Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Examining Marx's Opiate of the People

Stephan T. Mayo
Professor of Philosophy
Molloy College
The great architect of the international workers revolution, Karl Marx, set out as an objective to critique all of the societal props that were, in his view, maintaining the Middle-class capitalist dominance over the oppressed and exploited working class. Religion stood high on his list as a mythical appeasement mechanism wielded by the ruling class over the workers. It functioned as “the opiate for the people,” a kind of drug that eased the harsh pangs of the underlying reality of their subsistent wages, social alienation and enslavement. Religion provided “pie in the sky when you die” so that worker disgruntlement under capitalism would not break out into revolt due to the fact that their sacrifice now would be rewarded in the afterlife. This notion that religion is merely a sop to tamp down the reality of harsh and emendable current conditions has recently made a comeback. Recent studies show that religious belief and practices are highest in the poorest and least technologically developed countries and that the more developed a country is the least religious is its population.  These trends have been used to support the Marxist critique of religion.

Theistic criticisms of the Marxist analysis accuse him of reduction of religious belief to one of its manifestations, thereby missing the true essence of religion. Rather than denying outright that religion has the psychologically comforting effect of ameliorating harsh economic conditions, many theists grant this consequence of religious belief.  However, that leaves standing the actual evidence and reasonableness of the theistic position. These would still be present even if religion were more psychologically disturbing and anxiety producing than an atheistic outlook, as many of the scrupulous can attest.

Using the analogy of patriotism, it is quite clear that the patriot enjoys positive emotions when singing anthems, saluting the flag, celebrating national holidays or listening to patriotic oratory. She could also be comforted that, despite her personal struggles in the current economy, her Nation is great and doing well. However, patriotism does not necessarily mean that one is an uncritical jingoist (“my country right or wrong”) One could remain loyal to the country while descrying the excesses of patriotic fervor and while being highly critical of one’s nation’s foreign or domestic policies. To draw the analogy, the religious need not make the comfort they draw from their faith to be the primary basis of it. To be an enlightened citizen one can appreciate the strengths of one’s nation and its promise while recognizing its failures and weaknesses. For the faithful the affirmation of their religion may recognize its evidential reasonableness while acknowledging the emotional excessiveness and irresponsible complacency for bad and emendable social conditions that many religious believers fall into.


  1. Steve

    With all due respect, your position needs to be drawn out much more fully in order to be persuasive.

    1) You assume that many contemporary theists accept Marx's critique that religion is opiate-like (i.e., psychologically comforting). But when was the last time you read any real theology. Have you read any liberation theology? This is an "in the world," "struggling against evil" form of Christianity that is in no way opiate-like and demands Christian work to change unjust social structures. Have you even read any Catholic Social Teaching, which completely flies in the face of Marx's critique of Christianity? This is true Christian faith, as far as I, and many other believers, understand it.

    2) Your analogy between believers and patriots is therefore invalid. If there is no opiate-like aspect to the religious beliefs of intelligent, socially responsible Christians, then, in fact, they are in no way like blind patriots. Theirs is an inherently critical form of religion that makes the distinction between false forms of religion (i.e., quietism) and legitimate forms (i.e., socially committed ones).

    Who are the foolish theists who blindly follow their faiths? I know of very few people like this. Maybe you need to get out more and get to know some of the folks who call themselves Christians these days. Or perhaps you just enjoy setting up straw men that can be easily knocked down.

    A.J. Grunthaler

  2. Thank you A. J. Grunthaler for your comments. However I disagree with your characterization of my position. I don't think I need to extend my commentary any further because I said the same thing you are asserting except more succinctly. It was Marx and not me who asserted that all religion was soporific. To refute him, I do not have to assert the contrary view that none of the religious use religion as an opiate. I only have to show the contradictory position that some religious believers do not use religion as an opiate. There are plenty of people who can avoid the psychological terror of the thought that death is annihilation by dwelling on an afterlife with their God. We do not have to ascertain the exact proportion of believers who use religion as a comforting analgesic. We only have to show that this is not always the case as your own examples demonstrate. I believe that the majority of believers do find their religion to be comforting, but my point was that this consequence need not be the basis of the belief. Again the evidentiary reasonableness of faith can be the cause of it whether or not the consequences of that belief is comforting. I can assuage my hunger and feel better by eating a strict vegan diet. However, rather than being primarily motivated to alleviate my hunger pangs, my principle objective can be to ingest the most nutritious foods available. An adulterous Puritan is surely not comforted by her faith.
    As for my analogy with patriotism I must respectfully ask you to read it more carefully. I say explicitly that the patriot need not be a jingoistic. Again to refute the accusation I need not show the contrary that no patriot is a jingoistic. Only that some patriots are not jingoistic. They may be quite rational critical citizens who love their country on evidentiary grounds, understanding all the flaws involved in carrying out national interests.
    Although I am not inclined to defend Marx, your assertion that Marx never hits the mark is challenged by the well known existence of quietists for whom the problems of this world are of no consequence and the existence of religious pragmatists for whom the psychological consequences of belief are the grounds for believing.

  3. consequences of the belief ARE comforting...

  4. Thanks for a nice and pithy piece, Steve. I very much appreciate your insights. They are, happily, devoid of the sorts of binary thinking that one tends to find in discussions about religion, secularism and -- dare I say -- Marx.

    (I am not as certain as some that you should "get out more." It appears to me that you have "gotten out" quite enough.)

    David McClean

  5. Thanks David. I've been mildly stung by A.J. Grunthaler's impertinent stabs at my intellect. However, I ignored them in favor of a more constructive approach. My critique of Marx would I believe apply to all reductive explanations of religion, e.g. the Freudian. God is not "my biological father projected into the sky." I much prefer talking about the actual forthright propositions of faith.

  6. I am not as convinced as my colleague Steve Mayo, not to mention A.J. Grunthaler, is as "reductionistic" as they take him to be. True, Marx does seek to explain religion historically, as part of the legitimating superstructure of capitalist socio-economic orders: ultimately monotheistic religion rests on these historically contingent systems, and will presumably vanish when they vanish. But that is not to say that religion is JUST so much childish superstition and irrationality for Marx. The key quote is not "opiate of the people", but what immediately precedes it: "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions...." In short, it is the one way in capitalist social orders where transcendence in the form of HOPE can be acknowledged, not to be disparaged as a mere drug people take to kill their pain, but the one way in which they can find a suitable object for aspiration for a better way of being human. Of course this object is NOT really suitable: heartless worlds have no real "heart", and the soul of soulless conditions is an empty one. The false "heart and soul" of monotheism is pretty pathetic, even as it is totally understandable, Marx seems to be saying. The point is to actually transform the conditions of a heartless and soulless world ("Philosophers have heretofore tried to understand the world: the point, however is to CHANGE it.")rather than to find a substitute for such change that does not challenge the status quo. WHich, when you think about it, gives voice to another strain in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition -- the strain that opts for working for justice and advancing the cause of the oppressed. Marx can be viewed, in a way, as an heir to the western monotheistic tradition as much as one of its fiercest critics.....-- MJQ

  7. If religion is "the sigh of the oppressed creature" then it is not what religious proponents think they are about. They think that they are professing the manifest content of their faiths, i.e. stating facts about a transcendent reality. It is in that sense that I think Marx is reductionistic. He thinks that, in the absence of religion, the sighs of the oppressed are the sighs of the oppressed; and we have our hands full. If. Marx assumes that there is no transcendent realm then he owes us an argument.

  8. I suppose Marx is reductionistic to the extent that religion is "really" about something that escapes the mind of its proponents. But it's not just unintelligible, irrational bull either (as it is for Hitchens and Dawkins, and probably Hume). It makes sense as part of the ideological superstructure of capitalist socio-economic orders. It'd be weird, for Marx, if something like it did NOT exist.

  9. So whatever religious proponents think that religion is beyond the ideological superstructure of capitalist socio-economic orders is just unintelligible, irrational bull. Q.E.D.