Religion is the Opiate of the Masses?

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. -Karl Marx

We often hear the paraphrase, “Religion is the opiate of the masses,” used to discredit religious belief.

Marx states that religion is the “sigh of the oppressed creature.” Oppressed by whom? By those in power, of course. By those who take the labor of the common man, and provide nothing in return. By the capitalist, in Marx’s view.

Marx states that religion is the “heart of a heartless world.” Who’s heart? The heart of the common man, who cries for justice (in Marxian terms —the justice of getting what he deserves, with the assumption that men always deserve good because they are good) against those who oppress him.

Marx states that religion is like a drug, an opiate, that keeps the masses in a state of confusion, looking forward to a future state where their labors will be rewarded. It is by enticing the masses to look to the future, Marx thought, that the oppressors could make the common man forget about the injustice of his current existence. “I will gladly promise you rewards in the next life for your labor in this life.”

Of course, Marx is wrong.

Marx is right about religion being the “sigh of the oppressed creature,” but he gets the oppressor wrong. Christianity teaches us that the oppressor is not a capitalist steering his yacht to calmer waters while eating Kobe beef steaks. The oppressor is sin, which makes our good turn evil, and our dreams turn to sand slipping through our hands. This mistake replaces the capitalist with the politician, because in the Marxian view of the world, we can trust politicians where we cannot trust capitalists.

Marx is right about religion being the “heart of a heartless world.” Christianity teaches us to love beyond ourselves, and to seek justice beyond our self interest, and that we cannot achieve our dreams on our terms, that our personal standards of right and wrong are the root of the problem. But the heartlessness he sees is not the heartlessness of the capitalist, it is the heartlessness of the human condition, the heartlessness of sin. Marx, by replacing the capitalist with the politician or the masses, didn’t do anything to reduce the heartlessness of the world. The only way to change the heartless condition of the world is to change men’s hearts, and self interest or novel economic models won’t change men’s hearts.

Marx combines these two half truths with another half truth, that religion is like an opiate, keeping men in a state of semi-confusion on a cloud of chemical induced happiness. Yes, most religions are like that, teaching us that if we can only redirect our efforts, or obey this simple set of laws, or take direct action to change our hearts, we can find utopia here on the Earth. Other religions, like Communism and Socialism, are like opiates in teaching us that if we just adopt the right “enlightened” leaders, and the right “enlightened” policies, we can end all hunger and pain. These religions really are opiates, allowing us to refuse the truth of our own sinfulness, our own heartlessness, our own oppression.

Christianity, however, is not an opiate (even though this was, and still is, the primary target of Marx’s attack). For Christianity never leaves you floating along on a cloud of happiness. Christ points us to a future world in which we are safe, secure, without hunger, and without pain. But it’s not through our work that any of this happens, it’s through the work of God himself, through Christ on the Cross. Christianity doesn’t make us feel happy about ourselves, but brings our own sin and oppression into our minds constantly, our own sin as the oppressor Marx so studiously avoided.

Christianity teaches us that capitalists with their wares are not the problem nor the solution. Christianity teaches us that politicians with their promises to overcome our very natures are not the solution, either, because politicians can’t change the heart, not attack the real oppressor, which is our sin natures.

Marx, like all those who seek utopia on this Earth, used half truths to clothe lies, and led millions of people to their unhappy deaths in the name of creating a new life.

Comments are closed.