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I've always assumed that when Marx said "Religion is the opium of the masses", he meant that religion is a tool used by the ruling classes of the time to dominate the lower classes. But when reading the full original quote:

The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man – state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. -- Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, 1843.

I am a little confused. On one hand, he states that "This state and this society produce religion", which seems to confirm my original interpretation that religion is a tool of oppression used by the upper class.

On the other hand, he later says "Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.", which I read as saying that religion is a reaction by the masses to the oppression brought on them by the ruling class, not a tool of the the ruling class itself. To extend the drug analogy of the famous part of the quote, the masses are self medicating on the religious opium, it is not being forced on them by their overlords.

So which view is correct according to Marx: Is religion a self-administered reaction to oppression? or is it a tool of domination administered by the ruling class?

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    It would seem that an oppressive relationship can exist even if the religion is not forced upon the people, but still used as an opium for the lower classes provided by the upper classes – Matt Apr 7 '16 at 18:35
  • I remember pointing out this quote to you back when you had your old avatar :-) Historical materialism is fatalistic, state and society produce religion like sun produces sunlight, or like an oppressed creature produces a sigh. "Overlords" are tools of fate same as the masses and their drugs, they can not force anything not already forced by the means of production if they tried. For Marx there is no social will or agency (prior to him at least), and hence no difference between historical agents and tools, religion is not administered or self-administered, it just happens to society. – Conifold Apr 8 '16 at 0:09
  • @Conifold "For Marx there is no social will or agency (prior to him at least)" this will keep me smiling for a while. – Alexander S King Apr 8 '16 at 0:12
  • That's why we got "The standpoint of the old materialism is civil society; the standpoint of the new is human society, or social humanity. The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it" in Theses on Feuerbach. Marx came to change the world. :-) – Conifold Apr 8 '16 at 1:00
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    It is possible for Marx to actually be right, and even realistic. (About something, somewhere, occasionally.) – jobermark Apr 26 '16 at 18:49
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If you look at Marx's Theses on Feuerbach, or Feuerbach himself, it seems that Marx would say something like religion's origin is anthropological in nature the same way that economics or any other social phenomenon is - that is, it originated based on natural social phenomena (not simply top-down). It is possible that Marx meant that while the origins are natural, it is exploited by the "this state."

In any case, the metaphor of "it is the opium of the people" itself doesn't seem to imply a direction either way, just that either (1) Marx thinks it provides a dulling effect or (2) it provides a consolation that does not exist against suffering that does exist (much as a "heartless world's" heart and a "soulless condition's" soul doesn't actually exist).

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Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other — Bourgeoisie and Proletariat

Ch 1 of communist manifesto

In what relation do the Communists stand to the proletarians as a whole... The Communists are distinguished from the other working-class parties by this only: 1. In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality. 2. In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.

Ch 2

It seems:

  • communists do not represent every act of the proletariat.

Which means the proletariat does not always act in the interests of the movement.


Is religion a self-administered reaction to oppression? Or is it a tool of domination administered by the ruling class?

The civil sphere is a bourgeois invention, and so we can assume that it can be antagonistic to the proletariat. As such:

  • the proletariat has the civil freedom to choose to use this opiate; yet it seems that
  • if the proletariat does not act in the interests of the movement, any antagonism with the bourgeoisie is a loss.

In which case, assuming religion is not set apart, your question looks like a false choice.

  • i gave it a shot, sorry ... – user6917 Apr 7 '16 at 19:54
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So which view is correct according to Marx: Is religion a self-administered reaction to oppression? or is it a tool of domination administered by the ruling class?

Marx statement "that religion is the opiate of the masses" is a statement about religion itself. Look into Emile Durkheim's 1921 book, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, for more related information about religion and it's power to influencing the masses. Marx's conflict theory incorporates a similar understanding, but also adds context based on the conflict of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.

With this additional context he argues that religion is a pacifier to the proletariat struggle. It masks the struggle of man within the world of man, and instead proposes man's struggle be focused on the salvation in the next life. Leading a religious person to believe their struggle is for religious Glory, and not here on this earth. There is a willing compliance with those who commit to religion.

This is of course an oversimplification of the many factor at play when we consider volition and religious devotion. It should also be noted that this is a rather extreme view and does not account for those of "true faith". Those who have devotion without the necessity of escaping social oppression. It also does not acknowledge that religious contentment can be legitimate contentment, a reversal of Marx's original proposition. We can reconcile this because Marx's primary focus is on the collective social need to lift up the entire proletariat population, and end the social exploitations found the world over.

You also asked if religion is administered by the bourgeoisie. The answer is no, in the sense that they are not the actors solely responsible for the introduction of religion in society. However, as with all exploitable social mechanisms (labor trade, goods trade, access to the means of production, etc.), the bourgeoisie do make use of religion. Looking at the close relationship that religion and civil leadership share throughout history. A relationship so typical that it had to be directly abolished in the United States Constitution, a clear affirmation of the bourgeoisie's use and abuse through the influence of religion. The bourgeoisie's use of religion is more to further their power and fortify the division of the classes.

Bare in mind that the bourgeoisie's greatest tools are not the ones they create themselves, but the ones that exist naturally and offer an opportunity to control. With the exceptions of social services, the bourgeoisie do not create much. That is the foundational accusation condemning classism in Marxist Conflict Theory.

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