14. Marx and Faith; Enemies, Allies or an Opiate?
Karl Marx, the father of modern Marxist and communist thought, set the tone for decades of conflict, providing the language of oppression and revolution that played into many of today’s governments. However, one of his more ‘revolutionary ideas’ was his distinct opposition to faith and disillusion.
A lot of critics of Marx throw around the quote ‘the opium of the people’ as evidence that Marx himself was an opposer of religion in general, akin to modern religious critics like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. However, the reality is a bit more complex.
Like most writers of the Enlightenment, Marx was an critic of the state of religion at the time. Man was becoming more intellectual; so why should they rely on the old superstitious texts of the past?
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
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.
Marx’s belief is not that religion is the oppressive force used to keep people down, but a symptom of a grander problem; specifically the ideas and practices of the ruling class. Religion exists dualistically as pain relief and an oppressive system that society creates to maintain order.
Many people see this as a response to the physical plights of the day. Professor Phil Gasper writes in the International Socialist Review that:
Marx seems to be arguing that religious belief is typically a reflection of human alienation, not simply material deprivation. In his writings in the early 1840s, Marx wrote extensively about alienation under capitalism, and much ink has since been spilled trying to explain exactly what he meant. His central idea is that people are alienated when the development and exercise of their essential human capacities is systematically frustrated. Straightforward material deprivation is one way in which a person may be unable to develop or exercise their capacities, but it is not the only way. For example, someone may have their basic material needs met, but still be prevented from forming meaningful relations with others due to the way society is structured.
Marx recognizes that many people seek certain needs in faith, such as meaning or community. Unfortunately, faith-based communities or meaning is insufficient in his mind since the basis is superstitious rather than logical. He also believes it to be a way to transmit and reinforce the oppressive ideas of the day. The Encyclopedia of Religion and Society explains it as follows:
Marx, however, bends it in a different direction. He writes in his critique of Hegel that:
The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas: i.e., the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. . . . The individuals composing the ruling class possess among other things consciousness, and therefore think. Insofar, therefore, as they rule as a class and determine the extent and compass of an epoch, it is self evident that they do this in its whole range, hence among other things rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the idea of their age: thus their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch.
One apparatus of the transmission of ideas is the church through religion. Religion adds legitimacy to ideas (by making them sacred) that enhance the ruling class’s economic position and their hegemony…….The influence religion exerts on the lower classes is only possible to the extent that they constitute a class by itself (eine Klasse en Sich) , namely, a class that has not developed a class consciousness. However, when a class develops consciousness, becomes aware of its own interests and become a class for itself (eine Klasse für Sich) , then the consciousness it develops reflects its own interests.
For Marx, it was people like the Pope and bishops of the day who push the ideologies of the ruling class, thus causing many to believe that the current status quo is acceptable because God approves of it.
Thus religion stands as a wall and a stumbling block for the rise of Marx’s idea of a true utopia. Until both the government and religion are abolished, nothing will improve or change. For Marx, it is in his fellow’s man to break the status quo that hope comes from.