Marx vs. Durkheim: Religion
An essay by Erin Olson
plus commentary by Antonino Palumbo
Religion and religious institutions play a powerful role in influencing a society and the lives of its members. The sociological traditions of Marx and Durkheim view religion totally differently, yet they both agree that religion is a very important aspect of a society. During his career, Marx spoke little on the subject of religion. However, “what is lacking in volume is made up for in vigor and comprehensiveness. Some of Marx’s best-known obitera are about religion. It is ‘the sigh of the oppressed creature’, ‘the illusory happiness of men’. It is ‘the reflex of the real world’ and best of all it is ‘the opium of the people’” (Turner, 1).
Durkheim, on the other hand, spoke a great deal on religion. In Elementary Forms of Religious Life, he specifically defines “a religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden-beliefs and practices which united in one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them” (Durkheim, 47). As we have seen, Durkheim and Marx each had their own definitions of religion. However, we will learn that they both see an important role that religion plays in a society, as well as the ways in which society creates and shapes their religions.
“Karl Marx is without a doubt the most influential political atheist of all time. Because Marx espoused atheism in his attempt to destroy capitalism, half the world today is officially committed to atheism as a political philosophy” (Koster, 161). For Marxists, religion is used to justify and preserve the class system, as well as ensure the status quo of the dominant ideology of the society. Religion plays a significant role in the beliefs and values that encompass any society and therefore acts to preserve the existing social order. The rich can afford to make generous donations to the church, while the poor cannot. Over time, the beliefs of the church will be shaped in accordance with the interest of the ruling-class. Therefore the desires of the rich will be met and kept and the class system preserved. Religion also helps in preserving the existing social order by making life more bearable, and by justifying exploitation and the class system that results from capitalism.
If we choose to believe that God created everything, it is easy to believe that God also intended for some people to be rich and powerful while others are to be poor and have no power. Yet another justification for exploitation that comes from religion: The poor should accept their suffering, as God chose them to suffer. God only gives you as much pain and suffering as you can handle. Due to religion, Marx believed people look forward to happiness and salvation they will receive after death. Religion defers happiness and rewards to the afterlife, teaching the acceptance of existing conditions in the life on earth.
It was when Marx attended the University of Berlin that he abandoned his belief in religion. At the same time, he was exposed to the philosophy of Epicurus and the materialism of Ludwig Feuerbach (Koster, 163). Feuerbach’s theory was that thought arises from being; being does not arise from thought. In his Essence of Christianity, Feuerbach defined religious beliefs as “only the projection of elements of human experience into objects of worship” (Coser, 74). Religious beliefs require humanity to have existed and to have formulated the ideas that compose any religion. This is termed Materialism. Marx emphasized the unhappy social conditions that led individuals to find consolation in a world of religious entities of their own creation (Coser, 74). Religion was a creation of humanity, really an illusion. God did not create humans, rather humans created their own Gods. Religion cuts people off from reality, distorts and masks it to make life more bearable. Death, poverty, hunger,...
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