Marx’s theory of religion needs to be seen in the context of his general view of society, capitalism dominates the working class Whereas functionalism sees religion as a unifying force that strengthens the value consensus and is a feature of all societies. Marxism sees religion as a feature only of class- divided society, as such there will be no need for religion in classless society and it will disappear.
For Marx, ideology is a belief system that changes people’s perception of reality in ways that serve the interests of the ruling class. He argues that the class that controls economic production also controls the production and distribution of ideas in society, though institutions such as the church, the education system and the media. In Marx’s view, religion operates as an ideological weapon used by the ruling class to justify the suffering of the poor as something inevitable and God-given. Religion misleads the poor into believing that their suffering is virtuous and that they will be favoured in the afterlife. Such beliefs create a false consciousness. Lenin describes religion as ‘spiritual gin’- an intoxicant doled out to the masses by the ruling class to continue them and keep them in their place. Lenin argues the ruling class use religion cynically to manipulate the masses and keep them from attempting to overthrow the ruling class by creating a ‘mystical fog’ that obscures reality.
Religion legitimates the power and privilege of the dominate class by making their position appear to be divinely ordained. For example, the 16th century idea of the Divine Right of the Kings was the belief that that the king is God’s representative on earth and is owed total obedience to God’s authority.
Alienation involves becoming separated from or loosing control over something that one has produced or created. Alienation exists in all classes, but is more extreme under capitalism. Under capitalism workers are alienated because they do not own what they produce and have no control over the production process, and have no freedom to express their true nature detailed division of labour in the capitalist factory, where the worker endlessly repeats the same tasks. Religion acts as an opiate to dull the pain of exploitation. But just as opium masks pain rather than treating its cause, so religion masks the underlying problem of exploitation that creates the need for it. Because religion is a distorted view of the world, it can offer no solution to earthly misery. In instead, its promises of the afterlife create an illusory happiness that distracts attention from the true source of the suffering, namely capitalism. Thus, Marx sees religion as the product of alienation. It arises out of suffering and acts as a consolation for it, but fails to deal with its cause namely class exploitation. Religion acts as an ideology that legitimates both the suffering of the poor and the power of the working class.
Marx shows how religion may be a tool of oppression that masks exploitation and creates a false consciousness. However, he ignores positive functions of religion e.g. psychological adjustment to misfortune. Neo- Marxists see certain forms of religion as assisting not hindering the development of class consciousness. Some Marxists such as Althusser reject the concept of alienation as unscientific and based on a romantic idea that human beings have a ‘true self’. This would make the concept an inadequate basis for a theory of religion. Religion does not necessarily function effectively as an ideology to control the population. For example, Abercrombie and Turner argue that in pre-capitalist society, while Christianity was a major element of ruling class ideology, it had only limited impact on the peasantry.