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 divine 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...