Truly Quoting Marx on Religion
Often we hear or read quick quotes which are taken to mean something, or infer something different from the intended meaning. Marx's quote on religion is just such an example.
We have all heard or read Marx's "statement" that "religion is the opiate of the masses." This is not an accurate quote of what Marx wrote in his "Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right." This quote has given rise to the belief that Marx did not take the issue of religion seriously and dismissed it as folly. This is not true.(1)
Let's review in context what Marx did write about religion:
"Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people."
The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusions about conditions is the demand to give up a condition that needs illusions. The criticism of religion is therefore in embryo the criticism of the vale of woe, the halo of which is religion. Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers from the chain, not so that man will wear the chain without any fantasy or consolation, but so that he will shake off the chain and cull the living flower.
Clearly Marx is not discussing the seriousness of religion, or the role it plays in the lives of oppressed peoples. Marx realizes the power of delusion that religion holds over people. I disagree with MIM(Prisons) that religion "is simply a belief in authority."(2) Perhaps that is true for some people. But I believe it is a panacea for woe and oppression — a search and hope for a better life than the one believers currently lead. It is the oppressed's answer to the question of existentialism.
Due to the anxieties of existence — anxieties people experience as the result of natural causes like floods, famine and earthquakes, or man-made causes such as enslavement, exploitation or oppression — that make people feel powerless, they often resort to magical thinking, or beliefs in supernatural agents as a plea for the anxiety to end. Thus was born religion, its roots in anxiety.
Religion is a potent tool of capitalism and imperialism. To eliminate one, all must be eliminated if the people are to experience true freedom and liberation.
MIM(Prisons) responds: Overall, we have great unity with what this comrade writes about religion and Marx's view of it. But eir disagreement with something we wrote is a bit of a strawpersyn argument. First, it is ironic to use Christopher Hitchens to criticize us as too dismissive of religion. Hitchens was popular for his atheist ideas among the Amerikan petty bourgeoisie. His attack on so-called "Islamo-fascism" was better received than his allies on the left (led by Bob Avakian) and right (epitomized in David Horowitz). All three represent the spectrum of white nationalist thinking that uses religion as an excuse to attack the oppressed nations, primarily in the Islamic world today.
In this attempt to critique, we think this comrade takes the quote from the Fundamental Political Line of the Maoist Internationalist Ministry of Prisons out of context. The article presents the religious view in a discussion on science, correctly stating that it is simply a belief in authority, rather than a belief in one's own ability to study reality and find truth.
The MIM article also discusses pre-scientific thinking, addressing religion's role as a "panacea for woe and oppression." In pre-capitalist times, such thinking was the norm and religion was more than just an attempt to deal with the bad times, it was an attempt to explain all aspects of reality. Once scientific thought was developed and popularized, it has been the class interests of the oppressors that have kept religious ideology alive to serve their interests, as this comrade alludes. But that doesn't mean everyone who is religious is a dupe. Muslims are currently striking some of the greatest blows against U.$. imperialism, so they must have a pretty good grasp on how to actualize their own interests in a world that throws many horrors in their direction.