Is religion really the opium of the people?

03 Dec

“The only antidote to mental suffering is physical pain.” Karl Marx

By Alex P. Vidal

I never had any idea about Karl Marx until I became a campus writer where I stumbled into Das Kapital as a wet-behind-the-ears member of the College Editors Guild of the Philippines (CEGP) in the 80’s.
Was it the bible of communism?
In Das Kaptial, Marx, a German philosopher and social scientist, proposed that the motivating force of capitalism is in the exploitation of labor.
Marx believed that labor’s unpaid work is the ultimate source of surplus value and then profit both of which concepts have a specific meaning for the author of the Manifesto of the Communist Party.
We will not dwell on Das Kapital in this article.
We have no illusion that we would be able grasp the book’s depth and permanence in the minds of many followers of the socioeconomic system structured upon common ownership of the means of production and characterized by the absence of social classes, money, and the state; as well as a social, political and economic ideology and movement that aims to establish a social order called communism.
Political and social scientists are more knowledgeable on this subject matter.


We are more curious about Marx’s thinking when he wrote: “Religion suffering is at one and the same the expression of real suffering and a protest against a 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 mentioned this in the “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Rights.”
We will notice two things right off the bat, according to author Michael Macrone.
First, Marx says that religion is the opium, not the opiate, of the people—a small difference, but worth getting right. (Opium is a particular drug, while opiates are a class).
Second, Marx is very fond of italics.
Characterizing religion as a painkilling drug, shocking as it still is to many, was even more radical in its day, Macrone explained.
And yet Marx, more than condemning religion itself, was actually critiquing the condition of a society that would lead people to it.
Nonetheless, forever after we would hear about “Godless communists,” implying that Marxist thought lacks values and morals.
This isn’t quite true, argued Macrone. What Marx really meant was that religion functions to pacify the oppressed; and oppression is definitely a moral wrong.


Religion, Marx said, reflects what is lacking in society; it is an idealization of what people aspire to but cannot now enjoy.
Social condition in mid-century Europe had reduced workers to little better than slaves; the same conditions produced a religion that promised a better world in the afterlife, observed Macrone.
Religion isn’t merely a superstition or an illusion. It has a social function: to distract the oppressed from the truth of their oppression.
So long as the exploited and downtrodden believe their sufferings will earn them freedom and happiness hereafter, they will think their oppression part of the natural order—a necessary burden rather than something imposed by other men.
This, then, is what Marx meant by calling religion the “opium of the people,” explained Macrone.
It dulls their pain but at the same time make them sluggish, clouding their perception of reality and robbing them of the will to change.
What did Marx want? He wanted the “people” to open their eyes to the harsh realities of 19th-century bourgeois capitalism.


Macrone pointed out that the capitalists were squeezing more and more profit out of the proletariat’s labor, at the same time “alienating” workers from self-realization.
What workers deserved, and could have if they arose from their slumber, was control over their own labor, possession of the value they created through work, and thus self esteem, freedom, and power.
To that end, Marx, called for the “abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people.”
He wanted them to demand “real happiness,” which in Marx’s materialist philosophy was freedom and fulfillment in this world.
Since the rich and powerful aren’t just going to hand these over, the masses shall have to seize them.
Thus class struggle and revolution.
Would that it was that simple, concluded Macrone.

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Posted by on December 3, 2014 in EDUCATION


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