Karl Marx vs. Max Weber

How do I encapsulate the essence of some of the greatest minds known to man? I think speaking with them would be remarkable, but I’d probably have to meet them in the afterlife for that to happen, but with all things considered, waiting for the afterlife will rob me of my only opportunity to be myself. At least that’s what Marx would’ve told me. Karl Marx was a fundamentalist, philosopher, and revolutionary. He uttered the words millions have studied, and led a remarkable life filled with comprehensive writing and thinking. He was a brilliant man, and I am honored to be writing about his beliefs. The same goes for Max Weber. He was a sociologist, intellectual, and a political economist. With countless influential writings to his name, I truly hope to do justice for his thoughts and words. I will sprinkle in some of their words verbatim, but this is my interpretation of their philosophies on religion. Without further ado, let’s begin.

“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” A direct quote from Karl Marx’s work: A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Religion is a drug. It is a poisonous way of thinking that imprisons you into wishing for the future because the present doesn’t exist. On the surface it’s empowering, but to Marx it is the “self-consciousness and self-esteem of a man who has not yet won through to himself”. There are two central aspects of Marx’s concept of religion. The development of religion is due to man’s ignorance of understanding the natural phenomena and his incapacity to solve his own problems. “Man makes religion, religion does not make man”. When man learns to understand, the importance and existence of religion will be in danger.

Marx was greatly influenced by fellow fundamentalist Ludwig Feuerbach. His explanations derive from Feuerbach’s concept that religion is the projection of the wishes and needs of humanity. Feuerbach viewed religion as a fantasy of alienated man being “unable to live a full and satisfying life, seeks compensation for his incapacity” (Plamenatz). In Feuerbach’s God in the Image of Humanity, he elaborates in detail the core of Marx’s beliefs. He states that man feels inferior to what he might be, so he creates God after his own image. When man was in the depths of insecurity, he created an imaginary concept in the name of god, and an entire illusory world embodying religion. He emphasizes that people tend to see themselves as helpless and dependent when faced with the challenges of life. Therefore, we seek to overcome our problems through imagination. Religion is simply a crutch to lean on when we cannot walk. But as we evolve and learn with technology and politics, we begin to run and soar. For all unexplained phenomena, man endeavors to treat it as supernatural or religious in response to his own inadequacy.

According to Mircea Eliade, the holy is described by its existence in two realms of being, the sacred and the profane. The sacred comes from being in a church, reciting scripture, and performing a ritual. It is not simply a place, but a feeling and an action. It is the universal root of religious experience and practice. In the sacred, everything that occurs is true, powerful, and orderly. On the other hand, the profane is chaotic and perishable. It is life behind the stage curtains. Here’s the catch… the profane is real life.  In Marx’s interpretation of religion, the definitions of the two are reversed. What is deemed “sacred” and important, is actually detrimental and forgettable, while the ordinary “profane” is the real grounded world. Religion helps man forget the real world and dream of another. It teaches man to be submissive and docile. A sort of spiritual booze in which the slaves of capital drown their human image. Marx believes that a form of oppression is reinforcing the idea that the true world is in the church or the bible. Telling man that what he does in the real world isn’t important, will keep him timid in an attempt to learn of what is.

In Christianity, human lives are described as instantaneous, as a test for the afterlife. This ideology plays directly into Marx’s belief of religion being a tool for submission. Man succumbs to slavery through humble submission. By believing this isn’t the life that matters, religion creates an excuse to accept what is given to him and not try for betterment. Man becomes enslaved not just by man, but by religious practice. Under the influence of religion man has no freedom to reach his full potential. He surrenders his power by not attempting to challenge premade religious practices. Religion feeds off feelings of helplessness but stays afloat off of providing false security and comfort. The sense of fear is completely removed for the guarantees of love, afterlife, and community. Man’s rationality did not develop properly without education and science as a result.

Marx saw the origin and development of religion in terms of his personal view of history and the struggle between classes. He believed that without exploitation, capitalism would not have become a reality. Society is held together by the discipline and order that stems from religion. The church and priests used religion for the purpose of utilizing the common people for their benefit and the capitalist class followed in their footsteps. “Religion can be held to be a cement holding society together, and if society divided into classes, some of which exploit others, it is cement which helps to make this exploitation possible” (Plamenatz). All social classes use religion, although they may be for different purposes. The bourgeoise use religion to exploit the working-class, and the working-class practice religion to feel united. In the middle ages the powerful class used religion to control the working class by promising a “pie in the sky” in return for their submission. Out of fear of punishment and damnation the common people surrendered their power to the church and lived obediently.

Unlike Marx and Feuerbach, Weber does not hold religion to the fantasy of alienated man. He would question, if the privileged and educated people of sophisticated societies practice religion how are they alienated? Especially if they are of a group, as we know religion functions to brings the community together. There are moments when Weber and Marx’s concepts collide, but it’s hard to argue that Marx wasn’t an inspiration to him. “Unmusical” would be an appropriate description for how Marx views religion. It is actually a self-description for Weber’s views, but it can definitely apply to both. Marx dove deep into the abstract religious implications of religion and Weber expanded on the economic impacts of religion. Though their views were rooted in the same land, they grew to be vastly different trees.

Weber believed that human beings have always been confronted with problems which seem to defy logical explanation. In response, man created religion. It now creates meaning in life. It influences the way we behave and provides guidelines for our conduct. In that way it goes hand in hand with economy. Weber emphasized how religion and economics are connected. Man orients his activities according to his religious ethics, as well as his economic prowess. His study of Calvinists led him to conclude that the Protestant focus on diligence in work was a primary contributing factor in the rise of capitalism. Calvinists follow a doctrine of predestination, which states that a person’s destiny has been assigned by God before their birth. No actions whether good or bad can impact their impending destiny. To implement comfort and eliminate insecurity, they developed the idea that success in business and economic prosperity was evidence of a person being numbered among the elect. This belief generated economic practices and the propensity to save, invest, and maintain wealth. Thus, capitalism was born.

Weber studied countless religions to further grasp the roles they play in man’s life. Reiterating religion’s ethical boundaries set alongside economy, Confucianism in China did not permit capitalism. The stress of harmony and traditionalism contradict the relentless pursuit of personal profit, so instead they focused on trade, commerce, and finance in a way suited for their religion. India, despite having a modern, technologically, and financially improved society, doesn’t encourage capitalism because of Hinduism’s values. The belief of “Karma” creates defeatists and fatalists rather than fostering attitudes that promote capitalism. Hindus have no motivation to improve their economic condition because they preach other-worldly asceticism. The material world is de-emphasized, and its prosperity is treated as temporary. They care for the welfare of the soul, so the hard-work capitalism demands aren’t suitable. Unlike Confucianism and Hinduism, Judaism speaks of an ethic of mastery over the environment rather than harmony. It could have generated the spirit of capitalism, but just the same settled with an alternative: money leading. 

Weber took all of this research into consideration while writing his books, but he desired to comprehend western capitalism and the values and interests given to its structure. He yearned to learn the influence of religious doctrines on economy and the position of groups in the economic system. His theories in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism encompass his thoughts on capitalism. What motivated Weber the most is the primary orientation to the attainment of profit in nominally peaceful system of exchange relationship. He wanted to theorize independently from Marxism and understand capitalism as a civilization.

Weber’s theory is different from the theorists who came before him. While Marx’s theories reduced religion to factors of psychology and society, Weber concluded that rather than religion being the result of another factor, economics and society are influenced by religious thought and practice. According to Marx, religion functions as a product of a class-based society that reinforces the norm, preventing change. Emile Durkheim assumes that society as a whole exerts its influence over individuals, resulting in individuals having no influence in society. Weber instead identifies with the individuals and believes their ideas have the power to radically shape society. Rather than society solely exerting overwhelming power and absolute control over individuals, the individual plays a role that cannot be denied. Webbers’ beliefs differ from Freud as well, disagreeing with the extent of a delusion religion is to man. Marx believes motivation is solely based on survival, Weber believes motivation is not just economic, but it can also be found in tradition and values. Marx believes class has always existed and is based on property relations, while Weber believes the idea of class is a historically specific, new phenomenon which emerges in modern integrated market economies and its importance declines over time. 

These two men greatly influenced millions of minds to think progressively and philosophically. Weber influenced me to believe both religion and economy dictate how an individual reacts and responds to guidelines. He taught me that society can be radically changed by one mind, as history proves it so. Marx enlightened me with the extent of religions downsides, and how it can be innately evil. As much as religion can free a man, it can enslave him. This has truly been my favorite class this semester and one of the only ones I actually read the entire book for. Thank you professor for making religion interesting and enjoyable.


Sociology of Religion: Max Weber. (2014, December 01). Retrieved from http://www.yourarticlelibrary.com/sociology/sociology-of-religion-max-weber/43751

Karl Marx’s Theory of Religion: Definition, Sources, Ideology and Criticism. (2016, July 28). Retrieved from http://www.politicalsciencenotes.com/marxism/karl-marxs-theory-of-religion-definition-sources-ideology-and-criticism/1257

Steve. (2014, July 02). Theories of Religion Interlude: Max Weber and the Influence of Religion. Retrieved from https://churchwithoutboundaries.wordpress.com/2013/10/03/theories-of-religion-interlude-max-weber-and-the-influence-of-religion/

Cline, A., & Council for Secular Humanism. (n.d.). Religion as Opium of the People. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/religion-as-opium-of-the-people-250555

Gollin, G. L. (2016, March 15). Gillian Lindt Gollin. Retrieved from https://www.persee.fr/doc/assr_0003-9659_1967_num_23_1_2616