How do we account for religion - its origin, its development, and even its persistence in modern society? This is a question which has occupied many people in a variety of fields for quite a long time. At one point, the answers were framed in purely theological and religious terms, assuming the truth of Christian revelations and proceeding from there. In the 18th and 19th centuries, a more "naturalistic" approach developed. Instead of needing to believe in the truth of the religion, what was required was just the opposite: intellectual detachment and a suspension of belief. Three people who ended up doing just that were Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim and Max Weber.
Marx studied philosophy in Berlin under William Hegel. Hegel's philosophy had a decisive influence upon Marx's own thinking and theories. According to Marx, religion is an expression of material realities and economic injustice. Thus, problems in religion are ultimately problems in society. Religion is not the disease, but merely a symptom. It is used by oppressors to make people feel better about the distress they experience due to being poor and exploited. This is the origin of his comment that religion is the "opium of the people." "People do not have an objective view of the world; they see it from the restricted point of view of their own positions."(p.35) At times I may seem to be focusing more on economic rather than religious theory, but that is because Marx's basic stance is that everything is always about economics.
According to Marx, humans - even from their earliest beginnings - are not
motivated by grand ideas but instead by material concerns, like the need to eat and survive. This is the basic premise of a materialist view of history. At the beginning, people worked together in unity and it wasn't so bad. But eventually, humans developed agriculture and the concept of private property. These two facts created a division of labor and a separation of classes based upon power and wealth. This material organization of society is what Marx calls "class consciousness." This, in turn, created the social conflict that drives society.
All of this is made worse by capitalism which only increases the disparity between the wealthy classes and the labor classes. Confrontation between them is unavoidable because those classes are driven by historical forces beyond anyone's control. Capitalism also creates one new misery: exploitation of surplus value.
For Marx, an ideal economic system would involve exchanges of equal value for equal value, where value is determined simply by the amount of work put into whatever is being produced. Capitalism interrupts this ideal by introducing a profit motive - a desire to produce an uneven exchange of lesser value for greater value. Profit is ultimately derived from the surplus value produced by workers in factories.
A laborer might produce enough value to feed his family in two hours of work, but he keeps at the job for a full day - in Marx's...