Marx’s views on the social function of religion

Marx never wrote from a theologian or religious theorist’s point of view, he was a humanist with an ideology that explained the alienation of man. Marx evolved a philosophy, which fitted in with working class ideas and added to it a prophecy, which suited working class aspirations. 1 Marx’s philosophy on religion is neither complete nor comprehensive; however, this essay intends to provide a broad overview providing a synthesis of his key arguments and analysis of the strength and weaknesses of his viewpoint.

This essay will firstly analyse the functions of religion as contemplated by Marx, specifically considering the proliferation and development of religion, the relief it offered, it use in maintaining the status quo, and ultimately with the development of communist society religion would ‘wither away. ‘ Further, the functions of a Marxist critique will be considered including feeing alienated man from the repression of religion, the fulfilment of Marx’s prophecy, whether faith existed before alienation and finally the effect of restricting the philosophy to the Western European community.

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Marx asserted that forms of faith such as religion were not inherent or intrinsic to the human species. 2 Rather, he argued that religion developed as a direct consequence of man’s alienation for the output of his labour. Thus, religion provided a means for ‘alienated man’ to justify and come to terms with his life situation, resulting in an illusion of assuredness that any hardships encountered during life on earth would be compensated through eternal happiness in the richness of heaven.

He saw the Christian structure with a ruling and an oppressed class distinctly similar to the capitalist social structure. Just as the principles of Christianity preach the necessity of a ruling and an oppressed class, all they have for the latter is a pious wish that the former will be charitable”. 4 Marx never submitted that the owners of the means of production created religion, but with a structure continually oppressing the masses, it can easily be understood why the owners of the means of production supported and perpetuated such a myth.

Religion was created by those who wanted to escape from reality, those who Marx termed alienated. The relief that religion offered alienated men trapped by the capitalist machine, was famously coined by Marx as an opiate. Religion like opium offered no long-term solution, numbed the pain, resulted in sinister side effects, making suffering and repression bearable whilst masking a more sinister problem. Marx claimed “religious distress is at the same time the expression of real [economic] distress”.

To Marx, religion was the symptom of a disease, capitalism. Thus, any direct struggle against religion would be useless and misplaced. 7 Marx went even further stating that he was opposed to militant atheism on the ground that “to fight against the divine entailed taking it too seriously” and he recognised that in itself may provoke atheism to become a pseudo-religion. 8 Marx argued that secularisation would organically developed the more developed a capitalist community became.

However, it is of concern, that without active support for atheism, no revolution could occur without the triggering of change due to pain and suffering that had since been numbed and distorted. Neither the blinding opium nor an active crusade for atheism would matter due to the economic rationalisation, a communist society did not need religion and the more advanced a capitalist society became, the closer it moved to becoming a communist state. A further function of religion as detailed by Marx is that it provides a justification for the powerlessness of man and maintenance of the status quo.

In Christianity, God not only represents “what man can become but also what he cannot”. 10 Through religious activity the individual’s potential for controlling nature is transferred to God, which in turn, reduces the actual control he is able to exercise. 11 One comparison between capitalist society and Christianity, positions “as religion robs us of our human merits and gives them to God, so the capitalist economy robs us of our labour, our true expression, and gives it to the hands of those who can buy it”.

This Marxian analogy demonstrates the inextricable link between capitalism and Christianity in Marxist reasoning. According to Marx “the abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for true happiness”. 13 If this occurred, man’s inner life would no longer be estranged and man would become his own highest being, conditional upon “practical human relations becom[ing] completely rational” and alienation of man’s outer life disappearing.

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