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Study Notes

Traditional Marxist Views on the Role of Religions

AS, A-Level
AQA, Edexcel, OCR, Eduqas, WJEC

Last updated 12 Jul 2018

Marx described religion as the opiate of the masses. What he meant by this was that it acted like a drug, cushioning the workers from the true misery of being exploited in capitalist society.

Marx also described religion as the “heart in a heartless world” and understood the appeal of religion in a society than in other respects was dedicated to the buying and selling of commodities and the accumulation of profit by the minority and the increasing poverty of the majority. However, he saw this as a negative force. This was because Marx argued that the proletariat should rise up against the bourgeoisie in a revolution. Religion was one of the ways in which the bourgeoisie maintained control: part of the ideology.

Lenin echoed Marx’s argument by referring to religion as spiritual gin. He argued that the ruling class used religion cynically to create a mystical fog which obscured reality for the working class. This is a very similar concept of the idea of it being an opiate.

Louis Althusser argues that religion is a part of the ideological state apparatus. Along with education and the media, it transmits the dominant ideology and maintains false class consciousness.

Religious teachings encourage the proletariat to believe that the way society is organised is God’s will. For example the hymn, All Things Bright and Beautiful, contains the verse:

The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate

God made them, high or lowly, and ordered their estate.

While some Christian teachings, for example, focus on there being rewards for forbearance, hard work and meekness.

Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth. (Matthew 5:5)

Some verses that seem to be on the side of the poor still function as an opium or a fog, according to Marxists, as they suggest that justice will be served in heaven, preventing action to be taken in this world.

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. (Mark 10:25)

Not all traditional Marxists agree with this perspective. Engels, for example, suggested that religion had a dual character, performing this conservative function but also having the potential to drive social change. This was developed by neo-Marxists and will be considered in the next section.

Evaluating Traditional Marxist Views on the Role of Religions

  • Marxist and functionalist views are, as so often is the case, in one respect very similar. They observe religion performing a similar function, it is just that one sees that as a positive thing and the other as a negative thing.
  • This means that some of the criticisms of the functionalist view are equally applicable to the Marxist view: this relates to a society where religion has a significant influence on most people. Where religious practice is a minority pursuit (as it is in many western democracies) religion does not have the power to act as an opium of the masses or as spiritual gin. Sport or celebrity gossip is more likely to perform that role today.
  • Many of the teachings of various religions appear to contradict the values of capitalism. While the verses quoted above might have encouraged the workers to wait for divine justice rather than foment revolution, they contradict the idea that wealth is admirable and earned and the rich are people to feel deference towards. Other religions have similar teachings, criticising the greedy and ostentatious and praising the lowly and ascetic. While a rejection of materialism might have the impact that traditional Marxists suggest (dissuading believers from striving to improve their material position) it could also encourage people to see the ruling class and capitalists as ungodly. This is one reason why neo-Marxists consider the possibility that religion could have a dual character and could act as a conservative force or as a catalyst for change.

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