Amanda Udis-Kessler ©2001

While most of the “founding parents” of sociology wrote on the role of religion in society, Karl Marx and Max Weber offer insights that are particularly relevant for our course.  This handout summarizes Marx’ and Weber’s key understandings of the social role(s) of religion.


While Karl Marx did not publish a specific monograph on religion, his impact on the sociology of religion is significant; indeed, Marx can be thought of as the first sociologist of religion.  His comment that “[humanity] makes religion; religion does not make [humanity]” (Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844; in Tucker 1978: 53) is sociology at its purest, as is his proposition that  “the ‘religious sentiment’ is itself a social product” (Theses on Feuerbach, Thesis VII; in Tucker 1978: 145).

The Marxian Thesis

In order to understand Marx’ perspective on religion, it is necessary to know something of his overall thesis about the workings of society.  This thesis, developed over the course of Marx’ lifetime with his collaborator Friedrich Engels, can be summed up for our purposes as follows:

  • Material needs and desires, and the production of goods, represent the foundation of society.  Ideas play a secondary role.
  • The necessities and comforts of life must in some way be produced.  Key historic “modes of production” include hunting and gathering, agriculture, and industrial production.
  • Over time, different people take on different tasks in producing material goods.  Within this division of labor, certain “relations of production” develop between people carrying out different tasks.
  • The introduction of private property, in which some come to own the “means of production” (land, factories, machinery) and others to own only their personal capacity to provide labor, also introduces the separation of classes by power and wealth, and thus sets up essentially permanent social conflict.  Marx’ and Engels’ Communist Manifesto states this point as follows: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles [between] freeman and slave, patrician and plebian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed” (Tucker 1978: 473-474).
  • The scaling up of commercial activity and the profit motive that comes with modern capitalism leads to even greater disparities in wealth and power between classes, as well as to the exacerbation of a particular form of inequality that Marx terms “exploitation.”
  • The ultimate result of this conflict will be a large-scale revolution on the part of the “proletariat” (workers), in which capitalism is overthrown.[1] 
  • Thus, for Marx, the central drama of history is class struggle, and the central institution underlying social life and social change – the “base” or “substructure” of society – is the economy.  Economic facts provide the independent variables of any given social situation.
  • All other spheres of social activity – law, politics, the arts, literature, morality, religion – are understood by Marx to make up a superstructure, which essentially rests on the economic base of the society.  Non-economic facts are society’s dependent variables.
  • To understand how religion works, therefore, it is necessary to understand religion’s various functions in a given economic system or situation.  Behind the specifics, a Marxian analysis will almost always find religion fulfilling needs based on problems that are properly economic.
Marx on Religion: Religion as an Opiate and a Form of Social Control

People who have no other experience with Marx’s approach to religion may have heard that Marx called religion “the opiate of the masses.”  This, Marx’ best-known comment on religion, comes from the “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction,” and is found in the following context:

Religion is [the world’s] general basis for consolation…The struggle against religion is…a struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.  Religious suffering is at the same time an expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering.  Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment 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 [people], is a demand for their real happiness… [in Tucker, Marx-Engels Reader, 1978: 53-4]

Opium, of course, provides only temporary relief for suffering, and does so by blunting the senses.  In making suffering bearable, Marx argues, opium (and religion) actually can actually be said to be contributing to human suffering by removing the impetus to do whatever is necessary to overcome it – which, for Marx, is to relinquish religion and turn to revolutionary politics. Hamilton (1995: 82-3) points out the ultimate practical outcome of religion’s palliative function, from a Marxian perspective: “Religion offers compensation for the hardships of this life in some future life, but it makes such compensation conditional upon acceptance of the injustices of this life.” 

Beyond its functions in keeping the disempowered in their place with “pie in the sky when we die by and by,” religion, according to Marx, assists those in positions of power by offering divine justification for the status quo, thus serving a legitimating function.  When the current distributions of power, status and money appear, not just natural but God-given, authority becomes sanctified and social control becomes easier.  Religion’s ideological function is, for Marx, related to the idea of reification.  Reification occurs when the social character of labor becomes objectified and obscured by ideologies in which “divine law” (rather than human beings with particular interests) is viewed as the true author of social relations.  Reification thus conceals that which is actually arbitrary and socially changeable by representing it as immutably given. As such, reification is an excellent form of social control, since the workers control themselves rather than forcing the owners to control them in visibly unjust or brutal ways (which could lead to rebellion or revolt).

For Marx, then, religion is always ultimately ideological, and the form it takes will depend on the shape of social life as determined by those in control.  Religion may serve as a painkiller for the masses, but it is a painkiller doled out by the oppressors (since, for Marx, “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas;” in Tucker 1978: 136), and religion always serves to benefit the oppressors in the end.  Religion, to Marx, will never lead the masses to revolt.  As a dependent variable, religion does not have the power to lead to social change.  Needless to say, Marx’s theory cannot explain liberation theology, or religion more broadly connected to activism for change – what Smith (1996) calls “disruptive religion.”


If Karl Marx provides us with an account in which religion serves merely as social opiate and agent of social control, Max Weber offers us a different vision, one in which religion can in some instances be an independent variable and, as such, a source of social change.  The study of comparative religion forms a major part of Weber’s program, and one of his books on the subject (The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism) is regularly taught in sociology courses.  While this book should be considered in the broader context of Weber’s comparative studies and agenda, it is easier to summarize it separately and then go on to mention some key elements of Weber’s broader work in the sociology of religion. 

Weber begins The Protestant Ethic by noting an apparent association between certain religious affiliations (particularly Protestantism) and business success, and suggests that this association might indicate a causal connection between the two.  He then goes on to characterize the “spirit of capitalism” by quoting a number of passages from Benjamin Franklin’s writing that he considers exemplary of this spirit in its purest, ideal-typical form.  At the core of the spirit of capitalism is a work ethic in which any time spent not actually making money is wasted time.  Franklin champions the pursuit of profit for its own sake, and by the most systematic and rational means possible.  Weber identifies Franklin’s approach, not as form of business practice, but as an ethos (or, as Weber describes it, an ethic).  It is this ethic, claims Weber, that is specific to modern western capitalism, and it is based on Luther’s idea of the calling or vocation. 

At this historical point in Weber’s story, most of the key precursors to modern capitalism are in place.  Popularization of the idea of the calling has drawn religious life out of the monastery and planted it in “the world.”  Business advances (in, for example, bookkeeping) have laid the groundwork for the technical aspects of capitalism.  And, if Franklin is to be believed, the right kind of work ethic is in place.  What remains to be added, according to Weber, is the motivation for strenuous capitalist development that involves reinvesting the fruits of one’s labor. 

Weber finds this motivation in the Calvinist doctrine of predestination.  This doctrine states that (a) the elect are saved and everyone else is damned, (b) God has selected the chosen even before their birth and humanity has no way of knowing who will be saved, and (c) salvation cannot be earned, for if it could be, humanity would have a kind of power over God.  At the core of Weber’s argument is the sense of helplessness and loneliness that he claims the Calvinist must have felt.  The Calvinist, thinks Weber, would have found this worry psychologically unbearable, and would have needed to find a way of knowing that he[2] was saved.  Fortunately, it was possible to look for a sign of being among the elect.  Such a sign might include worldly success, and worldly success, of course, involved ascetic, rational regulation of one’s life conduct.  One could thus prove oneself before God, not to earn salvation (which was impossible) but to assure oneself that one already had it.  Weber ties this Calvinist strategy to the Lutheran devotion to one’s life calling (which could take place in the business world) and claims that this combination of worldliness and ascetic discipline was pivotal for the development of modern capitalism.  Since the Calvinists were not allowed to spend their wealth on profligate living, reinvestment made the most sense.  Over time, this led to increasing accumulation of capital, minimization of consumption, and ultimately the continuous economic growth and industrial energy of modern capitalism. 

At the heart of The Protestant Ethic, then, is a causal claim about the impact of beliefs on practices, and the ultimate impact of both on institutions.  In this work, Weber provides an explicit challenge to Marx in using religion as an independent variable, and particularly as one that can have an impact on economic institutions. 

Weber’s work beyond The Protestant Ethic similarly focuses on the way that ideas act back on interests and shape activities, especially economic activities.  For example, Weber views salvation as a key idea that drives action, noting that his “concern is essentially with the quest for salvation…insofar as it produced certain consequences for practical behavior in the world,” particularly “a positive orientation to mundane affairs” (1963: 149).  Weber posits four general approaches to salvation (1963: 166-170).  One can either escape from the world or find means of adjusting to it; Weber terms the “escape” approach “other-worldly,” and adjustment as “inner-worldly.”  Weber then turns his attention to whether one practices resignation (“mysticism”) or self-mastery (“asceticism”) in regard to the world’s temptations.  Of the four possible approaches that emerge from this double pairing, inner-worldly asceticism is of the greatest interest to Weber because (as suggested by the above discussion of Protestant Ethic) it leads to the development of modern capitalism.  It demands both hard work in the world and abstemiousness.  Other-worldly mysticism, of which Buddhism is a good example, requires indifference to the world, which, Weber argues, never leads to the kind of activity that undergirds capitalism.  Inner-worldly mysticism (e.g., Taoism) accepts the world, but focuses on contemplative practices rather than strenuous economic activity.  Other-worldly asceticism, which is found in monastic Christianity, offers salvation through the mastery of desires, but this takes place away from “the world,” rather than in it.  The conquering of desire is important, but not in a way that impacts society more broadly.

Weber’s interest in social change also leads him to be particularly interested in the issue of religious leadership, since social change requires leaders for motivation and for the direction of action.  Here, Weber focuses on the prophet as the quintessential religious leader that drives change.  Weber identifies two kinds of prophets, the exemplary prophet and the emissary prophet (Gerth and Mills 1946: 284-6; Weber 1963: 55).  The exemplary prophet challenges the status quo by living an exemplary life, with an example being the Buddha (and with Asian religions generally furnishing other examples).  The prototypical emissary prophet is the kind found in the Hebrew Bible, who is sent by God to bring a message that people need to live differently.  It is, of course, the emissary prophet who calls for change – active ascetic change, according to Weber – and in so doing ultimately leads to modern capitalism.

As may already be evident, Weber’s approach to religion and social change involves a particular conception of the relationship between interests (material and ideal) and ideas; some sociologists consider Weber’s understanding of this relationship to be one of his most important contributions to the sociology of religion.  Weber provides a description of this relationship, almost off-handedly, in a larger discussion of salvation and capitalism: “Not ideas, but material and ideal interests, directly govern [human] conduct.  Yet very frequently the ‘world images’ that have been created by ‘ideas’ have, like switchmen, determined the tracks along which action has been pushed by the dynamic of interest” (1946: 280).  Sociologist Ann Swidler (in Weber 1963: x) notes the sophisticated understanding of ideas and interests here presented by Weber: “ideas, created to serve group interests, come to define the very world within which interests can be formulated.”  We will have reason to come back to these topics later in the course.

Weber does not ignore religion’s role as a legitimating element in social inequality; indeed, a good deal of his writing on religion in the Gerth and Mills anthology cited above concerns exactly this topic.  Weber’s sociology of religion, nonetheless, is notable for its claims that religion can be a source of social change, as opposed to either (a) merely a reflection of material causes of change or (b) a source of (oppressive) stability.

Gerth, Hans, and C. Wright Mills, eds.  1946.  From Max Weber.  New York: Oxford University Press.

Hamilton, Malcolm.  1995.  Sociology of Religion.  New York: Routledge.

Smith, Christian.  1996.  Disruptive Religion: The Force of Faith in Social Movement Activism.  New York: Routledge.

Tucker, Robert C., ed.  1978.  The Marx-Engels Reader.  Second ed.  New York: Norton.

Weber, Max.  1961.  General Economic History.  New York: Knight.

Weber, Max.  1963.  The Sociology of Religion.   Boston: Beacon Press.

[1] The fact that Marx and Engels appear to have been proven wrong on this point does not mean that the rest of their insights are necessarily useless.  Sociologists and political scientists have found predictions by Marx and Engels that appear to have held up, including predictions in the Communist Manifesto that suggest something like the globalization of capitalism among us today.

[2] Weber only appears to have been discussing men, thus my use of the term “he.”

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