Marx, Durkheim and Weber Theories on Religion


Marx, Durkheim, and Weber played vital roles in the fields of sociology, theory of economics, and most of all, social critics, each of them had a duty in their writings to recognize key errors inherent in the system of capitalism that had started to take over the modern industrial society in the 19th century. The rapid increase in urbanization, industrializing world of the 1800s, made Europe’s socio-political atmosphere to be filled with a heightening, broadening, class struggle. Regarded as revolutionary or reformist, these philosophers were compelled to speak about this issue of struggle and to reflect on the responsibility of capitalism in bringing it about. Eventually Marx, Durkheim and Weber each give different theories of religious beliefs in achieving social change.

Karl Marx View on religion

Karl Marx, regarded by many as one of the most powerful thinkers in this modern period, attempted to scrutinize religious beliefs from an objective, scientific viewpoint in bringing societal development. He argued from an economic standpoint that religion serves to fulfill the purposes of the rich in oppressing the poor in the society. The affluent are deemed as the oppressors while the deprived as the oppressed. In his perspective, religion resembles other social institutions, and that it is focused on material and the economic status of the adherents. A society’s reality is being replicated by religion and how the oppressors use the dictates of religion to take advantage of the poor (Xie 2009, para.1-6)

Karl Marx believed that religion mainly functions to exploit the poor and not allow them to develop a collective consciousness. It is an illusion that prevents the poor from coming to terms with their major role in life and it strives to maintain the normal functions of the society. He views religion as a form of hypocrisy. It permits people to give reverence to appearances and forbids them from focusing on the reality underneath the surface. This makes the oppressed in the society to be compliant and accept their lot in life. Marx adds that their ready acceptance of the status quo lets them to be abused even further.

Karl Marx’s most memorable quote is his claim that “Religion is the opium of the poor.” In this quotation, he is saying that the objective of any religion is to form illusory fantasies for the oppressed. The economic actualities prohibits them from discovering true contentment in this life, therefore, religion okays their present state while promising them a better contentment in the subsequent life. Religion provides relief to the distressed, just as opiate-based drugs are given to the physically injured to relieve them of their pain. This drug of religion is being given by the affluent who are eventually responsibly for the harm and anguish that exists. Therefore, religious problems ultimately become societal problems (Marx & Raines 2002, p.167-187).

In advancing his materialistic view of history, Marx claimed that not every human is being aggravated by elusive ideas but by the aim to fulfill the material needs (Mehring 2003, p.121). In the beginning, everyone worked in one accord, which was good. However, the division of labour was created that led to the separation of the different classes based on power and wealth of individuals. He calls this the “class of consciousness.” What resulted is the creation of the social conflict that makes the society to move forward. Capitalism aggravates this situation in propelling the increase in disparity between the affluent and the poor. The emergence of exploitation of the poor roots from the forces of capitalism as it introduces a profit motive. Economics is what constitutes the foundation of human life and the past occurrences. This leads to labour divisions, fighting of the class, and the social organizations that are established to maintain the status quo, and built on the foundation of economics. Marx interpreted religion functionally. The comprehension of religion is not based on the substance of beliefs, but to what extent it serves its social purposes.

Karl Marx’s view on religion is mainly grounded on his capitalist economic theories, and he spent less time in scrutinizing religion on general. Instead, he placed more attention on the one religion he was conversant with, Christianity (Marx, Engels, and Jones 2002, p.82). Consequently, his position that religion plays a conservative role in modern society and is likely to impede social change cannot be accepted unconditionally.

Emile Durkheim view

Emile Durkheim sustained Karl Marx’s theory. As Marx had claimed that each class in the society possessed its unique conscious opinion on reality, Durkheim propagated this by showing that even the main social ideals such as time, space and God are regarded as the products of societal creation. Durkheim claimed that reality as a multiple context and that the reason for the existence of this reality is due to the figurative creations of humankind and their ritualistic activities.

In order to comprehend religion, Durkheim analyzed the Australian aboriginal tribes (Durkheim & Pickering 1975, p.102).

He drew a conclusion by suggesting that the dictates of religion encompasses a division between the things that are sacred and those that are profane. He used an example of the totem pole that served to as the mark of solidarity to the tribe. Durkheim believed that the totemic animal was the original centre of attention of the religious practice since it serves as the symbol for a social group, which was the clan. He established that the purpose of religion was to mold people who are ready to sacrifice their own interests in favour of those of the society (Mestrovic 1993).

The members of the aborigine tribe came together to carry out sporadic totem rituals, these ritualistic activities establish the laws for the social order. To these people, killing or in any way harming the totem animal is regarded as a taboo. Therefore, the killing or harming a fellow compatriot is treated on the same grounds. Durkheim puts the same argument in interpreting the principles of modern-day Christianity. He says that the moral obligations such as The Golden Rule and The Ten Commandments are social tenets. These laws serve to control the human actions toward one another and assist in consolidating social unity (Dunman 2003, para. 7).The religious adherents observes these rules not out of fear of what happens in the next life, but for their craving to fill part of the society. Participating in the religious practice enables them to have a sense of belonging whereas breaking these norms fills them with a sense of isolation. Durkheim perceives God as being an emblem of the society.

Max Weber view

In utter rejection to Marx’s evolutionary theory of classes in the society or Durkheim’s continued theory of a good society, Max Weber established that religion provides a social group with a source of meaningful coherence for the actions that, under appropriate circumstances may actually promote social change (Gerth & Mills 1946).

He elaborated that the conversion of religion gave people the opportunity for social changes that enabled people to work coherently to achieve economic sustainability. People in the archaic society worshipped many gods. The level of trust amongst them depended on the level respect accorded to the gods. An alien could simply be disregarded because he or she is not part in adoring the gods. A major separation between the natural world and the spiritual world arose with the advent of the major religions of the world such as Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity. The long perceived notion of gods and spirits was forgotten as people embraced the idea of the existence of hell and heaven. Weber claimed that the notion of a universal God gave rise to obligations based on unswerving common moral principles. The development of religion can also witness in new courses. An example of the primitive religious beliefs would be to pray for the gods to sustain the crops in the dry season or win a war over the enemies. In situations whereby there was a natural calamity, the relatives attributed this to the fact that the gods were angry and needed to be appeased with sacrifices. This panic for the gods ensured that the primitive village men gave their trusts to no one but the gods. This contrasts the new spiritual realm, whereby the right individuals who adhere to all the commandments of their religion, still cling for the hope of salvation, despite their evil past actions.

In the book by Weber, The Protestant Ethic (p.134), he argues out the position that religion has in the advent of capitalism. He says that new religious atmosphere enabled much success in achieving the goals of industrialization. It laid the foundation for moral principles in the society. People developed trust with one another, inter-communal trade became fair, the legal structure became rationalized, and people were inspired to re-establish political, social, and economic ideologies to keep in tune with the transformation that was taking place. Previous enemy communities could now drink from the same well due to the transformation that happened in their lives. Weber was ready to admit that the doctrines of the Protestant ethics broke the long-term traditional ideologies and motivated people to validate themselves realistically to their work. Kessler (2001) comments that Weber discovered that the strict followers of Calvin had the faith that without practicing good works, one could not ensure his or her place in the heavenly paradise. It is either one had his or her place among the elect or not. On the other hand, wealth was attributed to belonging in the family of God’s elect. The Protestant ethic henceforth provided religious endorsements that propelled a spirit of thorough discipline that motivated people to apply themselves sensibly to acquire riches. The picture that religion was henceforth viewed with shifted due to the drastic turn to this naturalistic approach. Religion no longer required a priest to assist in understanding it, but verity, information and investigation.

The collective interest that Marx, Durkheim and Weber had in giving the reasons for the current misery lying in wait in our modern society is the common thread that unites these great thinkers. Even though everyone of them give a differing opinion to substantiate this boom of misery, they all sit in one table in agreeing that it is rooted in capitalism, religion, and the society as a whole. It eventually becomes clear that humankind is to take the blame for the suffering of his compatriots. This has persisted throughout historic times and it is still evident in our modern world. Humankind then looks at that which is superior to them: religion, capitalism, or society as a whole.

An important factor in social solidity and transformation is the social ideology of humankind. It determines how the entire groups of people act in responding to diverse social, political, and economic circumstances. Religion is one of the cornerstones of social ideologies that give rise to social steadiness and transformation. It serves as an impelling factor for maintaining order in addition to subverting power for revolution, and history has proved that it is able to affect this.


Marx argued that religion is compelling force for enslaving people, Durkheim articulated that it is the significant composite of social interaction, and Webster suggested that it is an initiative by a person to comprehend salvation. Which theory would you embrace? It is beyond doubt that religion served a vital role in societal development. How do we explain religion- its source, its advancement, and even its existence in the modern day society? Many people have sought for the answer to this question for a long time. Among them were three great thinkers of the 19th century: Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim and Max Weber.


Dunman, J 2003. Emile Durkheim, Web. 

Durkheim, E, Pickering W 1975, Durkheim on religion: a selection of readings with bibliographies, Volume 1, Routledge & Kegan Ltd, London.

Gerth, H, & Mills, C 1946, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, Oxford University Press, New York.

Kessler, A 2001, Marx and Weber on Religion, Sociology Department, Grinnell College, Web.

Marx, K, Engels, F, Jones, G 2002, The Communist manifesto, Penguin Books, London.

Marx, K, Raines, JC 2002, Marx on religion, Temple University Press, Philadelphia.

Mehring, F 2003, Karl Marx: The Story of His life, Routledge, London.

Mestrovic, G 1993, Emile Durkheim and the reformation of sociology, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Maryland.

Weber, M, Parsons, T 2003, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Dover Publications, New York.

Xie, J 2009, Karl Marx on religion, Helium, Web.