Karl Marx is known for writing, “Religion is the opium of the people.” This quote is almost always referred to without a knowledge of its wider context. Here is the paragraph in which Marx made this statement:
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. (Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right)
Marx wrote about the nature of religion found throughout Europe. From the beginning of kingdoms and empires, religion has been used by people to comfort them in their suffering from oppression. Marx realized that religion was “the sigh of the oppressed creature” and those who sigh through their religious faith are “the heart of a heartless world” and “the spirit of a spiritless situation.” For centuries, freedom from economic, social, and political oppression was impossible for most of the poor of Europe. For these desperate souls, religion provided comfort and hope. Maybe beyond death, there will be paradise where poverty, suffering, and the cruel specter of death will be abolished and life worth living will be possible.
What Marx is critiquing is not religion but rather the oppressive system which necessitates the illusionary solace the masses could find in religion. For Marx, religion is not the problem. The real culprit is an economic and social system supported by brutal political enforcement. Religion provides some relief as it numbs people to their pain and promises them a better world beyond death. However, Marx did not see any hope of religion fixing the real problem plaguing society. It simply helps people forget their suffering and serves as a corporate anesthesia.
Vladimir Lenin wrote that “Religion is opium for the people.” Here is the quote from his book entitled Socialism and Religion:
Religion is a sort of spiritual booze, in which the slaves of capital drown their human image, their demand for a life more or less worthy of man… Impotence of the exploited classes in their struggle against the exploiters inevitably gives rise to the belief in a better life after death. They are taught by religion to practice charity while on earth, thus offering them a very cheap way of justifying their entire existence as exploiters and selling them at a moderate price tickets to well-being in heaven.
There is a difference between religion as an opium of the people and religion as an opium for the people. Although Marx was certainly aware of the ways economic and political forces used religion to maintain an oppressive status quo, he was more sympathetic toward the poor who found comfort and illusion in their religious beliefs. Lenin was more brutal in his critique of religion which he saw primarily used by economic and political forces to subjugate and control the masses.
Anyone aware of the appalling conditions of the poor in Europe and especially those in Tsarist Russia would understand the logic and conclusions of both Mark and Lenin. Christianity in the 19th and early 20th centuries was in many cases a continuation of the idolatrous union between church and state that had been going on since the seduction of the church by the Roman Emperor Constantine. The coronation of kings and tsars by religious prelates reinforced the doctrine of “the divine right of kings.” Such rulers thought themselves to be ordained by God to rule and to create a system that had divine approval. For centuries the masses were seduced into accepting this unfortunate and twisted arrangement. Gradually throughout Europe, people rejected this system and the religion which both supported and benefited from the economic and political oppression of the vast majorities in these societies. The repercussions of this failure of the church to be faithful to the radical message of Jesus can still be witnessed throughout Europe. For the most part, the cathedrals and churches are empty.
As citizens of the United States, we might be tempted to think we are the exceptions to this historical trend. However, only 20% of Americans attend church on a regular basis. Although 40% of the U. S. population see themselves as religious, evidently most of them see no need to affiliate with a local church. When I read of the obsession many conservative and fundamentalist Christians have concerning the end of the world, the Rapture, and going to heaven, I must conclude that there are still those in the church who use religion as an opium to cope with the realities of the modern world. But I would suggest that most Americans have found a more convenient and addictive “opium” than religion.
Theologian Anthony Kelly writes in Eschatology and Hope the following: “It is now clear that the opium of the people is the rootless doomed consumerism of our day.” The philosophy of materialism has spilled over into the daily lives of those living in the Western world. Consumerism is the “religion” which fuels our economy, deadens our consciences, denies us the experience of authentic community, and defines our ultimate purpose in life. We are so addicted to the acquisition of things and seduced by the false and idolatrous promises of advertising that we don’t even notice that our spiritual lives are being reduced to ineffectual platitudes and self-serving and shallow spirituality. I suggest that much of the depression, cynicism, anger, and suicide found in our society has its roots in the failure of materialism, greed, and consumerism to provide a life worthy of our humanity and our identities as children of God.
Our greed and addiction to having more of what we don’t need and can never give us joy and purpose have cosmic consequences. Even though we are told that our planet cannot sustain our current exploitative lifestyles, we still measure our society’s success by the rise and fall of the GNP and the stock market. The advice of our politicians is to “spend, spend, spend” and thus maintain and stimulate an economy which will one day self-destruct from its cancerous growth at the expense of the poor, the planet, and any sense of community and worthy purpose in our common existence. One characteristic of those who are addicted is their refusal to admit they have a problem. I suggest that this is one reason why so many in our society refuse to face the hard truth that we must change our ways of living in this world if our children and grandchildren are to have any desirable and fulfilling lives in the future. Parents addicted to drugs will deny their children what they need to thrive or sometimes even survive. A society addicted to greed will do the same for its future generations.
From the approach of most Christians in the U. S. the world would never know that the One we call our Lord and Savior saw greed as our most dangerous idol. Listen to some of his teachings on the dangers of greed and the acquisition of wealth:
- “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21) My way of translating this verse reflects the biblical understanding of heart: “What you value is who you are.”
- “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Matthew 6:24) Being addicted is a form of slavery. That to which one is addicted becomes that person’s god.
- Matthew 6:25-33 (part of the Sermon on the Mount) provides Jesus’ prescription for anxiety and a consumeristic lifestyle. This passage defines a life based on trust in God. In many ways, these verses reveal the heart of Jesus’ message. As his followers, we would do well to read and meditate on them daily.
- “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. (“Giving” instead of “selling” makes no sense in a consumeristic and capitalist society.) Sell your possessions, and give alms (monetary gifts to the poor). Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” (Luke 12:32-34)
- “Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’ And the disciples were perplexed at these words. ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’” (Mark 10:23-25) Imagine how much effort Christians have made over the centuries to dismiss or neutralize this teaching!
- “And he said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’” (Luke 12:15) Our entire advertising and economic system is based on the lie that the good life does consist in the abundance of possessions.
- Consider Jesus’ parables regarding the Rich Fool (Luke 12:15-21), the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), and the Great Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46)
Churches throughout the world must rediscover the radical message of Jesus if we are to make any redemptive and transforming difference on this planet. All biblical scholars agree that Jesus’ message was the Kingdom of God. He believed that through him God was present and acting in a radically different way. This world was the center of the liberation and transformation he was bringing in God’s name. The movement of the Creator was from heaven to earth (which we see reflected in the Lord’s Prayer in the phrase “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done ON EARTH as it is in heaven”). Jesus was asking his followers to imagine a world where God is king – not any earthy king or emperor. God’s Upside-Down Kingdom was characterized by unconditional love for everyone, justice for all, compassion that is concrete, forgiveness and reconciliation which knows no limits, sacrificial sharing made possible by rejecting greed and the acquisition of wealth, and deep and abiding joy as his followers found eternal (as in qualitative) life in this Abba for whom death does not exist. Jesus invited those Jewish peasants to share in the very life of God in whom there is no duplicity, revenge, rejection, or violence. There is only love, life, and light. We can scarcely imagine what good news this was for the poor, the disenfranchised, and the millions of slaves throughout the Roman Empire. Such good news, both proclaimed and more importantly lived, explains the witness and growth of the early church which in the words of her critics was “turning the world upside-down.”
These early followers of Jesus trusted the good news to deliver them from the lethal addictions of greed, fear, and revenge. With this Living God there was no need for pretense or finding one’s worth in the greedy, violent, and shallow value systems of the world. As today’s followers of Jesus Christ, we must reject the thin veneer of “churchianity” which disguises a retreat from this world God so loves as well as an idolatrous alliance with the greedy and parochial systems of our culture. If we are to be faithful to our Lord, we must rediscover the radical good news of Jesus. Only then can we find the powerful remedy for the greed which afflicts our society and has become the acceptable idol and “opium” of and for the people.