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Essay: Why, for Marx, is the Criticism of Religion the Beginnings of All Criticism?

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Why, for Marx, is the criticism of religion ‘the beginning of all criticism’?

See young Marx 1  – counterpoints – add Bauer

For Marx the ‘struggle against religion is the struggle against the world’. During the period of Marx’s writing, religion was, and still is, a dominant force in people’s lives. It’s ability to dominate society alienated man from his true reality. Nonetheless a moral agency was present in religion as it provided a means of coping with the suffering in man’s life. Individuals would look ahead to a divine heavenly future which would end their suffering, whilst God’s plan granted justification for their current pain. Without exposing religion to be an obscuring mask for alienation and suffering, one cannot begin to challenge the root cause of the suffering. Religion therefore encourages and justifies a blindness to the failings of capitalism and enables the perpetual survival of the oppression that occurs due to it.

Context – German – religion in society – classical approach

Born in Germany, Marx saw the issue of religion and political emancipation through a German context. He was especially exposed to the practise of state religion in both Germany and Great Britain. A growing concern for social and political issues, including criticism of religion, arose in Germany owing to industrialisation. Marx claimed that religious criticism was ‘essentially complete’ in Germany and that it is the presupposition or beginning of all criticism. His comments followed discussion by Hegel, Feuerbach and Bauer. As Hegel dominated the philosophical climate at the time, discussion of the philosophy of religion was growing.  Marx adopted the approach of a Young Hegelian, similarly reducing religion to a philosophical issue. Of central importance to Hegel and subsequently Marx was the concept of alienation. Marx also mirrored Feuerbach, agreeing that religion illustrates an ‘alienation of man’s essence’. However, notably differing from Feuerbach’s solution, that emancipation would come about through an act of will, Marx’s need to erase religion from the secular world required revolutionary action.

Marx viewed religion as the reflection of an inverted, wrong world. He argued that religious belief, in a distorted way, revealed the nature of the society that produced it, after-all ‘man makes religion, religion does not make man’.  Consequently, religion is a secular problem as it was created by man and so to challenge it we must criticise it’s secular roots. This illustrates the criticism of religion beginning the criticism of all as it would lead the ‘criticism of Heaven to turn into the criticism of Earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics’.

Opium of the people /drug – disillusions them to accept their suffering   

Marx famously described religion to be the ‘opium of the people’.  He implied here that religion acts as a drug to man, systematically distorting his reality so that he is unable to see the world as it truly is.  Religion helps man to cope with and be distracted from the suffering which plagues his world and thus he is granted ‘illusory happiness’. Whilst religion provides a way for mankind to cope with the problems in society it does not effectively tackle the issues at their roots. It also justifies such suffering, quoting God’s plan as a reason for the way life is. Nonetheless, it is also a protest against distress as it cries out against the realities of exploitation, alienation and degradation. Religion therefore provides humanity with a source of consolation that renders the cruelty of capitalism bearable. Hence, religious beliefs both conceal the truth about alienation in society yet also make this harsh reality bearable.

Further criticism of religion arises from the misplaced attention it gives the future and non-worldly matters. Religion teaches individuals to care more for the ‘imaginary reality of heaven’ than for finding their ‘true reality’ in the here and now. Encouraging individuals to focus on how a future in heaven will be better than now discourages man from criticising current suffering as it means little to them while religion numbs the pain and directs their focus to hope for a better future. Marx argues we should be critically focused upon this world and changing current problems rather than being more concerned with God and heavenly matters.  Religion therefore misplaces man’s attention and stifles his concern for the possibility of other kinds of criticism.

Religion – economics & politics – what Is alienation

Marx highlights the clear link between religion, economics and political life through the idea of alienation. For him the essential characteristic of our being is creating and this is expressed through our labour. Thus, the central core of humanity is economic and material rather than consciousness and ideas as Hegel and Feuerbach argued. Consequently, our economic life is fundamental in structuring other relationships such as social and political ones, and indeed our religious beliefs. This link renders the criticism of one of these relationships inevitably tied to the criticism of another. Religion is additionally an allegory of economic, social and political life as religious illusions are ultimately projections of the imperfections of man’s economic life, particularly alienation.

Alienation describes the separation of man from his natural, innate desires which include realisation of his true species-being and his communal nature which wishes to collaborate with others in society. Alienation occurs where man creates something out of nature which then comes to dominate him.  

Marx argues to overcome alienation we must regain control of our creations.  In both religion and economics, alienation is present as we create a system that comes to dominate our lives. In religion, God is created and determines truth, morality and worth whilst in economics a capitalist system is imposed and this determines relations of production and exercises great power over society. As man has created the idea of God, for man to no longer be alienated by this being, God must become man again. If control over this idea is restored so that God no longer dominates man’s life, religious alienation will have been overcome and in turn other forms of alienation will then be challenged.  

Religion arises in response to deficiencies in economic, social and political life. The content of religious life can consequently grant an insight into the social problems which give rise to it. Marx suggested there is a close structural similarity between the nature of religious illusion and political illusion fostered by the bourgeois. The relationship between the political state and civil society is comparable in religion to what heaven is to earth in that the ideal experience compensates for the actual. Whilst the reality of the state remains subordinate to the ideal, a need for religion remains as indeed does the hope for better in the future.  Should the state become ideal, the requirement for religion will evaporate as would the need to hope for better. Owing to this clear link between societal problems and the need for religion, the content of religion informs us not only about the nature of religious alienation, but also about the ultimate, non-religious causes of religious alienation.

Real suffering and alienation caused by capitalism

In the ‘Jewish Question’, Marx argues that religion is required due to imperfections in man’s societal existence and so it should only exist in imperfect states.  He shows that if people were not suffering they would not need religion as it acts only as the ‘sigh of the oppressed creature’.  Thus the fact that religion continues to exist in even the most perfect state, which employs democracy, proves that any capitalist state is still flawed and causes suffering. Though faith eases and masks pain, mankind is nevertheless actually suffering under the capitalist system. The true suffering which religion disguises is the alienation caused by capitalism. Owing to the drugged state a religious belief system puts man in, faith effectively conceals societal suffering without attempting to eradicate it. Religion instead renders us unwilling to criticise or take interest in societal problems. In order to draw the deserved attention to combatting these problems, we must first unmask religion. Indeed, Feuerbach acknowledged that a vigorous interest in politics and societal issues is likely to accompany emancipation from religion. There is a need initially to expose and overcome the ‘inverted consciousness’ of religion in order to challenge the source of suffering which requires the illusion of faith in the first place. As religion is used to appease and justify distress, criticism of religion ‘disillusions man’ by challenging the incorrect belief that it is acceptable and necessary to suffer. Only once this belief has been removed from the secular world can the real problems of society, namely alienation, be exposed and tackled.

Unpick the flowers on the chains – combat true suffering

Criticising religion will ‘pluck the imaginary flowers’ from man’s chains. This is not intended so that man will continue to bear that chain only without his prior religious illusions and consolation, but so that he shall realise he is in chains and overthrow them in order to truly live.  Once the holy form of self-alienation has been exposed and removed, its non-religious forms should be too. Removing the religious fantasies that console man about life’s conditions under capitalism enables the criticism of these poor conditions that require such illusions.  In overcoming alienation man can rediscover his true reality, and the need for religion as a pacifier of pain will cease as will the protest against suffering. Illusory happiness will consequently be replaced by ‘real happiness’.


To overthrow religious domination of society, political emancipation was proposed by some. This would de-institutionalise religion, rendering it a private rather than public idea. Evidently this proposal is flawed as making religion a private issue does little to rid man’s life of it, it simply switches the realm in which it dominates. De-instutionalisation was therefore not sufficient for Marx as it would only provide a superficial solution targeted solely at the political realm. Feuerbach believed that emancipation could occur through an act of will but Marx’s solution notably required a revolution. He urged the upheaval of religion in both public and private in order to remove the ability of a system of beliefs to dominate man’s life and mask the alienation he relentlessly endured.


Criticism of religion is the beginning of all criticism as it is the initial step in allowing man to see and overthrow his chains. Religion dominates man’s life and so alienates him from his true reality. It pacifies and justifies the suffering he endures under capitalism yet also protests against it. Faith masks the alienation rife in society so that we blindly accept it without ever challenging whether it is necessary to suffer. In order to begin to criticise and tackle the root cause of suffering; the alienation caused under capitalism, we must first criticise the religious illusion that drugs humanity into unquestioning obedience. Therefore, removing religion’s ability to dismiss the importance of the failings of capitalism enables the combatting of the problematic capitalist system as a whole.

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