This afternoon, someone “tweeted” me about Marx’s quote about religion being the “opiate of the people” and wondered if the hostility that Christians experience today is similar to Marx’s attitude, as expressed in this quote. This got me thinking about this well known phrase and I decided to do a little study on it, especially as a recent book I read suggested that Marx might have been right.
It is assumed that Marx was speaking negatively about religion with this comment and that it was evidence of his hostility towards Christianity. That Marx hated Christianity and Christians, there is little doubt. But this particular quote is interesting in that, in its context, Marx was not so much criticizing religion as much as he was describing how it helped people deal with life in a heartless world. Here is the actual quote in its context:
Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions. (Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right)
In Marx’s day, opium, as today (usually in the form of morphine), was used as both an illusionary drug and a painkiller or sedative. It is not a cure; it simply deals with symptoms. As part of my present treatment for cancer actually calls for daily small doses of morphine to help me with breathing, I have a sense of what he was referring to. The morphine does not cure my breathing problems; it simples makes the problem easier to deal with. Similarly, it was Marx’s opinion that religion does not cure the underlying causes of people’s pain and suffering. Instead, it helps them deal with what they are suffering by encouraging them to look forward to a future when the pain and misery will cease. The problem, Marx says, is the world itself and the need for a real and better solution that does more than just provide the illusion of a fix.
There is a sense in which Marx was right (yes, a VOM director actually agrees with Marx on something!). If your kind of faith deadens you to the realities of this world, quiets you down, sedates you and causes you to think that there is no use trying to bring the reality of Christ into this world, then your faith is an opiate. This attitude would be reflected, for example, by those who almost seem to rejoice in the fact that Christians are persecuted around the world because it is a “sign of the end times” or evidence that Jesus is coming back soon. There is little or no passion to seek to alleviate the suffering of their brothers and sisters since Jesus will soon put it all right when He returns. Justice…well, the suggestion is, we’ll just have to wait for the next life for that (a sentiment that, it seems to me, only the one suffering the injustice has the right to express). Instead of seeking to bring the Lordship of Christ into all of life, many of us are content to restrict it primarily to the future life. Christianity then becomes far less than the all encompassing, life-changing, transforming, illuminating faith and worldview it really is. It becomes an opiate; something primarily suited to help us escape and cope with this world. But not a cure.
If this is all your faith is, then Marx was right.