Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Opium of the Elite

It would not be remiss to say that I hold no piece of writing in higher regard than Karl Marx's dissertation on the "opiate of the masses". Frequently misquoted, and even more frequently misunderstood, this examination of the religious impulse expresses the essence of what I feel makes the "comfort of faith" the charismatic poisoner that it is. Here is the quote in full, as it was used by Christopher Hitchens - who first brought my attention to its true meaning:

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...

Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower.

Karl Marx, A Contribution to Hegel's Philosophy of Right

From this we see just what kind of opiate religion is to the poor and suffering in the world - not heroin, some immature and taboo indulgence, but rather morphine, a painkiller taken in response to the unbearable conditions they are subjected to. When a pain cannot be borne, one has two options: to dull the senses and escape to the realm of fantasy, or to exist in the real world and remove the source of that pain. Medical science wins victory after victory against these sources, eliminating our tormentors, and yet invariably it is the fantasists, the religious, who seek to block this progress.

In a similar way, the religious impulse has been used throughout history to prevent insurrection and to make those without happy in their lot. Moses the Raven from Orwell's Animal Farm is the essence of this trope. Christianity specifically preaches against the questioning of authority and empowerment in earthly matters. "Render unto Caesar", anyone?

But that's not what I actually want to talk about here. Reflecting on the claim that "faithadds meaning to our lives", I thought I saw the manner in which religion inveigles itself into our modern, affluent culture. It is astoundingly similar to that of impoverished and opressed cultures, and disempowers us in just the same way.