Marx, Micah, and Religious Sedation (“Opiate of the people”)

[This is lifted verbatim (with permission) from Greg’s blog.]

Have you ever heard someone say that religion is a crutch? Once when I was talking to a guy about Christ, he made the statement that “Religion is just a crutch. I don’t need or want a crutch like that – I’m independent!” He said this, ironically enough, as he slobbered over several beer bottles at his table!

One of Karl Marx’s most quoted statements is, “Religion is the opium of the people.” This statement, at face value appears to be saying that religion dulls one’s senses, pacifies people and generally causes people to be more or less gullible to the “bourgeoisie.”

What we generally hear quoted is the following phrase, “Religion is the opiate of the masses” or “Religion is the opium of the people” (if they bother getting the quote correct!) This is often used to demonstrate Marx’s opposition to religion as a bourgeoisie tool to numb the minds of the peasants. That is how many of his own followers used the phrase.

However, it bears looking at more closely. I think it can challenge our complacent view on Christianity and what being a Christian looks like. Let’s look at what he says in the full context of his statement:

Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man—state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. 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. [Emphasis added]

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. (See wikipedia for more)

What a great line – “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of a soulless condition.” There is a perspective here that I think Micah and the Lord Himself would agree with.

Let’s break this down a bit. Marx is certainly not saying that he believes religion is a good thing, but neither is he saying that religion is necessarily a bad thing. Opium – at the time Marx was writing – was a recreational drug and medicine used by a lot of people to escape the pain of living. Opium allowed one to create an illusory world free of pain rather than dealing with the real issues and the real pain of what they were struggling with. So, in the same way, Marx says that religion is used by people to create an illusory world rather than deal with the real issues of suffering in their body and in their world.

Now, keep that in mind as we read Micah 6:6 & 7 again:

With what shall I come before the LORD and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?
Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?

Man’s way of dealing with a serious break in his relationship to God is to get more religious. To do more religious activity. Kill more animals, make tremendous sacrifices, and even surrender your family on the altar of service to God – this is man’s way of showing that they are a “good Christian.” From this perspective, I agree with Karl Marx. Religion can be an opiate – it desensitizes and inverts our perspective on God. It allows us to appear connected to God when in reality we are completely disconnected from Him. Instead of having a “now” relationship with God, practicing religion allows us to practice a sanitized, safe version of faith – which is kind of a “pie in the sky” religion rather than one that makes an impact on those around us and upon ourselves.

Now, you may be asking, does Greg agree with Karl Marx’s other ideas? Absolutely not! Marx was seeking an end to religion and to replace it with something equally opium-like, a “worker’s paradise.” (actually, that my be Lenin’s term). But, while Marx may have been right in his idea of how many people use religion as a means to appear “godly”, he was wrong in his answer to that issue. He was an atheist – and therefore attempted to create a world without God. Anytime we try to solve problems by excluding God – we are simply creating further problems.

So, when Micah goes on to say:

People of Israel, the LORD has shown you what is good.
He has told you what he requires of you.
You must treat people fairly.
You must love others faithfully.
And you must be very careful to live
the way your God wants you to. (Micah 6:8, NIrV)

He isn’t saying to be more religious, he is addressing our relationship with God at a fundamental level. Are we merely practicing religion by attending church, singing the songs, doing whatever, or are we developing a dynamic, vital, and real relationship to God Himself?

I must confess, I am sometimes able to answer that question affirmatively, but sometimes I cannot. And some days – I can answer it yes and no!

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