As I was sitting in a Women’s Studies class in the spring, a discussion regarding religiosity, atheism, and communist ideology took place. One of my peers asked why it is that many Marxists also identify as atheist. My professor and many others in the class (including me) went on to explain Marx’s rather famous notion of religion being the opiate of the people. Marx made this statement and many others regarding religion in “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” (1844).
Opiates are considered what many would call a “downer”, a drug that ought to put one in a state of passive inaction. Therefore, many understand Marx’s famous statement to mean that institutionalized religion and religious dogma cause individuals to become passive, apathetic, and no longer willing to be active political agents. Marx wrote, “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” (Marx 1844). With this, many could also observe that religion often times channels what would be political energy (energy used for political organizing). For instance, Black women who are considered the “backbone” of their church channel their organizing potential into filling the pews of their neighborhood church rather than organizing for reproductive rights/choices for the young, struggling Black women in their community. This example is an unfortunate use of organizing potential and is evidence of the problem enduring faith and religiosity pose in the African American community and ultimately true Black self-determination (and most importantly the self-determination of all marginalized individuals in the United States).
With Marx’s observation of religion as an opiate, he also writes and alludes to the fact that religion, like mainstream illegal drugs and alcohol, is often a sign of depression and hopelessness. And that, when we see immense reliance on faith in an individual, that individual is most likely struggling through what he or she can not yet understand. Individuals often use religion as a way to mitigate physical and psychological pain caused by systems of oppression like racism, sexism/patriarchy, capitalism, and heterosexism. This being true, I believe self-identified humanists and atheists (more specifically atheists and humanists, who contribute to New Atheist discourse online and read New Atheist materials) ought to realize that the presence of faith in an individual may not simply be because he or she does not know enough about Darwin’s Theory of Evolution through Natural Selection, but that there are larger forces that instruct their reliance on faith and religious custom.
The social justice lens that I urge many atheists and humanists to adopt will allow us to realize that institutionalized religion is as much a tool to prohibit the creation of genuine social revolution as any other system of oppression that many of us are working to resist.
Marx, Karl. “Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of the Right 1844.” Marxists.org. N.p., 2009. Web. 15 Jun 2011.
Tia M. Osborne is an undergraduate Political Science and Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies double major at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana.