Religion, opium and Karl Marx

Posted on December 29, 2010


“Religion is the opium of the people.” Those seven words are most often quoted as summing up the views of Karl Marx about religion. They also comprise perhaps the most widely known supposed view of the 19th Century socialist philosopher and revolutionary.

But that quotation is taken out of both literary and historical context. As such, it grossly distorts the view on religion put forward by Marx. What he actually wrote is:

“Religious suffering is at the same time an expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart in a heartless world, the spirit of unspiritual conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

The full literary context makes a nonsense of the simplistic notion that Marx — and any who consider that his social and economic analysis was correct — simply dismissed religion. It should also be remembered that, historically, the only widely used painkiller in the days of Karl Marx was opium.

A more accurate, modern, rendition of the seven-word distortion of his views could, therefore be: religion is the Paracetemol of the people.

So the attitude of Marx, and of revolutionary socialists, is to accept that religion has a place in our material world; that it is a reaction to the material conditions in which people find themselves. It is, in fact, a painkiller that can soothe the symptoms of suffering, but ,in and of itself, does not deal with the underlying cause.

However, Marx was, and most revolutionary socialists today are, atheists: people who maintain that human beings create their gods; that gods and religious beliefs exist in the human mind because of the fears and suffering humanity faces.

The main fear is a fear of the one certainty we all face: death. An emotional escape from this lies in a belief that there is a life after death. For those people suffering repression, hunger and brutality, religious belief also holds out the promise that something better awaits in another life. In other words, “Marxists” hold that religious people create answers where there should exist only questions.

However, this does not preclude people who hold religious beliefs from being revolutionaries and socialists; even from agreeing with the socio-economic analysis of Marx and his collaborator, Frederick Engels. But such individuals usually fall outside the ambit of organised religion which, with few exceptions, is used to maintain the positions of those who rule in our class society.

For the most part, organised religion teaches that we should accept hardship and inequality because it is “God’s will”. We are encouraged not to resist our exploiters because we are all the “children of God”. We are also told, especially in the Christian faith, that we should “love your enemy”. Carrying out such dictates carries with it the promise of a place “with God” or a new and better rebirth after death.

But this “life after death” is a belief, not a fact for which there is any proof; and whether we dismiss it or believe in it is irrelevant, so long as it does not interfere with the struggle to improve life in the here and now. This is something that socialists are committed to, on the basis that justice and equity make for a healthier society; that the maximum possible extension of democratic control by people of their own lives should be a goal to fight for.

As it stands, religion, for the most part, does not provide motivation to discover more about matters about which we are ignorant, instead, it provides convenient answers which calm fears, but which encourage ignorance. Such ignorance, linked with the acceptance of inequality, usually diluted by gestures of patronage and charity to the less fortunate, helps maintain a system of extreme wealth and crushing poverty in a world of plenty. It is a status quo based on competition and the exploitation of the majority of humanity to the benefit of the few, a system over which we have very little influence, let alone control.

There should be no acceptance of the system or of dictates of politicians, popes, priests or pastors; we should all be asking questions about why millions should starve while surplus food is destroyed and why obscene wealth co-exists with horrific poverty. Above all, we need to discuss how this can and should be changed; how a sane, democratic system which values people before profit may be brought into being.

However, religion, while it can sometimes rally people against one or other aspect of injustice, still acts basically to confuse and frustrate humanity in its pursuit of real fulfilment. Yet pain killers need not replace the need for tackling the causes of our misery although, as Marx indicated, when we rely on them we can forget that we need to combat and defeat what is really harming us.

Tagged: , ,
Posted in: Commentary