Opium of the people


Most people, when they think of the Karl Marx’s attitudes towards religion, remember the quote where he refers to it as “the opium of the people.” This sounds quite dismissive. When I first heard it, I thought he meant that religion was a hallucination, similar to that caused by drugs.

But when you read the full passage that leads up to this quote, the impression shifts slightly, but in an important way. The passage is in his “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” (February 1844) and and goes as follows:

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.

This is a much more poetic and sympathetic view of religion than that given by just the last sentence. It speaks of religion as the solace of a suffering people, a mechanism for them to obtain relief from the forces that oppress them, to endure suffering, and something that enables them to extract some happiness from life.

(Note that when Marx wrote this, it was soon after the end of the first Opium War in China (1839-1842), where Britain put down a Chinese rebellion that was trying to end imports by British traders of opium into China, which was causing widespread addiction in that nation. He must have been aware of the fact that having the people drugged on opium enabled the relatively small British presence in China to control that vast country and its peoples. So it was a very timely metaphor.)

Of course, Marx was opposed to religion because although he saw that it met a short-term need, it hindered the ability of people to achieve a more enduring happiness. It was clear that he was not against religion just for the sake of it, but because he wanted to get rid of the terrible conditions that tempted people want to find refuge and solace in it, rather than seeking to change those very conditions. He went on:

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.

As Amanda Udis-Kessler writes in this commentary on Marx’s comment:

Opium, of course, provides only temporary relief for suffering, and does so by blunting the senses. In making suffering bearable, Marx argues, opium (and religion) actually can be said to be contributing to human suffering by removing the impetus to do whatever is necessary to overcome it – which, for Marx, is to relinquish religion and turn to revolutionary politics. Hamilton (1995: 82-3) points out the ultimate practical outcome of religion’s palliative function, from a Marxian perspective: “Religion offers compensation for the hardships of this life in some future life, but it makes such compensation conditional upon acceptance of the injustices of this life.”

In other words, religion serves the social function of keeping people from becoming restive about their condition and is thus conducive to maintaining social order in the face of even massive injustice.

Marx’s views on religion came to my mind when I was thinking about how the neoconservatives aligned themselves with religious Christian fundamentalists in order to achieve their political goals. The neoconservatives are grateful that religion is like opium, keeping people in a drugged, unperceptive state. It is this very feature that is attractive to those who benefit from that state of injustice.

Ronald Bailey, writing in Reason magazine argues that neoconservatives are cynically exploiting the palliative nature of religious beliefs. And to serve this end, they are even going so far as to align themselves with those religious people who are attacking Darwin. “These otherwise largely secular intellectuals may well have turned on Darwin because they have concluded that his theory of evolution undermines religious faith in society at large. . . Ironically, today many modern conservatives fervently agree with Karl Marx that religion is “the opium of the people”; they add a heartfelt, “Thank God!” “

There is reason to think that at least some of the neoconservatives are themselves not religious, but see in religion a useful tool that keeps people in line, like sheep. Their fear of what might happen if there is widespread existential angst leads them to a cynical support for the Christian fundamentalist view.

Bailey goes on:

[Neoconservative Irving] Kristol has been quite candid about his belief that religion is essential for inculcating and sustaining morality in culture. He wrote in a 1991 essay, “If there is one indisputable fact about the human condition it is that no community can survive if it is persuaded–or even if it suspects–that its members are leading meaningless lives in a meaningless universe.”
. . .
Kristol has acknowledged his intellectual debt to [Neoconservative ideologue Leo] Strauss in a recent autobiographical essay. “What made him so controversial within the academic community was his disbelief in the Enlightenment dogma that ‘the truth will make men free.’ ” Kristol adds that “Strauss was an intellectual aristocrat who thought that the truth could make some [emphasis Kristol’s] minds free, but he was convinced that there was an inherent conflict between philosophic truth and political order, and that the popularization and vulgarization of these truths might import unease, turmoil and the release of popular passions hitherto held in check by tradition and religion with utterly unpredictable, but mostly negative, consequences.”

Kristol agrees with this view. “There are different kinds of truths for different kinds of people,” he says in an interview. “There are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy. It doesn’t work.”
. . .
A year ago, I asked Kristol after a lecture whether he believed in God or not. He got a twinkle in his eye and responded, “I don’t believe in God, I have faith in God.” Well, faith, as it says in Hebrews 11:1, “is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

But at the recent AEI lecture, journalist Ben Wattenberg asked him the same thing. Kristol responded that “that is a stupid question,” and crisply restated his belief that religion 
is essential for maintaining social discipline. A much younger (and perhaps less circumspect) Kristol asserted in a 1949 essay that in order to prevent the 
social disarray that would occur if ordinary people lost their religious faith, “it would indeed become the duty of the wise publicly to defend and support religion.”

William Pfaff, writing on “The Long Reach of Leo Strauss” in the International Herald Tribune, traces the influence of neoconservative thinking, outlining the broader ideological framework under which religious belief is promoted by the neoconservatives:

They have a political philosophy, and the arrogance and intolerance of their actions reflect their conviction that they possess a realism and truth others lack.

They include Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz; Abram Shulsky of the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans, Richard Perle of the Pentagon advisory board, Elliott Abrams of the National Security Council, and the writers Robert Kagan and William Kristol.

The main intellectual influence on the neoconservatives has been the philosopher Leo Strauss, who left Germany in 1938 and taught for many years at the University of Chicago. Several of the neoconservatives studied under him. Wolfowitz and Shulsky took doctorates under him.

Something of a cult developed around Strauss during his later years at Chicago, and he and some admirers figure in the Saul Bellow novel, “Ravelstein.” The cult is appropriate because Strauss believed that the essential truths about human society and history should be held by an elite, and withheld from others who lack the fortitude to deal with truth. Society, Strauss thought, needs consoling lies.
. . .
He also argued that Platonic truth is too hard for people to bear, and that the classical appeal to “virtue” as the object of human endeavor is unattainable. Hence it has been necessary to tell lies to people about the nature of political reality. An elite recognizes the truth, however, and keeps it to itself. This gives it insight, and implicitly power that others do not possess. This obviously is an important element in Strauss’s appeal to America’s neoconservatives.

The ostensibly hidden truth is that expediency works; there is no certain God to punish wrongdoing; and virtue is unattainable by most people. Machiavelli was right. There is a natural hierarchy of humans, and rulers must restrict free inquiry and exploit the mediocrity and vice of ordinary people so as to keep society in order.

There is something repulsive to me in the idea that there are some ideas that have to be shielded from people because they are unable to handle it. It is a dangerous and paternalistic attitude and profoundly undemocratic. But it is clear that the neoconservatives believe it. For them, the truth is not an unqualified good. Rather it is something that only a select few, who alone are wise enough to really understand it and use it, should know and those people get to decide what the general public should know, even if it is false.

To argue that one should present different truths for different people is wrong. One has an obligation to not deceive people. Of course, one may present what one perceives to be the truth to different audiences in different ways. It is like teaching the basics of mathematics or science. How I teach it to elementary school students and to doctoral students will be quite different but the ideas I try to convey should be the same.

Since the listener always interprets new knowledge in the light of his or her own experiences, we will each construct our own version of the truth.

But that is quite different from deliberately constructing different “truths” to present to different people in order to get them to conform to your will. Such things are no longer truths. They are simply manipulative lies. They are the modern-day opium of the people.

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