Understanding Marx’s Critique of Religion
Marx’s iconic phrase directly opposes Hegel’s ‘philosophy of right’ and perhaps can be considered one of the most enlightened forms of modern thought. Marx argues that religion functions in a purely materialistic way in society. Thus, the nature of religion makes it an effective tool in the hands of the elite, to hegemonize and oppress the masses.
Deconstructing the nucleus of Marx’s apparent apprehension of religion, it can be stated that the avaricious nature of religion as a potential instrument of hegemony in the hands of capitalists not only helps that class exercise dominance but also makes the oppressed feel good about the same. In this way, religion is cheap opium as it has the same effect of maintaining effective delusions of grandeur. Further, it could be argued that Marx was critical of the political gimmick of religion which has been a mainstay of society for aeons. Religion in the political sense is simply used for political gain by means of enmity, hate, or divisions. An example of this could be the various riots that have gripped our country since its inception. Different religious groups clash between themselves so that polarisation can be used to garner votes during elections.
However, in Marx’s view, it is the sense of false consciousness generated by religion that is a matter of absolute condemnation and criticism. Marx construes the identity of false consciousness and defines it as the blanket of religion that veils over the issues that are of greater importance. Several socio-economic phenomena prove Marx’s point. Take for example the caste system, those at the bottom of the hierarchy, the Dalits in most cases neither have money, property, or food. However, despite the lack of basic necessities, the false sense of consciousness influenced by religion will force the person to unite for the cause of religion and not focus on persisting issues of poverty, regression of economy, joblessness, etc. The temple-building activities taken by the government legitimise this point. Such activities which appeal to the religious sentiments of the majority are mostly a smokescreen to cover up the weak performance of the state on issues of economy, plurality, development, generation of jobs, etc. The people too consumed by ‘religion’, don't seem to emphasise these current issues which directly affect them. Thus, people across all spectrums see their religious needs being fulfilled as a bigger achievement than the state improving their current socio-economic condition. Hence it could be argued that religion unites all by alienating them from their problems. False consciousness is that aspect of religion that acts as a blanket of ignorance to cover real issues by hoaxing the masses in a lull dogma.
The concept of religion is based on a widespread belief that there will be a heavenly reward. This gives the exploiter or the capitalists a sort of relief from the guilt of exploiting the workers. The rich believe that by doing some works of charity they are guaranteed heavenly treatment, this not only makes the guilty feel better about themselves but also legitimises the continuity of exploitation. Religion thus becomes more of spiritual booze, in a spiritual spectrum, the slaves of the enterprise are encouraged to drink the nectar of morality so at least they believe they live a life worthy of man, even though the reality is contradictory.
The critical exposition of religion reveals that in a utopian society there is no need for it because there will be no sense of false consciousness as issues of priority or rather pertinent issues will be addressed. These issues will be directly linked to the socio-economic aspects of an individual’s life, focusing primarily on the individual's material and social needs. Marx envisages a classless society, where there is no intrinsic hierarchy. The principles of social ownership of factors of production and distribution as well as equality of status and wealth would work towards ending the impoverishment of the ‘proletariat’ or the downtrodden class. Marx envisions that the blanket of ignorance will not spread its dogma in such a society as people will be enlightened to see the truth.
Nagarjun, the famous Hindi-Maithili poet perfectly sums up Marx’s idea of religion in his quote - “True religion is one that feeds the stomach.”
By Nitin Vrihaspati