gods,” with addition that they “do not recognize man’s self-consciousness as the highest divinity.”
Third, religion is hypocritical. Although it might profess valuable principles, it sides with the oppressors. Jesus advocated helping the poor, but the Christian church merged with the oppressive Roman state, taking part in the enslavement of people for centuries. In the Middle Ages the Catholic Church preached about heaven, but acquired as much property and power as possible.
Martin Luther preached the ability of each individual to interpret the Bible, but sided with aristocratic rulers and against peasants who fought against economic and social oppression. According to Marx, this new form of Christianity, Protestantism, was a production of new economic forces as early capitalism developed. New economic realities required a new religious superstructure by which it could be justified and defended.
Marx’s most famous statement about religion comes from a critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law:
- Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.
- The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions.
Marx is saying that religion is meant to create illusory fantasies for the poor. Economic realities prevent them from finding true happiness in this life, so religion tells them this is OK because they will find true happiness in the next life. Marx is not entirely without sympathy: people are in distress and religion does provide solace, just as people who are physically injured receive relief from opiate-based drugs.
The problem is that opiates fail to fix a physical injury — you only forget your pain and suffering. This can be fine, but only if you are also trying to solve the underlying causes of the pain. Similarly, religion does not fix the underlying causes of people’s pain and suffering — instead, it helps them forget why they are suffering and causes them to look forward to an imaginary future when the pain will cease instead of working to change circumstances now. Even worse, this “drug” is being administered by the oppressors who are responsible for the pain and suffering.
As interesting and insightful as Marx’s analysis and critiques are, they are not without their problems — historical and economic. Because of these problems, it would not be appropriate to accept Marx’s ideas uncritically. Although he certain has some important things to say on the nature of religion, he can’t be accepted as the last word on the subject.
First, Marx doesn’t spend much time looking at religion in general; instead he focuses on the religion with which he is most familiar: Christianity. His comments do hold for other religions with similar doctrines of a powerful god and happy afterlife, they do not apply to radically different religions. In ancient Greece and Rome, for example, a happy afterlife was reserved for heroes while commoners could only look forward to a mere shadow of their earthly existence. Perhaps he was influenced in this matter by Hegel, who thought that Christianity was the highest form of religion and that whatever was said about that also automatically applied to “lesser” religions — but that isn’t true.
A second problem is his claim that religion is wholly determined by material and economic realities. Not only is nothing else fundamental enough to influence religion, but influence cannot run in the other direction, from religion to material and economic realities. This is not true. If Marx were right, then capitalism would appear in countries prior to Protestantism because Protestantism is the religious system created by capitalism — but we don’t find this. The Reformation comes to 16th century Germany which is still feudal in nature; real capitalism doesn’t appear until the 19th century. This caused Max Weber to theorize that religious institutions end up creating new economic realities. Even if Weber is wrong, we see that one can argue just the opposite of Marx with clear historical evidence.
A final problem is more economic than religious — but since Marx made economics the basis for all his critiques of society, any problems with his economic analysis will affect his other ideas. Marx places his emphasis on the concept of value, which can only be created by human labor, not machines. This has two flaws.
First, if Marx is correct, than a labor-intensive industry will produce more surplus value (and hence more profit) than an industry relying less upon human labor and more upon machines. But reality is just the opposite. At best, the return on investment is the same whether the work is done by people or machines. Quite often, machines allow for more profit than humans.
Second, common experience is that the value of a produced object lies not with the labor put into it but in the subjective estimation of a potential purchaser. A worker could, in theory, take a beautiful piece of raw wood and, after many hours, produce a terribly ugly sculpture. If Marx is correct that all value comes from labor, then the sculpture should have more value than the raw wood — but that is not necessarily true. Objects have only the value of whatever people are ultimately willing to pay; some might pay more for the raw wood, some might pay more for the ugly sculpture.
Marx’s labor theory of value and concept of surplus value as driving exploitation in capitalism are the fundamental underpinning upon which all of the rest of his ideas are based. Without them, his moral complaint against capitalism falters and the rest of his philosophy begins to crumble. Thus, his analysis of religion becomes difficult to defend or apply, at least in the simplistic form he describes.
Marxists have tried valiantly to refute those critiques or revise Marx’s ideas to render them immune to the problems described above, but they haven’t entirely succeeded (although they certainly disagree — otherwise they wouldn’t still be Marxists. Any Marxists reading this are welcome to come to the forum and offer their solutions).
Fortunately, we are not entirely limited to Marx’s simplistic formulations. We do not have to restrict ourselves to the idea that religion is only dependent upon economics and nothing else, such that the actual doctrines of religions are almost irrelevant. Instead, we can recognize that there are a variety of social influences upon religion, including economic and material realities of society. By the same token, religion can in turn have an influence upon society’s economic system.
Whatever one’s final conclusion about the accuracy or validity of Marx’s ideas on religion, we should recognize that he provided an invaluable service by forcing people to take a hard look at the social web in which religion always occurs. Because of his work, it has become impossible to study religion without also exploring its ties to various social and economic forces. People’s spiritual lives can no longer be assumed to be totally independent of their material lives.