2. Marx’s theory of religion needs to be seen in the context of
his general view of society, capitalism dominates the working
Whereas functionalism sees religion as a unifying force that
strengthens the value consensus and is a feature of all
societies. Marxism sees religion as a feature only of class-
divided society, as such there will be no need for religion in
classless society and it will disappear.
3. For Marx, ideology is a belief system that changes people’s
perception of reality in ways that serve the interests of the ruling
class. He argues that the class that controls economic production
also controls the production and distribution of ideas in
society, though institutions such as the church, the education
system and the media.
In Marx’s view, religion operates as an ideological weapon used
by the ruling class to justify the suffering of the poor as
something inevitable and God-given.
Religion misleads the poor into believing that their suffering is
virtuous and that they will be favoured in the afterlife. Such
beliefs create a false consciousness.
Lenin describes religion as ‘spiritual gin’- an intoxicant doled
out to the masses by the ruling class to continue them and keep
them in their place. Lenin argues the ruling class use religion
cynically to manipulate the masses and keep them from
attempting to overthrow the ruling class by creating a ‘mystical
fog’ that obscures reality.
4. Religion legitimates the power and privilege of the dominate
class by making their position appear to be divinely ordained.
For example, the 16th century idea of the Divine Right of the
Kings was the belief that that the king is God’s representative
on earth and is owed total obedience to God’s authority.
5. Alienation involves becoming separated from or loosing control over
something that one has produced or created. Alienation exists in all
classes, but is more extreme under capitalism.
Under capitalism workers are alienated because they do not own what
they produce and have no control over the production process, and have
no freedom to express their true nature detailed division of labour in the
capitalist factory, where the worker endlessly repeats the same tasks.
Religion acts as an opiate to dull the pain of exploitation. But just as
opium masks pain rather than treating its cause, so religion masks the
underlying problem of exploitation that creates the need for it. Because
religion is a distorted view of the world, it can offer no solution to
In instead, its promises of the afterlife create an illusory happiness that
distracts attention from the true source of the suffering, namely
Thus, Marx sees religion as the product of alienation. It arises out of
suffering and acts as a consolation for it, but fails to deal with its cause
namely class exploitation. Religion acts as an ideology that legitimates
both the suffering of the poor and the power of the working class.
6. Marx shows how religion may be a tool of oppression that
masks exploitation and creates a false consciousness.
However, he ignores positive functions of religion e.g.
psychological adjustment to misfortune. Neo- Marxists see
certain forms of religion as assisting not hindering the
development of class consciousness.
Some Marxists such as Althusser reject the concept of
alienation as unscientific and based on a romantic idea that
human beings have a ‘true self’. This would make the concept
an inadequate basis for a theory of religion.
Religion does not necessarily function effectively as an
ideology to control the population. For example, Abercrombie
and Turner argue that in pre-capitalist society, while
Christianity was a major element of ruling class ideology, it
had only limited impact on the peasantry.