Religion as the Opium of the People

 “Religion is the opium of the people” is one of Marx’s most well-known statements, as emphasized by many scholars working on Marx’s ideas on religion.1 However, the complexity and ambivalence of this metaphor are not obvious, even for careful readers of Marx. Marx’s ideas on religion are mainly assessed as “marginal” in comparison to his comprehensive critique of political economy. Contrary to this general view, I argue that Marx’s short writings on religion stay at the very center of his critique of modern political and economic relations, and of the dominant form of political community in modern society. His perspective provides crucial insight in understanding both the “insistent return of the religion to public space” and the sources of religion’s enduring power in mobilizing masses in modern society (See Dobbs-Weinstein 2015). Marx believed that the secret of this power of religion lies in the constitution of political relations, suppression of human freedom, and organizations of capitalist social relations. However, Marx’s analysis of religion goes beyond any functional analysis. I will discuss very shortly that this power of religion arises from, first, the affective and imaginary dimension of religion in the organization of communitarian social relations, and from its ability to mobilize conventional beliefs and opinions in order to structure mass psychology. Both of these powers are actually the result of the historically specific form of the political community and articulation between the political and economic fields in capitalist society. Marx’s analysis of religion does not depend on the negligence of the symbolic, imaginary or affective dimension of religion. Rather, he illuminates the nature of religion’s transformation and its new form under capitalist social relations, and why the critique of religion is essential for the realization of human freedom.

In his introduction to Towards a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Marx declares that “religious suffering is at the same time an expression [Ausdruck] 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 spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.”2 It is a well-known fact that the first part of this paragraph is neglected on behalf of the last one. However, this selective reading does not shed light on Marx’s approach to religion. For Marx, the question of religion is not a question of definition. He is interested in how religion works in historically specific contexts. More specifically, how does it work under the condition of a secular political and capitalist order? In this context, Marx provides deep insights into why religion has played such a crucial role in the organization of people’s affection and imagination, explaining why this is an area for the condensed expression of human suffering, hopes and fears. This role of religion cannot simply be understood as a reference to the internal characteristics of religion. Religion structures the emotional dispositions of its believers as a system of belief, imagination and meaning. However, reasons for its function as an opium cannot be found within religion per se. On the contrary, to understand why religion functions as an opium, we should look more carefully into the political field, which conditions religion’s function in modern society. Hence, we should change “theological questions into secular ones,” as Marx did.

Religion cannot be understood just as a reified, self-alienated, or inverted existence of human essence. It contains strong imaginary and affective dimensions, both of which play a crucial role in the organization of both compliance and defiance of subjects in capitalism. However, the sources of this affective capacity must be sought in the organization of the political field (in its abstractly universal character) and the relationship/contradiction between the existence of humans in civil society (egoistic individuals) and political society (abstract citizenship as an expression of species being). For Marx, if the existence of religion can be seen as the “existence of a defect, the source of this defect can only be sought in the nature of the state” (see Marx 200, 51). He underlines that a human individual is a just an “imaginary participant in imaginary sovereignty” in modern society (Ibid., 53). In a political community, where he/she “is valued as communal being,” he/she is actually “robbed of his real life.” In this abstractness, Marx discovers the religious presuppositions of the democratic state and political community. In the absence of any concrete relation within the political community, or due to the existence of political community as an imagined communal being against egoistic relations dominant in civil society, religion arose as the most important sphere for the canalization of affections and imaginations. This shows that there is a substantial link between the way religion functions in capitalist society and the organization of modern society. 

As Michel Löwy has shown, the formulation “religion is the opium of the people” does not actually specifically belong to Marx (See Löwy 1996, 5). What is more distinctive in Marx’s approach to religion is his postulation of the critique of religion as the arche of all critique.3 But why is the critique of religion so significant for Marx? More importantly, what does the critique of religion mean in today’s secular capitalist social order? Part of the answer lies in the bond between the critique of religion, political society, and economic relations, as incisively argued by Dobbs-Weinstein. The critique of religion cannot be restricted to the religious sphere. In that context, any critique that aims to displace and challenge generalized conventions, should start from a critique of religion, since religion contains an archetype of modern opinion formation, and management of mass psychology, as a sphere of belief, imaginations, and emotions. In its relation to human freedom and democracy, both Spinoza and Marx underline this character of religion, as succinctly discussed by Dobbs-Weinstein. For the emancipation of the human mind from generalized conventions, opinions, imposed prejudices, and reactionary emotional states, the link between religion, political economy, and politics should initially be discovered.

Marx’s critique of religion has been generally reduced to a critique of ideology or one-sided analyses of religion. However, Marx’s aim is not to overcome religion or to simply search for its material or spiritual sources in human society. Rather, he politically analyses how religion functions in a secular capitalist society to open the way for human emancipation. In that context, even if the critique of religion seems to play a marginal role in Marx’s analysis of capitalist society, it actually plays a key role in his discussions of different sources of self-alienation in modern society. The subsumption of the imaginary and affective power of humanity within religion, and the conversion of these capacities into an “illusionary happiness”, are directly related to the constitution of the political community. Insofar as political communal being continues to become an abstract entity, culminating in the idea of abstract citizenship and sovereignty, and insofar as there is a separation between humans’ existence in civil society and their existence in political society, religion will continue to be a main resource for building an “affective community”, expressing defiance and compliance. For these reasons, the true realization of human essence, the real overcoming of religion, cannot be reduced to the discovery of an inverted human essence within religion, as Feuerbach suggested; rather, it depends on the analysis of historical and political relations, which condition this process of inversion permanently.

As a result, Marx does not simply expose the dual character of religion, namely its role in the sustenance of relations of domination, and in containing unfulfilled desires and utopian promises as an “imaginary sphere of not-yet-being.” This aspect of religion is comprehensively discussed and analyzed by Marxist authors such as Ernst Bloch, Max Horkheimer, Walter Benjamin and Michael Löwy. However, Marx’s own attempt to formulate a critique of religion as the critique of modern society is still waiting for its followers to realize human emancipation.