It is one of the most famous quotes about religion in the history of philosophy, from none other than my second-favorite personal hero Karl Marx: “Religion is the opiate of the masses.”
Everyone has heard this quote, whether they know the origin or not, and it is used by critics of religion, both liberals and leftists, to voice the complaint that religion functions as a convenient excuse for people to ignore problems in this world, that it dulls people’s reactions to injustice and suffering in the here and now.
It also happens to be one of the greatest obstacles to a synthesis of Christianity and Marxism, something I am trying to do in my personal life. When Marx himself condemned religion so harshly, comparing it to opium (that’s where you get heroin from!), how can I even think to bring the two together?
Well, let’s examine this. Here is the quote in its entirety, from A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (a book that is taking me a very long time to get through, I might add):
“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.”
That’s…much less unambiguously negative than we’ve been made to believe, isn’t it?
Also worth noting is that opiates were (and still are!) used as a medicine to ease the suffering of medical patients. Religion eases the pain and suffering caused by capitalism as opium eases the pain caused by injury and illness.
It is true that Marx did ultimately envision the end of religion, but the sentence following the above quote is instructive here:
“The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.”
I need to repeat that first part: “The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people…”
What if religion could be more than an illusory happiness? Marx, writing in the mid-19th century, certainly would not have been able to conceive of such a religion, but today, in the 21st century, with the writings of Albert Schweitzer and Rudolf Bultmann and Paul Tillich and John Dominic Crossan (and many others) as guides, I certainly can.
Jesus spoke of The Kingdom of God, not in heaven, but on Earth. It ultimately doesn’t matter whether or not he thought it would be instituted by divine intervention (and I am far from convinced that he did); what ultimately matters is what that Kingdom would look like: it was a state of distributive justice, a radically changed society where the first (cough cough bourgeoisie) would be last, and the last (proletariat) first. If that doesn’t describe the dictatorship of the proletariat, I’ll eat my hat.
Religion is about ritual and community. Couldn’t rituals include direct action? Agitation on behalf of the poor? Songs of liberation? Prayers for workers?
That is the point. Traditional religion is dying, but that doesn’t mean religion itself will die. Marx said that the great philosophers have only interpreted the world, but the point is to change it. I believe the same is true of theologians.
It will take generations, of course, before this new materialist religion can emerge in force. But the conversation is happening. I have been deluged with emails and messages on social media since my first post on Christian Marxism, most from people who just want to say, “Me too.” I am far from alone in this, and the more the chains of exploitation tighten, the more people will seek the radical message of Jesus, and the more people will be empowered to challenge the unjust world that crucified him.
Religion will be made from the sigh of the oppressed creature into the battle-cry of the oppressed creature.
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