Marx on Religion
Karl Marx understood very well the role of religion. He is often quoted as saying that religion is the “opium of the people”. He said a lot more than that and it is worth quoting at length:
“The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man – state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.
“Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and 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.
“The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.”
Marx here shows a deep understanding of why people are religious when he explains that, to ask them to give up on their religious illusions, means removing the conditions that require that illusion. What this means is that, so long as the material conditions of poverty and want continue to exist, so too will the need to escape from those conditions, at least in the “spiritual” sense.
That is why, as Marxists, we have little time for the militant atheism of the likes of Richard Dawkins, who treats working people with religious beliefs as a mass of ignorant, backward people to be enlightened by rational bourgeois thinkers such as himself. However, he wants to remove religion, but not the material conditions that render religion a necessity! He is happy to see class society continue, with its rich and poor, exploiters and exploited, capitalists and workers.
Marxists have far more in common with the millions of workers and peasants around the world who adhere to some form of religious belief than with people like Richard Dawkins. It will be the millions of working people, religious or not, who will rise up and fight this oppressive capitalist system. By doing so, they will lay the foundations for a future society that will use the material resources, created by generations of workers, to provide everyone with a decent living. Once that is achieved, the need for religion as a relief from the miseries of life will gradually die away.
Source | Excerpt | In Defence of Marxism