Undoubtedly most people would be familiar with Karl Marx's oft repeated quotation: "Religion is the opium of the people". Unfortunately like so many other famous sayings it has been taken out of context to mean something the author never quite intended. Taken from the introduction to his unfinished Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, the words at face value seem to be implying that religion exists to wholly distract the great unwashed of society. Some have even interpreted it as basically meaning religion stupifies people into compliance - the sheep factor. While there is some truth to this, the real meaning as the great German philosopher intended is a good deal more complex.
To grasp the profound wisdom of those seven words we first need to understand their relationship to Marx's thoughts on economics, man, state and society. Philosophically, Karl Marx thought of society as existing outside of its own reality; people thinking of themselves as being abstracted from, rather than being of the real world. Further to this he asserted that the world of human affairs was inverted or wrong side up because the state/ society continually tolerated the existence of a ruling class. And what kept this system in place was money - in particular the unnatural distribution of wealth. Religion therefore was in fact a logical manifestation of this inverted state of affairs, its purpose being to provide temporal comfort dressed up as spiritual healing for the struggling masses. In a similar way to how an opiate acts as an anaesthetic to dull pain, religion dulls the pain of life's hardships. In other words if it didn't exist they'd have to invent it (which they did)! Marx believed that once society accepted the nature of its true reality and embraced economic equity then there would be no need for the comforting fantasies of religion. Thus he concluded it was naked capitalism and the attitudes it ingrained that kept organised religion on the front page of people's minds.
Though Marx was an atheist he didn't believe the struggle between believers and unbelievers for hearts and minds was worth much merit. To him such a struggle existed within an inverted world and therefore would be of no consquence. The only battle worthy of our attention was economic, humankind's fortunes resting solely on the outcome. When his quote is seen in this light and read in full context (see below) it takes on a deeper and more interesting meaning.
The profane existence of error is compromised as soon as its heavenly oratio pro aris et focis [“speech for the altars and hearths,” i.e., for God and country] has been refuted. Man, who has found only the reflection of himself in the fantastic reality of heaven, where he sought a superman, will no longer feel disposed to find the mere appearance of himself, the non-man [Unmensch], where he seeks and must seek his true reality.
The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man – state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world.
Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.
Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower. The criticism of religion disillusions man, so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses, so that he will move around himself as his own true Sun. Religion is only the illusory Sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself.
It is, therefore, the task of history, once the other-world of truth has vanished, to establish the truth of this world. It is the immediate task of philosophy, which is in the service of history, to unmask self-estrangement in its unholy forms once the holy form of human self-estrangement has been unmasked. Thus, the criticism of Heaven turns into the criticism of Earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.
Marx knew what another very wise man knew nearly 2000 years ago: "Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful." - Seneca