Is religion the opium of the masses?
“Religion is the opium of the masses” is the argument often used by atheists to dismiss religion without addressing the substantial issues it addresses. Though many atheists have used this quote, its most well-known proponent is Karl Marx: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”
What does this religion-opium argument imply? Atheists allege that just as opium intoxicates people with illusory feelings of well-being without offering any real relief, so does religion. Only when people stop taking opium will they shake off the opium-induced feelings of illusory well-being and strive towards real well-being. Atheists believe that the same applies to religion – only when people shed the false hopes offered by religion will they strive for actual well-being.
This argument has several unstated assumptions. Because these assumptions are not subjected to serious intellectual scrutiny, the religion-opium argument continues to hold a charm that stems largely from wordplay. Let’s examine these assumptions in the form of three questions.
- Are the hopes offered by religion false?
- Can we have real well-being without religion?
- Does religion divert our energy from real well-being?
1. Are the hopes offered by religion false?
Religion usually centers on the existence of a benevolent God by whose grace we can attain a world of eternal happiness. It frequently tells us that our present world is a station, not a destination. It is a place we pass through during our journey towards eternal existence. By living in this world according to God’s guidelines, we can live fruitfully and evolve towards spiritual perfection.
Are these religious beliefs false?
By material methods of observation and inference, we may not be able to conclusively prove the other-worldly truth-claims of religion. But we can definitely look at its this-worldly effects.
Unlike opium that harms our health, religion heals us in many ways – physically and mentally. In the Handbook of Religion and Health, published by Oxford University Press, Harold G. Koenig, MD; Michael E. McCullough, PhD; and the late David B. Larson, MD, carefully reviewed no fewer than two thousand published experiments that tested the relationship between religion and everything from blood pressure, heart disease, cancer and stroke to depression, suicide, psychotic disorders and marital problems. Some of their findings are:
- People who attended a spiritual program at least once a week lived average seven years longer than those who don’t attend at all.
- Religious youth showed significantly lower levels of drug and alcohol abuse, premature sexual involvement, criminal delinquency and suicidal tendencies than their nonreligious counterparts
- Elderly people with deep, personal religious faith have a stronger sense of well-being and life satisfaction than their less religious peers.”
Koening’s conclusion? “A high SQ (Spiritual Quotient) faithfulness to God appears to benefit people of all means, educational levels and ages.”
These findings are so consistent and compelling that Dr Patrick Glynn in his book God – The Evidence poignantly states their implications: “If this [religious belief] is an illusion, it is, first of all, not a harmful one, as Freud and the moderns taught. On the contrary, it is mentally beneficial. It is also, more puzzlingly, physically beneficial. And strangest of all, by deliberately interacting with this Illusion in a sincere spirit, through meditative prayer, one can create improvements in symptoms of disease that otherwise cannot be medically explained.” His last comment refers to the findings like those of Dr Herbert Benson in his book The Relaxation Response that the benefits of religious belief are greater when those beliefs are deeply cherished, not nominally held. What are we to infer from this? Is religion an illusion that somehow accidentally offers real benefits? And is it such a peculiar illusion that the greater our belief in it, the greater the benefits?
Can we be open-minded enough to consider a more natural and logical inference? Could it be that religion may not be an illusion at all? Might religious belief and practice be harmonizing us with some deeper reality, a harmonization that helps our mental and physical health?
Atheists often like to lay the blame for much of the violence on the feet of religion. However, statistics reveal that violence has been far more in atheistic parts of the world than elsewhere. R J Rummel in the book Lethal Politics: Soviet Genocide and Mass Murder Since 1917 documents that the victims of the Marxist governments amounted to 95,200,000. By comparison, the battle-killed in all foreign and domestic wars in this century total 35,700,000.
In utter disregard to such serious analysis, the religion-opium argument swaggers with intellectual arrogance. It summarily dismisses religion by equating the beliefs of religion with the fantasies induced by opium. Isn’t that what intolerance is all about – aggressively dismissing ideas that contradict one’s own beliefs? The religion-opium argument reflects an arrogant intolerant faith, the faith known as atheistic fundamentalism. Of course, this atheistic faith conceals its intolerance under the garbs of science, secularism and social progress. But when we strip it of its misdirecting jargon, it stands exposed for what it is: a fanatical belief in disbelief.
2. Can we have real well-being without religion?
Atheism assumes that the material level of existence is the only reality; whatever well-being is to be had should be had at the material level alone. Atheists believed that if people stopped taking the opium of religion, then they would strive for and achieve real well-being at the material level.
Has that hope been realized by the propagation of atheism and the relegation of religion to the sidelines of intellectual and social life, as has happened in many parts of the world in recent times?
Not at all.
The material level of existence is characterized by misery and mortality. As Marx’s religion-opium quote indicates (“religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature”), we are all oppressed creatures.
If we reject religion as an opium, can we free ourselves from the oppression of our inevitable mortality? No, because atheism rivets us to matter and material existence, which are temporary. Atheism implies that:
- We are material beings who will end with death. And death comes arbitrarily on anyone at any time. It knocks us all out of existence fully and forever. Period.
- Our life has no ultimate purpose or meaning. We are made of nothing but particles of matter that are moving about endlessly and meaninglessly.
How can such a dreary, draining and depressing worldview foster well-being? As atheist Steven Weinberg states, “The more comprehensible the universe becomes, the more it also seems pointless.” With such gloomy vision of life, many naturally doubt whether living itself has any value. Albert Camus states this explicitly at the start of his essay The Myth of Sisyphus: “There is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide.”
A godless soul-less worldview makes life meaningless, purposeless – worthless. It drives millions to ennui and despair. Millions bury themselves in pointless distractions like video games, spectator sports and entertainment. As American thinker Madalyn Murray O’Hair has commented about contemporary society, “Marx was wrong–religion is not the opiate of the masses, baseball is.” Our culture, by labeling religion as an opiate and making people turn away from it, forces them to seek refuge in such opiates.
3. Does religion divert our energy from real well-being?
Atheists argue that just as taking opium distracts people from working for real well-being, so does believing in religion. Is that true?
Religion does indeed direct our vision to another world, an eternal world – the kingdom of God. Does this other-worldly hope make us indolent or impotent to work in this world?
This is not to deny that some people may become negligent about their worldly responsibilities. But that’s because they misunderstand or misapply the teachings of religion.
What is the nature of religion’s actual contributions?
- Many of the greatest works of art, architecture and literature have been made by religious believers. Their belief didn’t cause them to reject everything of this world for the sake of God, but inspired them to do wonderful things in this world to glorify God.
- Millions of people have been motivated by their religious beliefs to acts of charity and compassion.
In addition to looking at religion’s practical contributions to the world, we also need to assess religion’s conceptual attitude towards the world so that we can gauge whether it has an opiate-like effect.
No doubt, religion promises us a better world beyond this world. At the same time, it instructs us that, to attain that world, we need to act morally and responsibly in the here-and-now. This injunction contributes to making things better in this world.
The Vedic worldview informs us that our spiritual development takes us through four progressive stages: dharma (religious practice), artha (holistic economic prosperity), kama (physical and emotional satisfaction) and moksha (liberation from material existence). Thus, it outlines a masterplan that integrates both this-worldly and other-worldly wellbeing.
Similarly, the Bhagavad-gita centers on a call for devotional activism in this world. Arjuna wanted to renounce the world, but Krishna instructed him to engage in the world and to engage the world in devotional service by establishing the rule of morality and spirituality in the world.
The Gita’s teachings of bhakti offer a dynamic way that helps us to contribute to this world while also attaining the next world. The path of bhakti urges us to neither romanticize nor demonize the world, but instead to utilize it and thereby realize God.
Many people including most atheists romanticize the world, picturing it to be the arena where they will fulfill their fantasies. When the world dashes and smashes their dreams, they sometimes oscillate to the other extreme and demonize it; they paint it as an intrinsically evil place meant to be shunned at all costs.
The Bhagavad-gita (02.64) urges us to avoid attachment and aversion, thereby pointing to a balance between these two poles of romanticization and demonization. Further, the Gita (05.29) declares that the world belongs to God, Krishna and so should be utilized for his service. When we lovingly offer the resources of the world to the Lord of the world, this devotional contact with the all-pure Lord purifies us. This purification peels away the layers of ignorance and forgetfulness that have obscured our spiritual identity for eons.
As we realize our spiritual identity, we understand that rendering devotional service to Krishna is our natural, eternal activity as his beloved children. This understanding inspires us to continue serving Krishna with conviction and devotion. Then, as we rise from self-realization to God-realization, we discover that all the peace and joy we were constantly searching for externally was present all along in our own hearts in the form of Krishna, the source of all peace and joy. Facilitating us to get that realization is the world’s ultimate purpose,
Thus, Gita wisdom helps us steer clear of the extremes of romanticization and demonization in dealing with the world. By showing us the middle path of utilization, it leads us to life’s ultimate perfection: realization of Krishna.
Srila Prabhupada demonstrates this devotional dynamism in our times. Did the religion of bhakti make him inactive when he could have been active? Far from it, it made him super-active at an age when most people were becoming inactive. Despite being at an advanced age of seventy, Srila Prabhupada traveled all over the world several times, wrote dozens of books, and established over a hundred temples. For him, religion far from being an opium was a vitalizer and animator.
That same rejuvenating potency of religion is available to us too. All we need to do is assimilate and apply the principles of bhakti, which the Bhagavad-gita (18.66) indicates is the summit of religion. Thus, the true contribution of religion, especially in its highest expression of bhakti, is far from that of an opiate. And its contribution is far higher than merely being a source of better physical and mental health, though these may come out. It provides a lasting and fulfilling direction for our innermost longing for love. By so doing, it makes our life meaningful, purposeful, joyful. Nothing enriches our life as does bhakti.
Atheism, on the other hand, devalues life into a meaningless accident, a procession of dead chemicals. It offers little if any reason for compassion and all reasons for utilitarianism – use anything and anyone for one’s own pleasure, for this life is all that exists and life is meant for enjoyment and there’s no God to oversee how we get that enjoyment. Such a worldview fosters immorality and corruption and degradation.
So, if evidence and reasoning were allowed to speak, perhaps the question would need to be turned around: might atheism be the opium of the masses? A deceptive and destructive opium that has been widely fed to people in the name of science, secularism and social progress while it actually erodes the foundations of our material and spiritual well being?