AskProfWolff: Is Religion an Opium of the People?

This is a response to G McNamara who
writes and asks me: is religion the opium of the people? Is it a barrier to worker
solidarity and cooperation? You know this question arises often, and it’s an
important one. It has to do with how people influenced by the Marxian
tradition, look upon that famous line that Marx wrote that religion is the
opium of the people; but what has often happened, is that people didn’t read the
whole quote; they didn’t even read the last sentence, which is where that line
about opium of the people appears, so I want to begin by reading that to you.
Religion, this is what Marx wrote: “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.” The lesson in that remark, in that sentence, is that you
have to see religion as a complicated phenomena, a set of contradictions, if you
like. Does it hold people back from political activity? It can; it sometimes
does. Does it stimulate them to become politically active and to change the
world? It can, and it sometimes has and does. In other words, it’s not all of one
piece, or the other. When Marx write, writes it’s the heart of a heartless
world, he’s saying that religion performs an important function for people whose
real lives are in trouble; whose opportunities, whose satisfactions,
whose needs are not met in an adequate way; and so they find solace and support
in a religion, because they can’t find it in the real world
around them; and religion often then helps navigate life’s problems; helps
interpret them; helps people cope; performs functions that can be very
important to people’s survival, and to people’s political and economic
engagement. Of course, it’s also true that religious authorities and institutions
have often, and probably in most cases, made their peace with Caesar, with the
government, with the economic systems in which they exist, so that they become
allies of those systems; and when those systems are exploitative, they have often
become allies of the exploiters; and on some occasion, some occasions, allies of
the exploited – again that dual role. Marx also made a very important point. He said,
if you’re going to ask people to give up religion as an illusion, as a fantasy, as
a make-believe about another world, peopled by gods and superhuman entities,
if you’re going to ask people to give that up, then you are obligated to change
the society, so that the needs that drove people to invent the religious ideas
they often have, are going to be solved. The solution to religion is to remove
the need that created it; and there again lies the notion of the opium. Just saying
no to opium is as pointless and cruel as doing the same to religion. If you want
to deal with religion respectfully, in terms of what it has meant and does mean
to human beings, then you need to change the society to make human beings get out
of their real interactions with one another, the things they need; and then
won’t need the religion that they have a braced for so long. It’s not a simple
idea, and it’s not a breezy dismissal of religion. That’s a caricature. It’s a
serious engagement in what religion means to people, and what it would take
to get beyond that kind of a solution to the real needs people have. Thank you all
of you in the Patreon community, and to G McNamara in particular for sending us
this question and allowing this interaction to unfold.


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