While Karl Marx did not publish one specific document regarding religion, he did however have a large impact on the sociological significance of religion. Religion can be defined as “a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or school of thought” (Bramadat &Seljak, 2009, p. 23). As a founder and main advocator for his Marxist philosophy, Karl Marx has greatly influenced the creation of the modern world and was undoubtedly one of the first revolutionary communists of his time. Within this essay I will discuss the main points of Karl Marx’s theories and criticisms on religion, paying specific attention to aspects of conflict and inequality.
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I will also bring to attention some examples of past and current topics regarding religion promoting conflict and inequality. To conclude this paper I will state my personal opinion and beliefs on religion, and its relationship between conflict and inequality. Karl Heinrich Marx was indeed a very interesting man. Marx was born in Trier, Germany, in the year 1818. His father, Heinrich Marx was born Jewish however was converted to Lutheranism before Karl’s birth. Karl’s mother, Henrietta Pressburg, who was also born Jewish, converted to Lutheranism as well as a result of the death of her parents. Karl Marx himself was baptized at the age of six years old.
Even though Karl Marx was born into quite a religious family and attended a Lutheran elementary school, he later on in life formed his own theories of religion, conflict and social inequality. Karl examined religion from an objective, scientific perspective; however, the majority of people in today’s society who look back at Karl Marx’s take on religion do not fully understand what exactly Marx meant. Through the research and reading I have done, I have discovered that Marx wrote very little regarding religion directly. Within the majority of his writings he analyzed society in general and infrequently addressed religion directly. Thus, in order for one to fully understand Marx’s analysis and critique of religion, I believe one requires some understanding of his critique of society in general.
According to Karl Marx, the main aspect of human history is economics. Marx stated that from the very beginning, humans were never motivated by larger, philosophical ideas, but were instead motivated by material concerns. Marx
believed that Stanbury 2
materialism was the basic premise of human history. During the beginning of time people worked jointly and exchanged equal value for equal value, however, subsequently humans created the concept of private property and agriculture. With the creation of agriculture and private property, a branch of labor and the separation of classes had evolved, both which were based on wealth and power. The division and separation of classes fabricated social conflict, which in turn powered society. To make matters worse, capitalism was introduced, increasing the inequality between the rich and the poor, or the wealthy classes and the labor classes.
According to Marx, economics are what comprise the foundation of all human life and history, creating class struggle, divisions of labor, and social institutions. Social institutions are superstructures based on economics and are totally dependant upon economic realities and material. Marx believed that society goes through constant changes due to class conflicts within the society. He viewed this all as a result of inequality of power and wealth, exploitation, and class struggle. Marx favored the concept of material conditions opposed to human thinking regarding the evolution of society.
Similar to his views of society, Karl Marx believes that religion is only dependant on economics. He compared religion to other social institutions, claiming that they are very much similar because like all other social institutions, religion is dependant upon the material and economic realities in a given society. The only way religion can be understood according to Marx is through the relation to other social institutions and the economic structures of society. Karl Marx states that “[r]eligion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless condition” (Conrad, 2007, p. 64). Within this quote Marx explains his views of religion. He states that religion commonly allows the underprivileged to accept their lot in life. The presence of economics prevents people from achieving true happiness in their life. Marx believes that religion assures people that are affected by class conflict and inequality that it is acceptable on a count of them seeking true happiness in a next life. Religion is simply a method practiced to disregard real issues that people are required to deal with within their life. Religion allows people to cope with their complications in life however distracts people from dealing with these problems in reality. In addition, Marx Stanbury 3
claims that “[religion] is the opium of the people” (Conrad, 2007, p. 64). This metaphor compares religion to the drug opium. He does not mean that religious people are spiritual junkies, yet instead infers that religion is a means of dulling mental and physical pain but also the events of death, disease and so on. According to Marx, religion does not solve the causes of people’s suffering and pain, but in contrast aids them in forgetting why they are really suffering and convinces people to look towards an imaginary future. Religion, according to Marx, focuses on economic realities and class divisions, bringing people to the attention of social inequality.
Now that I have written a brief background of Karl Marx’s thoughts and critiques on religion, I am going to go into detail regarding religion promoting conflict and inequality in the past, and within our society today. There is no abundance of examples of religion’s role in promoting conflict and inequality. During the 1960’s many people of different Christian groups affirmed that racial mixture was against God’s Law. The Southern Baptist Convention did not approve of hotels and restaurants that served people of all different races equally. In addition, there were many laws in different states that did not allow interracial marriages. Since then the United States Supreme Court has ended racial separation and declared anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional. Those specific Biblical passages that fueled this conflict have now been reinterpreted or ignored.
Another example of religion that has promoted conflict is the issue regarding abortion. There are different opinions amongst different religions. Religious movements that are not against abortion include the United Methodist Church, the Conservative Jewish Movement and the Ethical Culture Movement. Some religions against abortion include Roman Catholicism, Protestant Christianity, and Sikhism. There are no specific biblical passage that address abortion, however followers of the bible have developed positions on abortion by using biblical passages dealing with other related topics. The last example of religion promoting conflict that I will bring to attention is same sex marriages. Just like abortion, followers of the bible have had to develop positions on same sex marriages by using biblical passages dealing with other related topics. Those religions against same sex marriages believe that marriage is a religious sacrament or ceremony. If the definition of Stanbury 4
marriage is altered to allow same sex marriages, some religious individuals and groups may feel that they will be at risk of having to violate their beliefs by being forced to marry same sex couples. All of these topics have just been briefly mentioned. There is a great deal of literature regarding many different opinions. There is one similarity however that all of these issues share, and that is their involvement with religion promoting conflict and inequality.
This paper has provided an examination of Karl Marx’s theories and critiques of religion, conflict and inequality. It has provided various concepts that Marx has created regarding society religion, and the relationship they share. In addition this paper has gone into detail of the strong proponents of Karl Marx’s theory of religion and how he believes it promotes conflict and inequality within society. I have mentioned a few of the many examples of past and current topics regarding religion promoting conflict and inequality.
Through the research I have collected and the copious amounts of reading I have done on the topic of Marx, religion and conflict as a prop for inequality, I have come to the conclusion that I do not fully agree with Marx’s critiques on religion. Being a Christian myself, I do not rely on religion to dull pain, suffering, heartache and so on. Instead, I believe in God and his commandments as a set of morals that one should adhere by. I do not rely on religion to deal with my problems; instead I personally deal with them in reality. I do believe though, that religion promotes conflict and inequality within society. I believe this because of passages that are present in the bible, stories that are presented in the media, and many readings, writings and papers concerning the topic.