Was Marx right that religion = “opium”?

ROD ASKS:

Was Marx right? Is religion the opiate of the masses?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

This blog’s third item about atheism and atheists in seven weeks!  Rod cites the famous quote about religion from a 26-year-old Karl Marx in 1844, four years before he co-authored the momentous “Communist Manifesto.” Here’s the full context in his typically prolix prose, from the introduction to “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right”:

“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…” (Oxford University Press translation, 1970).

Before seeing how some analysts unpack those words let’s scan a bit of biography. Marx came from an ethnically Jewish clan with rabbis as forebears. When Karl was six the family officially converted to Protestantism to escape social discrimination but remained essentially secular. Marx may have retained some formal belief in God when he entered the University of Berlin, but intellectual circles were awash in skepticism and he soon joined the atheist ranks.

Notoriously, many German intellectuals harbored even more contempt for Judaism than Christianity. Echoing this, the year before the “opium” passage Marx produced his controversial “On the Jewish Question.” Among other things, he wrote, “What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is the worldly god? Money…. Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist.” Princeton University’s Bernard Lewis considers this work “one of the classics of anti-Semitic propaganda” and many Jewish writers see Marx as a stereotypical “self-hating Jew.” Yet a recent piece in Australia’s Marxist magazine “Links” defended Communism’s founding father as simply using “the language of the day” to assail both Jewish and Gentile capitalists.

In addition to alienation from his Jewish roots, Marx’s sweeping hatred of all religion presusmably reflected cynicism about the family’s calculated switch to Christianity, the influence of Ludwig Feuerbach and other professors who scorned biblical religion, and concern for the downtrodden that fed Marx’s disgust at church links with Prussia’s economic and political elite.

Such is the backdrop of the “opium” quote, which atheistic blogger Austin Cline says “is often misunderstood.” Cline explains that Marx meant religion creates “illusory fantasies for the poor” that made them accept the indignities of earthly life by focusing on their “true happiness in the next life.” Cline thinks Marx recognized that “people are in distress and religion does provide solace, just as people who are physically injured receive relief from opiate-based drugs.”

In that limited sense, Marx admitted religion helps people. David Smith, principal of Britain’s Northumbria Bible College, has written with appreciation about Marx’s “sensitive and nuanced awareness” that until the Communist revolution occurs people “would need the comforts offered by religious faith.” Of course believers would say faith is far more than that.

Just as drugs help patients survive pain but do not cure the underlying cause, Marx viewed faith as a palliative that prevented the necessary revolutionary fury. He also branded it false, delusional, irrational, hypocritical, and thus destined to die out in his future utopia. As things worked out, however, the 20th Century experienced Marxism in action not as paradise but as dogmatic collectivism heedless of results, suppression of personal freedoms, and a “dictatorship of the proletariat” that produced tyrants and astonishing atrocities.

What are analysts saying now that Communism has been overthrown in Europe and suffers a loss of credibility in Asia? In 2009, Britain’s liberal Guardian newspaper ran a forum on whether Marx was correct about religion as “opium.” Jewish contributor Dan Rickman observed charitably that the “abolition of religion” Marx hoped for “caused much suffering (that) one doubts Marx himself would have welcomed.” Anglican priest turned agnostic Mark Vernon thought that with Marxism’s downfall “the possibility emerges that religion itself is proper to being human” since it seems “to most of humanity to be the very path to life.”

And what are Christians saying? The folks at www.thinkinginchrist.com credit Marx with wisdom in calling religion “the heart of a heartless world” because Christianity indeed gives love and justice priority over personal self-interest and fosters charity. But “Thinking” thinks Marx was wrong that the only problem is heartless capitalists when actually it’s the heartlessness that can afflict all people mired in sin and in need of (non-materialistic) salvation. “By replacing the capitalist with the politician, or the masses, [Marxism] didn’t do anything to reduce the heartlessness of the world,” which requires spiritual, moral, and social renewal.

This commentary concludes with a bit of historical knife-twisting: “Marx, like all those who seek utopia on this earth, used half-truths to clothe lies and led millions of people to their unhappy deaths in the name of creating a new life.”  True? Or too harsh?

About Richard Ostling

Richard N. Ostling, a religion writer for the Associated Press, was formerly senior correspondent for Time magazine, where he wrote twenty-three cover stories and was the religion writer for many years. He has also covered religion for the CBS Radio Network and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS-TV.


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