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Religion: Comforting but Never Challenging?

Karl Marx, the German philosopher who wrote the Communist Manifesto, is quoted as saying that “religion is the opium of the masses.” It’s a quote widely shared, especially by people who are indifferent or hostile to religion.

But what, exactly, did Marx mean?

“Marx believed that religion had certain practical functions in society that were similar to the function of opium in a sick or injured person,” according to Wikipedia. “It reduced people’s immediate suffering and provided them with pleasant illusions which gave them the strength to carry on.

“Marx also saw religion as harmful, as it prevents people from seeing the class structure and oppression around them, thus religion can prevent the necessary revolution.”

Comforting but Never Challenging?

Like most axioms, there’s truth to Marx’s quote. For some believers, their faith appears to be just that – like an opiate, comforting, soothing, but never challenging. It prevents them from seeing the structural injustice in society and doing anything about it.

It’s appropriate for religious people to feed the hungry and visit prisoners, for instance, but what about the system that causes hunger and imprisons too many, failing to provide the basic human conditions for them to change or better their lives? Doesn’t a religious person need to address that, too?

Marx saw the religious promise of a blessed life in the hereafter as a substitute for caring about the here and now. And that has truth as well. In the case of Christianity, although Jesus provided parables about “how to gain the kingdom of God,” he also was adamant that doing so is a matter of caring about, and caring for, others, in this life.

Unfortunately, many of Jesus’ followers focus on the reward or punishment and ignore their obligations to others.

Perfect Underpinning

In Marx’s day, religion was so much allied to the status quo – to the repressive European regimes of his day – he had to oppose it along with his opposition to those regimes. His political philosophy provided the perfect underpinning for rebellion against the Russian monarchy and the revolution that followed.

If religion is for some an opiate, however, it may not compare to all the other opiates in modern life. 

“Religion used to be the opium of the people,” writes the Polish-American poet, Czeslaw Milosz, who won the 1980 Nobel Prize in Literature. “To those suffering humiliation, pain, illness, and serfdom, religion promised the reward of an afterlife. But now, we are witnessing a transformation, a true opium of the people is the belief in nothingness after death, the huge solace, the huge comfort of thinking that for our betrayals, our greed, our cowardice, our murders, we are not going to be judged.”

This was always a flaw in the “opium of the masses” idea. It ignores the Judeo-Christian teaching that people will face judgment for how they have lived. It may not be emphasized today, but it’s still a teaching of most Christian faiths.

The Joy of Belief

In my view, however, it’s more effective for people searching for God to focus on the joy of belief and what it implies than the reward or punishment of an afterlife. And in that regard, I re-read an article in a past issue of America magazine about Thomas Merton, the Cistercian monk, theologian and philosopher whom I’ve quoted often in these blogs and who has had such a great influence on modern Christian thought.

“Merton’s example,” writes author Andrew Lenoir, “calls on us to sacrifice the world we have constructed for ourselves: our comfort zone, our complacency, our self-righteousness and our preferred facts.”

Merton, who Lenoir says “produced more than 60 works examining the world through the lens of Christian faith,” would say that if religion is merely an opiate, it’s worth no more than you would pay a drug dealer.

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