Evaluate The View That ‘Religion is the Opium of the People’.
The famous assertion that religion is the ‘opium of the people’ was posited by Karl Marx, as a metaphor to describe the effect religion has on the proletariat. He is arguing that just as the upper classes would (at the time he was writing) smoke opium to escape from reality; the working classes would use religion to leave behind their woes. However, the distinction must be made in the sense that whilst those smoking poppies were perfectly aware of what they were doing, the proletariat were being manipulated, unbeknown to them, by the bourgeoise through the medium of religion. Marx argues that this is one of the tools used to produce ‘false consciousness’ in the workers: i.e.
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They also argue that now religion is a force for social change in the world, for example the Anglican Church often criticises the British government over social issues such as unemployment, homelessness, poverty, etc. Thus, they conclude, whilst Marx may have been right in the 19th Century, now the church has escaped from the grip of big-business and is actively seeking to defend social equality. Antonio Gramsci disagrees with Marx’s underlying notion that the bourgeoise rules by creating false consciousness. Instead, he claims that society consists of a constant struggle of ideas between different classes, with the proletariat constantly resisting the bourgeoise, with particular emphasis on the efforts made by youth culture. He argues, amongst other things, that religion can, in fact, be a force promoting change and social equality within ideological battle. He feels that the capitalist class are successful when people either accept the current system is the norm, or even natural (e.g. some versions of ‘Social Darwinism’), or believe that there is nothing one can do to resist it. However, a flaw here is that Gramsci does not explain why the proletariat accept their situation so readily, thus failing to plug the gap left by his removal of ‘false consciousness’. Graminsci’s work has been influential on Otto Maduro who has examined ‘Liberation Theology’, used in South America. This was a movement promoting social equality and wealth distribution in