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The expression “Religion is the opium of the people” is one of the best-known sayings of Karl Marx, which also became the ideological slogan against Religion and Christianity in general.
It is on this saying that I would like to express a few of my thoughts.
1. Marx’s theory
To begin with, I should clarify that Karl Marx was a German Jew, born and raised outside Bonne, and, as was to be expected, he lived his childhood years and his teens in the aura of Jewish Rabbis. He had also turned to Greek philosophy at a very early stage, and his diatribe was about Epicurus. In his diatribe, he wrote as a preface: “In brief: I harbor hatred towards all gods”
Parenthetically, I would like to underline that one’s hatred towards God and religion is a religious fact, as odd as this may seem at first glance, because if one does not believe in the existence of God, one does not become enlisted in the battle against this nonexistent (in his opinion) God. Hatred towards God is interpreted from the point of view that it manifests itself in the name of some other faith – some other deity of one’s own choice. Hatred and polemic towards God applies to an existent God, because one never hates or fights against a God which he believes does not exist.
Coming back to the subject, I would like to stress that the philosopher Nicholas Berdiaev, who had commenced his philosophical work by pursuing the Marxist theories, eventually interpreted Marx’s thoughts in a truly remarkable manner. He argued that Marx, on account of his Jewish descent, believed in the Messianic idea – in the coming of “the kingdom of God”, which meant the betrayed people. Given that he ceased to believe in the coming of the Messiah, the way that Jews had, he secularized that Messiah and attributed that role to the proletariat – the class of industrial workers. The new Messiah – according to Marx – is now the proletariat, which is exempt of the cardinal sin and it is to these people that all truths shall be unfolded; it is the proletariat that will uncover all self-delusions and will put an end to the battle of the classes, upon which, it will restore humanity back to unity, and thus the “new kingdom” will prevail on earth.
In interpreting the Jewish substructure of the Marxist theory, Berdiaev wrote: “The proletariat’s triumph will split the world’s History into two parts. It will bring on a new age. The proletariat will be the only form of conscience; the true humanity and its interests will coincide with those of collectivity.”
Thus, we have a new Messianic people (the proletariat), a new Moses (Marx), a new Promised Land (the class-less society), and a new Law (equality and justice).
The fact is that Marx, when stating that “religion is the opium of the people” (the paternity of which is attributed by some to Feuerbach), had in mind only three religious traditions, that is, the Jewish religion with its Messianism; the Christianity of the West, which had linked itself to scholasticism, capitalism, crusades and wars, but also to the Buddhist views of the Far East, according to which, people applied themselves to yoga and to transcendental meditation in order to avoid their return to life, because every life is an affliction and in reality, this allowed the mighty of the earth and every tyrant to exploit the people’s pain. Viewed in this sense, these religious traditions that exploit man and subject him to other, arbitrary powers can indeed function as “the opium of the people”, inasmuch as it either puts their minds to sleep, or it intoxicates them and throws them into warfare, for the destruction of others.
I am inclined to believe that if Marx had acquainted himself with the Orthodox Church – the way that the major Fathers of the Church had expressed it, and the way it is lived in the genuinely Orthodox Monasteries that still preserve the hesychast spirit and the renouncing of possessions – he would probably have had an entirely different point of view on these matters.
2. An interpretation of the Marxist theory
In one of his texts, Michael Raptis (aka Pablo) also makes reference to the Marxist statement of “religion is the opium of the people”.
He writes that this phrase “is derived from two different interpretations”. The one interpretation has to do with the placating of existential questions, which exist inside every person when religion is seen as a certain innate tendency of an evolving being; in other words, religion in this case calms man’s existential anxieties. The other interpretation is that because people are purposely being misled and disoriented by each and every governing authority for the sake of peace in society, it could be that religion is being used by every system, for that precise purpose – in other words, to put man’s social concerns to sleep.
Further along, he analyses that Marx attributed the second significance to his phrase and that he omitted whatever had to do with man’s existential concerns and speculations, to which religion does give a solution. However, he also gives another dimension to the Marxist theory on religion. He writes:
«Marx insists on the view that religion is also a protest against man’s actual social impoverishment, and that Marx subsequently does not condemn religion or the religious person. Religion is the human being’s sigh in a heartless world, but also its healing balm, not only for his social misery and change, but also for his unclarified existential problems».
I cannot know whether this was indeed the actual interpretation that Marx attributed to religion, and how it relates to the phrase “religion is the opium of the people”; it would be a matter for research and analysis. The fact remains, though, that Marx’s thought had a Jewish substratum to it, from which he could not, of course, alienate himself.
3. “Religion” and “Church”
By studying religions and Christian confessions, one can discern that certain ideas are used – at times to disorient their followers, at other times to fanaticize them, and at yet other times to render them ideologists. For example, scholastic theology and the capitalist mentality of Western Christianity (the way Marx knew it), the Jewish mindset and especially the Zionist mentality which is a purely political choice that politically utilizes the religious views of the Old Testament (which can be seen from the differentiation of the Hassidim), oriental meditation and mysticism, but also the sorcery that is observed in oriental religions, all give the same impression; i.e., that religion –in varying degrees- is indeed the opium of the people, from the aspect that it places man at the margins of society, thus creating free space for every tyrant to act and to exploit the people.
However, when I often refer to this quotation by Marx, that religion is the opium of the people, I always insist that it is not referring to the Orthodox Church also, given that the Orthodox Church – the way that the great Fathers had designated it – is NOT a religion, because it is not discerned by the elements that the other religions have; it is a Church. The (Greek) word for Church – ECCLESIA – denotes a calling together of the townspeople to solve various problems. The Church never functioned as a religion (I do not have enough time to analyze this point), only as a Church; a congregating of clergy and laity, together with God, the Holy Mother and the Saints. Anyone who has read the memoirs of General Makryiannis (lived during the time of the Greek Nation’s uprising against the Turkish occupation) will discern that this was the way he too perceived the Church, and that in the name of that Church, he headed the struggle for independence, so that constitutional rights would be given to the people.
This is the reason that makes me believe that the Orthodox Church functions more as a spiritual hospital – a therapeutic society – which takes a person from the state he is in, and frees him of his assorted dependencies; it de-ideologizes him and de-fanaticizes him.
We all know that apart from the opiate essences, there are also psychological and ideological opiates; apart from narcotics, there are also psycho-narcotics. If one desires to truly live within the Orthodox Church, with Her sacramental and ascetic lifestyle, one will be rid of all such dependencies.
In my last book, titled “Religion and Church in Society”, the reader will find many views being analyzed around this topic.
In closing, I would like to point out that unfortunately nowadays, the slogan “religion is the opium of the people” appears to prevail in many religious communities; however, equally prevalent is the following slogan: “opium is the religion of the people”. Narcotics are tormenting young people, the ruling class - as well as a portion of champion athletics -with their capitalist mentality and organization. These assorted psychotropic drugs are the opium of the people. It is not only religion now, but power also, which are the new opiates of the people.
The prophet Isaiah condemned those who “become inebriate without wine”: he was referring to those who exercise various forms of power. Unfortunately, we are rendered witnesses of this fact, every day.
Published in the magazine «Daphne»
Translation: A. N.
Article published in English on: 28-6-2007.
Last update: 28-6-2007.