What is anti-clericalism? Why did Karl Marx famously refer to religion as 'the opium of the people'? Why have many revolutionary movements throughout modern history come into conflict with the representatives of organised religion? These are some of the questions we'll be answering in this article, including some historical examples of anticlerical politics in practice.

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Table of contents

    Meaning of anti-clericalism

    Put simply, anti-clericalism is an opposition to the power of religious authorities - real or perceived - over social, political and economic affairs. The term anti-clericalism was initially used to refer to opposition to the clergy - or 'clerics', hence 'anti-clericalism- of the Roman Catholic Church, but it can also be used to describe opposition to any religious organisation.

    Anti-clericalism means opposition to the clerics of a particular religious organisation, often referred to generally as 'the clergy' of a particular faith or group. A cleric is anyone with some sort of authority or title within a religious community, such as Bishops and Priests in Christian Churches, Imams and Mullahs in Islamic societies and Rabbis within Jewish communities.

    Anti-clericalism and secularism often go hand in hand, so it is important that you understand the difference between these two terms.

    Secularism refers to the separation of religion from social and political matters in society and the neutrality of the state regarding issues of religion. Secularism does not necessarily mean opposition to religion, but rather the desire to remove religion from the public sphere. In fact, a person or state can be secular without having any opposition to organised religion. Secularism often comes about as a response to anti-clericalism.

    Although there have been moments throughout history when the power of religious institutions over civil affairs has been challenged, historical anti-clericalism is most often associated with the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century. Before the Revolution, the Roman Catholic Church had been the largest landowner in France. Many of the clergy were seen as corrupt, having acquired significant amounts of wealth simply by virtue of their position within the Church.

    The French Revolution brought about the abolition of the Catholic monarchy and the redistribution of church-owned land into the hands of the newly formed French Republic. At times, the anti-clericalism of the revolutionaries was very violent and resulted in the execution of many French religious figures who refused to pledge their allegiance to the French government. The French Revolution is often viewed as a nationalist movement, but it is important to remember that at the core of this nationalist movement were strong elements of anti-clericalism. In the wake of the French Revolution, anti-clerical ideas spread to other parts of the world, including Spain, Italy and Latin America.

    Anti clericalism Depiction of the fall of the Church in the French Revolution StudySmarterDepiction of the fall of the Church in the French Revolution, Wikimedia Commons

    Anti-clericalism in government

    During the 19th century spread of Marxist and revolutionary ideas in Europe, Church authorities were identified as one of the principal defenders of the Capitalist order. Marx himself, in his Introduction to his Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right (1844), referred to religion as the "opium of the people". Marx argued that religion was a set of beliefs constructed by man to explain and justify suffering and oppression. Marx believed that the struggle against the illusory happiness offered by religion would enable society to pursue real happiness.

    Anti-clericalism depiction of the exploitative nature of the capitalist system in France StudySmarterDepiction of the exploitative nature of the capitalist system in France, Wikimedia Commons

    As socialist and communist revolutionary movements started to gain traction in Europe and the Americas in the early 19th Century, many new governments started to implement anticlerical policies within their own societies. The October Revolution of 1917 in Russia, and the subsequent formation of the Bolshevik Soviet Union, led to the unprecedented persecution of religious figures and institutions that lasted throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Many clerics were arrested and sent to labour camps in isolated parts of Russia, and many churches, mosques and other religious buildings were destroyed or else given over to secular use, such as barns, storage spaces, cinemas, theatres or museums. The authorities ran propaganda campaigns to discourage people from practising any form of religion. Only a handful of churches, monasteries, mosques, temples and religious seminaries were allowed to remain open.

    Anti-clericalism example

    Anti-clericalism accompanied revolutionary movements in Latin America, too. In Mexico, tensions emerged after a new constitution was adopted in 1917 which included significant curbs on the activities of the Roman Catholic Church. In the 1920s, conflict broke out between supporters of the anti-Catholic government and supporters of the Roman Catholic Church. This conflict was known as the Cristero War after the Catholic rebels' rallying cry of 'Viva Cristo Rey' - or 'Long Live Christ the King!'

    Anti clericalism Armed Cristeros StudySmarterArmed Cristeros, Wikimedia Commons

    It is important to note that anti-clericalism can refer to the opposition of any religious authority and is not specific to Catholicism. Another anti-clericalism example can be found in the Islamic country of Iran. In 1925, under the leadership of the Shah (King) Reza Khan Pahlavi, Iran became extremely anti-clerical. In a bid to westernise Iran, the Shah established an administration in which Islamic schools were secularised, Sharia Law (Islamic law) was abolished, and women were banned from wearing the hijab (head covering) in public. These reforms were later overturned after Iran's Islamic Revolution in the 1970s.

    Anti-clericalism in Literature

    British Author Graham Greene wrote a fictional book titled The Power and the Glory (1940) which was inspired by real life anti-clerical persecutions in Mexico in the 1920s. In the novel, the state of Tabasco is run along anticlerical socialist lines and the sale of alcohol is also strictly forbidden. Every priest in the state has either escaped, been arrested and shot, or else agreed to break their rule of priestly celibacy by getting married. The main character is a nameless priest who is attempting to avoid capture by soldiers of the state. Before the persecutions, he lived a privileged life as a parish priest, enjoying the adoration of his parishioners, lots of whiskey to drink and even having an illicit affair with a local woman and fathering a daughter. As the soldiers close in on him, the priest comes to accept his fate, finding a spirit of self-sacrifice and self-denial that he never developed in his previous life. As a Catholic author, Graham Greene sought to depict the priest as a modern-day martyr for the catholic faith, albeit a very imperfect one. The novel is widely considered a masterpiece of 20th century literature.

    Anti-clericalism and the Reformation

    The Protestant Reformation, which began in the 1500s, was seen by many as the first anticlerical movement in Europe. The Reformation resulted in the creation of Protestant Christian churches of various types, some of which became national churches, side lining the Roman Catholic Church. Whilst the reformation did not reject religion in its entirety, prominent Reformers questioned and rejected many practices of the Roman Catholic Church, particularly regarding the accumulation of wealth among the clergy. Despite this opposition to the Catholic Church and its abuse of power, in numerous instances the new national Protestant churches which were founded after the reformation enjoyed many of the same privileges as the Roman Catholic Church had enjoyed previously. So, whilst Protestantism brought about a change in how Christianity was practised, the Church still enjoyed a privileged position within society.

    How does anti-clericalism relate to Anarchism?

    Anarchism is a family of political ideologies that centres around the rejection of all coercive relationships, hierarchies, and authorities, especially the state. Many anarchists view religion as a coercive force, since religious figures often use eschatological concepts such as "heaven" and "hell" to force people to change their behaviour. For many anarchists, religion also upholds class inequality, encouraging the belief that despite their struggles on Earth, the working poor will be able to receive their reward in heaven. Many anarchists would also argue that accepting the idea of an omnipotent God makes it easier to accept the idea of an omnipotent state, and therefore, the prevalence of religion leads naturally to the acceptance of state power.

    Not all anarchists, however, would reject religion out of hand. Anarcho-pacifism is a form of anarchism that argues for the use of peaceful, non-violent means of opposing state authority. Many anarcho-pacifist thinkers, including Leo Tolstoy, were influenced by their religious beliefs and see no fundamental tension between anarchism and religious faith, especially when practised in humility and material poverty. For some anarcho-pacifists, religious ideals - including self-denial, charity, solidarity and simple living - form the basis of their vision for a stateless society.

    Anti-clericalism revolution

    In the famous quote with which we started this explanation, Karl Marx established a link between what he saw as the delusion of religion and the persistence of the capitalist world order. Ever since Marx, many revolutionary movements have also seen the same link, and have therefore sought to limit or restrict the power of the clergy once in power. The arguments of these revolutions can be characterised as follows:

    • Eschatological concepts such as "heaven" and "hell", "punishment" and "reward" can be used by trusted religious leaders to force believers into compliance with the existing social order. As the clergy are often charged with interpreting scripture and religious dogma, believers are likely to trust them when they teach that their current situation is God's will, and to rebel against it would be sinful. In a society where one religion commands the allegiance of a majority or significant part of the population, the power that clerics have to influence social behaviour is enormous.

    • Since religious organisations are often hierarchical, and often include no democratic mechanism for selecting religious leaders, they are unlikely to teach opposition to hierarchy itself. Believers can be reluctant to challenge authority when they believe it is granted directly or indirectly by God. This implicit respect for authority often extends to monarchs and other state leaders as well.

    For these reasons, anti-clericalism has been a feature of revolutionary movements throughout history, and this continues to be the case today.

    Anti-clericalism - Key takeaways

    1. Anti-clericalism is opposition to the power of religious authorities - real or perceived - over social, political and economic affairs.

    2. Secularism refers to the separation of religion from social and political affairs and the neutrality of the state regarding issues of religion.

    3. Anarchism is a political ideology that rejects all coercive relationships, hierarchies, and authority - especially the state.

    4. Some anarchists view religion as a form of hierarchy that supports capitalism and the state, and for this reason, they are often opposed to religious belief and practice.

    5. Anarcho-pacifism, however, is a school of anarchist thought that is often influenced by religious ideals.

    6. Anti-clericalism is a term that has been used across Europe for centuries, but its emergence is most often associated with the French Revolution of the 19th century.

    7. Anti-clericalism can refer to the opposition of any religious authority and is not specific to Catholicism. The regime of the Shah of Iran, who ruled before the Islamic Revolution in that country in 1979, is a good example of anti-clericalism in an Islamic context.

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    Frequently Asked Questions about Anti-clericalism

    What is anti-clericalism?

    Anti-clericalism can be described as the opposition to religious authority, this opposition typically occurs in relation to social and/or political matters.

    How did anti clericalism start?

    The emergence of anti-clericalism is most often associated with the French Revolution of the 19th century. 

    What does anticlericalism mean in history?

    Anti-clericalism has historically meant the opposition to religious authority, throughout history there has been a focus on the opposition of the  Church but this has since shifted to mean any religion. 

    What are some examples of anti-clericalism?

    The French Revolution is an example of anti-clericalism as is Iran in 1925 under the leadership of Reza Khan. 

    What are the causes of anti-clericalism?

    Corruption and abuse of power by religious authorities are major causes for anti-clericalism. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which revolution is often associated with the beginnings of modern anti-clericalism 

    What kind of religious influence was the Shah of Iran opposed to?

    Who were the largest landowners in France prior to the French Revolution of the 19th century?


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