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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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