Dorothy Day: Is Religion the Opium of the People?

Reading Paul Elie’s excellent quadruple biography of Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy and Dorothy Day. The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage is a wonderful book about these four American writers at a crucial time in America’s history.

While living in England I was busy reading English contemporary Catholic-Anglican writers: Lewis, Waugh, Graham Greene, Tolkien, Eliot. I had read Merton, but only on my return to the USA am I being introduced to Dorothy Day, Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor.

One of the interesting observations the intense and vibrant Dorothy Day makes is about her desire to pray. She has lived a bohemian life, had a tornado of a romance with a no-good rogue, had an abortion, shacked up with another guy, written a novel, got pregnant again and in the midst of the communists and anarchists of the 1920s feels inextricably drawn to the Catholic Church. She wants to have her child baptized, and the tough old nuns she waylays says Dorothy has to receive instruction first. So she does, and so she finds herself praying to rosary even though she says she still does not believe and has huge problems with “the Church of Rome.”

What is curious and moving is that she thinks constantly about religion being “the opiate of the masses.” She witnesses the poor in New York flocking to church and accepts this communist dictum, but she herself does not call on God in her need, her sadness or despair. She says that she is drawn to prayer out of the beauty of the sea and walks on the beach, on the intense joy of being pregnant and out of a sense of thankfulness and peace.

Which leads me to reflect that the Christian religion truly taught can never be an opiate. It is usually imagined that religion is an opiate because it helps people cope with their terrible suffering in this life by assuring them of pie in the sky. This brings them comfort so they can endure their miserable lives. The opposite is true. The Christian religion–rather than offering bliss in the never never–teaches people to have a realistic expectation of life. It teaches that this world is a vale of tears, that suffering is to be expected and that our role is not so much to avoid suffering ourselves, but to relieve the suffering of others as we can.

What is an opiate is the false religion that leads people to expect this life to like some sort of plastic Disneyland where everything is supposed to be wonderful. Even more of an opiate is the smug materialistic utilitarianism which creates ideologies that promise a utopia here on earth. Since so many of these utilitarian ideologies are also atheistic, it turns out that atheism is the real opium of the people.

To turn this on its head further, utopia is an opiate. Ideological atheism lulls the people into the false hopes that they will one day share in a blissful condition where the world truly is a wonderful place at last. Nothing dulls people into a dreamy, unrealistic idiocy than such a dream, and when atheism is part of this false idealism the lie is complete. Rather than facing the harsh realities of life with responsibility, hard work and self sacrifice they march like so many un thinking party members into a brave new future that will never be.

Dorothy Day is one of the great warriors in the culture war between communism and the Catholic Church. I am listening to her story and learning from her experience. Placed as I am in a parish surrounded by the worst socio economic conditions in Greenville, I am thinking my own way into new methods of ministry–planning carefully how, in this complex society we can help those in need in a simple and effective way. I hope Dorothy Day’s experience will help show the way.

Read my archived post on Atheism the Opiate of the People

About Fr. Dwight Longenecker

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