Marx and his views on Religion and Family

A philosopher, economist, historian, political theorist, journalist, and sociologist, Karl Marx is a renowned personality in the field of social sciences. This article talks about family and religion as institutions that Marx has extensively talked about. It will entail how religion has penetrated society and Marx’s view on its effects on people. As far as the institution of the family concerned, this article talks about Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx’s quest to end the abolition of the family.

A black and white portrait of Marx from 1875

Religion through the lens of Marx: According to Marx, religion has a dual role to play. Since time memorial, religion has had two functions. First, it acts as a pillar of strength to the already established order. It further claims its sanctity and propagates that this political order has been legitimized by divine authority. It justifies the deprived and oppressed, by offering them in heaven what they were deprived of on earth.


Now that religion is far from an egalitarian system, it paves way for a progressive role and promotes a narrative of hope. It also paints a picture of an alternative idea counter to that of religion, gives the common people an image of what a better order should look like.


For Marx, a substitute for religion was communism. It is a system of social organization in which all property is owned by the community and each person contributes and receives according to their ability and needs. Counter to communism, religion acts as a conservative barrier that acts as a hindrance for men striving towards a just society without turning an eye towards heaven. For communism to prevail, Marxists will have to combat religion. According to the proponents of Marx, in a communist society, the main foundations of religion will gradually wither away with time.


Marx firmly believed that religion and society are interlinked. Religion was nothing but material realities and economic justice and problems in religion were a problem in society as well. For him, religion was only a symptom. It was a means by which people were convinced people that their exploitation and a low socioeconomic status would bear fruit in heaven. In the eyes of Karl Marx, ‘Religion is the opium of the masses’.


We can also draw a comparison between his views on religion and his critical analysis of capitalism. Just as capitalism endorses the division of labor and alienates us from our value, similarly, religion takes our aspirations and projects them on an unidentified source in the name of god.

For Marx, religion is an irrational institution that is delusional and constitutes the denial of reality. Furthermore, religion refutes all that is stately in a person by rendering them servile and acquiescent to accepting the status quo. Marx was firmly convinced that religion was hypocritical. For instance, Christianity was built on the foundation of helping the needy. However, with the advent of the Roman State, slavery was widespread.


Social-conflict approach to religion: The social conflict perspective is a theory that refers to a system of classes. Consisting of two classes namely Bourgeoisie and Proletariat, Marx concluded that the former kept the proletarians at bay with the help of religion. Deeply entrenched in his criticism of capitalism, religion plays a role in the capitalist society as well. Marx seemed to have accepted religion did exist; however, it was objectively false as did the scientific weltanshchauung. For him, religion was pus of the sick world. Furthermore, he believed that when the world would heal again, the pus would disappear on its own.


Marx on the Institution of Family: Karl Marx, along with Friedrich Engel criticized the family as an institution on three main levels. A) It was an institution of hypocrisy and reflected the inhumanity of the bourgeois family. B) The foundations and origins of the family. C) Vision of a future family in a communist society. Marx alluded to an institution much advanced than a family, however, through their literary contributions; it is safe to assume that they had always cultivated a belief to completely destroy the family as an institution.


It is interesting to note that Marx’s take on the family was orthodox in the beginning. It was much later in his life that he propagated the abolition of the family. In 1842, a new law was introduced in Prussia concerning divorce. He supported the Hegelian view which marked it as a moral institution. Marx argued that marriage is indissoluble however there can be exceptions. Divorce, in some cases, should be granted in a moribund state of marriage rather than arbitrary.


Surprisingly enough, Marx was less enthusiastic about the abolition than was Engels, but the deadliest criticism was penned down by Marx. Their book ‘The Communist Manifesto’ comprises of his relentless criticism he had in store for the institution. He thought of bourgeois as whited sepulchers who portrayed the family as a religious institution but it had taken the form of a money relationship.


According to him, a nuclear family performs functions that consolidate the ideological foundations of capitalism. In an institution such as capitalism the wealthy class, pass down private property. This strengthens class equality that is already ingrained in society. For him, the society was structured in a way that favored the elite class, the bourgeois in this case. The family acts as an entity practicing social control and legitimizes the oppression taking place in society. It claims it is natural and inevitable.


Family is essentially responsible for preserving capitalism. It socializes people in a way that justifies the unequal treatment of people in society. Marx also developed a theory of surplus value where the elite class, extract as much profit as possible at the expense of the working class. However, they need to create a demand in the market for their goods. The historicization of the family was another problem that further motivated Marx and Engels to abolish the institution. Without this element being addressed, the institution would be construed as an indication to return to the traditional family.


Despite many criticisms Marx has faced, he stands as a pertinent figure in the field of social sciences. His literary work is practical and backed by logic. He broke the shackles of two extremely restrictive institutions namely religion and family. His readings hold a great deal of importance to college-going students, researchers and scholars, and very rightly so.


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