Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2485

Religion—is it just ‘the opium of the masses’?

This article is over 8 years, 4 months old
For some, religion lies behind conflict and oppression. For others it’s a comfort. Sadie Robinson looks at the complex reality
Issue 2485
People of all religions and none joined Palestine solidarity protests in 2014
People of all religions and none joined Palestine solidarity protests in 2014 (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Religion is sometimes seen as the root of all the world’s problems. Western rulers tell us that religion, specifically Islam, threatens our “enlightened” way of life.

Of course they are utter hypocrites. These same rulers preside over the most violent and oppressive system in human history. There’s nothing progressive, rational or civilised about them.

In truth religion doesn’t cause oppression, it reflects it.

Organised religion arose with class societies. As Chris Harman put it, “Worshipping the gods became a way of society worshipping its own power, of people giving an alienated recognition to their own achievements.”

Religious ideas, like all ideas, have material roots. For instance, the Maurya Empire developed in Ancient India around 300 years BC.

As agriculture developed, cows became valuable as people relied on them for ploughing the land. Harman explained, “Out of this emerged the seemingly irrational veneration of the cow which characterises modern Hinduism.”

Those at the top try to legitimise their rule with religious ideas. But because religion is ambiguous and contradictory, different social forces use it for different ends.

So slaveowners in the US used Christianity to justify oppression of slaves. But the slaves also looked to religion—for comfort and as a way of showing defiance.

Black churches campaigned against apartheid in South Africa while the Dutch Reformed Church there supported it.

Today Islam is the official ideology of several regimes that back the West, such as Saudi Arabia. But it has also inspired resistance against the West.

The Islamist group Hamas has organised resistance to the Israeli seige on Gaza.


The Bible and the Quran include sections that justify class division while other passages sound hostile to the rich. But soundbites that suggest gods look kindly on the poor can soothe people while discouraging resistance. And they don’t question why rich and poor exist in the first place.

Religion can seem to offer explanation and comfort in an irrational, hostile world. It promises a happy afterlife if we follow certain rules.

As Karl Marx put it, “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.”

Marxists are atheists. But we defend people’s right to practice religion and stand against any persecution of people on religious grounds.

At the same time religious ideas obscure a real understanding of how the world works. They can mask class divisions. And they can be used to contain struggle.

So we also fight to offer an alternative explanation of the world that points to how we can change it.

Socialists will fight alongside anyone who wants to see a better world—whatever their religious beliefs.

We want a world that truly meets the needs of everyone and isn’t based on oppression and exploitation. In such a world, the need for religious ideas would melt away.

As Marx wrote, “To abolish religion as the illusory happiness of the people is to demand their real happiness.

“The demand to give up illusions about the existing affairs is the demand to give up a state of affairs that needs illusions.”

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