[Analytical Essay] Religion, opiate for the masses?

Source: Karl Marx’s Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right

The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man – state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression 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 soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower. The criticism of religion disillusions man, so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses, so that he will move around himself as his own true Sun. Religion is only the illusory Sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself.

Disclaimer: I have yet to read the whole book to understand the entirety of Marx’s perspective on religion. Opinion is solely based on personal observations from miscelleneous readings and films on religion, informal and casual conversations I’ve had that are limited within my social circle and a semester of sociology classes at introductory level I’ve attended.

  • Inverted consciousness of the world

On one side, Marx sees religion as a tool used by the powerful to manipulate the masses . How? Religion is regarded as an ideology, a set of values that could be imparted across societies and/or top-down within classes of a society. According to him, these values are man-made.  The powerful people gets to “make” these values and ideas. Of course, they get the upperhand to influence the rest (in the capitalist system, the rich gets to influence the economic market to rules of the society…) and suppress the masses in the state of false consciousness. When there’re no rules, no ideologies to sustain a consensus among the masses, it can be a chaotic world when everyone is constantly vying for power or even for equality. When religion notions to us that we should duly accept our status in the society (i.e. caste system) and roles assigned without questioning, we’re less likely to fight (or amicably if we have to) against “fate assigned to us by divine powers”. Keeping society in balance at the expense of our consciousness? The whole fighting for the Rights Movement only begin in recent times as societies develop and these nations have passed their times of worrying about basic necessities.

  • Oppressed creature’s sigh, heart of a heartless world, soul of soulless conditions


On the other side, Marx sees religion as opium for the people, a remedy to appease the troubled minds.  Because, opium, no matter how one chooses to argue for it, we are still very much conditioned to regard it negatively in every possible way. “The helpless, the weakwilled, only the troubled uses it“.

Did Marx referred to reality as one “heartless world” and “soulless conditions” for everyone? Or was it a reality for only the less-powerful masses/the helpless, the weakwilled, the troubled…? In relation to the capitalist system, the working class is analogized to the oppressed creature. People seek solace in prayers and engagement in various religious rituals – the idea of knowing that you’re blessed and protected is a comforting feeling. There’s no guarantee that you’re indeed blessed or protected but when you change your outlook towards an issue (i.e. staying hopeful because you’ve done whatever that needs to be done and that someone up there is indeed watching you) but there’s certainly the possibility that a positive outlook can change one’s actions to turn the tables around.

It does not matter whether religion is real or not (?) Is Physics real? Literature? Engineering? Languages? They’re subjects to help us to make better sense of the world. Everything we know about these subjects are penned by human beings and passed down from generations. How do we know something is real? Just because we don’t see any proof of something, it does not mean that the something doesn’t exist. We are bedazzled by everything that can’t be explained and as human beings, we have the opportunity to find every possible explanation to fit the logic piece. “Why do we have to die?” Then scientists are always looking out for that elixir to enable the human race to live forever – “yes, we accept that we have ___ lifespan but we certainly can’t settle down with just this”.

  • Fantastic realization of human essence (Theodicy)

Fate, destiny, luck, coincidences, chances – how do we explain these things? Pure coincidences? Where do they come from? A dice or a coin: given the same conditions (the toss, reflex used for the toss, height of toss, wind, humidity, etc etc.), is it very likely or close to perfect for the second toss to land in the same digit/side as the first toss?

I tucked this picture in here which appears to have little-no relation to what I've written. I came across this on Google; personally found it meaningful when it comes to justifying human acts with religious teachings
I tucked this picture in here which appears to have little-no relation to what I’ve written. I came across this on Google; personally found it meaningful when it comes to justifying human acts with religious teachings

Perhaps what Marx meant by religion being an “expression of real suffering” is that religion helps us to understand why some are born into/suffer a less fortunate fate as compared to others. Religion expresses why it happens that way, for us to find sense in something that cannot be explained by science.

As for why religion is a “protest against real suffering”, I guess it is because the acceptance of one’s status in life meant that one will not resort to hating himself and ending his own life because of an unexplained suffering. Religion could tell you that your life was created for a special purpose, something along the lines of “do good this life and you’ll live well the next (not from any specific religious text, I just came up with this on my own)” and that you’ve probably waited for a thousand years to become a human being this life. Perhaps it is when one understands why something happens, one tends to accept and take it slightly easier – it happens this way in almost everything in life.

Sidenote: I also understand that there are cases where religious people commit altruistic suicide and one can’t tell whether that’s an expression or/and protest against human suffering.

  • Illusory happiness (really?)

From young, we go to school and receive knowledge through the subjects that are taught to us. Over time, these knowledge shape us, our attitudes, opinions, values, our taste of music, literary works, films, clothes and various things. Similarly, when I was younger, I took up the same religious belief as my parents’. Just as what I’ve received from school have influenced me, the religious values that were taught to me have shaped who I am today. Should religion be regarded as a separate entity from the individual’s “true sun”? How true am I, to myself when I’m influenced by education, government, society, parents, religion, the culture and trends I’m exposed to in this generation? And worst of all (or it’s better that way), I can barely feel the influence of these things (religion, knowledge and societal influence) on my “true” organic self. Is it hard to tell whether one is plucking the imaginary or living flower anymore?

I know perhaps Marx was referring to a different form of religious restriction to things you’re allowed or not allowed to do according to a higher divine being. That, there may be greater potential to this human being who failed to live the way he was intended to do so without being strictly-guided by… a set of moral codes written by his fellow beings and claimed to be the word of God*. But then, again, we dedicate our lives (sometimes religiously or regularly) to different things that matter to us – perhaps to the man himself, he chose religion as a guide to live his life. Even if his potential is restricted, what else matters when it’s his choice to devote himself to religion?

However, choice itself is doubtful. Choice is made by the conscious and it is an intention. Choice is being free to learn about the other alternatives/perspectives beside the one or the few ones you’re exposed to. Choice is making a decision after you have learnt about all the other alternatives (?) Yet, again, how many of us actually explored all the choices we’d had? When we dedicate our lives to an agenda or to only subjects that interest us, are we restricting our potential in the other choices we could have excelled in if we dedicate alittle bit more effort to those?

Issue of morality
Outside this personal interpretation of the text, a food for thought is whether or not moral standards have its roots in religion. Religion has its emphasis on human conscience, the ability to judge right and wrong. Guilt is not new to any of us. Guilt is sometimes a byproduct of religion but not always. Should we rely on religion to make us moral beings and it being necessary to bind us together with a ideology (common values) as to allow us to function as a society?

Are these standards another form of social construct? How has the society and the generation we’re born in change our perspective of seeing the right in what’s previously judged as wrong?

*God isn’t termed to refer to any specific religion in this post. It refers to the omnipotent being that is regarded differently across every religion.

To check out other posts on Race and Religion, click HERE

Written by: SY


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