Karl Marx Theory of Religion

Karl marx theory of religion

Karl Marx theory of religion states that religion is like other social institutions that are dependent upon the material and economic realities of 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.” Marx opined that religion can only be understood in relation to other social systems and the economic structures of society.

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 an excuse 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 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. Third, religion is hypocritical. Although it might profess valuable principles, it sides with the oppressors.

Marxist View on Religion Essay

Marxist view on religion essay centers on his theory of religion. Karl Marx’s theory of religion (Marx and Engels 1975:38 f) must be viewed as an aspect of his general theory of society. Like many others in his era, Marx too was critical of religion. Unlike them, however, Marx did not seek to criticize the logic of religion as a set of beliefs.

Rather, he proposed that religion reflects society, therefore any criticism of religion must ipso facto be a criticism of society itself. “Thus the criticism of heaven turns into the criticism of earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.” Religion for Marx is a human product. “Man makes religion, religion does not make a man.

Religion is the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet found himself or has already lost himself again.” In short, what Marx proposes is that religion does not reflect man’s true consciousness. Religion, as Marx sees it, is a false consciousness; religion is the product of men, the product of those in power—those who control the production process.

Socialism and religion in Karl Marx theory of Religion

Religion comes to divert people’s attention from their miseries, which are the consequences of exploitation. Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and also 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 condition. It is the opium of the people.

To abolish 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 that needs illusions. The criticism of religion is therefore in embryo the criticism of the vale of tears, the halo of which is religion.

This passage clearly illustrates Marx’s view that religion is not the creation of the bourgeoisie but the resulting conditions of the historical systems of exploitation. Given that religion has existed long before capitalism. It is clear that, even from Marx’s view, this is not the product of capitalism. It is the natural consequence of distress, which includes both transvaluation and resentment.

Both Marx and Engels renounced the anarchists such as the Blanquists and Dühring who sought to use coercive methods against religion. For Marx and Engels, religion cannot be eliminated until the social and political conditions that foster it are eliminated.

A concomitant factor is the development of religion as a compensatory mechanism. This is achieved through the process of transvaluation (Nietzsche, 1927 [1887]). This is the process by which those of the lower class when faced with their powerless conditions redefine them and attribute a positive value to those conditions (Mannheim 1936: 45f). This, for instance, is best exemplified in the Christian teachings of meekness, turning the other cheek, and the desirability of poverty.

The communist manifesto

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx suggests that religion, like morality and philosophy, must be eliminated if we are to achieve a new political and economic existence. “Communism,” he and Engels write, “abolishes all religion, and all morality, instead of constituting them on a new basis” (1968:52). The reason for this is the historical evidence that regardless of previous changes in the productive systems, religion has always supported the maintenance of the legitimacy of the exploiter and exploited. Thus, to create a truly free society, religion as a tie to the past must be eliminated.

Religion and the Masses

Social classes

According to Marx, society was seen as two classes: the rich and the poor. He believed that the social class structure of the time was set up to allow the wealthy to control all elements of production and to become wealthier off the labor of the working class. One theory believed by Karl Marx was that the capitalist system created a feeling of alienation for the workers and thus religion would be a means for workers to accept their plight in life. Religion would also be used by the wealthy to unconsciously control the masses of ordinary people.

Religion as a false truth

Marx understood that religion served a purpose or a function in society but did not agree as to the basis of that function. For most, religion is seen through faith or teachings that are held to be true. Religion teaches morality, values, and beliefs that society will hold its evaluation of behavior against. Marx had a hard time believing in unseen truths. The basis of his argument is that humans should be led by reason and that religion was masking the truth and misguiding followers. He believed that when one views society and life through the lens of religion, they are blinded to the realities of their life. Religion, then, was false hope and comfort to the poor. He saw that poor used their religion as a means to find comfort in their circumstances, thus aiding in the process of alienation.

Religion as an opiate for the masses

Again, Marx did not believe in following teaching that was based on faith. He felt that this amounted to simply believing in superstition. ‘If people are to know and understand the real world, they must give up superstitious beliefs because they have a narcotic effect on the mind,’ said Marx. Marx believed that religion, like an opiate, gave a sense of security and salvation of something yet to come.

However, he claimed this was all an illusion. He felt that religion taught individuals to focus on otherworldly concerns and not on the immediate poverty they were suffering. To quote Marx: ‘Religion is… 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.’ (McKinnon, 2005).

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 have been 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 (Raines, 2002).

Weaknesses of Marxist Theory of Religion

As interesting and insightful as Marx’s analysis and critiques are, they are not without their weaknesses — historical and economic. Because of these problems, it would not be appropriate to accept Marx’s ideas uncritically. Although he certainly has some important things to say on the nature of religion, he can’t be accepted as the last word on the subject.

His religious idea was not generalized

First, Marx does not 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.

Economic and material realities

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 before 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.

The economic basis of the theory

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, 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 the 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, a 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 an 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.

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 the economic and material realities of society. By the same token, religion can in turn influence society’s economic system.

Whatever one’s 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 independent of their material lives.


According to Marx, 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 that needs illusions.

Marx’s idea that religion is hypocritical is hinged on the fact that 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. Furthermore, 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.

Despite his obvious dislike of and anger towards religion, Marx did not make religion the primary enemy of workers and communists. Had Marx regarded religion as a more serious enemy, he would have devoted more time to it.


Marx, K. (1977). “On the Jewish Question,” in Karl Marx, ed. D. McLellan. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Marx, K. and F. Engels (1968). “Manifesto of the Communist Party” in Selected Works. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Marx, K. and F. Engels (1975). On Religion. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Marx, K. and F. Engels, (1976). The German Ideology. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich (2002). “Feudal Socialism”. In Jones, Gareth Stedman. The Communist Manifesto. (New ed.). London: Penguin Group.

McKinnon, A.M. (2005). ‘Reading ‘Opium of the People’: Expression, Protest and the Dialectics of Religion’. Critical Sociology, vol 31, no. 1-2, pp. 15-38.

 Raines, John. (2002). “Introduction”. Marx on Religion (Marx, Karl). Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Sharma, Arvind (1995). Our Religions: The Seven World Religions Introduced by Preeminent Scholars from Each Tradition. Harper Collins. Thompson, E. P. The Making of the English Working Class. New York: Vintage, 1966.

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