Marx's phrase “religion is the opium of the masses” explains that religion fills the soulless void found in class society. Religion cannot be overcome by recourse to pure, rational arguments. We must instead attack its social foundation.

Marx's phrase “religion is the opium of the masses” explains that religion fills the soulless void found in class society. Religion cannot be overcome by recourse to pure, rational arguments. We must instead attack its social foundation.

Marx explained that “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.” The second half of this statement is the most quoted, but together they show Marx’s all-sided understanding. 

Marx says the reason why many people hold religious ideas is due to the oppression and exploitation they are subjected to. Lacking any material explanation for this, many look to mystical ideas as a form of comfort. However, this also means religious ideas can play a useful ideological role for the ruling class. Workers can be told not to worry about their position in society today. Instead, if they just ‘turn the other cheek’, they will be rewarded in the afterlife.

While religion can play a reactionary role, Marxists do not claim it can be defeated purely through argumentation. To rid society of religion, the material conditions for religion must be removed. Therefore, only when we have a democratically and rationally planned economy, based on the needs of us all, rather than the profit of a few, will we begin to see the withering away of religious ideas.

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Learn the basics

Marxist classics
& books

Religious Fundamentalism: why is it growing and what is the alternative? Religious Fundamentalism: why is it growing and what is the alternative?
Fred Weston

All religions have their fundamentalists; there are Christian fundamentalists, Hindu fundamentalists, Jewish fundamentalists, Buddhist fundamentalists and so on. They all play a reactionary role.

Marxism and ReligionMarxism and Religion
Alan Woods

An article by Alan Woods on the attitude of Marxists towards religion and liberation theology.

Lenin: Socialism and ReligionLenin: Socialism and Religion
V.I. Lenin

“No number of pamphlets and no amount of preaching can enlighten the proletariat, if it is not enlightened by its own struggle against the dark forces of capitalism.”

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In-depth analysis

Marxist classics
& books

On Kautsky’s Foundations of ChristianityOn Kautsky’s Foundations of Christianity
Alan Woods

“Religion is not the motor-force of history but great social changes are expressed in changes in religion. Great historical turning-points have been accompanied by religious changes.”

Religion in the Soviet UnionReligion in the Soviet Union
Paul Dixon

This article written in 1945 analyses the relationship between the Soviet state and the Russian Orthodox Church. There was a clear dividing line between Lenin’s approach to this question and the zig-zag policy later adopted by Stalin.

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Marxist classics

Marxist classics
& books

Part 2: Materialism, in Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German PhilosophyPart 2: Materialism, in Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy
Friedrich Engels

From the very early times when men came to believe that their thinking and sensation were not activities of their bodies, but of a distinct soul which inhabits the body and leaves it at death – men have been driven to reflect about the relation between this soul and the outside world.

A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of RightA Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right
Karl Marx

In this excellent article, Marx discusses the origins and the role that religion plays in society, and explains why the working class needs a philosophy to truly understand and change society.

Anti-Duhring, Part One: PhilosophyAnti-Duhring, Part One: Philosophy
V.I. Lenin

In this speech from 1909, Lenin explains what approach a worker’s party should take towards religion, and towards religious workers.

Foundations of ChristianityFoundations of Christianity
Karl Kautsky

Kautsky's classic has been strikingly confirmed by the latest discoveries of archaeology and in particular the Dead Sea Scrolls. As such, the book remains a masterpiece of the method of historical materialism.

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Audio

Marxist classics
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Marxism vs ChristianityMarxism vs Christianity
00:00 / 00:00
Alan Woods

Alan Woods, leading member of the International Marxist Tendency and author of Reason in Revolt: Marxist philosophy and modern science, debates Peter D Williams, Catholic writer and apologist (Catholic Voices) about which body of ideas offers a way forward for the world today.

Marxism and ReligionMarxism and Religion
00:00 / 00:00
Alan Woods

Alan Woods explains the materialist conception of the world, integral to the theory of Marxism, and contrasts it to the idealist perspective that gives rise to religion. Alan explains the nature of religion as a means of consoling the oppressed with a life after death.