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Word of the Day: Opiate of the Masses

A woman lies comatose in an opium denKarl Marx said, “[Religion] is the opium of the people” in 1843.  This is often assumed to mean that religion is like a drug, dulling the intellect of those under its influence.

But this isn’t correct.  Here is the quote in context:

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.

Marx is saying that religion is a coping mechanism, like a security blanket or a crutch.  It’s a symptom of a broken society.  In the same way that opium is valuable medicine for someone who is hurting, religion provides valuable relief to those hurting within society.

His larger point is that treating the symptom isn’t a bad start, but it’s only a start, and we must address society’s root problems.  Opium reduces the pain of cancer, but don’t fool yourself that it’s treating the cancer.  Similarly, religion reduces the pain caused by a dysfunctional society, but don’t fool yourself that you’re treating the underlying problem.

If someone needs crutches, don’t kick them away.  Acknowledge that they serve a purpose.  But don’t think that that person is whole!  Find the problem and solve it.  You don’t take away someone’s crutch; you let that person discard it himself when it is no longer needed.

Christianity has faded in Europe, but that’s not because it was outlawed; people have discarded that crutch by themselves.  What mechanisms have they adopted to reduce society’s problems so that Christianity’s pain-soothing properties aren’t necessary?  Adopt those, and religion withers away by itself.

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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About Bob Seidensticker
  • RandomFunction2

    Hi Bob,

    Religion is not just a crutch or a defense mechanism, it’s also something that enhances our perception of things and raises us to an awareness of human dignity and spiritual realities. It is supposed to make better people of us and to open us to Otherness. Religion (theoretically) makes life more meaningful, more fulfilling, happier. It’s not just that religion gives solace to desperate and wretched people. Religion does that, but it cannot be all the story. Religion also helps enjoy life and relate to the world and to other people.

    However, most of the time, religion has less-than-ideal effects and is a force for evil. But don’t let us put all believers in the same bag! There are mature ways and immature ways of being religious.

    • http://galileounchained.com Bob Seidensticker

      Religion is not just a crutch or a defense mechanism, it’s also something that enhances our perception of things and raises us to an awareness of human dignity and spiritual realities.

      I don’t really agree, but my main point here was to talk about how Marx didn’t agree.

      There are mature ways and immature ways of being religious.

      But is it possible that the mature way of being religious is to not be very religious? If immature is gullible and thoughtless and mature is aware and thoughtful, “mature” pushes us away from religion it seems.

      • RandomFunction2

        Hi Bob,

        You may well disagree. Some atheists have a correct perception of values and of life (though not complete, since they don’t take God into account). But each person follows his/her own path and God is there to help, not to hinder us… God is supposed to be a force for growth. If God smothers you, something has gone wrong.

        If for you a mature way of being religious means putting real people, reasoning and personal conscience over dogmas and religious authorities, then yes, I agree. But in an ideal world, the two sides would not conflict. How can God order us to destroy people who are his children? And when I speak of the children of God, I follow the Stoic view, not the Christian one. Stoics believed in God’s universal fatherhood. Maybe God is even a father for apes.

      • http://galileounchained.com Bob Seidensticker

        RF2:

        How can God order us to destroy people who are his children?

        How indeed? My interpretation of this is that you reject the Bible as unworthy of an actual deity but you have a spiritual sense that says that there must be a supernatural something. Is this anywhere close to the mark?

  • Bob Calvan

    Or it could be Christianity has fadded from Europe ( not completely as God still has His people there too) because of the depravity of Europe and God has withdrawn His grace from them..And letting them alone in their depravity.

    As He is starting to do in the U.S… As we have become more godless allowing Abortion and Homosexual marrage.

    But do not worry Bob God continues to call all His elect. And when He calls the last one He will return for Judgement..So nothing man can do but repent while he has the chance.

    • http://galileounchained.com Bob Seidensticker

      Or it could be Christianity has fadded from Europe ( not completely as God still has His people there too) because of the depravity of Europe and God has withdrawn His grace from them..And letting them alone in their depravity.

      And yet the odd thing is that “letting them alone in their depravity” apparently means doing much better on social metrics like homicide, crime, suicide, teen pregnancy, abortion, STDs, and so on. Weird!

      Evidence from “The Chronic Dependence of Popular Religiosity upon Dysfunctional Psychosociological Conditions” by Gregory Paul (2009):

      Of the 25 socioeconomic and environmental indicators the most theistic and procreationist western nation, the U.S. scores the worst in 14 and by a very large margin in 8, very poorly in 2, average in 4, well or very in 4, and the best in 1.

      Ouch!

      As we have become more godless allowing Abortion and Homosexual marrage.

      Is abortion and gay marriage a good thing or a bad thing? And how do you know?

  • RandomFunction2

    Hi Bob,

    You got it right. I don’t believe that any sacred text says the final word on God. However, the Spirit of God sometimes gives a clearer awareness of the higher realities to a few special people throughout history, and those people further and deepen our understanding of the Absolute and of ourselves (though no one is infallible). That includes some atheists, even if they are not aware of being moved by God’s spirit. Buddha for instance. Atheists can help religion by attacking wrong pictures of it. So as centuries go by, we come to know more and more accurately the highest things.

    • http://galileounchained.com Bob Seidensticker

      You’re very convinced that this God fellow actually exists. Why do you think that?

      • RandomFunction2

        Hi Bob,

        In spite of the appearances, I’m not very convinced. I’ve big doubts about his existence and more specifically about providence. After all, why the 2004 tsunami? Why the 2010 Haiti earthquake, that struck precisely the poorest country of the continent? And why does no proof work? Why does the physical world follow its course exactly as if God were absent?

        Besides, I’ve had no clear experiences of God, no personal revelations. But I do think that God gives ultimate meaning and purpose to life. Of course, atheists can find some meaning in what they do, and they may live well, but God provides the full pictures on existence. Believers all over the world disagree over lots of things, but they agree that life has meaning, a meaning that is not a human temporary construct as atheists claim. Either you call that the greatest collective delusion ever, or you accept that they may be onto something. But it’s perfectly true that many atheists have more meaningful lives than most believers. Believing to avoid eternal torture or to get rewards in some heavenly Disneyland is not very meaningful.

        And when I come to think about what it takes to make life as meaningful as possible, God enters the picture (though he does not take all the room because earthly things matter a lot).

      • http://galileounchained.com Bob Seidensticker

        RF2:

        Those are the questions that I have.

        I’ve had no clear experiences of God, no personal revelations. But I do think that God gives ultimate meaning and purpose to life.

        Sounds like you mean “God belief.

        but they agree that life has meaning, a meaning that is not a human temporary construct as atheists claim.

        Maybe the atheists are right, that their lives can have even more meaning, since they’ve discarded pleasing superstitions and embraced reality. That Christians say they’re mistaken (though they’ve never walked that path) means little.

        Either you call that the greatest collective delusion ever, or you accept that they may be onto something.

        Some religion has to be the biggest. Why imagine that the #1 biggest religion is correct simply because it’s biggest? And if you want a big delusion, Christians say that all the other religions (which collectively are twice as big as Christianity) are delusions!

        And when I come to think about what it takes to make life as meaningful as possible, God enters the picture (though he does not take all the room because earthly things matter a lot).

        Again, I hear you saying that God belief is very important–is that right?

        What would you label yourself as? You sound very much on the fence, embracing the talk from both camps.

  • RandomFunction2

    Hi Bob,

    Yes, you may speak of God belief instead of God tout court. But for believers, God is more than a belief, we have a relationship with him.

    If we had the proof that God does not exist, then yes, being an atheist would be more meaningful. But no such proof exists. We live in uncertainty. Some people are comfortable with uncertainty: the agnostics. Others prefer to bet on either side (atheism or faith).

    I don’t say that Christianity is the correct religion because it is the biggest. But believers in every kind of religion throughout the world, while they disagree over theology, agree that life has meaning. A transcendent meaning. Maybe there are psychological processes that would explain away this fact, but I rather believe that they are onto something. After all, there are brain processes that explain why you see your computer: that does not mean the computer is a product of your imagination…

    I am not too remote from agnosticism, but I have a mild God belief. I draw inspiration from Deism and from Christianity. But even if I borrow some tenets from Christianity, I cannot honestly be called a Christian.

    • http://galileounchained.com Bob Seidensticker

      Can you speak of having a relationship with something that you’re not sure is there? Or are you saying that you indeed are sure that the Christian god exists?

      Of course there isn’t a proof that God doesn’t exist. Similarly, there isn’t a proof that unicorns or the Flying Spaghetti Monster don’t exist, but we live our lives as if they don’t.

      Given the choice between believers “are on to something” and that this is yet another way that our minds trick ourselves, I’ll go with the latter. It’s the choice between a supernatural something for which we have only the weakest of circumstantial evidence vs. something that we all agree happens–that our minds are not perfectly reliable.

      We know what the brain does when you see a computer; I agree that that doesn’t mean that computers don’t exist. Similarly, we know what the brain does when you read a novel or when you imagine a monster under the bed. In those cases, of course, there’s nothing there.

      I get the sense that you like to believe just because this belief is so tantalizing.

      To find Christianity fascinating even though you’re an unbeliever is quite reasonable (this describes Bob Price and probably Bart Ehrman). Or perhaps to glean wisdom from the Bible.

      • RandomFunction2

        Hi Bob,

        No, I’m not sure that any God exists, so yes it’s an unusual kind of relationship.

        Also, do you understand that if we view God as the ultimate explanation of the universe and the ultimate source of meaning, he cannot be compared with fantastic beings which have no purpose or with the FSM, which is nothing put an ad hoc human construct? The question is that we need not flesh out the concept of God, describing him with lots of details (as is the case in the FSM joke). I prefer to have an incomplete view of God and to remain agnostic about his nature than to give lots of “facts” about such a God and making him absurd. Which is the flaw of archaic sacred texts.

      • http://galileounchained.com Bob Seidensticker

        RF2:

        Also, do you understand that if we view God as the ultimate explanation of the universe and the ultimate source of meaning, he cannot be compared with fantastic beings which have no purpose or with the FSM, which is nothing put an ad hoc human construct?

        Sure, we can drop the deliberately invented creations like the FSM. Let’s use Shiva or Poseidon or Quetzalcoatl if you’d prefer. I think we agree which bin to put these into. You don’t want Yahweh put there, and that’s what I find puzzling.

        I prefer to have an incomplete view of God and to remain agnostic about his nature than to give lots of “facts” about such a God and making him absurd. Which is the flaw of archaic sacred texts.

        But you know of Yahweh only from those sacred texts. If they went too far, why not conclude that the entire Yahweh project is bankrupt?

  • RandomFunction2

    Hi Bob,

    Why do you assume that I believe in Yahweh???

    • http://galileounchained.com Bob Seidensticker

      We’ve been talking about Christianity. Sorry if I put you in the wrong bin, but you’re rather hard to categorize.

  • RandomFunction2

    Hi Bob,

    Yes, my thought is not yet crystalized. I am still in the process of finding out what to believe.

    Your mission for the next few weeks will be to read “The Courage To Be” by one of the greatest theologians of the last century, Paul Tillich. The book is closer to philosophy and history than to theology, to be fair. But it’s not very long, not hard to understand and you will learn about a version of Christianity that is very different from what fundamentalists preach. Tillich says interesting things about meaninglessness, guilt, fanatism, faith, totalitarianism, existentialism and theism, for instance.

    • http://galileounchained.com Bob Seidensticker

      Thanks for the book recommendation.

  • RandomFunction2

    Hi Bob,

    Currently, I have nagging doubts. If God created the world and he is good, why is the animal kingdom so full of suffering and misery? Animals don’t sin, so why do they suffer so much? It’s unfair and meaningless. In nature, preys suffer when they are caught and they probably suffer from fear. Predators suffer from hunger most of the time. And all the great animals suffer from parasites… Life is unfair, but evolution explains it quite well. Another problem is why do people suffer from mental diseases by which they can no longer think normally and relate to other people? They are made unable to make sense of their life. They live in a meaningless world.

    • http://galileounchained.com Bob Seidensticker

      These concerns all make sense to me. Another is birth defects. In people you have the (barely) plausible argument that they teach us something. But in animals? What’s the point of an animal being born deformed, living a short and painful life, and then dying?

      (I assume you were addressing Bob C.)

  • Bob Calvan

    RF2

    Asked:

    “Currently, I have nagging doubts. If God created the world and he is good, why is the animal kingdom so full of suffering and misery? Animals don’t sin, so why do they suffer so much? It’s unfair and meaningless. In nature, preys suffer when they are caught and they probably suffer from fear. Predators suffer from hunger most of the time. And all the great animals suffer from parasites… Life is unfair, but evolution explains it quite well. ”

    Se when you hold to “Sola Scriptura” your questions are answered. I understand most people do not like the answers but that is irrelevant. As God says let all men be liars,but God is true.

    The animal kingdom also lives in a fallen world, God cursed the earth and we have tares in the wheat, and weather, and animal tragedies. These are all reminders of what sin has done to man and earth. When you see the damage of tornado’s ,earthquakes and death. They are small pictures of God’s judgments. God says I will have my way in the whirlwind and the storm. But we also see when God creates a new sinless world the wolf will lay down with the lamb. So this evil world in God’s timeless existence has been done away with,there will be a time with no evil no sickness and animals at peace. Only to be seen by God’s elect.

    RF2

    Asked:

    .Another problem is why do people suffer from mental diseases by which they can no longer think normally and relate to other people? They are made unable to make sense of their life. They live in a meaningless world.”

    They to suffer from a fallen world. And we have no Idea what God ( who does all things right) has ordained for those people. And we do not understand everything they think and what goes on in their minds. Bible is silent on what happens to babies and mentally ill people or retarded people. But we know God is perfect and good. And what ever happens to hem is perfect and good.

    Or you can hold to evolution and that is the way it is in a random world that signifies nothing. Big deal if animals rip each other to shreds? Who cares? What do you expect for a chance universe? Purposeless evil is fine!

    • http://galileounchained.com Bob Seidensticker

      (This was RF2′s question, but I’ll toss in my comments if that’s OK.)

      These are all reminders of what sin has done to man and earth.

      Must be frustrating for God. He sees the evils here on earth, but he’s simply powerless to change things. Poor guy!

      God, I feel for you, man.

      When you see the damage of tornado’s ,earthquakes and death. They are small pictures of God’s judgments.

      The guy’s got an anger management problem, does he?

      But we know God is perfect and good.

      Is that where the evidence points? Is that what an objective person would conclude?

      I doubt it.

      Or you can hold to evolution and that is the way it is in a random world that signifies nothing.

      We’ve been over this, have we not? An atheist sees no absolute meaning, but he sees just as much regular meaning as the Christian does!

  • RandomFunction2

    To the Bobs,

    The problem I see with BobC’s theodicy is that the Fall never happened. It is inconsistent with what paleontologists know about our past. Besides, life has existed on this planet for 3.5 billion years whereas our species is only 200 000 years old. It means that lots of suffering took place in the animal kingdom before people started to sin.

    But a deeper problem is that it’s unfair to make animals suffer for people’s sins. Especially so since most of animal suffering is not related to people’s actions (at least until recently). God’s justice is not served and his goodness is denied.

    And it’s even more unfair to make babies suffer for sins they did not commit.

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