Concepts Explained: Theology

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The videos below considers why Karl Marx thought religion was like Opium – and whether religion is possible without a god? These animations examines different ways that religion has been viewed by non-religious thinkers. As well as Marx and Dawkins, religion is put under the microscope by thinkers Auguste Comte and J.J. Bachoffen. Full transcripts follow each animation.


  1. Religion as social control  Had Marx got his way, society would be so happy being revolutionaries, there’d be no need for religion. He’d obviously never been to a Gulag.
  2. Religion as ritual  Explore how ancient beliefs developed from “Eggism” into modern day religion. French philosopher, Comte explains how.
  3. Religion as a mother  Why do so many people picture God as a man? J.J. Bachofen suggested there was once a time when it was the Goddess, not God that people turned to for religious guidance.
  4. Religion as a virus  Can science and religion ever sit side by side? Not according to Richard Dawkins. And he has rock-star mice to prove it.

^ Religion as social control

Source: Open University (2012). 60 Second Adventures in Religion  Duration: 01:19

Karl Marx was a German philosopher, economist and the least funny of the Marxes. In the snappily-titled ‘Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’ he famously called religion ‘the opium of the people.’… in that religion was not only used by those in power to oppress the workers, but it also made them feel better about being oppressed, when they couldn’t afford real opium. He thought that if the comfort blanket of religion was taken away, at last the workers would have to do something about their terrible condition. In Marx’s dream of a communist revolution, religion would be abolished and the workers would be so happy being equal they simply wouldn’t need it anymore. But unfortunately for Marx, the revolution in Russia came after he had died and gone to wherever it is atheists go. And by then, Stalin and his gang had proved there were lots of other ways to oppress people, which didn’t have any of the fun bits of religion… or indeed opium.

^ Religion as ritual

Source: Open University (2012). 60 Second Adventures in Religion  Duration: 01:21

Isidore Auguste Marie Francois Xavier Comte was a French philosopher and one of the founders of sociology – who preferred to be known as ‘Auguste.’ He believed that society went through three stages – first that primitive people thought things they didn’t understand were down to some sort of supernatural power. Next they developed these basic ideas into the concept of an abstract god. And finally they would cast aside religion and take up science – only believing in things that can be observed and proved. But he worried that the ritual of religion had become such an important part of society that removing it might cause chaos. So to fill the gap he tried to establish a Religion of Humanity, that would focus on charity, order and science – and maybe he’d throw in a jumble sale or two. Other thinkers have followed along similar lines – including John Stuart Mill, Alain de Botton and those hilarious people who put ‘Jedi’ on the census form. Unfortunately for them, a secular religion never really took off. But society has managed to fill the ritual-shaped gap in lots of different ways.

^ Religion as a mother

Source: Open University (2012). 60 Second Adventures in Religion  Duration: 01:11

Why do so many people picture God as a man? J.J. Bachofen was a Swiss Professor of Roman Law who was probably a bit of a mummy’s boy. He thought that religion was part of a process that began in the days before monogamy, when the only parent anyone could be absolutely certain of was their mother. So when people tried to make sense of the mysteries of nature, it was only natural to attribute them to a motherly character; hence a widespread prehistoric religion based around motherhood. But then men started to take more of a part in the family unit – hogging the remote control and indeed global control – so the idea of a nurturing goddess was soon replaced with a male god. Logical though this sounds, there’s no proof there ever was a widespread matriarchal religion. So either Bachofen was wrong, or those female gods were really good at cleaning up after themselves. But his ideas has inspired others – including scientist James Lovelock with his Gaia hypothesis, that suggested you can better understand the whole biosphere of the Earth be seeing it as a single entity in a metaphorical female form. But as for those ancient goddesses… well, mum’s the word.

^ Religion as a virus

Source: Open University (2012). 60 Second Adventures in Religion  Duration: 01:16

Richard Dawkins is an atheist, evolutionary biologist and probably not someone you should ask to be a godfather. He said that religion and science cannot sit side by side because belief in god does not stand up to scientific scrutiny. But religion is still so popular because it is like a virus with an innate desire to spread itself and it is various symptoms – like ‘believing in things without any scientific evidence’ and ‘judging people with different beliefs’. Like a successful gene, this cultural phenomenon or ‘meme’ has features that made it likely to appeal or be passed on – like being adopted by music and art – or threatening that nonbelievers will be put to death. Dawkins’ ideas have been pretty successful at spreading themselves. Nowadays he’s more widely known for his views on atheism than his work on evolution. Although, for book sales, he’s got a long way to go to catch up on religion. Maybe he should try some viral marketing?




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