Love him or hate him, Karl Marx is undoubtedly one of the most influential and significant philosophers of the modern era. His writings and ideas are vilified by some and promoted by others. His words have shaped politicians of renown and notoriety (e.g. Lenin), even shaping entire countries. Though like any great philosopher, theologian, or thinker, his words are invariably reduced to minuscule scraps and quoted ad nauseum by the intellectually vapid sound-bite crowd (of which I count myself as a life-time member!). The most oft quoted snippet from Marx is the following:
Religion … is the opium of the people (Die Religion … ist das Opium des Volkes)
This snippet, from Marx’s Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, is to many people their only exposure to the ideas and writings of Marx, but is all that is needed in order to relegate him to the seventh circle of hell. It is also thrown by many as some sort of decisive riposte to any sort of positive claim about religion or to the idea that religion is anything more than the foolishness of the hoi polloi. Heck, I have seen these seven words bandied about as being fully supportive of religion, and while I do not agree with that assessment, I do think that the nuance of what Marx was getting at is lost on most who use it.
And while I am but an armchair philosopher, I shall attempt to explain what Marx meant by saying religion is the opium of the people. Here is the snippet in a more fuller context:
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.
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.
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. The criticism of religion disillusions man, so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses, so that he will move around himself as his own true Sun. Religion is only the illusory Sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself.
Marx believed that all of our social institutions, including religion, are essentially the result of economic realities. There are the economically well-off and the economically not-so-well-off, the obscenely wealthy and the very poor, with the former groups seen as oppressing the latter (whether directly or indirectly). How is religion the opium of the people? Through a belief in post-mortem rewards and punishments (e.g. heaven and hell), religion placates people into accepting social injustices brought about by economic disparities. From what I understand, in Marx’s day opium was a mainstream sedative or pain killer, though it was also used to induce visions, as well as also being used medicinally in the fight against cholera. Just as opium was used as a pain killer, Marx saw that religion likewise kills the pain of the oppression brought about by economic inequalities and the concomitant social injustices (though as Marx would point out, this is only a temporary pain killer which doesn’t get to the underlying root cause). Just as opium could induce visions, Marx saw religion as offering up an illusion promising the eschatological reversal of fortunes (e.g., see the story of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16.19-31), causing people not to fight against the injustices in this life.
So what Marx meant by saying that “religion… is the opium of the people” is not simply that religion is the crutch for the foolish of society, but rather that is the numbing drug that the down-trodden use to conceal the suffering we experience and to bring hope for the future. It has its place in this world and is merely a reaction to the oppression we presently face as well as our fears about the future (namely, death). However, Marx, who was an atheist, was of the opinion that religion and the worship of god should end, and that we create our own gods, which was in fact a key criticism that he leveled against religion: it takes the highest ideals of man and projects them onto the figure of “God” (i.e. ‘the supreme being of man is man’, or ‘man is the highest essence for man’).
Additionally, in Marx’s thought, much of the suffering we face is in fact ultimately caused by religion itself because it makes the down-trodden accept their suffering due to promises of “illusory happiness.” He saw religion as a tool used by those in power to preserve their dominance (for example just look at how the Religious Right is used in American politics). But this truth is lost on those being oppressed, and the only way humans can truly be free is to break free from their addiction to the opiate and to see past the illusory happiness of religion. And the abolition of religion would bring with it the impetus for a socialist political revolution and an attempt to achieve the maximum democratization of society, as without the illusory happiness that religion provides (and its preservation of the status quo of the control and exploitation of the many by the wealthy few), there is no other recourse to mitigate the suffering caused by economic inequalities and social injustices.