The Conflict Perspective on Religion

Marx and the “Opiate of the Masses”

Karl Marx argues that religion works to calm uncertainty over our role in the universe and in society, and to maintain the status quo.

Learning Objectives

Give an example which either supports or contradicts Marx’s idea that ”religion is the opium of the people”

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • One of the most frequently paraphrased statements of Karl Marx is, religion is the opium of the people.
  • Karl Marx argues that religion plays a significant role in maintaining the status quo by promising rewards in the after-life rather than in this life.
  • Social inequalities result from the differences inherent in class structures, such as the inequality between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie.

Key Terms

  • proletariat: the working class or lower class
  • status quo: the current state of things; the way things are, as opposed to the way they could be; the existing state of affairs.
  • bourgeoisie: The capitalist class.

One of the most frequently paraphrased statements of Karl Marx is, religion is the opium of the people. It was translated from the German original, “Die Religion… ist das Opium des Volkes,” and is often referred to as “religion is the opiate of the masses. ” Taken in context, Marx is arguing that religion was constructed by people to calm uncertainty over our role in the universe and in society.

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Religion as opium of the people: Abolition of Religion as the Illusory Happiness of the People.

Early social theorists offered explanations and analysis of religion in terms of the function of religion in society, the role of religion in the life of the individual, and the nature (and origin) of religion. With ‘the social-conflict approach,’ Karl Marx argues that religion plays a significant role in maintaining the status quo. Marx argues that religion accomplishes this by promising rewards in the after-life rather than in this life. By focusing attention on otherworldly rewards, religion pacifies members by providing a worldview that deflects attention that would otherwise be directed at the inequalities of this world.

Marx’s approach to sociology was critical in the sense that, in contrast to the knowledge for knowledge’s sake approach, it advocated change. Criticism of the system in place when he was writing was inherent in Marx’s approach; because of this, he took a particular stand on the existence of religion, namely, that it should be done away with. His efforts were, in his mind, based solely on what can be called applied science. Marx saw himself as doing sociology and economic theory for the sake of human development. As Christiano states, “Marx did not believe in science for science’s sakeā€¦he believed that he was also advancing a theory that would be a useful tool in effecting a revolutionary upheaval of the capitalist system in favor of socialism” (2008, 124). As such, the crux of his arguments was that humans are best guided by reason. Religion, Marx held, was a significant hindrance to reason, inherently masking the truth and misguiding followers. Marx viewed social alienation as the heart of social inequality. The antithesis to this alienation is freedom. Thus, to propagate freedom means to present individuals with the truth and give them a choice to accept or deny it. In this, “Marx never suggested that religion ought to be prohibited” (Christiano 2008, 126).

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Karl Marx: Religion, Marx held, was a significant hindrance to reason, inherently masking the truth and misguiding followers.

Religion and Social Control

Marx viewed religion as a tool of social control used by the bourgeoisie to keep the proletariat content with an unequal status quo.

Learning Objectives

Evaluate Karl Marx’s critical approach to religion

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The social-conflict approach to religion highlights how religion, as a phenomenon of human behavior, maintains social inequality by advancing a worldview that justifies oppression.
  • Karl Marx’s critical approach demanded that action be taken to resolve social inequalities. This was in stark contrast to his scholarly peers, many of whom pursued scholarship for the sake of knowledge, and did not attach to these academic projects overt political goals.
  • Karl Marx viewed religion as a social control used to maintain the status quo in a given society.

Key Terms

  • status quo: the current state of things; the way things are, as opposed to the way they could be; the existing state of affairs.

Marxist Theory of Religion

The social-conflict approach is rooted in Karl Marx’s critique of capitalism. According to Marx, in a capitalist society, religion plays a critical role in maintaining an unequal status quo, in which certain groups of people have radically more resources and power than other groups of people. Marx argued that the bourgeoise used religion as a tool to keep the less powerful proletariat pacified. Marx argued that religion was able to do this by promising rewards in the after-life, instead of in this life. It was in this sense that Marx asserted the following. “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the feeling of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless circumstances. 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” (p.72). In this passage, Marx is calling for the proletariat to discard religion and its deceit about other-worldly events. Only then would this class of people be able to rise up against the bourgeoisie and gain control of the means of production, and only then would they achieve real rewards, in this life. Thus, the social-conflict approach to religion highlights how religion, as a phenomenon of human behavior, functions to maintain social inequality by providing a worldview that justifies oppression.

It should be reiterated here that Marx’s approach to sociology was critical in the sense that it advocated for change in the world. This is in stark contrast to other scholars, many of whom pursue knowledge for knowledge’s sake, and lack overt political aims. Because Marx was committed to criticizing the prevailing organization of society during his time, he took a particularly aggressive stance towards religion. He believed that it was a tool of social control used to maintain an unequal status quo, and that it should be abolished.

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Religious Buddhist Gathering in Tibetan Monastery: Tharlam Monastery of Tibetan Buddhism