Marxist and Neo-Marxist Views of Religion


The Marxist Model of Society

According to Marxists, in all non-communist societies, a ruling class own the means of production and from their wealth derive power, which allows them to control the superstructure of society. (The superstructure is the non-economic parts of society such as education, the state, the mass media, religion and beliefs, attitudes and values).

From this point of view, religion is used to promote the interests of the rling class by being used to support ruling-class ideology. Ruling-class ideology keeps the ruling class in power by discouraging subject classes from realizing they are being exploited and then trying to overtrow ruling-class power.

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Religion as the 'Opium of the Masses'

Marx (1842) famously decribed religion as the 'opium of the masses'. By this he meant that he saw religion as being like a drug that distorts reality and helps individuals deal with pain. he gave serveral examples of how religion does this.

  • It promises eternal life in heaven for those who follow and accept the beliefs of a religion.
  • It makes a virtue out of suffering and oppression, as in the biblical quote that 'it is easier for a camel to pass throguh the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to eneter the Kingdom of Heaven'. Injustices during life will be rectified in the afterlife, and therefore there is no need to try to overcome injustice now.
  • It offers hope of supernatural intervention to end suffering. For example, Jehovah's Witnesses believe that judgement day will arrive and those who are not religious will be judged and punished.

Religion justifies and legitimates the existing social order. For example, in medieval Europe, kings and queens ruled by divine right; they got their legitimacy from God. Individuals were persuaded to accept their situation as it was divinely ordained and therefore something they should not challenge.

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Religion and Alienation

Marx saw religion as a form of alienation. Human invent an alien being, God, which they believe to be all-powerful and to have control over them. In doing so, they give up their own true humanity by denying themselves the right to make their own decisions.

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Religion as Social Control

Marx therefore saw religion as a mechanism of social control. It creates false class consciousness -mistaken beliefs about the true nature of social life, which justify the position of the ruling class. This prevent the working class developing class consciousness, in which they become aware that they are exploited, and unite to otherthrow the capitalist system that exploits them.

Marx believed that with the advent of communism, religion would no longer be necessary. Since the means of production would be communally owned by all members of society, no individuals would own this wealth and power and there would be no social classes. Without classes there would be no need for religion, as its sole purpose was to legitimate ruling-class power. Religion would therefore disappear.

In the Soviet Union, under communist leadership from 1917 to 1990, the state consistently oppose the existance of religious beliefs and destroyed many Russian Orthodox churches, as well as mosques and synagogues.

Communist regimes that still exist, such as that in Cuba, have come to accept that religion is going to coexist with communism, and no longer try to suppress it.

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Evidence: Slavery

In slave societies (e.g. sugar plantations in the West Indies) slave masters tried to convert African slaves to European religions.

Slave masters saw religion as a way of controlling their slaves, preventing rebellions by giving the masters control over the slaves' beliefs.

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Evidence: The Hindu Caste System

In the traditional Hindu caste system in India (now illegal), people were divided into five castes based upon their supposed degree of religious purity. The Brahmins (priests) were at the top and the Untouchables (unskilled labourers) at the bottom.

Since no movement was permitted between castes this system ensured the ruling class maintained their power and control and justified the lowly position of those at the bottom in terms of their religious impurity.

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The New Christian Right

Very religious Christians in the United States with highly conservative and pro-capitalist views (e.g. President George W. Bush).

The New Christian Right justify free-market capitalism, which supports the interests of the bourgeoisie, in religious terms, thereby legitimating ruling-class power.

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Evidence: Evangelical Christianity in Latin Americ

The New Christan Right have encouraged the spread of Protestant religious beliefs in predominantly Catholic Latin American countries, particularly amoungst the poor in shantytowns.

Protestant religious beliefs provide religious discipline and hope of salvation in the afterlife to some of the poorest in Latin American societies, discouraging them from supporting radical Catholic liberation theology and encouraging support for US-style capitalist values.

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Criticisms of the Marxist View of Religion

Functionalists criticisms: Marxism ignores the positive benfits of religion to society, such as they way it creates stability and shared vaues, which are necessary for society to function effectively. Religion benefits everyone, not just a ruling class.

Secularization: Religion seems to have declined in many Western societies, suggesting it is no longer needed to maintain ruling-class power.

Religion as a radical force: Religion does not always support the status quo and the preservation of ruling-class power. Some radical religions such as liberation theology challenge ruling-clas power.

Feminist criticisms: Religion acts to preserve male, patriarchal power, not ruling-class power. Marxists ignore gender inequality.

The narrow focus of Marxism: By concentrating on just one possible role of religion in society, it ignores the much broader range of effects religion might have.

Religion under communism: Attempts to destroy religion in communist countries were not succesful. Rleigion survived in the USSR and Catholicism thrived in communist Poland.

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Key Study: Religion as a Radical Force

Marx's friend and collaborator, Friedrich Engels (1957), recognized religion did not always act as a conservative force supporting the interests of the ruling class. He believed that religion usually started off amoungst oppressed groups in society as a way of coping with their oppression.He also argued that eventually religion could become a force for change. By uniting an oppressed group and giving them a common set of beliefs, it provided the basis for future actions. When Engels wrote about early Christian sects who are oppossed to Roman rule, he compared them to communist and socialist political movements campaigning for freedom from oppression. In these cases, religion became a source of resistance to oppressors and therefore a force for change.

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Neo-Marxists are new Marxists who are strongly influenced by the writing of Karl Marx but who do not agree with all aspects of them. Neo-Marxists therefore developed new theories, which diverge to some extent from Marx's original writings. In particular, they often do not agree that parts of the superstructure are completely controlled by the ruling class.

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The Relative Autonomy of Religion

Otto Manduro (1982) believes that religion has some independence or relative autonomy from ruling-class control and from the economic system. He denies that religion is always a conservative force and say that it can sometimes become revolutionary.

He uses the example of liberation theology to illustrate his point. Until recent decades, the Catholic Church in Latin America sided with the bourgeoisie and right-wing military dictatorships in Latin American countries such as El Salvador and Nicaragua. The Catholic Church gave little support to trade unions, strikers and opposition political parties. Increasingly, however, Catholic priests began to speak up for the interests of the poor. Some priests developed a new theology, which interpreted Christianity as being on the side of oppressed groups and as supporting their liberation. Liberation theology therefore developed, which argued that power and wealth, especially land, should be redistributed from the rich to the poor.

This set of religious beliefs has developed an ideology similar to Marxism whereby it encourages revolution ratherthan acts as the opium of the masses. There are other instances where religion has become a radical force. For example, cargo cults on islands colonized by Europeans in the Pacific believed that ships bearing a cargo of riches would appear over the horizon to give them as much wealth as their European colonizers, and this would result in...

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The Relative Autonomy of Religion Continued

 the Europeans being thrown off the islands. When the ships did not appear, the cults became radical political movements seeking the expulsion of colonial occupiers.

In Egypt duringthe Arab Spring (which involved protests around the Arab world in the early 2010s), the Muslim Brotherhood was instrumental in overthrowing the corrupt elitist regime and forming an elected government, although it was itself replaced in a military coup in 2013.

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Evaluation of Neo-Marxism

There is plenty of evidence to support the Neo-Marxist view that religion is not always a conservative force supporting the interests of the ruling class. Religion has quite often acted as a radical force resulting in social changes. Ironically, religion has also acted as a radical force for the overthrow of communism. In Poland in the 1990s the ruling Communist Party was opposed by free trade unions and by the Roman Catholic Church. Eventually this led to the overthrow of the communist system and its replacement by a Western democratic regime.

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Marxist and Neo-Marxist theories successfully explain the role of religion in some societies at some times, but do not explain how religion works in all societies at all times. Religion is not necessarily an expression of ruling-class ideology or revolutionary political force, although it does sometimes act in this way, as examples may illustrate.

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Examiners' Notes

  • The Marxist view of religion could form the basis of an essay question in its own right. You could be asked to compare it with another perspective, such as functionalsim or feminism, or to answer questions about religion and social change or religion and conflict.
  • The example of Hinduism provides a useful cross-cultural examples. you are not expected to be an expert on all world religions, but it is helpful to have some knowledge of one to help you develop cross-cultural points and reference.
  • Remember that you are most likely to get into the top mark band if you can provide a balanced discussion of arguments for and against a perspective. These examples illustrate and support the Marxist viewpoint.
  • For a full essay on the Marxist view of religion, you can expand on these points using material from other sections.
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Examiners' Notes Continued

  • Maduro and the example of liberation theology are very useful for discussing a range of questions, including those on religion and social change, religion and conflict and religion as a conservative force.
  • Introducing more complexity allows more analysis and helps get you into the top mark band.
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