What did Marx mean by "religion is the opium of the masses"?

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The first thing to keep in mind, when discussing this quote, is that Marxist philosophy is ultimately grounded in an atheistic vision of the universe. For Marx, religion is ultimately a human invention.

The second factor to consider is the Marxist vision of society and history. For Marxists, all of human history is ultimately driven by economic factors, and by the conflict and struggle that plays out within the social and economic structures which define any society. Human civilization, for the entirety of its existence, has been grounded in inequality and exploitation, and while the particularities can differ and even the structures themselves can transform across time (for example, when the pre-industrial agrarian economy gave way to industrial capitalism), the basic problem of class conflict had remained always present.

From this, we get to Marx's famous statement: "religion is the opiate of the masses." For Marx, religion is ultimately a fiction which people have used for the purposes of alleviation. In a world driven by inequality and exploitation, people are drawn to the sense of community and comfort that religion provides, even when it is (to Marx) ultimately illusory. From that perspective, religion is pernicious to the Marxist, because the ultimate goal envisioned by the Marxists is the eventual breaking down of the Class Structure entirely, and creation of a true Classless State.

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What Karl Marx is saying here is that religion is like a drug.  Specifically, it is like a drug that keeps people happy so that they do not want to rebel against the oppressive governments and societies that hold them down.

Marx believed that all people in the oppressed classes would inevitably rebel against those who held power in their society.  Peasants would do this to feudal lords, workers would do this to the bourgeoisie.  But this often did not happen and workers, for example, often showed no desire to rebel.  Marx had to explain this.

One way in which Marx explained this was to say that religion helped to keep the people down.  They would focus on the lives of their souls instead of material things.  They would disregard their problems on earth and focus on the idea that they would be rewarded in the next life.  In this way, religion kept them from wanting to rebel.  It kept them focused on something other than the way they were being oppressed.

This is why religion was, for Marx, the opium of the masses.

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