Opium of the People
The View That ‘Religion is the Opium of the People’. The famous assertion that religion is the ‘opium of the people’ was posited by Karl Marx, as a metaphor to describe the effect religion has on the proletariat. He is arguing that just as the upper classes would (at the time he was writing) smoke opium to escape from reality; the working classes would use religion to leave behind their woes. However, the distinction must be made in the sense that whilst those smoking poppies were perfectly aware of what they were doing, the proletariat were being manipulated, unbeknown to them, by the bourgeoise through the medium of religion.
Marx argues that this is one of the tools used to produce ‘false consciousness’ in the workers: i. e. giving the proletariat an erroneous picture of their position in society in order to dissuade them from revolting against their repressors. Marx argues that religion performs the role of producing false consciousness in several ways. First, through the teaching of an afterlife in which eternal bliss will be realised, and any terrestrial troubles will evaporate.
This, he claims, has the effect of encouraging the proletariat to coast through their lives with less concern for the fact that they can barely afford to live, because of the ‘knowledge’ that this life is merely a temporary stage, and that eventually they will be able to leave it all behind them. Second, Marx points out that by religious teachings portraying poverty and suffering as virtuous; e. g. ‘the meek shall inherit the Earth’ and ‘it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven’, the proletariat are indoctrinated into disregarding earthly wealth.
This, he argues, makes them far less likely to revolt against the bourgeoise in order to reverse the acute social inequality. They instead see their master’s wealth as a hinderance to him and believe that eschatologically they will be far better off. Third, by positing an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God, religion further justifies the suffering of the working-class. In other words, the belief that the universe is being governed by a being which is all powerful and perfectly good means that their strife would not be allowed to continue unless there was some higher good that would result from it; or, a belief that soon ivine intervention will occur, crushing social inequality, and liberating the workers1.
A final way in which Marx argues religion justifies inequalities to the working classes is by teaching that Earthly inequalities are the will of God. For example, the notion that hard work is punishment for sin allows the proletariat to be exploited under the guise that it is God’s desire. Ultimately Marx argues that religion emphasises ‘divine providence’: the notion that the world is God’s creation, and that any desire to challenge the state of things is to go against God’s will.
For Marx, religion distracts the proletariat from the true source of their oppression, Viz. , the bourgeoise, and instead encourages them to turn to God for answers. He thus predicted that once the proletariat developed ‘class-consciousness’ (i. e. the realisation that the order of things produced class inequality) they would reject religion and overthrow the bourgeoise. We can easily find evidence to support Marx’s view of religion as a tool for maintaining the unfair status-quo. For example, in India the ideas of social status and religion are inextricably entangled in the Hindu ‘caste’ system.
Here we can see the overt teaching that your position in society and financial situation are the will of God. This system is so revered within Hindu communities that has lead to massive social inequality, and in some cases the murder of those who dare to disobey it. Equally, the Protestant work ethic, which was almost universally preached in Britain at the time of Marx’s writing, certainly fits with his theory; teaching that hard-work is the meaning of life, and that lavish luxuries will prevent you from gaining entry to heaven.
Arguably, the reason that the proletariat did not revolt against their conditions at this time was the influence of the Protestant church. It is also worth noting that the second-eldest sons of big-business magnates at this time were often ordained into the local clergy, and thus able to directly influence the their father’s workers. This shows that the bourgeoise had direct influence over what their workers thought, allowing for easy application of ‘false consciousness’. However, the argument is not without flaw. First, Friedrich Engels, Marx’s colleague disagreed with him on the issue of religion.
He took the contrary perspective, seeing religion as a force promoting change, rather than acting as ‘the opium of the people’. He pointed to the way early Christianity acted against Roman repression. Engels instead argues that Socialism and Christianity follow a similar system of values. Neo-Marxists also feel that Marx’s theory is open to debate. They argue that whilst in Marx’s day the bourgeoise had a direct influence over the church, at the time a very influential institution, the situation has changed. They point out that the influence of the church in Britain has dropped significantly, with church attendance levels at an all time low.
Furthermore, the institutions that now hold the most sway over people’s thoughts, such as schools and the media, are not directly linked to big-business, and relatively autonomous of the capitalist class. This point, however, us up for debate with some media magnates, such as the charming Rupert Murdoch, having enormous personal influence over what people are subjected to. They also argue that now religion is a force for social change in the world, for example the Anglican Church often criticises the British government over social issues such as unemployment, homelessness, poverty, etc.
Thus, they conclude, whilst Marx may have been right in the 19th Century, now the church has escaped from the grip of big-business and is actively seeking to defend social equality. Antonio Gramsci disagrees with Marx’s underlying notion that the bourgeoise rules by creating false consciousness. Instead, he claims that society consists of a constant struggle of ideas between different classes, with the proletariat constantly resisting the bourgeoise, with particular emphasis on the efforts made by youth culture.
He argues, amongst other things, that religion can, in fact, be a force promoting change and social equality within ideological battle. He feels that the capitalist class are successful when people either accept the current system is the norm, or even natural (e. g. some versions of ‘Social Darwinism’), or believe that there is nothing one can do to resist it. However, a flaw here is that Gramsci does not explain why the proletariat accept their situation so readily, thus failing to plug the gap left by his removal of ‘false consciousness’.
Graminsci’s work has been influential on Otto Maduro who has examined ‘Liberation Theology’, used in South America. This was a movement promoting social equality and wealth distribution in which the South American Catholic Church was heavily involved. Whilst the relationship between Catholicism and Marxism is at best uncomfortable, many of the campaigns took on a distinctly Marxist flavour, with many fervent Marxists involved, much to the disapproval of the Vatican.
Regardless of this theological difficulty, the Liberation Theology movement still serves as a valid example of the church actively fighting social injustice, and thus a counter argument to Marx’s ‘opium of the people’ assertion. Recently, Marxists have suggested that the Bourgeoise do control the proletariat using ideological control, but religion is no longer involved in this process, with the mass media and education now being the tools of choice.
They point out the media’s tendency to ignore social inequality, instead focussing on ‘celebrity culture’ and equally vacuous topics. Also, they claim that when the media do focus on the poor, they are presented negatively, e. g. the unemployed and asylum-seekers portrayed as ‘spongers’. Additionally, ‘opium’ is provided in other ways, such as through football matches (a particular irony considering the amount the players are being paid).
Neo-Marxists Abercrombie, Hill and Turner disagree with this view, on the grounds that the ruling class no longer possesses a common ideology, rather, they rule using the system itself; both through coercion using the legal system, and by keeping the proletariat on a tight financial reign: ‘the discipline of the wage’. Some, such as the New Right and the Functionalists, reject the underlying principles of Marxism, claiming that Western society is near-perfect and that there is no longer a capitalist class exploiting a proletariat.
Instead, they see social differences as the result of the meritocratic system, and hence as inevitable and fair. Religion is viewed as a way of socialising people into society, by teaching them a shared set of norms and values. They therefore conclude that religion is one of the many social institutions which they feel make up society as a whole, and help it to function successfully. However, as we have seen, religion now actively fights against the status quo in some circumstances, and speaks out against social inequalities.
Surely if Western society was ideal the church would not need to challenge the order of things. Feminists agree with the Marxists that religion is a tool of oppression, but argue that it is an instrument used by men to reinforce and justify patriarchy, rather than a tool used by the bourgeoise to exploit the proletariat. However, this view point is arguably less relevant in modern Britain, with the decline of the church, and the emergence of numerous ‘new religions’. These have proved to be particularly attractive to women, with the emphasis being firmly on self-improvement and spiritual enlightenment.
Finally, we must briefly consider the position of the Interpretivists who claim that the conclusions drawn by Marxists are flawed because they have been drawn by sociologists observing religious practices, and imposing their own meaning on the situation, rather than by the participants themselves. They feel that by questioning those who participate in religious activity as to their intentions and impressions we can draw more valid conclusions about the nature of religion than by trying to work out what we think they are experiencing.
Marxists would respond, however, that this would be a pointless exercise, because as a result of their indoctrination, the participants would only be expressing elements of their false consciousness. In conclusion, it seems two principle points can be made. First, that whilst Marx may indeed have been correct at the time of writing, his idea that religion is the ‘opium of the people’ has become outdated with secularisation and the increasing influence of other social tools such as the media and education.
Instead, religion is now becoming more vocal in actively resisting injustice throughout the world, as opposed to imposing it. Second, McGuire appears to offer the most convincing conclusion on the role of religion. He argues that one cannot generalise about the role religion plays within society. Instead, he claims that religion has a different effect in different societies at different times, and therefore the idea that it is ‘the opium of the people’ is only applicable in certain circumstances, and cannot be held up as a universal theory of the nature of religion.