Marx vs. Durkheim: Religion An essay by Erin Olson
plus commentary by Antonino Palumbo
Religion and religious institutions play a powerful role in influencing a society and the lives of its members. The sociological traditions of Marx and Durkheim view religion totally differently, yet they both agree that religion is a very important aspect of a society. During his career, Marx spoke little on the subject of religion. However, “what is lacking in volume is made up for in vigor and comprehensiveness. Some of Marx’s best-known obitera are about religion. It
is ‘the sigh of the oppressed creature’, ‘the illusory happiness of men’. It is ‘the reflex of the real world’ and best of all it is ‘the opium of the people’”.
Durkheim, on the other hand, spoke a great deal on religion. In Elementary Forms of Religious Life, he specifically defines “a religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden-beliefs and practices which united in one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them” (Durkheim, 47). As we have seen, Durkheim and Marx each had their own definitions of religion. However, we will
learn that they both see an important role that religion plays in a society, as well as the ways in which society creates and shapes their religions.
“Karl Marx is without a doubt the most influential political atheist of all time. Because Marx espoused atheism in his attempt to destroy capitalism, half the world today is officially committed to atheism as a political philosophy” (Koster, 161). For Marxists, religion is used to justify and preserve the class system, as well as ensure the status quo of the dominant ideology of the society. Religion plays a significant role in the beliefs and values that encompass any society and therefore acts to preserve the existing social order. The rich can afford to make
generous donations to the church, while the poor cannot. Over time, the beliefs of the church will be shaped in accordance with the interest of the ruling-class. Therefore the desires of the rich will be met and kept and the class system preserved. Religion also helps in preserving the existing social order by making life more bearable, and by justifying exploitation and the class system that results from capitalism.
If we choose to believe that God created everything, it is easy to believe that God also intended for some people to be rich and powerful while others are to be poor and have no power. Yet another justification for exploitation that comes from religion: The poor should accept their suffering, as God chose them to suffer. God only gives you as much pain and suffering as you can handle. Due to religion, Marx believed people look forward to happiness and salvation they will receive after death. Religion defers happiness and rewards to the afterlife, teaching the
acceptance of existing conditions in the life on earth.
It was when Marx attended the University of Berlin that he abandoned his belief in religion. At the same time, he was exposed to the philosophy of Epicurus and the materialism of Ludwig Feuerbach (Koster, 163). Feuerbach’s theory was that thought arises from being; being does not arise from thought. In his Essence of Christianity, Feuerbach defined religious beliefs as “only the projection of elements of human experience into objects of worship” (Coser, 74). Religious beliefs require humanity to have existed and to have formulated the ideas that compose any religion. This is termed Materialism. Marx emphasized the unhappy social conditions that led individuals to find consolation in a world of religious entities of their own creation (Coser, 74). Religion was a creation of humanity, really an illusion. God did not create humans, rather humans created their own Gods. Religion cuts people off from reality, distorts and masks it to make life more bearable. Death, poverty, hunger, inequality and repression are all endurable
with the help of religious beliefs. The different conditions of each world create and sustain the religious beliefs that their particular religion holds. Man makes his religion, not the other way around.
Marx developed the idea of alienation. “Alienation may be described as a condition in which men are dominated by the forces of their own creation, which confront them as alien powers” (Coser, 50). In any class-based society, those workers that are alienated are those who do not have access to the results of their labor. Their labor is for someone else, the things they produce taken from them.
To Marx, all social institutions in a capitalist society, including religion, were marked by alienation. “The existence of religion testifies that man is alienated from himself. Through religion, men are ruled and oppressed by their own unconscious creation” (Coser, 74). In Karl Marx: Early Writings Marx states,
“The state is the intermediary between men and human liberty. Just as Christ is the intermediary to whom man attributes all his own divinity and all his religious bonds, so the state is the intermediary to which man confides all his non-divinity and all his human freedom” (quoted in Coser, 51).
The creations of humanity are alien. People do not recognize their own hand in their creation and assign to them powers that only we could possibly have. They are not living to the full potential of their lives, they are not fully happy. The solution to alienation starts only by cutting yourself off from God, allowing you to be in contact with reality.
Emile Durkheim, like Karl Marx, believed that religion was not divinely or supernaturally inspired, but fundamentally an illusion. “Out of this effervescence itself religious ideas seem to be born, that after a collective effervescence men believe themselves transported into an entirely different world from the one they have before their eyes, that sacred beings, the creations of collective thought, attain their greatest intensity at the moment when the men are assembled together and are in immediate relations with one another, when they all partake of the same idea and the same sentiment” (Lukes, 463). Durkheim stressed the importance of the communal nature of religion, rather than the individual nature. He was not interested in the religious experience of individuals but rather with the communal activity and the communal bonds to which participation in religious activities creates (Coser, 137).
Durkheim found that religion’s consequences function to serve many purposes for society and social relationships as well as for individuals. Harry Albert classified the four major functions as disciplinary, cohesive, vitalizing, and euphoric (Alpert, 198-203). Religion acts as a source of solidarity and identification for the people who live within a society. It provides a meaning for life, provides authority figures, and mostly importantly, reinforces the morals and social norms held within a society. Religion provides people with support, consolation and reconciliation. It brings people together physically through assemblies and services, but brings them together emotionally as well. While the world and society changes around us, religion provides stability. Not only that, but religion also provides social control, cohesion, and purpose for people, as well as another means of communication and gathering for people to interact and reaffirm social norms. Without this reinforcement, the beliefs and convictions of the people would weaken. Not only does religion provide social control for the different norms and values of a society, but can also provide social change when norms are critically examined.
Durkheim also identified the importance of rituals or rites within all religions. Religious rituals “prepare men for social life by imposing self-discipline and a certain measure of asceticism” (Coser, 139). Religion functions to mark peoples’ passages through life, through such religious rituals as baptism, confirmation, marriage, etc. Commemorative rites, Durkheim found, served to “revivify the most essential elements of the collective consciousness, so that the group periodically renews the sentiment which it has of itself and of its unity (Lukes, 471). He also analyzed mourning rites and found them to strengthen social bonds, “and as consisting in a ‘communion of minds’ which ‘raises the social vitality’ and he regarded piacular rites in general as having a ‘stimulating power over the affective state of the group and individuals’; thus, for example, when, in punishing the neglect of a ritual act, ‘the anger which it caused is affirmed ostensibly and energetically’, and is ‘acutely felt by all’, the ‘moral unity of the group is not endangered’” (Lukes, 471). Durkheim said of initiation rites that include pain, “Suffering creates exceptional strength” and of sacrificial rites, “men are more confident because they feel themselves stronger; and they really are stronger, because forces which were languishing are now reawakened in the consciousness” (Lukes, 473).
Durkheim did not believe that any religion was false. “All are true in their own fashion; all answer, though in different ways, to the given conditions of human experience. They respond to the same needs, they play the same role, they depend upon the same causes” (Durkheim, 3).
“In fact, they feel that the real function of religion is not to make us think, to enrich our knowledge, nor to add to the conceptions which we owe to science others of another origin and character, but rather, it is to make us act, to aid us to live. The believer who has communicated with his god is not merely a man who sees new truths of which the unbeliever is ignorant; he is a man who is stronger. He feels within him more force, either to endure the trials of existence, or to conquer them. It is as though he were raised above the miseries of the world, because he is raised above his condition as a mere man he believes that he is saved from evil, under whatever form he may conceive this evil. The first article in every creed is the belief in salvation by faith” (Durkheim, 416).
Believers of all religions experience many of the same conditions, conditions that are labeled as evidence of truth.
“In fact, whoever has really practiced a religion knows very well that is it the cult which gives rise to these impressions of joy, of interior peace, of serenity, of enthusiasm which are, for the believer, an experimental proof of his beliefs” (Durkheim, 417).
Durkheim identified components that are within all world religions. The most basic feature of all religions is that they are all based on an interpretation of the world of the sacred, or those extraordinary things not of this world, which inspire a sense of awe or reverence among people. This is relative to worldly everyday things, which Durkheim labeled the profane. “Religious phenomena emerge in any society when a separation is made between the sphere of the
profane-the realm of every day utilitarian activities-and the sphere of the sacred the area that pertains to the numinous, the transcendental, the extraordinary. An object is intrinsically neither sacred nor profane. It becomes the one or the other depending on whether men choose to consider the utilitarian value of the object or certain intrinsic attributes that have nothing to do with its instrumental value” (Coser, 137). For example, wine served at communion holds a sacred ritual significance to which the believer considers it to symbolize the blood of Christ; it is not merely a beverage. Anything can be sacred, according to Durkheim, gods and spirits, as well as such things as trees and rocks. Durkheim also believed that sacredness is passed on by physical contact, as in rituals of consecration. “A sacred character is to a high degree contagious” (Durkheim, 222).
Emile Durkheim came to the conclusion that religion is the disguised worship of society. The deities which men worship together are only projections of the power of society. “Religion is eminently social: it occurs in a social context, and, more importantly, when men celebrate sacred things, they unwittingly celebrate the power of their society. This power so transcends their own existence that they have to give it a sacred significance in order to visualize it” (Coser, 138). Behind all of the religious rites, rituals, and symbols, the feelings of awe, reverence and inspiration, Durkheim could see the power of society.
“In summing up, then, it may be said that nearly all the great social institutions have been born in religion…if religion has given birth to all that is essential in society, it is because the idea of society is the soul of religion” (Durkheim, 419).
Two of sociology’s greatest thinkers, Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim, both viewed religion to be a vital aspect of society. They both believed it to be socially constructed; man created religion, religion did not create man. Society created religion to meet certain needs of its members. To Marx, it served to meet the desires of the upper class, to justify exploitation in a class-based society, to ease the burdens of the oppressed. For Durkheim, it functioned at an individual and social level to keep society in check, assist in social control, and provide individual meaning for each person’s life. Taken together, these two sociological thoughts explain religion and its importance to society in a fascinating manner.
Marx On Religion,by Antonino Palumbo
Marx's thought on religion epitomizes the more militant side of enlightenment. By shedding light on the actual workings of this world, science will expose the illusion of the other world and religion alike. Marx maintains that since religion represents an ‘ideological reflex’ of actual economic relations, its critique represents the necessary precondition for the unmasking of all other ideological forms. In the short ‘Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’** (1843-4), Marx famously refers to religion as the ‘opium of the people’ (1975b). Like a misused drug, religion administers to true needs in false ways. Religion promises something that the system it serves has no ability ever to deliver. Religion is at once ‘the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering.’ It is ‘the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions’: The abolition of religion as the illusory
happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is therefore in embryo the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo. (1975b: 244)
**Here is the referenced text: from A CONTRIBUTION TO THE CRITIQUE OF HEGEL'S PHILOSOPHY OF RIGHT, by Karl Marx (1844)
The basis of irreligious criticism [i.e., criticism of religion] is this: man makes religion; religion does not make man. Religion is indeed man's self-consciousness and self-awareness so long as he has not found himself or has lost himself again. But man is not an abstract being, squatting outside the world. Man is the human world, 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 spiritual point of honor, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, its general basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic [fantasy] realization of the human being inasmuch as the human being possesses no true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly a struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.
Religious suffering is at the same time an expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. [In the 19th century opium and its milder derivative laudanum, were widely used both for recreational purposes and as a cure-all drug for mild as well as serious ailments, e.g., London was infamous for its opium dens.]
The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of men is a demand for their real happiness. The call to abandon their illusions is a call to abandon a condition which requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, the embryonic criticism of this vale of tears of which religion is the halo.
Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers from the chain, not in order that man shall bear the chain without caprice or consolation, but so that he shall cast off the chain and pluck the living flower. The criticism of religion disillusions [dis-illusions] 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.
It is the task of history, therefore, once the other-world of truth has vanished, to establish the truth of this world. The immediate task of philosophy, which is in the service of history, is to unmask human self-alienation in its secular form now that it has been unmasked in its sacred form. Thus the criticism of heaven is transformed into the criticism of earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.
Durkheim on Religion,by Antonino Palumbo
Durkheim disputes those traditions of thought that, like Marx's, reduce religion to ideology or to metaphysical nonsense. In the Elementary Forms of Religious Life (of 1912) – his late, and for many his greatest, work – he claims that 'it is unthinkable that systems of ideas like religions [...] could be mere fabrics of illusion' (1995: 66), and sets to himself the remarkable goal of demonstrating not only that (contra Marx) religious phenomena are partially independent of material relations, but also that religious beliefs and rites are at the root of scientific thinking and practice. Durkheim makes the case for the rationality of religion with reference to the totemism of Australian aboriginal and Native American religions. He views religion as ' a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden – beliefs and practices which unite into one single and moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them ' (1995: 44). Religious beliefs engender a 'bipartite division of the universe' (1995: 38) into the sacred and the profane; two worlds that 'are conceived of not only as separate but also as hostile and jealous rivals' (1995: 37).The totem is 'first and foremost, a name [...] an emblem' (1995: 108). In aboriginal societies small kinship groups are given the name of a totem (a plant or an animal), which is then often transmitted down the maternal or paternal line, while larger communities have names that incorporate a number of totemic groups –‘phratries.’ In the same way as one can today be both a British and an EU citizen, so an aborigine can have more than one totemic identity, and, for Durkheim, the latter would be no less rational or more mysterious than the former. The rationality of these ‘primitive’ religions ultimately lies in the function they perform for society. As emblems or names, totems and the phratries not only define the group, but are also its source of cohesion and solidarity that is expressed through religious practice, ritual and dress. We are aware of our supra-individuality only under exceptional circumstance, but it is precisely these (collective) occasions that shape our identity and lend our mundane existence meaning: 'the result of that heightened activity is a general stimulation of individual energies. People live differently and more intensely than in normal times [...] Man becomes something other than what he was' (1995:213). Religious experiences and revolution are instances where this collective energy is mobilized. But for Durkheim the significance of these events also outlive their occasion. Heightened emotions become transferred to the religious images and collective representations which 'go on calling forth those emotions even after the assembly is over' (1995: 222). What Durkheim is describing here is nothing less than the birth of religion and society in ecstatic collective experiences; and not just its birth, but also its periodic rebirth.
Conclusion: Comparing Marx And Durkheim,by Antonino Palumbo When we compare Marx's thought to that of Durkheim – or indeed to that of other classical social theorists, including notably Max Weber – the former appears to underestimate the significance of social and cultural practices beyond the economic sphere. He retained the key prejudice of political economy: the primacy of the economic over the social. As the analytical Marxist philosopher G. A. Cohen has acknowledged, the Marxist tradition has paid insufficient attention to the question 'who are we?'; a question frequently answered in terms of nationality or religion, rather than economic class (see Cohen 1996).. This is a tendency that a great many of the twentieth-century Marxist theorists discussed in Chapter 8 sought to correct. The Elementary Forms in particular illustrates the complexity of Durkheim’s late work vis-à-vis the issue of identity. Here the importance of collective beliefs and representations and of cultural practices becomes explicit. It also becomes evident that while Marx binds social theory to economics, Durkheim draws it in the direction of cultural anthropology.
Although their critical engagement with modernity has more in common than is frequently recognized, especially by those who identify Durkheim with conservatism, Marx and Durkheim arrive at radically different conclusions. While the former views the division of labour as the means of enforcing a subtle and pervasive class exploitation, the latter perceives it as a novel and effective source of solidarity. Hence, Durkheim maintains that to seek to abolish the division of labour would be to escape from reality into either an idyllic past or a distant utopian future. Likewise, the two thinkers arrive at very different assessment of revolution as a means for social change. While appreciating the force of ‘social currents’ and ‘collective representations, ’ Durkheim did not share either Marx’s trust in emancipatory powers of revolutionary action or his view of the Paris Commune as a model for a future communist organization of society. On the contrary, he perceives any revolutionary project the goal of which is a classless communist society as a self-defeating attempt to promote a form of solidarity apt for a type of society other than the modern one. Whereas Marx thinks that the problems of capitalism are inherent within it, and can thus only be resolved within a post-capitalism order, Durkheim identifies inherent tendencies both to self-destruction and self-regeneration within modern capitalism (see Hirschman 1982). This is in part because Marx systematically connects the capitalist division of labour to a specific system of ownership and extraction of surplus value, while Durkheim views it as a social, rather than technical , fact only loosely related to the issue of ownership and of wider significance that the capitalist-worker relation. While for Durkheim Marx’s reading of class conflict and its eventual revolutionary overcoming rest on a mystic epistemology of the type advocated by social-Darwinians, from Marx’s perspective, Durkheim’s appeal to morality ignores the brute facts of modern capitalism: ineradicable inequalities of power and economic resources, and the omnipresence of exploitation. Both Marx's and Durkheim's social theories possess a special urgency today, in different respects and for different reasons. It would be self-deception to deny that the collapse of communism has derailed Marxist social thought. But subsequent developments, including growing inequality – both between the richer and poorer nations, and within both – and the recommodification of labour power consequent on privatization and the partial withdrawal of the state from welfare functions, have created conditions in which at least some aspects of Marx's analysis have acquired renewed relevance and validity. At the same time, Durkheim's concern with the growing gap between the state and the individual – with the remoteness of decision-making from those affected – and his fear of the self-hollowing out of community by under-regulated markets, has lost little of its relevance.
Emile Durkheim, Elementary Forms of Religious Life, 1912
John Koster, The Atheist Syndrome, 1989
Lewis Coser, Masters of Sociological Thought, 2003
Steven Lukes, Emile Durkheim: His Life and Work, 1985
Karl Marx, A Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, 1844