Marx’s View of Religion as an “opiate of the people” and radical social justice Humanism

By Tia M. Osborne

As I was sitting in a Women’s Studies class in the spring, a discussion regarding religiosity, atheism, and communist ideology took place. One of my peers asked why it is that many Marxists also identify as atheist. My professor and many others in the class (including me) went on to explain Marx’s rather famous notion of religion being the opiate of the people. Marx made this statement and many others regarding religion in “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” (1844).

Opiates are considered what many would call a “downer”, a drug that ought to put one in a state of passive inaction. Therefore, many understand Marx’s famous statement to mean that institutionalized religion and religious dogma cause individuals to become passive, apathetic, and no longer willing to be active political agents. Marx wrote, “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” (Marx 1844). With this, many could also observe that religion often times channels what would be political energy (energy used for political organizing). For instance, Black women who are considered the “backbone” of their church channel their organizing potential into filling the pews of their neighborhood church rather than organizing for reproductive rights/choices for the young, struggling Black women in their community. This example is an unfortunate use of organizing potential and is evidence of the problem enduring faith and religiosity pose in the African American community and ultimately true Black self-determination (and most importantly the self-determination of all marginalized individuals in the United States).

With Marx’s observation of religion as an opiate, he also writes and alludes to the fact that religion, like mainstream illegal drugs and alcohol, is often a sign of depression and hopelessness. And that, when we see immense reliance on faith in an individual, that individual is most likely struggling through what he or she can not yet understand. Individuals often use religion as a way to mitigate physical and psychological pain caused by systems of oppression like racism, sexism/patriarchy, capitalism, and heterosexism. This being true, I believe self-identified humanists and atheists (more specifically atheists and humanists, who contribute to New Atheist discourse online and read New Atheist materials) ought to realize that the presence of faith in an individual may not simply be because he or she does not know enough about Darwin’s Theory of Evolution through Natural Selection, but that there are larger forces that instruct their reliance on faith and religious custom.

The social justice lens that I urge many atheists and humanists to adopt will allow us to realize that institutionalized religion is as much a tool to prohibit the creation of genuine social revolution as any other system of oppression that many of us are working to resist.

Marx, Karl. “Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of the Right 1844.” N.p., 2009. Web. 15 Jun 2011.

Tia M. Osborne is an undergraduate Political Science and Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies double major at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Marx’s View of Religion as an “opiate of the people” and radical social justice Humanism

6 thoughts on “Marx’s View of Religion as an “opiate of the people” and radical social justice Humanism

  1. 1

    For the most part I concur with much of what you have written in this post,I do part with you on your comment regarding Charles Darwin and his theroy of Natural Selection. Darwin only speaks about the evolution of species in the natural world; he makes no direct claims about religion or one's belief in the supernatural. The overwhelming majority of believers, black and white, reject Natural Selection on theological grounds and thus are hostile to science as well. This mindset must change if we are to advance in a global economy. I strongly support a 'social justice' agenda if it liberates people from dogma, superstition, myth and majical thinking but the nonbelieving community has to stand firm in the
    idea that all areas of our lives can be made better through social,cultural,politcal and scientific applications. As for Marx's statement,and thanks for using the full quote,he expressed it quite right.

  2. 2

    Thank you! Well yes, I would agree with you that Darwin did not speak about religion or one's belief in the supernatural; this was in fact my point (and I guess I should have been more clear). It seems that the New Atheists put all their ammunition in Darwin and/or present day scientists who identify as atheists. In doing this, they often overlook the social nuances that instruct certain individuals to belief what they belief. Being able to pinpoint these social nuances that instruct faith (notably systems of oppression)is what I think social justice humanism is about and what atheists and humanists everywhere will have to eventually tackle.

  3. 3

    Tia, when you speak of 'systems of oppression' does that include childhood religious indoctrination,consumer culture assimilation,substandard and limited educational opportunities and options? Would these be examples of what you mean? If they are let the dialog begin.Gnu atheist are concerned about social justice matters, too. Embracing science and the scientific method as a way to understand morality, for example, is just one tool to move people to a more rational mindset. Science is not an end in it self but is a process to a greater understanding. I agree, there needs to a better understanding of the 'social nuances' that you speak of but they must be clearly defined and identified, if not they remain vague and nebulous.

  4. 4

    I think it's important to keep in mind that in Marx's day opium didn't carry anything like the stigma it does today, and was a somewhat mainstream pain-killer. When Marx spoke of religion as opium, I believe he referred to a real soothing and comforting effect faith had for people who were experiencing a pain and agitation too strong to ignore (pain caused by social injustice) – note that he couches the metaphor in notions of relieving suffering. That said, faith's numbing effects only mask the symptoms and do nothing to cure the people of what causes their discontent – so I agree with your characterisation of oppressed and despondent people seeking religious solace sabotaging themselves, only achieving short term relief that is to their eventual detriment, from a more class-conscious vantage.

    I somewhat disagree with the idea it is more important to free people from ideological confusion (bestowing enlightenment from above) than to help them educate and organise themselves around class struggle (empower them from within/below). Liberation theology showed that religion can perform a social good when the religious practice of the people meshes with their class needs, I guess it then becomes an issue of looking at the extent that any specific religion numbs or blinds a people to their specific social justice needs – which is the point Marx, and yourself I think, made… What I’m saying is that people will probably be quite willing to consider New Atheist ideas, as soon as they don’t need to worry about rampant class warfare tearing apart their lives and communities – class oppression that, afterall, drives them to the arms of a loving (or at least soothing) church in the first place. Until then, they'll take all the pain relief they can get (and they deserve it, too).

    Minor quibble: As nonintuitive as it may seem, opiates can act as stimulants. Heroin, laudanum and opium itself have long been consumed by artists and poets for boosted bursts of creativity. Opiates don’t necessarily turn people into catatonic zombies, it all depends on dose. I think when you consider that, it kind of expands on Marx’s metaphor, adds a bit of fervour to that faith.

  5. 5

    This is a good way to get people to read Marx's essay, one of the most important essays in history. In doing so it is also important to go beyond this famous phrase & read other passages with equal care, because Marx addresses the entire gamut of ideological distortion associated with the religious cognitive mindset, e.g:

    "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."

    This is far more about to ponder than the second rate literature spawned by the "new atheists". And see my web page:

    Karl Marx on Religion: Sources & Quotations

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