We tend to see Marxists as against the idea of religion, on the grounds that it legitimates poverty among the lower classes, to be exploited by the capitalists, and that religion is used as a weapon to legitimate class equality also, however, has been criticised by functionalists and feminists alike on the grounds it ignore many positive functions of society, and this is what many Neo-Marxists have come to recognise.Firstly, Marx was the one who argued that religion was used to legitimate class inequality, arguing that religion is the product of alienation, and alienation occurs when a crafter becomes separated or loses control over what they have created, and feelings of a loss of identity performing the same menial tasks every day.
Marx argued that alienation exists in all societies, but is the most extreme under capitalism when the working class are exploited for their labour. Religion is then introduced to numb the pain of the alienation, and Marx said that religion is the ‘opium of the people’, just as opiates mask pain, rather than treat the cause.Religion does the same; the function of religion is to mask the pain of alienation and not treat the cause of their earthly misery, and Lenin agreed with Marx, describing religions role in society working like a ‘spiritual gin’ to keep the working class in their place, and used cynically by the ruling class to create a ‘mystical fog’ to cover the real misery of the exploitation they are responsible for. One example to support Marx’s theory come from the caste system in Hinduism, which used religion to legitimate the class divide, serving the needs of the capitalists, and the ones with power up in the higher castes.Those in the lower castes were given justification for their positions by saying that they had bad karma in another life and will be rewarded if they adhere to the rules of the caste system. However, Althusser criticised Marx’s view of alienation, regarding it as unscientific, it can’t be conceptualised meaning it can’t be quantified or measured, because it is based on a romanticised idea that human beings have a true self.
Marx’s theory proves to be an inadequate one when trying to outline the function of religion.Even so, neo-Marxist’s have now criticised Marx’s theory on the basis that it is too outdated to deal with the functions of a modern society, for example, liberation theology, which was a movement in Latin America, which used religion to retaliate to the capitalists and fight for a democracy. In the 1960’s there was a massive class divide where things were run by a military dictatorship and the only ones who would retaliate were the Catholic priests to fight for the impoverished, and destroy the class divide, or just to reduce the size of the gap, which shows the positive functions that religion does.Functionalists criticise Marxist views on the grounds that it ignores the positive functions of religion, for example Bronislaw Malinowski argued that religion helped people when going through periods of life crises, such as death, birth and marriage and religion. Religion also helps to keep people in control of their actions through performing rituals such as the tribes of the Western Pacific who performed rituals before ocean fishing to ease tension because it was dangerous and the outcomes were unknown, so this served to help them to keep them calm, because ocean fishing is different from lagoon fishing where it was much safer.
While Parsons agrees with Malinowski, he argues the opposite to Marx, who says religion legitimates exploitation of the working class, by saying that it create and legitimates societies central values, similar to Durkheim’s view on crime and punishment, which creates and reinforces societies boundaries, and religion also aids society in creating these boundaries.Marxist feminists believe that capitalists exploits women to serve the needs of capitalism, and traditional Marxist’s ignore this problem, as many women are exploited through religion and serves to keep women subservient to men who are generally higher in society, and this can be demonstrated by the fact that women in Islamic religion have to wear the hijab before going outside anywhere, and is a sign of property, however, Woodhead interviewed a small sample of Islamic women who said they felt liberated by the fact of wearing a hijab because it represents their freedom, so religion to some can make them feel free and liberated from the oppression, and another criticism of Marxist feminists is that they ignore where religion serves to help women, for example while women priests aren’t allowed in the more orthodox religions, they are allowed in evangelical groups which shows that women can participate in the more important aspects of religious organisations. Overall, I would argue that while religion was used to oppress people, it now serves to liberate people from social injustice due to less strict doctrines from the world’s traditional religions, through the influence of evangelical groups.