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Karl Marx talks of the social stratification in a capitalist society based on production and argues that this leads to the two major classes: those who own the means of production (the Bourgeoisie) and those who don’t (the proletariat) and must now sell their labor to survive (Kessel, 2009).
Marx justified his stand on exploitation based on social stratification by illustrating its applicability on the various aspects of society, including religion and his arguments are supposed to be viewed as an extension of his general take on society (Swatos, 2008). The focus of this paper is to look into Marx’s illustration of this relationship in religion.
To Karl, the key element of religion is that it is a human product. “it is man who makes religion, not religion that makes man” (Marx); that it is a product of those in power, controlling production (Carmody, 2009). He says that religion is not true (is false) consciousness and as such, it diverts the attention of its followers from the reality of their miseries, the very consequences of their exploitation (Carmody, 2009). This is in relation to the religious stand that one’s life is destined to proceed as defined by God and as such, one’s misery is to be blamed on God (Carmody, 2009).
This is the reasoning behind Karl’s reasoning when he observes that it is a reflection of the nature of a capitalist society to “presuppose coercion”, making it hard for the people to realize their needs (Cline, 2006). This is not to say that people don’t know their needs, but that they have been socialized into believing that they know the ‘truth’, which is but a set of beliefs contrary to their true interest but in favor of the interests of the bourgeoisie. This is helped by religious teachings of obedience to the present authority as a path to achieving happiness in the future life through salvation (Townsley, 2004).
Karl observes that while the prevailing economic factors shield the people from finding true happiness, religion tells them not to worry as that happiness awaits them in the next life (Townsley, 2004). Indeed, history affirms that religion, in spite of changes in the systems of production has always provided the perfect atmosphere where the so-called legitimacy of exploiter versus exploited has thrived. Religion has also helped the ‘status quo’ through alienation; a process of constraining human consciousness, and maiming the development as well as the ultimate potential of human consciousness (Cox, 1988).
Marx talks of alienation quite extensively, beyond the scope of this paper, but generally Marx touches on product alienation and self alienation; the latter is what results to religion which Marx argues is the path of least resistance “fight against forces that be” (Cox, 1988). Religion, he says acts in two ways: as an illusory protest (giving false hope and forgetfulness against exploitation) and also as ideology (distorting and masking the truth, the socio-economic reality of the world) (Cline, 2006).
While Marx’s stand on religion may have been influenced by his witnessing of the social and occupational immobility forced on his lawyer father by his Jewish religion, and while some of his thoughts may have been too radical or extreme, his arguments are well reflected in the arena of religion today from Sharia-justified aristocracy in Muslim nations to extortion in churches in the name of God. It is important to note that Marx does not imply that religion is the creation of the bourgeoisie, but illustrates that it is the fruit of the historical exploitation system.
Carmody, M. (2009). A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Web.
Cox, J. (1988). An Introduction to Marx’s Theory of Alienation. International Socialism Journal, 79: 1988-1992. Web.
Cline, A. (2006). Karl Marx and Religion. Web.
Kessel, D. (2009). Marx, Religion, and Sociology of Religion. Web.
Swatos, W. (2008). Encyclopedia of Religion and Society. Web.
Townsley, J. (2004). Marx, Weber and Durkheim on Religion. Web.