Religion, Marx & Angela's Ashes

Topics: Angela'S Ashes

“Religion is the opiate of the masses” (Karl Marx). Examine this statement and discuss the role of the Catholic Church in Angela’s Ashes.

The McCourt’s lived in an impoverished, class-orientated Ireland during the great depression with a wealthy and influential Catholic Church enforcing its authority through the fear of the consequences of the afterlife if their Christian values were not upheld. “Religion is the opiate of the masses” is a famous quote made by Karl Marx, so relevant in an Irish society that still upheld a class-orientated prejudice society nearly a century after the quote was written.

The quote “Religion is the opiate of the masses” written by Karl Marx, was written in the mid-19th century. During this period there were numerous uprisings by the oppressed working classes who were living in miserable conditions with extremely poor wages. This was before the time of legislation and collective bargaining that would later guarantee a living wage and safe working conditions that are present today in modern Europe.

What did Karl Marx mean when he wrote “Religion is the opiate of the masses”? First, it is appropriate to point out that the word Religion was used, not God. This is quite significant as they are two different concepts. Religion is not God it is instead man’s attempt to understand and relate to God and through man has been turned into an institution with both a government and laws. Secondly, the word opiate holds a lot of significance in the sentence.

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Opiate is a medicine used to dull or deaden the senses of the consumer. It is used to mask pain and suffering, both fiscal and mental. Remembering that Karl Marx was fighting for equality and liberation of the working classes how is this quote relevant? At the time religion put an emphasis orientated on the afterlife. Most working-class families were told that if they endured the misery and suffering of this life that they would be repaid in the glory of the future afterlife ‘heaven’ to come. And what is a little poverty in our life compared to an eternity in paradise? At the time companies would even pay preachers to spread this message around their working force in the hope that they would settle for even less than the pittance they were already earning.

“Religious suffering is, at the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people”. This quote is entwined with his prior quote ‘Religion is the opiate of the masses’ It looks in more depth at the effects of religion on people with an emphasis on why people turn to it. During times of hardship and suffering religion offers a comforting prospect that there is a bigger pitcher and that there is something out there looking out for us. It unlike his prior quote looks favorably on religion and shows that Marx was not against it entirely only the institution that governed it. It demonstrates his understanding of people’s need to have something to lean on when the world comes crashing down around them, for example, if a loved one is lost. However, it still holds the same message of how religion can be used as a method of control when turned into an institution such as the Catholic Church in Ireland with the last sentence “It is the opium of the people”.

In Ireland during the period just before and through the Second World War in the 1930s in which Angeles Ashes is set, most working-class families were impoverished and even more so in Limerick with the great depression impacting heavily. The Great Depression was brought about through the destabilization of the world economies leading to a collapse in stock markets worldwide. Massive deflation led to bankruptcies of companies that supplied employment and this led to a crisis as unemployment reached outrageous figures. Many Irish turned to the church with religion offering the prospects of an eternity in paradise in the afterlife it also promised aid and the grace of god to help the families through the tough times.

The Catholic Church in Ireland through the great depression flourished with the influx of churchgoers leading to greater amounts of donations. It preached its beliefs with the threat of an eternity in hell if they were not upheld. Right throughout Angela’s Ashes, Frank emphasized the fear that this teaching had on the people of Limerick. Other inhumane teachings that were relevant in Angela’s Ashes were the existence of limbo for unbaptized babies. This caused a tremendous amount of suffering for Angela with her daughter Margaret dying before they had the chance to baptize her. This was a common event with the conditions and poverty of the people at the time leading to the death of many infants. The church also had no regard for the pain and sorrow of the people and offered little support. The case of Margaret who was taken away from her mother after death for examination by a doctor without being given a funeral led to even greater pains for the family with there being no consolation in the form of a sermon suppose to be given by a priest allowing the departed to ascend to heaven. Probably the teaching that caused the most hardship for frank was that of Adultery which at the time according to the Church encompassed dirty thoughts, masturbation, and any other ‘dirty deed’. The church would try and make them feel bad through sayings such as “The virgin marry turns her face and weeps”. The death of Theresa Carmody throws Frank into a turmoil of guilt after his sexual experience with her. According to the Catholic Church, her soul would have been sent directly to hell which Frank fights desperately to save.

Even in the 1930s, there was still a defined class system in Ireland with separate schools for the lower and upper classes, with it being nearly impossible for families to change from the class they were born into. Even to become a priest or go to a convent to be educated you had to be from an upper class no matter your intelligence as was demonstrated when Frank had the door shut in his face after being sent by his teacher. There were other occasions when he was denied by the Catholic Church due to the class he was from such as when he tried out to become an altar boy and was not accepted due to his social status, this devastated Angela who felt like she had been betrayed by the church. Another occasion was when Frank wished to become a missionary with the Whit Fathers the Church once again denied him due to their class prejudice. Even the Catholic Saint Vincent DePaul society, which so many of the poor in Limerick rely on to survive is corrupt with class prejudice people such as Mr. Quinlivan are at the head of its ranks giving the poor all hell to listen to make them feel useless and dirty while he lives in reasonable comfort funded by the Church.

The Irish Catholic Church nearly a century on from Marx’s famous quote still contributed to enforcing and maintaining the class system throughout Ireland, keeping the rich, rich, and the poor, poor. They maintained control through fear of hell in the afterlife if any of their teachings were disobeyed. They had no compassion for the less fortunate and like many institutions were focused on maintaining the power of the people it controlled. This was exactly what Karl Marx was trying to expose in his quote “Religion is the opiate of the masses”.

By James Weld


  1. Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
  2. Religious Themes in Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes by Tony Pellum
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