Religion as Social Control


Class antagonism is created by the surplus exploited from the proletariat (working class) by the bourgeoisie (upper) class.  The antagonism is dealt with through a variety of distractions sanctioned by the bourgeoisie, and religion is one such distraction, a form of social control.  Rather than being explicitly hostile toward religion as such, Marx is concerned that religion provides an escape, which lulls the proletariat into further submission, bypassing any felt need to challenge the systems that oppress a society.

Merold Westphal, in his book Suspicion and Faith, writes “Even if there is a God, or better, especially if there is a God like the one described in the Bible, when religion functions as Marx describes, killing the pains of injustice rather than challenging its right to exists, it deserves the diatribes he directs against it.”


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  1. Abigail March 5, 2013

    Oh man, that’s hilarious! So glad I watched that last thing before going to bed! :)

  2. Matt March 5, 2013

    Nice video.
    In ancient Rome Bread and Circuses was used deliberately to placate the populace. This was the equivalent of opium in Marx’s terms (nothing new under the sun).
    I’m sure that religion has been used politically to placate people. But misuse of a tool doesn’t mean that a tool is of no use. The abuse here is of power (again, nothing new under the sun).
    What is used to placate the people today? I would suggest that cheap food and entertainment on tap (bread and circuses again) is doing a more effective job than religion. Interestingly it also seems to be a popular tactic in large churches, give the people what they want – teaching and lively worship – bread and circuses.

    • Abigail March 5, 2013

      Good point. I wonder if the cheap food and entertainment (not to mention cheap clothes, cheap appliances, cheap EVERYTHING… all on the backs of slave labor in 3rd-world countries) is being deliberately used to “placate the masses” (conspiracy theory, anyone?) or if it’s kind of a monster we’ve all collectively created. Globalism + Capitalism + Ethnocentrism + Technology + a few decades to acclimate = the gluttony we are used to today. Just a guess.
      I guess that query could extend to religion too. Were the abuses deliberate, or were they accidental/convenient byproducts of the times?

  3. Will March 5, 2013

    Marx was right, religion is the opiate of the masses. Religion has been and still is used to control the masses, as are any number of other byproducts of society.

    There has rarely been a more powerful way of controlling the hearts and minds of people than to say,”You don’t want to make God angry do you?” As the “power” of Gawd, wore out on people the leaders used “King and Country” or “God and Country.” Today we have the worship of freewill (I am my own person and I am unique, self empowerment), environmentalism (don’t you love the earth? You must hate it if you don’t recycle), self interest (I need to do what is right for me, screw everyone else) and intellectualism (I know the answer and unless you agree with me you are wrong) alongside of God (btw, if God is the answer, I’m not sure anyone even looked at the question).

    We have always maintained some kind of worship whether through religion, politics, patriotism, economics, and the list goes on. The key is that Marx and all people are religious in their own right regardless of their view of religion. I see it in sports, philosophy, communism, television, materialism (yada, yada, yada)people put their faith and energy into what it is they believe will make everything better, an idol. In the process of our scurrying about for meaning we often attempt to disarm or shame the beliefs of others.

    The mask that power wears is continuously evolving to fit the times. Marx saw things through the eyes of oppression and was outraged by the thought of people allowing themselves to be trampled upon. He suffered by what I would consider “the tyranny of good intentions.” By trying to force your will onto others, whether it is in their best interest or not, you are performing an act of tyranny.

    If people are accepting of their circumstance it is up to them to decide to make a change. That is not to say that people do not occasionally require a push in the right direction. Nor does it mean that we must accept less than reasonable conditions for others. It simply means that people must propel themselves through their own thoughts and actions toward a better life on their own terms. It is our duty as fellow human beings to offer a hand to those whom we can.

    • Paul March 6, 2013

      Will- I like the phrase “tyranny of good intentions”, which reminds me of the sister tyrannies of idealism, hope, romanticism, ect. When you say “people must propel themselves through their own thoughts and actions toward a better life on their own terms” I wonder about some of implicit assumptions and implications there…sounds like more of the democratic liberalism you poked at earlier on in your post about freedom and self-interest. It is the air we breath, after all.

      I don’t think you are advocating for anarchy or social relativism here, but my sense is that “on their own terms” falls short of the reality of living in a world where we are increasingly aware of how we are globally and locally interconnected in terms of how we spend, earn, engage in leisure, ect. I do agree that change ought to come from within, especially if it is to be sustainable change. But, what about the prospect of engagement. Is that even possible, or desirable, in a hyper individualized, self-expressivist, well-being oriented culture? I’m all for individual rights, but without the tethering effect of communal rights, we end up with a market as religion that now has all the attributes of an omniscient, omnipotent deity, caring for us with that invisible hand. And, we all know how that’s going; growing disparity between rich and poor.

      It’s certainly not without serious flaws, but I think the transition to a gestalt ontology (as opposed to the atomism we now espouse; we are disconnected, disembodied, decontextualized, displaced: 4-D ontology) makes sense because it restores some external degrees of distance (although not objective in the “out-there” sense of the word) and holistic criteria to begin adjudicating how we might aspire to live a good life. I realize this is hopelessly idealistic.

  4. Abigail March 5, 2013

    That Westphal quote: “Even if there is a God, or better, especially if there is a God like the one described in the Bible, when religion functions as Marx describes, killing the pains of injustice rather than challenging its right to exists, it deserves the diatribes he directs against it.”

    If he had only said the last part of the sentence, the part about “when religion functions as Marx describes…” I would agree with him. But there’s a lot of fire and brimstone talk from the God of the Bible about governments that prop up injustice and corruption, refuse to care for the poor, etc. One face of the Judeo-Christian God is very concerned about equality, justice, transparency, and freedom. So I don’t think it’s fair to completely lump the Judeo-Christian God into the same diatribe against the 19th century corrupted church(es).

  5. Chuck March 5, 2013

    Megachurch sub-culture and the Libertarian economic policies that exploit the poor with Religious Right politics.

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