Karl Marx on Religion

The Dangerous Maybe
10 min readNov 16, 2022

What follows is my commentary on one of the most famous passages in all of Karl Marx’s work. This particular passage is found at the very beginning of ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction’, which contains Marx’s most well-known discussion of religion (Christianity). This contains the idea that religion is the opium of the people. I’ll be quoting a paragraph by Marx himself and, then, offering my own commentary on it.

For Germany, the critique of religion is essentially completed; and the critique of religion is the prerequisite of every critique.
(Critique of Hegel’s ‘Philosophy of Right’, p. 131)

According to Marx, the critique of religion was basically finished in Germany in 1843. People, academics at least, had come to see why religion is bullshit. The main work he has in mind is Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity. Feuerbach’s work had a big impact on the young Marx. More importantly, critique (what we call critical theory) begins with the critique of religion. Why? Because religion is the most fundamental and pervasive form of bullshit. It worked its way into every area of life, so to be able to get at the bullshit in each area, one, first, had to breakthrough the wall of bullshit called religion that enclosed them all. If you cannot dispel the ideological bullshit of religion, then you are not going to do it in politics, economics, ethics, aesthetics, etc. In fact, religion is the quintessential form of bullshit — all other types take their cues from it. One must destroy the illusion of the other world to be able to properly analyze this world, i.e., the world.

Error in its profane form of existence is compromised once its celestial oratio pro aris et focis has been refuted. Man, who has found only his own reflection in the fantastic reality of heaven, where he sought a supernatural being, will no longer be disposed to find only the semblance of himself, only a non-human being, here where he seeks and must seek his true reality.
(Critique of Hegel’s ‘Philosophy of Right’, p. 131)

The Latin phrase oratio pro aris et focis means speech for the altars and hearths. The phrase pro aris et focis also means for God and country, i.e., for altar and hearth. Okay, so, for Marx, the profane concept of evil is negated once the error of believing in a heavenly and transcendent reality (religion) is negated. Another reason why we must kick the shit out of religion once and for all is because it makes error into a sin, a profanity, an evil. Sorry but critics have to be able to take chances in their criticisms of things, that is, they have to be allowed to be wrong. The moment you make error into a sin is the moment you prevent people from thinking outside the box and from criticizing the ruling ideology. In other words, the profanation of error is a mechanism of control and power used and exploited by one class of people against another. Freeing ourselves from the error of religious presuppositions (speech for God and country) is what allows us to freely dare to be in error (critique, critical theory). Once human beings have come to see that God is merely an externalization of themselves, have come to see themselves reflected in the concept of God (the fantastic reality of heaven), they will cease to misconceptualize themselves here in this world. As Feuerbach showed, the greatness of God is inversely proportional to the lowness of humanity: “To enrich God, man must become poor; that God may be all, man must be nothing” (The Essence of Christianity, p. 26). It’s the concept of God that leaves us with a mere semblance of ourselves. The concept of God distorts our concept of ourselves so much that it basically makes us non-human. To negate the concept of God is to negate our bad self-image and mischaracterization. In other words, it is what makes it possible for us to come to a true understanding of our reality in the here and now. The truth is that we are all capable of good and bad things, but the qualities we attribute to God are really just some of our own qualities perfected. As Feuerbach put it, “The divine being is nothing else than the human being, or, rather, the human nature purified, freed from the limits of the individual man, made objective ― i.e., contemplated and revered as another, a distinct being. All the attributes of the divine nature are, therefore, the attributes of the human nature” (The Essence of Christianity, p. 14).

The foundation of irreligious criticism is this: man makes religion; religion does not make man. Religion is, in fact, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet gained himself or has lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man, the state, society. This state, this society, produce religion, which is an inverted world-consciousness, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritualistic point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human being because the human being has attained no true reality. Thus, the struggle against religion is indirectly the struggle against that world of which religion is the spiritual aroma.
(Critique of Hegel’s ‘Philosophy of Right’, p. 131)

For Marx, the first step critique must take is the realization that religion is the product of humanity. Religion is a form of self-consciousness and self-esteem that totally alienates us from ourselves. This is why Feuerbach said, “Religion is man’s earliest and also indirect form of self-knowledge” (The Essence of Christianity, p. 13). This is the logic operating in the background of his famous declaration: “Theology is Anthropology” (The Essence of Christianity, p. xvii). To be stuck in the religious mentality is to have never achieved a real knowledge of oneself or to have lost that knowledge. To think that our true reality awaits in the other world is to be alienated, confused, and misguided. We are this world. Marx sounds very Heideggerian in this statement. As Lacan put it, we are the discourse of the Other. Simply put, we cannot be separated from this world we live in. To say that religion is an inverted world-consciousness is to say that religion is a consciousness of our world but one that puts the cart before the horse, that is, it claims that this world (society) is the product of God (religion) and not the other way around. The state and society produce religion (inverted image of things) because they are inverted themselves. What does it mean to say that society and the state are inverted? For Marx, religion ends up being the general theory of the world that a society/state produces about itself. This suggests that religion is a strategy of power. Perhaps we can say that society and state are inverted in the sense that they appeared to be the foundation (base) of the social order when, in fact, it is the economic or the mode of production that is. Society and the state invert the world by presenting themselves as being the foundation (base) of the social order when, in fact, the true base which gives rise to them is the economic, i.e, the mode of production. Maybe this can be read as saying that the superstructure inverts things by presenting itself as the base structure. It is the inversion of religion that must be refuted in order for us to properly analyze our world. The term point d’honneur means point of honour and this means a circumstance, event, etc., that involves the defence of one’s principles, social honor, etc. Society and the state (the ruling classes) use religion as their defence and justification. For example, consider the concept of the divine right of kings. To be against religion is really to be against the society that necessitates the comfort of religion in order to function: “the struggle against religion is indirectly the struggle against that world of which religion is the spiritual aroma”. Religion is the spiritual symptom of a material illness. Most of the time, Marx is appealing to Feuerbach on religion. But the claim that society and the state are an inverted world is not Feuerbachian as far as I know. This, I think, is more Marx than Feuerbach. The more I reread this passage, the more I think that it does contain the distinction between base and superstructure but just in a larval form. If the superstructure presents itself as the foundation of society, which it traditionally did, then it makes a lot of sense to say that it is an inverted world because it makes the economic parasitic on it (state, law, religion, etc.). Marx would say that this is an inversion of the real order of things. Marx’s description of religion sounds similar to Lyotard’s concept of the metanarrative. Also, it would be good to go back and break down each of the descriptive features Marx attributes to religion.

The wretchedness of religion is at once an expression of and a protest against real wretchedness. 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.
(Critique of Hegel’s ‘Philosophy of Right’, p. 131)

The misery that is a part of religion, on the one hand, gives expression to all of the suffering this world causes (it is a spiritual symptom of a material illness), and on the other, it is a form of protest against the misery of this world (we’re not gonna take it). Marx is not a typical atheist one runs into nowadays. He’s not being snarky and dismissive. He truly sympathizes with religious people. He understood why they are religious. It made a lot of sense to him. It gave them warming comfort and a sense of hope in a cold, hopeless world. Religion was basically an antidepressant, a painkiller, a numbing agent. It’s worth noting that opium, antidepressants, painkillers and drugs in general can also make life much worse (by analogy, so can religion). But this only helps to make things a little more bearable. It, however, does not go to the root cause. It does not fix the material conditions that make religion necessary. We must give up the pacifying comforts of religion in order to fight for a better world. We must give up on the other world in order to win this one.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is a demand for their true happiness. The call to abandon illusions about their condition is the call to abandon a condition which requires illusions. Thus, the critique of religion is the critique in embryo of the vale of tears of which religion is the halo.
(Critique of Hegel’s ‘Philosophy of Right’, p. 131)

To cease to demand religion and its artificial happiness is to start to demand real, concrete happiness here in this world. To reject the comforting illusions of religion is to begin to insist on the change in material conditions that make religious illusions seductive in the first place. To critique religion is the first step towards challenging the vale of tears (this world regarded as a scene of trouble or sorrow) in an effective way. Religion is the halo of this world insofar as it is what gives it a divine “reference”, that is, gives this world a spiritual dimension that makes it somewhat beautiful and holy.

Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers from the chain, not so that man shall bear the chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall cast off the chain and gather the living flower. The critique of religion disillusions man so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality as a man who has lost his illusions and regained his reason, so that he will revolve about himself as his own true sun. Religion is only the illusory sun about which man revolves so long as he does not revolve about himself.
(Critique of Hegel’s ‘Philosophy of Right’, pp. 131–2)

This is a powerful image. Picture a slave staring at the chains which hold him in bondage and imagining them adorned with pretty flowers. Religion is imaginary flowers adoring a real chain. Religion is comforting illusions that make horrible realities a little better. Critique does not destroy religion just so the miserable will be even more so. Instead, it destroys religion so that the downtrodden will finally rise up and force things to change, so that the poor will attain real flowers (material happiness and freedom). We must revolve around ourselves and each other, not around God, if we are to free ourselves and form a society that makes life bearable on its own. Instead of God being at the center of all things (like the Sun in the solar system), humanity itself must become its own center — humankind must revolve around itself. This is Marx’s humanism. We must give up our blind faith and stupid trust in divine authority and its earthly representatives by exchanging religious sentimentality for reason, for the eye of a surgeon. This is Marx’s endorsement of the spirit of the Enlightenment.

It is the task of history, therefore, once the other-world of truth has vanished, to establish the truth of this world. It is above all the task of philosophy, which is in the service of history, to unmask human self-alienation in its secular forms, once its sacred form has been unmasked. Thus, the critique of heaven is transformed into the critique of the earth, the critique of religion into the critique of law, the critique of theology into the critique of politics.
(Critique of Hegel’s ‘Philosophy of Right’, p. 132)

The history Marx has in mind (be it implicit or explicit at this point) is his historical materialism. This is the history that reveals the fundamental truth of this world. But to get at it, the “truth” of religion must be demolished. Is God truly a savoir if he never frees you from wage slavery? What if God is now merely the obedient servant of Capital itself? In his song ‘Get Up, Stand Up’, Bob Marley was truly tapped into the spirit of Marxism when he sang, “But if you know what life is worth, you would look for yours on earth”.