Sociological Critique of Religion (Marx and Durkheim)

What is Sociology?

It is exactly what it says- the study of society. In studying society some sociologists have looked at the effect and purpose of religion for individuals and the societies in which they live. Some of these have been led to the conclusion that the purpose religion serves suggests that it serves a negative purpose and is a creation of society’s or individual’s minds. In this chapter we are going to look at two sociologists- Marx and Durkheim.

In these arguments the writings of Feuerbach become crucial again.


Karl Marx

Karl_MarxKey Person: Karl Marx (1818-1883)

Marx was a highly influential 19th century economist and philosopher. He argued that the state and more especially the ruling class kept the working people in subjugation. He became most notable when his ideas formed the basis for the new Communist states in the early 20th Century. His most famous book was The Communist Manifesto (1848).

Marx’s views on society led him to conclude that there is a conflict between two major sections of society- the ruling class and the proletariat (subject or working class). The ruling class throughout history has employed many techniques to keep themselves in control and the proletariat in subjugation. Marx saw religion to be part of the superstructure of society and, as such, reflecting the needs of the economic base or infrastructure. As such, religion may well help people to come to a sense of meaning about their position in life, but that it did so in a way which benefited the ruling classes. Consequently, Marx argued that the primary function of religion is to reproduce, maintain and make legitimate class inequality. According to Marx, religion serves as a means of controlling the working population by promoting the idea that the existing hierarchy is natural, god-given and therefore unchangeable – in other words, the rich are rich and powerful whilst the poor are poor and powerless because this is god’s will.


If we look at some examples we can perhaps see how a Marxist interpretation could be seen to be valid.

Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ (Matt 22: 19-21)


Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation  (Romans 13: 1-2)


Kings are justly called gods, for that they exercise a manner or resemblance of divine power upon earth: for if you will consider the attributes to God, you shall see how they agree in the person of a king. God hath power to create or destrov make or unmake at his pleasure, to give life or send death, to judge all and to be judged nor accountable to none; to raise low things and to make high things low at his pleasure, and to God are both souls and body due. And the like power have kings: they make and unmake their subjects, thev have power of raising and casting down, of life and of death, judges over all their subjects and in all causes and yet accountable to none but God only. . . . I conclude then this point touching the power of kings with this axiom of divinity, That as to dispute what God may do is blasphemy….so is it sedition in subjects to dispute what a king may do in the height of his power. (James I Divine Right of Kings Chapter 20)


Abortion. Same-sex marriage. Stem-cell research. U.S. legislators backed by the Christian right vote against these issues with near-perfect consistency. That probably doesn’t surprise you, but this might: Those same legislators are equally united and unswerving in their opposition to environmental protection. Forty-five senators and 186 representatives in 2003 earned 80- to 100-percent approval ratings from the nation’s three most influential Christian right advocacy groups — the Christian Coalition, Eagle Forum, and Family Resource Council.(from ).

However, Marx doesn’t just see religion as reinforcing the social status quo by legitimising the ruling class and their views (he calls this an ideological apparatus which exists to serve the ideas and interests of the ruling class). Religion also serves a psychological purpose for the oppressed. Marx sees religion as a source of solace and compensation for oppression. These dual purposes of religion are xpressed in his most famous quote about religion: “Religion is the opium of the people”. Or in context:

Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. 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. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions”. (Karl Marx Frederick Engels Collected Works volume 3 1975, pp. 175-76).


At the time opium was an effective painkiller taken for temporary relief. Marx argued that religion acted as a comfort to those in economic or social distress. The use of religion by a people was a sign of them living in oppression, of having to deal with hardships, just as a person’s use of opium was indicative of them living with physical pain and discomfort. Marx describes religion as “the opium of the people” because it lulls the working class into a sense of false consciousness by obscuring the true extent of their exploitation by the ruling classes.

It also provided people who suffer with a hope that their suffering is transitory. That if they bear with the suffering they will receive rewards in the next life. In some ways religion becomes a crutch with which to survive this life.

Thus his thought can be linked to some of the arguments made by Freud.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  ‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely* on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matt 5: 5, 10-12).


The promises of religion, according to Marx, are illusory. Only through breaking off the shackles of oppression can a person find true happiness.

So far Marx has argued against the function of religion but not its validity. In a discussion of atheism it is important to note whether any of these arguments could be used to disprove the existence of God. Certainly it could be argued from a Marxist perspective that religion was created by the ruling classes to maintain the existing social order. As such the whole concept of God could have been created by humanity- very reminiscent of Feuerbach who dismissed God as a human creation.

Taking Feuerbach’s critique further it could be argued from a Marxist perspective that the God and heaven that has been created for the proletariat is a reflection of their deepest needs and hopes.


For Christians the concept of God takes on added meaning in a Marxist view when the person of Jesus is added. Not only do you have a God who is the realisation of their most perfect qualities but also a God who suffers along with them. Jesus suffered more than all- and he is now seated at the right hand of God- what hope this offers to everyone.


Is Marxism a strong basis for atheism?

It certainly provides a strong critique of religion and raises question which religions will have to answer if they wish to provide answers for people in the modern world. For example “Do religions need to do more to break the social and economic oppression people find themselves in?”- People such as Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero and Gandhi would argue that religion can lift people out of their suffering and oppression here and now, but there is still a lot more to be done.

However, as a basis for atheism Marxism still requires a step of “faith”. If God is a creation of our thought or real is a question that cannot be answered on the basis of a study of society. It can point us in a direction- but which?

The Communist States of the old Eastern Bloc tried to establish a state on Marxist ideals without religion, but there were still the oppressed and people in the shackles of oppression. (Though Marxists would say that they had not implemented Marxism in a full and proper way).


Emile Durkheim

DurkheimKey Person: Emile Durkheim (1858-1917)

A French sociologist who also worked in the realm of anthropology. Is considered to be a functionalist. He helped established Sociology firmly as a Social Science. Works include The Division of Labor in Society, (1893), Rules of Sociological Method, (1895On the Normality of Crime (1895) Suicide, (1897), and most importantly for us The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, (1912).


Durkheim defined a 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 unit into one single moral community called a church, all those who adhere to them.(The Elementary Forms of Religious Life1912: 47)

In common with Marx Durkheim focussed on the structural nature of religion. He would agree that religion does not really change society but would see this as a positive force that holds society together. He would see religion and gods as an expression of the collective over the individual. That the desire for a cohesive society has created a religion that gives individuals common purpose:

The general conclusion of the book which the reader has before him is that religion is something eminently social. Religious representations are collective representations which express collective realities; the rites are a manner of acting which take rise in the midst of the assembled groups and which are destined to excite, maintain or recreate certain mental states in these groups. So if the categories are of religious origin, they ought to participate in this nature common to all religious facts; they too should be social affairs and the product of collective thought (1912: 10).

This does not necessarily mean that religion is valid. Indeed Durkheim has argued that “it is necessary to regard religion as the product of a delirious imagination” (1912: 87). Religion is not something based in the concrete world, however, delirium soesn’t necessarily have a negative connotation for Durkheim addresses this when he says:

“Of course this does not mean that an ardent religious faith is necessarily the fruit of the drunkenness and mental derangement which accompany it; but as experience soon informed people of the similarities between the mentality of a delirious person and that of a seer, they sought to open a way to the second by artificially exciting the first. But if, for this reason, it may be said that religion is not without a certain delirium, it must be added that this delirium, if it has the causes which we have attributed to it, is well-founded. The images out of which it is made are not pure illusions like those of the naturists and animists put at the base of religion; they correspond to something in reality” (1912: 226).

Through religion individuals and society continually reaffirm their collective identity in the various rites and rituals. Whilst not arguing against the existence of God it would be Durkheim’s argument that God is a social construct. In this he can be seen to be drawing on Feuerbach, not from an individual perspective but from a reflection of the whole society and its needs and wants. To support this he talks about totems (not to be confused with Freud’s totems) of Aboriginal society. These were symbols of both god and the society and though it is God that is consciously worshipped it is actually the society which is the object of veneration:

Thus the totem is before all a symbol, a material expression of something else. But of what? From the analysis to which we have been giving our attention, it is evident that it expresses and symbolises two different sorts of things. In the first place, it is the outward and visible form of what we have called the totemic principle or god. But it is also the symbol of the determined society called the clan. It is its flag; it is the sign by which each clan distinguishes itself from the others, the visible mark of its personality, a mark borne by everything which is a part of the clan under any title whatsoever, men, beasts or things. So if it is at once the symbol of the god and the society, is that not because the god and the society are only one? How could the emblem of the group have been able to become the symbol of this quasi-divinity, if the group and the divinity were two distinct realities? The god of the clan, the totemic principle, can therefore be nothing else than the clan itself, personified and represented to the imagination under the visible form of the animal or vegetable which serves as totem (1912: 206).

Although society has moved on totems are still in evidence as that which is ordinary (or profane) is made sacred by various elements within society.

It could be argued that Durkheim’s theories have no relevance in today’s multi faith society. Religion does not seem to glue society together rather tear it apart. This has led to the postulation of religious surrogates which form the same purpose of religion and its totems in an increasingly secular world. Bellah (1970) takes up the idea of a vague religious background to social life, in his discussion of Civic or Civil Religion. Durkheim’s interpretation of religion’s traditional function – to

bind together members of a society by encouraging awareness of their common membership and an entity greater than themselves – was largely based on an analysis of small scale, pre-industrial societies. However, according to Bellah it still provides for many a powerful insight into the collective rituals of people in modern societies. Bellah argued that, whatever their apparent differences, what unified Americans – whether Catholic, Protestant or Jew – was an overarching “Civil” religion which was distinct from each: a faith in Americanism. Unlike Catholicism, Protestantism and Judaism – which are unable to claim the allegiance of all Americans – civil religion generates widespread loyalty to the nation state. Bellah argues that a nation’s civil religion does not necessarily need to involve the supernatural – however in the case of America, it does.

According to Bellah, God and America are seen to walk hand-inhand. American coins tell the world “In God we Trust”, American presidents swear an oath of allegiance to God and the phrase “God bless America” ends speeches given by dignitaries across the USA. This is not a particular God of Catholics, Protestants or Jews; it has more general application as “America’s God”. In this respect, the faith in Americanism helps to unite the American people.

Further reading on Sociology and Religion:

Karl Marx “Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” in Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, February, 1844 available at

For a library of Marx’s work on religion see

Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, (1912, English translation by Joseph Swain: 1915) The Free Press, 1965.

Excerpts from the writings of Durkheim can be found at

A number of Sociology A Level textbooks provide good introductions but tend to focus on the function of religion rather than as a basis for atheism. These include:

Pilkington, Taylor and Yeo Sociology in Focus for AQA A2 Level (Causeway, 2004)

Moore Aiken and Chapman Sociology for A2 (Collins, 2002)