Marxists see religion in a capitalist society as serving the needs of the ruling class only. Marxism is a conflict theory as it focuses on the conflict of interest between the ruling class and subject class. Marxism sees religion as a conservative force as it prevents the subject class from overthrowing the ruling class.
Marxism and Religion
Marx argued that religion helps the subject class deal with their alienation. In a capitalist society the subject class are cut off – or alienated – from their work, the goods they produce and their colleagues. They work for the capitalists not themselves and have to do as they are told. They do not own the goods they produce and must pay the capitalist if they wish to own them. They work for their individual wage, rather than the good of the community. They are oppressed and exploited by the ruling class.
Marx suggested that religion helps the subject class deal with this alienation. He described religion as ‘the opium of the people’ (opium is a pain-killing drug): it dulls the pain of oppression experienced by the subject class.
Religion appears to offer hope to the subject class but this is an illusion created by the ruling class ideology: beliefs that distort the true nature of reality to the benefit of the ruling class. This leaves the subject class with a false class consciousness: they accept these ideas and do not challenge their situation. This benefits the ruling class because their position is not threatened and they can continue their exploitation and oppression of the subject class.
Religion does this in several ways: it suggests events are controlled by supernatural powers, meaning there is little the subject class can do to challenge their situation beyond prayer.
Religion supports the existing social order by suggesting monarchs have the DIVINE RIGHT TO RULE: i.e. God has chosen them; to challenge them will challenge God, which will be punished.
Religion also promises an afterlife if the subject class accept their suffering without question. All of this prevents the subject class becoming aware of their exploitation and oppression and ensures they do not challenge the authority of the ruling class.
According to Marx, the subject class need to challenge and overthrow the ruling class to create a communist society where everyone would be equal. Religion, therefore, would not be necessary in a communist society because there would not be any oppression, alienation or exploitation causing pain that needs to be dulled. However, religion did remain important in many communist societies e.g. Catholicism in Poland.
Evaluation of Marxism
Marxism is useful because it identifies how religion may be used by powerful groups for their own interests.
However, it ignores how religion may be used to challenge the ruling class (see neo-Marxism).
Furthermore, religion remained significant in communist societies, despite efforts to suppress it.
Functionalists criticise Marxists for ignoring positive functions of religion such as how it can help individuals during life crises. It is also difficult to see how religion can create a false class consciousness on the subject class if societies are becoming more secular.
NEO-MARXISM AND RELIGON
Gramsci developed a neo-Marxist view that demonstrated religion could be used to support the subject class and challenge the ruling class.
The latter have a HEGEMONY over the subject class. Although religion – specifically the Catholic Church – was largely subservient to the ruling class, it could express and support the views of the oppressed. If these views could be developed by the intellectuals, the dominant ruling class ideology could be challenged, leading to the liberation of the subject class.
Maduro develops this with LIBERATION THEOLOGY. The subject class turn to religion when other forms of protest have been denied or suppressed by the ruling class. The subject class’ problems are then expressed by religious leaders who become Gramsci’s intellectuals to challenge the ruling class. Maduro based this on Catholicism in Latin America, but also applies to Catholicism in Poland.