Chapter one - theories of religion - Marxism

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  • Created on: 26-09-18 12:51


Marxists see all societies as divided into 2 classes, one of which exploits all the labour of the other. In modern capitalist society, the capitalist class who own the means of production exploit the W/C.

In such a society, there is always the potential for class conflict, and Marx predicted that the W/C became conscious of their exploitation and unite to overthrow capitalism. 

Marx's theory of religion needs to be seen in the context of this general view of society. 

Marxism sees religion as a feature of only class-divided society. As such, there will be no need for religion in classless society and it will disappear.

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Religion as an ideology

For marx, ideology is a belief system that distorts people's perception of reality in ways that serve the interests of the R/C. He argues that the class that controls economic production also controls the production and distribution of ideas in society, through institutions such as the church, the education system and the media.

In Marx's view, rel igion operates as an ideological weapon used by the R/C to legitimate (justify) the suffering of the poor as something inevitable and god-given. Religion misleads the poor into believing their suffering is virtuous and that they will be favoured in the afterlife. 

For example, according to Christianity, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Such ideas create a false consciousness - a distorted view of relaity that prevents the poor from acting to change their situation. 

Lenin (1870-1924) describes religion as 'spiritual gin' doled out to the masses by the R/C to confuse and keept them in their place. In Lenin's view, the R/C use religion cynically to manipulate the masses and keept them from attempting to overthrow the R/C by creating a 'mystical fog' that obscures reality. 

Religion also legitimates the power and privledge of the dominant class by making their position appear to be divinely ordained. 

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religion and alienation

Marx (1844) also sees religion as the product of alienation. Alienation = becaoming seperated from or losing control over something that one has produced or created. Alienation exists in all class societies, but it is more extreme under capitalism. Under capitalism, Workers are alienated because they do not own what they produce and have no control over the production process, thus no freedom to express their true nature as creative beings. Alienation reaches a peak with the detailed  division of labour in the capiatalist factory, where the worker endlessly  repeats the same minute task, devoid of all meaning or skill.

In these dehumanising conditions, the exploited turn to religion as a form of consolation. 

Religion acts as a opiate to dull the pain of exploitation. But just as opium masks the pain rather than treating its cause, so religion masks the underlying problem of exploitation that creates the need for it. Because religion is a distorted view of the world, it can offer no solution to earthly misery. Instead, it's promises of an afterlife creates an illusory happiness, that distracts attention from the true source of suffering, namely capitalism. 

Thus, marx sees religion as a product of alienation. It arises out of suffering and acts as a consolation for it, but fails to deal with its cause, anmely class exploitation. Religion also acts as an ideology that legitimates both the suffering of the poor and the privledges of the R/C.

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  • Marx shows how religion may be a tool of oppression that masks exploitation and creates false consciousness. However, he ignores positive functions of religion, such as psychological adjustment to misfortune. Neo-Marxists see certain forms of religion as assisting not hindering the development of class consciousness. 
  • Some Marxists, such as Althusser (1971), reject the concept of alienation as unscientific and based upon the romantic idea that human beings have a 'true-self'. This would make the concept an inadequate basis for a theory of religion. 
  • Religion does not neccessarily function effectively as an ideology to control the population. For example, Abercrombie, Hill and Turner (2015) argue that in pre-capitalist society, whilst christianity was a major element of R/C idelology, it had only limited impact on the peasantry. 
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