Opium of the People? The Religious Heritage of Karl Marx and the Frankfurt School

Pretty well everyone knows that Marx wrote that “religion is the opium of the people.” Most assume that he invented this metaphorical critique of religion—in a word, writing religion off as a kind of drug fed to the masses to keep their noses rubbed in the mud. But Michael Lowy, in War of the Gods: Religion and Politics in Latin America (1996), asks the question whether this poignant aphorism really catches the quintessence of Marx’s own views on religion.

Lowy points out that this metaphor was, in fact, not specific to Marx himself. It was circulating in the cultural ethos of post-Hegelian thinkers in the 1840s. In 1840, for instance, Moses Hess says: “Welcome be a religion that pours into the bitter chalice of the suffering human species some sweet, soporific drops of spiritual opium, some drops of love, hope and faith.” He thought religion could make life somewhat bearable.

Shortly after while Marx was busy flipping Hegel on his head, Lowy reminds us that this infamous quotation captures the dual character of religion. “Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of an unspiritual situation. It is the opiate of the people.”

Religion as alienated humanity

Unlike some Enlightenment foes of religion, Marx perceived religion as the sign of the alienated condition of humanity. The distress they feel—under the oppressive conditions of life—is real, and religion enables people to hang in there until the conditions of life change and humans can discover their authentic spiritual existence as makers of history. And the notion of “spirit of an unspiritual situation” contains emancipatory potential: this spirit can rebel.

Thus, Marx leaves open the door that later Frankfurt School theorists could venture through. Because Marx did not develop his thinking regarding how religion as a form of consciousness can be explained with reference to the material conditions and social relations of life, critical theory and theology could take up this perplexing task.

Liberating reason from the church of positivism

The Frankfurt School (founded in 1923 as an inter-disciplinary institute to study the emancipatory possibilities of the time) intellectuals worked within a dual framework. They shared the Enlightenment scepticism towards religion’s status as a form of knowledge and its ambiguous relationship to political authority and economic power. But they didn’t stop there: they were in a different intellectual and political world.

The euphoric celebration of the glories of Reason had dissipated. The French Revolution had turned to terror. The Russian Revolution went off the rails into ghastly forms of oppression and murder. In his introduction to the Frankfurt School on Religion: key writings by the major thinkers, Eduardo Mendieta (2005) boldly declares: “If for the philosophes reason was to be rescued from the church and theology, for the Frankfurt School theorists reason was to be liberated from the church of positivism and the theology of the market” (p. 2).

Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer thought the Enlightenment Project that had promised a “cornucopia of utopian amenities, had turned into a demonic machine used for crushing skills and decimating the earth” (Mendieta, 2005, p. 4). It was also astonishingly true that God had not quite died. Nor had the Churches folded up their tents. The Church even had its own Enlightenment. Ordinary folks through the eighteenth, nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries maintained their piety (D. MacCulloch, Christianity: the first three thousand years [2009]). The religious sighing, yearning and longing for another world had survived many attacks since the French Revolution of 1789.

Still, something deep and profound had changed in the “structure of consciousness” of modern Europeans. As Mark C. Taylor (“Introduction,” in M.C. Taylor (Ed.), Critical terms for religious studies [1998]) expresses it incisively, “Religious devotion and belief do not simply disappear but initially are turned inward in a way that renders them as invisible as the transcendent God who is present as an abiding absence” (p. 2).

The acerbic Kierkegaard (1985) in Fear and Trembling gazes at his imaginary “knight of faith” and discovers that he “looks just like a tax collector!” (p. 68). Nothing seems to be telegraphed from the infinite. He is all too comfortable in the delicious world.

Recruiting theology to rescue reason

The irony in Adorno and Horkheimer’s attempts to recruit theology and religious experience to “rescue reason by unmasking the idolatry and fetishism of the market and technology, and by returning to the subject of subjective freedom” (Mendieta, p. 8) must not escape us. The same can be said about Habermas’ profound awareness over the last two or so decades that “something is missing” (J. Habermas et al., An Awareness of What is Missing: faith and reason in a post-secular age [2010]).

We can state, then, that the atheistic sceptics of the Frankfurt School were intelligent enough to resist ideas prevalent in early cultural anthropology that religion was only a stage in humankind’s evolution from magic to science.

Although the notion of “religious experience” gives critical scholars difficulty and may still be an irritant to many, the Frankfurt School senses that reason had to be expansive enough to comprehend, if only partially, the world’s multi-faceted presence to us. And religious knowledge and experience of the transcendent are precisely that troublesome and irksome part of this expansive reason.

Mendieta provides a valuable guide to the different ways the Frankfurt School re-worked the suggestive Marxian idea of religion’s resistance to being crushed by the Market or Technology. Even the uttering of a prayer or participating in the Eucharist ritual is a small act of resistance to succumbing to instrumental rationality. The Frankfurt School version of critical philosophy found fertile soil in religion for its own emancipatory project. Religion was not an unbearably bleak wasteland

A lexicon of anti-fetishism

Whatever the evident limitations of religion, Adorno and Horkheimer—both of whom were shaped by a secularized Jewish messianism—perceived that Judaism and Christianity harboured a “lexicon of transcendence and anti-fetishism” (Mendieta, 2005, p. 9). It is as if the lost souls of the Enlightenment came knocking at religion’s door, hoping to be invited in to see something that cracked open a fossilized reason. They did, in fact, enter and discovered that theology resides and hovers close to the luminous and the liminal. It catches glimpses of the flecks of light yet remaining from the God who seemingly exiled himself from the world, leaving only some traces behind. Perhaps if we fan into flames, Justice will return to us.

Theology rescues reason from disintegrating into a triumphant instrumental rationality. Commitments to never close off the transcendent domain; God is “wholly other” and, for believers, the ultimate judge of the unjust world: these affirmations provide lexical sources for use and translation by the critical philosophers of the Frankfurt School.

The radical intellectual discipline and rigorous desire for the truth leads Adorno and Horkheimer to assert a “negative theology”, that is, a theology that refuses to permit “God” to be reconciled to the misery and suffering of the world as divine legitimator.

Throughout his illustrious career, Horkheimer grappled with both the moral message of Judaism and Christianity and their notion of transcendent deity. While not rejecting Christianity’s moral message outright, Horkheimer believed that one couldn’t trust religion to be irrevocably critical and rebellious. We are only too aware of the ingenious ways the Bible can be used to justify violence or colonial subjugation of peoples (see M. Prior, The Bible and colonialism: a moral critique [1997]).


The impossibility of closure

But one could rescue the “moral message of universal dignity and solidarity that inspires criticism of prevailing suffering and oppression” (M. Cooke, “Critical theory and religion,” in D.Z. Phillips and T. Feria (Eds.), Philosophy and Religion in the 21st Century [2001], p. 215). In a sense, this filtering and rescuing process criticizes religion as opium in the name of religion as the beating heart of the yearning for a just world. Horkheimer also asserts that the “idea of God [serves] as arbiter of validity and bestower of such meaning” (p. 221). Horkheimer thinks that: “Without God one will try in vain to preserve absolute meaning” (as cited, p. 216). God, then, becomes the ultimate arbiter of truth.

Cooke (2001) asserts that “an idea of God plays a crucial role in his [Horkheimer] critical social theory insofar as it marks the impossibility of closure, thereby testifying to the need for never-ending struggle to achieve a better order of things.” Cooke thinks that “this idea is most useful when it is released from its religious framework and understood in a purely negative, critical way” (p. 221).

For his part, Habermas acknowledges that with the collapse of the philosophy of history that assumed that God was providentially leading history to an end-point of reconciliation, religion—if engaged critically—could release semantic and spiritual potential to confront the positivity of a world reduced to instrumental forms of rationality. But Habermas is wary of Horkheimer’s “bad utopianism.”

The problem, as Habermas perceives it, is that Horkheimer and Adorno’s notion of messianic redemptive power lacks grounding in concrete social practices of human beings. It simply fails to link up convincingly with the way we usually speak and act in our secularized world.

Habermas will also challenge Horkheimer’s idea that critical theory needs God to justify its truth claims and establish the moral and ethical framework for society. Modernity lowers transcendence into the world. We are the ones who create values, meaning systems and norms to guide us. We no longer ground our meaning-systems or institutions in sources external to ourselves. But while asserting this, Habermas takes the unusual step of arguing that the religious lexicon may contain intuitions and ideas that could inform our sensibility as we walk on our own.

The youthful Marx wanted humanity to revolve around itself: to be masters of their own destiny. The later critical theorists of the Frankfurt School (from Adorno to Habermas) could meet on common ground with some Christians in the affirmation that this “yearning for the wholly other, is a yearning for a truth whose condition of possibility is the just society. Theology, as the medium in which religion is able to speak and disclose its truth content, is at the service of a critical social theory” (Mendieta, 2005, p. 11).

“This is what makes the Frankfurt School’s approach to religion and theology particularly fertile and generative today. For in the Frankfurt School’s critical theory of religion we find a dual confrontation with the religious sources of modern, European, and Western Culture, sources that unleashed a fateful dialectic of introjected and sacrificial violence, and an attempt to rescue what makes the religious not just a source of alienation and negation of the world, but also of remembrance, hope, redemption, and utopia” (ibid.).

These words–remembrance, hope, redemption and utopia—are still needed in the lexicon of Left Humanism.

Dr. Michael Welton is a professor at the University of Athabasca. He is the author of Designing the Just Learning Society: a Critical Inquiry.