Karl Marx (1818-1883) was the most influential revolutionary socialist thinker of the 19th century. Marx’s key interests were in establishing a revolutionary party for the working classes and analysing capitalist society in order to find its strengths and weaknesses and so plan its demise. With his friend and colleague, Friedrich Engels (1820-1895), he created “The Communist Manifesto” in which they described the communist society which would be created as a result of the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalists by the working classes. This essay will discuss the view held by Marx and Engels with regard to religion and consider this perspective in its relevance to contemporary society. Although, in Marx and Engels’ opinion, religion is “the opium of the people” (Marx and Engels 1955:41-2), by this they did not only suggest that religion was an invention of the ruling classes to keep the working classes contented, they also considered the deeper implications of religion and that is the theme of this essay.
Marx and Engels were in agreement with Feuerbach’s critique of Hegel and his belief that inversion and alienation were key concepts in the examination of religion and its power and said “to abolish religion as the illusory happiness of the people is to demand their real happiness” (Marx, 1844). Marx disagreed with Hegel’s vague, conceptual world and the power which he saw as responsible for world developments. Marx instead believed that people created and recreated social worlds and as such were responsible for their creations. Inversion saw creative and independent humans becoming dependent on an imaginary God. People viewed God as responsible for their hardships, refusing to acknowledge that as God was a synthetic entity, man himself was responsible for the predicament in which he found himself. Alien and imaginary beings were given super powers alienating them from humans who had given them life. Marx believed that inversion itself must be inverted so that humans regained their place of importance over idols, in society.
Marx and Engels believed religion distracts the proletariat from their life of oppression under capitalism, keeping them away from materialistic ideas. The magic of religion blinded them to the reality of what was happening in the material world, leading Marx (1844, p652) to hold the view that “Man makes religion, religion does not make man”. This resulted in Marx’s idea of commodity fetishism, (Marx, 1867) in which he believed that special powers were given to goods, by the working classes, which resulted in an unnatural relationship between the goods and man, with commodities held in a state of supernaturally high regard and taking on the characteristics of gods.
Marx and Engels considered the role of religion as an ideology for the proletariat, creating a false consciousness; those holding religious views considered themselves good hard working law abiding individuals, with high moral standards, believing they...