Karl Marx on Religion: Ideas & Quotes

By Olivia Guy-Evans, published Nov 08, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


Karl Marx discussed some of his ideas about religion in his writings. He understood that religion served a purpose in society but disagreed with the basis of that function. Marx had a hard time believing in unseen truths such as those that religions offer. Since he was young, he refused religion and expressed himself as an atheist (Latief, 2011).

The basis of his argument on religion is that humans should be led by reason and that religion masks truth and misguides followers. 

Marx’s Key Ideas on Religion

Religion is the ‘Opium of the people'

In his 1844 essay ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right,’ Marx stated that ‘religion is the opium of the people.’ 

While opium is now known to be an addictive narcotic drug, it is essential to remember that opium was mostly legal during the period in which Marx wrote and was primarily thought of as having medicinal properties. 

What can be inferred from Marx’s claim is that if religion is opium, then it provides temporary relief from the oppression that the working class (or proletariat) experiences from capitalism. It protects the workers from the misery of exploitation in a capitalist society. 

3 ways that religion is like opium

  1. Dulls the pain of exploitation rather than dealing with the cause of the exploitation just like opium dulls the pain of an injury rather than healing the injury itself.
  2. Religion give a distorted world view, it can offer no solutions to earthly misery but can offer the promise of an afterlife. Just as Opium can create hallucinations and distort the takers perspectives.
  3. The temporary high that the followers feeling whilst taking part in the rituals mimics the temporary high achieved by taking opium.

Religion justifies an unequal social order

Marx suggested there were two structures in society. Firstly, there is the infrastructure which is the economic base of society, meaning the unequal relationship between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.

Secondly is the superstructure, which maintains the inequalities by spreading the ideology of the bourgeoisie. He believed these ideas spread through social institutions such as religion (Yue, 2002). 

Thus, he believed that religion justifies the unequal social order in society. The unequal hierarchy in society is believed to be god’s will. The poor are poor because they are sinners, whereas the wealthy are righteous. 

This idea can be traced back to a feudal society where many believed that monarchs were chosen by gods. According to Marx, religion is a way to spread values in society that maintains the position of the ruling class, which simultaneously justifies capitalism. 

Marx posits that religion is a tool of the ruling class to maintain power and reproduce inequality. They justify the principals of capitalism and prevent the proletariat revolution. Marxists argue that major scientific discoveries are motivated by generating mass profits and only fuels capitalism further.

Religion creates a false consciousness

Marx believed that religion created a false consciousness for the proletariat. It distorts the proletariat’s view of reality, so they do not realize their true exploitation. 

He believed that the proletariat suffers because of their exploitation, but they fail to realize this because religion teaches them that their misery is God's will.  Religion is thought to hide the bourgeoisie’s role in the proletariat’s exploitation. 

Religion, according to Marx, makes a virtue out of suffering and offers a false hope that the afterlife is something to look forward to after death. 

Religion also offers a false hope of some supernatural intervention that can be prayed to in order to fix problems or to comfort them. This belief is something that can prevent people from trying to do anything practical to improve their own living conditions. It can also increase the feeling of alienation from the self. 

Religion maintains social control

Marx argued that religion was one of the ways in which the ruling class maintained control of society. He argued that religion is a form of ideology that controls the masses.  

The rewards for the proletariat’s hard work would come in the afterlife, which is a way to motivate the poor to continue working.

Religion, according to Marx, inhibits social change because if workers are promised rewards in the afterlife  believe that they cannot change their position because it is God’s will, they are not likely to try to change their conditions. Ultimately, religion prevents a revolution from the working class. 

Karl Marx’s Quotes On Religion

The following quotes are from Marx’s writing, Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1844): 

‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.’ 


‘The foundation of religious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is indeed the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself or has already lost himself again… This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world.’


‘To sublate religion as the illusory happiness of the people is to demand their real happiness. The demand to give up illusions about the existing state of affairs is the demand to give up a state of affairs which needs illusions. The criticism of religion is therefore in embryo the criticism of the vale of tears, the halo of which is religion.’


‘The foundation of religious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is indeed the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself or has already lost himself again… This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world.’

Strengths And Limitations Of Marx’s Analysis Of Religion

Some of Marx’s views on religion are supported by Lenin, who referred to religion as ‘spiritual booze.’ Lenin claimed that ‘religious fog’ is a diversion of the working class, offering futile hopes of life after death (Boer, 2013). These views are similar to those of Marx.

Religion justifying ideas about social hierarchies is supported by the views of those living in medieval Europe. The kings and the queens of the time were said to rule by divine right. Likewise, the Egyptian pharaohs believed that both God and King were the same person. These historic views provide support to Marx’s view that unequal social order is justified by religion. 

Despite Marx’s ideas about religion being present in capitalist societies, religion seems almost universal in all types of societies, not just in capitalistic ones. Because of this, religion likely serves other functions to individuals, some of which are positive. 

In fact, many teachings of some religions appear to contradict the values of capitalism. Some even criticize the greedy and praise the frugal. Marx ignores many other positive aspects of religion, such as promoting a sense of belonging, kindness, self-fulfillment, and charity-giving. 

Marx’s criticism of religion is focused on western societies and religions while ignoring the functions of other religions, such as those in eastern societies. He also missed the spiritual elements of religion and how many religious aspects focus on the individual becoming a better person. 

Finally, Marx assumed that all individuals in a society would be influenced by religion while ignoring one’s ability to reject this. Many individuals are not passive and can disregard structural influences and demonstrate their own agency. 

What Is The Neo-Marxist View On Religion?

Neo-Marxists are Marxists who have revised traditional Marxist thinking. When it comes to religion, neo-Marxist thinkers tend to agree with Karl Marx most of the time. For instance, they often agree that many religions act conservatively and that hierarchies of religions tend to support the interests of the bourgeoisie. 

A significant difference with the neo-Marxists’ view on religion is that they believe religion can evolve, specifically into a source of resistance that can bring about social change. Neo-Marxists also point out that religion can oftentimes take the side of the poor and oppressed against the powerful ruling class. 

Friedrich Engels recognized that, in some circumstances, religion could bring about radical social change. He focused on how the early Christian sects opposed Roman rule. While Christianity may have been initially practiced to cope with exploitation, it became a force for social change. 

Otto Maduro was a neo-Marxist who criticized Marx’s approach to religion as being reductionist. Instead, he argued for a more complex understanding of religion and social change (Sabet, 1996).

Maduro argued the complexities of religion when he said: ‘Religion is not a mere passive effect of the social relations of production: it is an active element of social dynamics, both conditioning and conditioned by social processes.’ (Maduro, 1977).

Maduro sought a solution, not by abandoning religion, but through the revisions and changes arising from religious innovation. Such a position would allow for religion to act independently and not be subordinate to the ruling class (Sabet, 1996). He further stated that religion might be the only institution through which people can organize for radical social change in some societies.

About the Author

Olivia Guy-Evans obtained her undergraduate degree in Educational Psychology at Edge Hill University in 2015. She then received her master’s degree in Psychology of Education from the University of Bristol in 2019. Olivia has been working as a support worker for adults with learning disabilities in Bristol for the last four years.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Guy-Evans, O. (2022, Nov 08). Karl Marx on Religion: Ideas & Quotes. Simply Sociology. https://simplysociology.com/karl-marx-on-religion.html

References

Boer, R. (2013). Spiritual Booze and Freedom: Lenin on Religion. New Proposals: Journal of Marxism and Interdisciplinary Inquiry, 6(1-2), 100-113.

Latief, J. A. (2011). Karl Marx’s Criticism on Religion. Al-Ulum, 11(2), 257-266.

Maduro, O. (1977). New Marxist approaches to the relative autonomy of religion. Sociological Analysis, 38(4), 359-367.

Marx, K. (1844). Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, 7(10), 261-271.

Sabet, A. (1996). Religion, politics and social change: A theoretical framework. Religion, State and Society: The Keston Journal, 24(2-3), 241-268.

Yue, P. (2002). Marxist view of religion must keep up with the times. China Study Journal, 18, 5-18.