Religion is the Opium of the Masses (But that’s no bad thing!)

Religious Symbols

Figure 1 Have you been misled about faith?

A few weeks ago, Rick wrote about the benefits of spirituality with regards to our psychological health. I would suggest you have a look over what he had to say after reading this informative piece. Here, Rick sets out to reiterate the benefits of faith and religion but there is also another message; sometimes we have to dig deeper than we are prepared to if we are to really find the truth – quick assumptions, based on snapshots of information are rarely helpful – Glyn (editor)

A couple of months ago I was having dinner in a restaurant with a group of friends. Towards the end of the evening we got into the subject of religion and I mentioned that religion works on a psychological level even if there isn’t a God (see the subject of a previous blog). This evoked quite a strong response from one of my friends Chris who said “I’ve got no time for religion; it’s the opium of the masses.” Sensing that this was likely to lead to an unproductive discussion the group steered the conversation onto another topic.

The following day I recalled the conversation and my friend Chris’s comment which I knew was a quote from Karl Marx the German economist and philosopher in 1843. “Religion is the opium of the people” is one of Marx’s most frequently quoted statements. It was translated from the German original, “Die Religion … ist das Opium des Volkes” and is often paraphrased as “religion… is the opiate of the masses.”

MarxFigure 2 There was more to Marx’s statement than you might have thought.

Had the conversation from the previous evening continued it would have surprised my friend Chris to learn that I was in complete agreement with Marx; there is absolutely nothing wrong with religion being compared to opiates.

So what exactly are opiate drugs? Opioid drugs bind to opioid receptors in the brain, spinal cord, and other areas of the body. They tell your brain you’re not in pain. They are used to treat moderate to severe pain that may not respond well to other pain medications

Opioids come from one of three sources: Some are derived from plants, some are manufactured in a laboratory, and others, such as endorphins, occur naturally in the body. Opioids are very effective in the treatment of severe pain such as post-surgical pain, as well as severe pain caused by diseases such as cancer. However, they are not just used for pain relief. In the USA slightly more than half the prescriptions written for opioids are for anxiety, depression and other mood disorders and there are some studies suggesting that they are more affective that many of the other drugs prescribed to treat mood disorders.

Opioids though, may also come with harmful side effects; some people may become dependent or even addicted to these drugs and they can potentially cause drowsiness, confusion, nausea, constipation, urinary retention, difficulty breathing, sexual dysfunction, low blood pressure and itching sensations.

It is easy to see why Marx suggested that religion was the opium of the people. Many people in Europe in the middle of the 19th century would have had very difficult lives. Living quarters were often cramped and squalid with conditions that were a breeding ground for many diseases for which there was little or no treatment. Those who were employed either worked brutal hours in physical toil on the land or were employed in the factories spawned by the industrial revolution. There were no health and safety measures in these factories and no incentive for factory owners to spend money creating tolerable working conditions for those whom they employed for as little money as they could possibly pay.

In such circumstances religion provided comfort to those whose lives were both physically and psychologically painful. Unlike actual opiates though religion without any cost and no physical side effects. So it seems strange that many people use the quote from Marx to suggest that religion is something that should be held in contempt. Marx’s comment seems to imply that those who believed in God were somehow being controlled or placated to accept their lot in an unfair and unjust world; religion perceived as a drug to induce people to put up with their intolerable lives. Even if this was true it still didn’t justify the negativity of the cynics because for many religion did help them deal with their difficult daily existence.

So was Karl Marx the arch cynic who despised religion as nothing more than a drug being used to control the down trodden masses being exploited by the industrial revolution

The full quote from Karl Marx translates as: “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”. Often quoted only in part, the interpretation of the metaphor in its entire context has received much less attention.

Marx was actually quite balanced in his views about religion. He believed that religion had certain practical functions in society that were similar to the function of opium in a sick or injured person: he concluded that it reduced people’s immediate suffering and provided them with pleasant illusions which gave them the strength to carry on. Marx also saw religion, particularly organised religion, as harmful, as it might prevent people from seeing the class structure and oppression around them, thus religion could prevent the necessary revolution he believed was essential in making the world a fairer place.

Given Marx’s concerns about religion it seems somewhat ironic that religion has been central to fermenting revolution in many countries where people are oppressed by dictatorships. Perhaps the best known example is Poland’s successful revolt against their Soviet oppressors in the 1980s.

On June 5, 1979, Pope John Paul II arrived in Poland to visit his homeland. As he descended the stairs of the plane in Warsaw, he kissed the ground and incited a spiritual and political earthquake. The visit emboldened the Solidarity movement led by Lech Walesa, and by 1980 the government recognized Solidarity as the first independent trade union in the communist bloc.

Almost a year after Pope John Paul’s election, the Secretariat of the Communist Party Central Committee met to assess the impact of his pontificate. They issued a directive to the KGB: “Use all possibilities available to the Soviet Union to prevent the new course of policies initiated by the Polish pope; if necessary with additional measures beyond disinformation and discreditation.” In other words, an assassination order was issued.

On May 13, 1981, as the Pope was passing through the crowd of St. Peter’s Square, Ali Agca, an assassin hired by the Bulgarian communist secret police at the orders of the KGB, fired two shots at point-blank range which struck Pope John Pau Il. The Pope survived and Poland eventually became a free country on Dec. 8, 1991, when the Soviet First Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev announced the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

So, perhaps Marx’s fears that religion would make people accept the status quo were unfounded. Whether there is a God or not, religion can be a positive force for individual’s health and well-being and for fairer societies.

Written by Dr Rick Norris


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