Marx's ideas on religion have been widely misrepresented and misunderstood. According to the myths, Marx saw religion as nothing but a false consciousness perpetrated by the ruling class to pacify the masses and aid their exploitation. Marxists are supposedly implacably hostile to religion, to political movements led by religious people, and even to people's right to practice religion.
Establishing Marx's true position is particularly important at a time when the demonisation of Islam is the central ideological tenet of the so-called "war on terror". Defending Muslims is a vital task for socialists today - and one that fully accords with the real Marxist approach to religion.
Marxism holds that the material world exists independently of human consciousness - or the consciousness of any other entity. Marx was an atheist, but he sought to understand why religious ideas have been so important in different societies.
For Marx, people's ideas are conditioned by material reality: "It is not the consciousness of people that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness."
But this does not mean that people's ideas are a straightforward or wholly accurate reflection of reality. People are trying to make sense of a world full of exploitation and senseless brutality - a world that does not make sense. As Marx explains:
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 universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realisation of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality.
In other words, religious worship is a response to alienation - the fact that humans are not free to fulfil their potential because of class bondage and oppression. People are clamouring for a way to make sense of the world and give meaning to their existence in difficult circumstances.
So Marx not only felt sympathy toward religious people, he also understood how religion and religious leaders can become a platform for resistance to oppression (e.g. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, or Hamas in Palestine).
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.
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