Word of the Day: Opiate of the Masses

A woman lies comatose in an opium denKarl Marx said, “[Religion] is the opium of the people” in 1843.  This is often assumed to mean that religion is like a drug, dulling the intellect of those under its influence.

But this isn’t correct.  Here is the quote in context:

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.

Marx is saying that religion is a coping mechanism, like a security blanket or a crutch.  It’s a symptom of a broken society.  In the same way that opium is valuable medicine for someone who is hurting, religion provides valuable relief to those hurting within society.

His larger point is that treating the symptom isn’t a bad start, but it’s only a start, and we must address society’s root problems.  Opium reduces the pain of cancer, but don’t fool yourself that it’s treating the cancer.  Similarly, religion reduces the pain caused by a dysfunctional society, but don’t fool yourself that you’re treating the underlying problem.

If someone needs crutches, don’t kick them away.  Acknowledge that they serve a purpose.  But don’t think that that person is whole!  Find the problem and solve it.  You don’t take away someone’s crutch; you let that person discard it himself when it is no longer needed.

Christianity has faded in Europe, but that’s not because it was outlawed; people have discarded that crutch by themselves.  What mechanisms have they adopted to reduce society’s problems so that Christianity’s pain-soothing properties aren’t necessary?  Adopt those, and religion withers away by itself as unnecessary.

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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5 thoughts on “Word of the Day: Opiate of the Masses

  1. Well said Bob. Very intelligently written. You are right, I didn’t understand what Marx meant when he said religion is the opiate of the masses. I think it is a very good reason to discard religion because it is ineffective at solving problems. I know some people, who pray, when they have problems, and we all know how effective that is…lol. Talk about useless.

  2. I would say it’s socialism that has replaced Christianity in Europe. An all-powerful state that is expected to help people out of any difficulty and which is blamed for any bad event that happens sounds a lot like religion, doesn’t it?

  3. Not sure I’d say just socialism replaced religion in Europe, altho it may be one of the things that replaced it. I’d say a lot of things replaced religion. As a way to explain things in the natural world, Europe now relies on science, instead of myths. There are courts instead of ostracism or witch trials. Governments or private business or secular nonprofit agencies providing health care, aid, services. Etc. I think that’s why religion in America fears secularism — there’s no need for religion if aid, justice, explanations, etc, can come from other sources.

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