Is Religion The Opium Of The People?
Updated: Jul 3
In the introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Karl Marx famously characterized religion as ‘das Opium des Volkes’, commonly translated as the opium of the people. It is interesting how this quote has often been reviled. Many people, if you simply mention the name Marx, plug their ears and loudly sing ‘La la la la la’: there is no point in considering the contours of his argument. In this article, my task is pretty simple. I want to lower my voice and consider whether religion really is the opium of the people.
Before I start this article, it is probably worth defining the terms I am writing it on. I am an atheist. I believe there is no God, and don’t see that much reason to believe in one. That does not mean I believe religion is ridiculous, but it implies that when I consider religion, I am primarily asking why people act religiously as a matter of intellectual curiosity. This probably differs from a lot of religious people, for whom the answer is quite simple: God exists, and therefore I should believe in him.
Many often craft strawmen of Marx’s argument. It is easy to view it in simplistic terms. Lenin, building on his perception of Marx, saw religion as ‘opium for the people’. In Lenin’s view, religion is a simple tool of the elites to estrange the working class from their position. Much like a drug, it is addicting, any pleasures it causes are illusory, and it is something frequent users want to wean themselves off of. A better society would redistribute wealth, a realer solution to its ailments than religion. Put simply, Lenin believed society should be clean of the narcotic that is religion.
However, Marx’s position is more subtle than Lenin’s reading implies. This is hinted at by the language involved in shifting from ‘opium of the people’ to ‘opium for the people’. Marx’s own language, referring to opium ‘of’ the people, sees the opium as something owned by the people – while it may be harmful, it belongs to them. Meanwhile, Lenin, by suggesting it is opium ‘for’ the people, views it more pejoratively – religion is being given to the people by the wealthier classes in order to satisfy them and force them to acquiesce to societal oppression.
Marx’s position does have a fair amount of overlap with Lenin’s. Marx believes that there is something addicting about religion. People who experience religion often become dependent on it. Marx also does, somewhat provocatively, agree that the satisfaction which religion creates is illusory. For Marx, religion is an imperfect substitute to a proletarian revolution that would bring the working class true fulfillment.
However, Marx also recognizes that there are many great strengths to religion. While it is easy to look at opium and consider the way in which it is harmful, addicting, and can ruin lives, this is not how Marx intends the image to be used. In Marx’s day, opium was commonly used as a pain reliever. The middle class would often use it to numb severe physical aches. This is the primary purpose of Marx’s comparison to opium – that religion can numb the pain experienced by those who believe in it.
Marx, looking at the way in which religion empowers the poor in a narrow sense by promising ‘treasures in heaven’, believed that religion was a way for the least well off in society to reconcile themselves to their condition. While this is an imperfect measure since those promised rewards do not exist, it serves to make their condition more palatable. For Marx, this is not a wholly bad thing. A more up-to-date version of his quote might compare it to modern painkillers that operate similarly to opium. Perhaps, Marx would now say religion is the morphine of the people.
While I find much of what Marx writes unconvincing, and am a vast distance away from buying into his broader communist ideology expressed in Capital and The Communist Manifesto, I think there is something to his claim that at least Christianity serves to numb the struggles of the least well off in society. Consider Jesus’s famous statement in Matthew ‘it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.’ In this passage, Jesus suggests that wealth may not be as desirable as is commonly believed. While the poor may struggle in this life, their present pains will be counterbalanced by bliss in Heaven. This sentiment is echoed throughout the Gospels. The beatitudes, an element of the sermon on the mount, Jesus’s primary ethical treatise, glorify the least well off in society. At one point, Jesus tells a rich man he must rid himself of his riches to enter heaven. For somebody struggling materially, the notion that what is truly valuable is immaterial is comforting in a world without much comfort.
However, there are two problems to immediately raise with Marx’s opium metaphor. The first is that it is unclear that the help which religion provides is simply numbing. In many instances, religion is itself an engine of material change. Consider, for instance, the role that W.E.B. Du Bois, an author I recently read in Directed Studies, suggests the Church played in emancipation in the American South in the 19th Century. For Du Bois, the Church was a fulcrum of unity among black people. It allowed them to congregate, realize a common purpose, and work toward change. In South America, liberation theology in the 20th century actively promoted the interests of the working class and acted to oppose CIA overreach. More recently, Pope Francis has been outspoken in his support of wealth redistribution and helping the poor of the world. He has lamented “the paradox of a globalized economy which could feed, cure, and house all of the inhabitants who populate our common home, but which – as a few worrisome statistics indicate – instead concentrates the same wealth owned by half of the world’s population in the hands of very few people.”
This aid for the needy is hardly a universal trend. History is rife with instances of the Church merely acting as an extension of the interests of wealthy elites. In 20th Century Russia, the Orthodox Church was a bastion of conservative Tsarism. In his monolithic speech, ‘What does the fourthof July mean to the American Slave’, Frederick Douglass, opposing the picture painted by Du Bois, highlighted how the Church in 19th Century America often served to legitimize existing inequalities with superficial religious authority. For a long time, the ‘divine right of kings’ was an essential compromise between religion and state to keep feudal subjects away from the reins of power. However, what I intend to illustrate is that religion, while describing immaterial issues, is situated in a material world, and often serves to prioritize the needs of the poor in society. This being the case, religion is often more than a painkiller. It can be a true medicine which treats the root ailment as well.
I thus conclude that religion can itself help to heal the issues of class. However, a more robust criticism of Marx constructs a reductive image of religion. Defining religion solely as numbing the pains of class fails to recognize the plethora of other ways religion can lead to fulfillment in life. As was famously suggested by Kierkegaard, religion, more than even numbing economic conflict, pacifies our existential dread about death. Every human has to die, and religion, by suggesting there is something after life – whether heaven, reincarnation, or something else, neutralizes this concern. If religion only served to pacify economic pain, it would be difficult to see why wealthy people would be religious. While Marx’s explanation is that they merely buy into the system of religion because it upholds their own status, this does not seem to fully realize the full, devout faith and relief that religion can provide for people from all walks of life.
Indeed, I would suggest that the relief religion provides is even broader than neutralizing concerns about death. Religion tackles concerns of the absurd – the idea that life is purposeless without any defined meaning. By stating that there is some higher force, that this higher force has a vision for the world, and that you are a part of this vision, we are able to imbue meaning into a seemingly barren world. Moral statements have way more force if, rather than being an artificial human construct, they are supported by a divine lawgiver. Religion, at its broadest level, can tell us there is a way to live our life and there is a reason that we exist.
Now, returning to Marx from my cascade of thoughts about the absurdity of life, I return to where this article started – is religion the opium of the people? Maybe. Kind of. Something rings true about the idea that religion pacifies our discontent with our material condition. There is certainly something to be said about the fact that Christianity glorifies the least well off, providing them relief in their condition. However, I would also note that religion can heal economic issues, and also provides comfort for a far wider gamut of concerns than Marx suggests. As a consequence, if religion is a drug, it is more useful than opium. It is one that can be medicative and numb a wide range of ailments. Even as an atheist, I have to acknowledge there is something remarkable about this.