Marxist theories of religion mainly relate to how religion helps the domination of society by the Bourgeoisie. They believe that society is always based on conflict between two classes, the Proletariat and the Bourgeoisie. Feminist theories of religion explain overall how religion identifies gender differences and inequalities, and in particular how religion helps men to maintain their dominance over women in society. One Marxist view on religion is that religion is an ideological apparatus.
Ideological apparatus is a form of social control, and the primary function of religion is to reproduce, maintain and justify class inequality – the controlling of the Proletariat by the Bourgeoisie. This helps our understanding of religion in society as it is relevant to today’s society. Evidence to support this view is from Leach, where he found that 80% of higher Church of England positions were still recruited from Bourgeoisie (Oxbridge and private schools). However, this view of religion maintaining class inequality and controlling the Proletariat can be criticised. Religion doesn’t always control the Proletariat.
There are some examples of religious movements that have brought about radical social change and have helped remove ruling elites. This is called liberation theology. An example of this is Fr Rogelio Cruz, a catholic priest who led 200 families in a mighty protest at a temporary camp in Santo Domingo, after being left homeless in December 2000, following the bulldozing of a squatters village by the police. This example shows that despite the priest being a catholic and well aware of the ‘afterlife’, he was fed up of the oppression of the Proletariat and as a result rebelled to help improve their positions.
As is seen from the above point, a Marxist theory of religion is that there is a distinction between the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat. Similarly, Feminism, in particular radical feminists, focus on how religion divides and makes a distinction between men and women, with men maintaining their dominance over women in society. Daly (1973) believed that religion is infused with patriarchal ideology. This feminist view is useful to our understanding of religion in society as it explains why traditionally Catholic women were expected to cover their heads in Church, whereas men do not have to.
However, this Feminist view of religion has been diluted by more contemporary evidence than that of Daly’s. The situation of women in some religious organisations has improved. For example, since 1992, women have been able to become ordained Anglican ministers. This shows that an important step towards gender equality has been achieved, rather than male dominance as suggested by Daly. Another Marxist theory of religion that is useful for showing how religion may prevent social change and maintain the capitalist system is the view that religion is the opium of the people.
The reason why they say this is because people experience pain and suffering in their daily lives as a result of oppression and exploitation in a capitalist society. They need a “pill” to give them a sense of well-being and contentment. Religion does this, providing an illusion of happiness. This is where the opium of the people phrase originates from. However, this Marxist view of religion in society doesn’t help our understanding to a great extent. This is because religion providing an illusion of happiness does not tackle the long-term problem and oppression is still the reality.
The cause of the oppression (an exploitative economic system) needs to be addressed, and not the symptom (pain and suffering). Once cured, no pill will be needed, and therefore religion will be unnecessary. A feminist view of religion is that the church reinforces traditional gender roles that serve the interests of men. This shows religion being an instrument of domination and oppression by men. It is useful to our understanding of religion in society as this point helps explain why influential ideas are formulated by celibate men in Christianity.
However, this point can also be criticised. For example, some Muslim women claim that the wearing of the hijab is actually liberating them, rather than being a form of male exploitation. This is because it frees them from being seen as a sexual object by men. Marx and Engels claimed that Religion legitimises social inequality. By this, they mean that religion controls people by promoting the idea that the existing hierarchy is natural, God given, and therefore, unchangeable. This was seen during the Feudal period, were Kings believed they had a divine right to rule.
Evidence to support this point, which helps our understanding of religion in society, is from Halevy, where he claimed that Methodism distracted the Proletariat from their class grievances by encouraging them to see enlightenment in spirituality rather than revolution. Religion prevented the Proletariat from doing anything about their position, and as a result it legitimised the inequality that existed because it wasn’t questioned. A Feminist view from Knott (1994) helps develop the previous point from Marxism about religion legitimising social inequality.
Knott put forward the view that all male and female characters in the bible are not portrayed as equal. The men take the main roles and are shown to be strong, aggressive, authoritative and wise, whereas women are either shown as good mothers, virgins or bad whores. He also said that Jesus and his apostles were all male. This is useful to our understanding of religion in society today, and is also very relevant in a contemporary society, as it helps to explain why there is an exclusion of women holding office in orthodox Christian Churches.
However, this Feminist theory of religion can be diluted in terms of it helping our understanding of religion in society, as it fails to explain why some Religions, such as the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, has ordained female ministers since 1969. Feurbach stated that the Bourgeoisie use religion to make the Proletariat act as puppets – to control them and keep them in line. He believed that as soon as the Proletariat step out of line, by arguing for example, then the Bourgeoisie will use God and Religion to put them back in their place.
They do this by the promise of the afterlife if they don’t challenge the Bourgeoisie. However, this theory of religion is limited in its extent to helping our understanding of religion in society. Turner (a Neo-Marxist) found that a lot of the Proletariat have gained a lot of wealth and are responsible for some decision making roles, e. g. Managers. As a result, they are not in poverty anymore and are not suffering from a capitalist society. Consequently, they are no longer bothered of any promise of afterlife as they are in a much better financial position.
Thus, this suggestion that the Bourgeoisie use religion to control the Proletariat is very out dated, and a lot has changed in society since Feurbach wrote, and therefore it’s too much of a sweeping generalisation to say that the religion is used to control the Proletariat. El Sadaawi believes that female oppression is evident in early forms of religion. For example, the Bible and Koran were written in extremely patriarchal societies, when men were able to write texts and justify their dominant position at the time. A classic example of this is the story of Adam and Eve.
Eve tends to be depicted as an evil seductress, corrupting Adam and bringing sin into the world. This helps to aid our understanding of religion in society to a great extent as it explains why in Islam, Muslim women are not allowed to touch the Koran or enter mosques whilst menstruating, and it also helps to explain gender differences in other religions such as Buddhism, were monks are considered to be superior to Buddhist nuns. However, the theory of religion is weakened by changes that have shown equality between men and women.
For example, Sikhism allows males and females to hold office. Overall, both the Feminist and Marxist views of religion help us in our understanding of religion. Simone De Beauvoir found that religion acts for women in the same way that it does for the Proletariat in Marx’s analysis (basically it is a form of drug that makes oppression bearable). In addition, like Marx’s Proletariat, women are given the false belief that they will be compensated for their sufferings on earth by equality in heaven.