Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Opium of the People

As the son of a Jewish lawyer turned Lutheran just to continue his practice, Karl Marx knew something of religion. According to the biography I am reading, called Love and Capital, he never grasped on to either of those religions. To anyone who has gone through any history course, this should not be surprising. In the mid-1840s, as he was writing a critique of Hegelian philosophy, Marx famously wrote, “[Die Religion] ist das Opium des Volks,” or “[Religion] is the opium of the people.” While you can read his quote in the broader context here (oder Deutsch hier), I have one response: “So what?”

I appreciate much of Marx's philosophy. In particular, his apparent genuine care for all of humanity. (Yes, even though he hated the exploitation by the bourgeois, he seemed to advocate even for the lives of the upper class. Though, I will admit I have not read all of his literature, so I cannot say for certain. This is based on my current knowledge, naturally.) However, while I may agree sociopolitically and economically, I stray in opinion from his religious (or lack there of) views.

Unless I am mistaking Marx's religious views as many have mistaken his sociopolitical views, he believes religion to be a false hope, a momentary fix. However, beyond that, he believes religion to be an oppressor from which men need to be freed for happiness. (“Die Aufhebung der Religion als des illusorischen Gluecks des Volkes ist die Forderung seines wirklichen Gluecks.”) While there are certainly religions and even different sects or denominations of various religions that are oppressive, I would say it is not true for all. Further, sometimes the oppression is of the believers, while some is of the outsiders. Here I will defer critiques of individual religions, sects, denominations, cults, etc to a course in World Religions. At the same time I do want to discuss some aspects of institutionalized religion that are oppressive and harmful.

The first is the escapism that can be found. This would include the longing for the mythic rapture unfortunately held by many USAmerican denominations. Anything to separate from the troubles of the world, which is found in various belief systems is escapism. Next is the us versus them mentality. This can be in almost any belief or non-belief system, where it's saints against sinners (or whatever it may be.) Then there is the abhorrent prosperity gospel, epitomized by Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar, and others. Sadly this is also found in churches who denounce the heresy of the prosperity gospel but use ridiculous percentages of funds on buildings and equipment but a pittance on outreach of any sort. I think those who argue for the removal of tax-deductible status from churches have a strong argument. However, I believe if the church does truly spend a majority on outreach, the status should not be revoked, as it does good.

There are other issues, especially from history. One of the most infamous problems from church history is the Crusades. Clearly an act of aggression and oppression, from Christians and Muslims alike. Similarly, atheists undeniably also participated in mass slaughters such as the deaths at the command of Hitler and Stalin. With the latter, I believe Marx would have been appalled to be tied to such atrocity in the name of his philosophy as much as Jesus is with people swearing allegiance (supposedly) to Him. Indeed atheism and agnosticism can be just as much opiates as their “religious” counterparts. As such, I revert back to my original question for Herr Marx, “So what?”

Whatever religious (or philosophical) system to which a person ascribes, who cares if it is an opiate? Life sucks sometimes. Whether the belief is in a true or a false hope should not matter. As long as the person is not harming themselves or another person, whether emotionally, physically, mentally, let them be. Now, there can certainly be disagreements, and I am not currently addressing the side of the coin about the truth of the various systems. There can be and certainly are false beliefs which act the opiate to alleviate the worries and misery of the world. Yet again, the point should be not whether or not the security is real but rather what the individual accomplishes once they are able to feel secure. Do they take care of others or do they go on a nihilistic crime spree? Do they work for cleaner energy or do they misunderstand the command to have dominion over the earth and so destroy it? The comparisons can be endless but the point remains the same.


As one who attempts to follow the commands of Jesus, I have tried making modifications to my life to help as many and harm as few as possible. Whether biking as much as I can to minimize environmental impact, writing posts such as Desperate Living Wage to push for change, or supporting World Bicycle Relief to help others be more productive, I am trying to practice what I preach. I urge you to do the same, as long as your preaching is worth practicing.

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