What Marx and Freud Have to Say on Religion

Updated on March 23, 2018

Marx is known to have universally condemned religion as the opium of the people. His most famous statement on religion comes as a critique of Hegel’s philosophy of law. According to Marx, “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”. Thus according to Marx, the purpose of religion is to create illusion or fantasy for the masses. On the other hand, Freud held religion as an expression of underlying neuroses and distress at the psychological level. In other words, while Marx finds religion rooted in the social reality, Freud examines religion at the individual psychological level. Freud suggests that religion is an attempt to control oedipal complex.

Karl Marx
Karl Marx | Source

According to Marx, religion offers false hope to the poor people. It tells them they will hardships of the present life. Although, this is a critique of religion, nonetheless, Marx appears to grudgingly acknowledge the value of religion in the same way as opium dulls the sensation of pain, religion offers solace to the people in distress. The problem however is that religion fails to address underlying causes of human distress and suffering.

Freud too like Marx considers religion an illusion but his reasons are quite different. He examines the idea of overcoming religion but finds the enterprise impossible because religion gains strength from the fact that it is embedded in our instinctual desires. He compares religion to childhood desire.

While calling religion illusion, Marx appears to partially validate the reality of religion. Religion is a symptom of deeper malaise in society. It is an expression of unhappiness of very fundamental nature. It is a symptom oppressive economic realities. In other words, religion might not be needed in a society free of economic oppression and exploitation that Marx envisages.

Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud

Freud wrote several books in whch he underscores his ideas on religion. Some of these books include Totem and Taboo (1913), The Future of an Illusion (1927), Civilization and its Discontents (1930), and Moses and Monotheism (1938). It is not difficult to identify some of the meanings of religion that Freud made an attempt to explore. In the Future of Religion (1927), Freud compares religion to a childhood neurosis. In Moses and Monotheism Freud holds that religion is an attempt to get control over the sensory world in which we are placed with the help of the wish-world. This is actually the world we have developed as a result of our biological nd psychological necessities. Freud is further hopeful that religion would not be a lasting acquisition of mankind in the same way as a civilized man casts off their neurosis while developing from childhood to maturity. Like Freud, Marx is also hopeful that religion would be eventually done away with in a classless and stateless society free of human exploitation and oppression. It appears both Marx and Freud base their analysis on the presumption of a utopian society. This is a classless society of Marxian conception, while it would be a mature society consisting of psychologically evolved human beings in Freudian conception. The possibility of such a society is itself debatable.

Freud criticizes religion in most of his works. For instance, in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921), Freud says that even a religion that claims to be based on the religion of love must be hard and unloving to those that do not belong to it. Perhaps his Jewish background and experinces of his times informs his criticism of religion. He was an atheist by self declaration

© 2011 Ajit Kumar Jha

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