Marxism and Religion

Marxism and religionMarx explained that “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 second half of this statement is the most quoted, but together they show Marx’s all-sided understanding. Marx says the reason why many people hold religious ideas is due to the oppression and exploitation they are subjected to. Lacking any material explanation for this, many look to mystical ideas as a form of comfort. However, this also means religious ideas can play a useful ideological role for the ruling class. Workers can be told not to worry about their position in society today. Instead, if they just ‘turn the other cheek’, they will be rewarded in the afterlife.

While religion can play a reactionary role, Marxists do not claim it can be defeated purely through argumentation. To rid society of religion, the material conditions for religion must be removed. Therefore, only when we have a democratically and rationally planned economy, based on the needs of us all, rather than the profit of a few, will we begin to see the withering away of religious ideas. So, Marxists are in favour of religious freedom, but argue people will decide for themselves to abandon religion in a socialist society.

Marxists do not prevent religious workers joining the fight for socialism, but they do not have a neutral position on religion within the revolutionary organisation. As Lenin said, “without revolutionary theory, there can be no revolutionary movement.” A Marxist organisation would be rudderless without the guide of the revolutionary philosophy of Marxism. Religious workers wanting to join a Marxist organisation must therefore be convinced by the ideas of materialist dialectics, which are the best guide and tool for understanding and thus changing society. 

"Those who toil are taught by religion to be submissive and patient while here on earth, and to take comfort in the hope of a heavenly reward. But those who live by the labour of others are taught by religion to practise charity while on earth, thus offering them a very cheap way of justifying their entire existence as exploiters and selling them at a moderate price tickets to well-being in heaven." (Lenin)

"Here is the answer to all the attacks of the clergy: the Social-Democracy in no way fights against religious beliefs. On the contrary, it demands complete freedom of conscience for every individual and the widest possible toleration for every faith and every opinion. But, from the moment when the priests use the pulpit as a means of political struggle against the working classes, the workers must fight against the enemies of their rights and their liberation." (Luxemburg)

"A short, coherent account of our relation to the Hegelian philosophy, of how we proceeded, as well as of how we separated, from it, appeared to me to be required more and more. Equally, a full acknowledgement of the influence which Feuerbach, more than any other post-Hegelian philosopher, had upon us during our period of storm and stress, appeared to me to be an undischarged debt of honor. I therefore willingly seized the opportunity when the editors of Neue Zeit asked me for a critical review of Starcke’s book on Feuerbach." (Engels)

Karl Marx understood very well the role of religion. He is often quoted as saying that religion is the “opium of the people”. But he said a lot more than that, and it was in this work that he shows a deep understanding of why people are religious. He explains that, to ask them to give up on their religious illusions, this means removing the conditions that require that illusion.