“Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions.”
Karl Marx, Critic of Hegel philosophy of Right.
I am currently recovering from surgery. Prior to my surgery, I had no experience with narcotics or in Marx’s choice word opium. I remember returning home the same day after my surgery and writhing in pain with no one around to help. The pain was so intense that I could not answer phone calls because I had left my phone on the dresser away from the bed. So I took two tablets of the oxycodone 5-325 given to me at the hospital, man did it feel so good after few minutes! The bed felt unusually warm and cozy to the point that I forgot I had just had surgery. I remember narrating this experience to my friend and she said, “Blessing you were high, that’s what was happening to you.” I had no idea that that’s what being high translates to (no wonder it is a controlled substance), man it felt so good!!! But after about six hours the reality settled in as the pain resurfaced.
If you know a little about philosophy, agnosticism, or atheism you must have heard this quote, “religion is the opium of the masses (people).” This quote when read in exclusion of the entire quotation would suggest that Karl Marx was against religion. But was he really? Let’s look at the quote as a whole. “Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress.”
It seems to me that Karl admits that people are in distress and religion offers them comfort in the same way people who are physically going through pain from injuries or in my own case surgery receive temporal relief from narcotics (opium). To Karl, religion is the protest against the real distress. What is the real distress that Marx has in mind? Is it not the existing economic and political structures that cause suffering to the masses and disenfranchise the poor in our society?
The second part of the quote recognizes religion as “the sigh of the oppressed creature and heart of the heartless world.” Let’s assume that Karl’s use of the word religion is in the context of organized religion or institutionalized faith (I am arguing that religion could but not solely refer to institutionalized faith). He admits that it is a sigh (of relief?) of the oppressed creature. It seems to me that Marx is saying that the purpose of religion is to create relief for the poor and oppressed through it’s creation of illusory fantasies for these disenfranchised people.
I will argue that he was irate about the political and economic systems in place that hinder the poor from achieving true happiness in this present world of form. Religion then says to the masses; it’s okay, do not worry, this world is not all there is. Do not worry about this transient world, its wickedness and indifference to true virtue and happiness because you will find happiness in the life to come.
Karl concedes that people are in distress and religion provides comfort or alleviates the pain in a similar fashion as narcotics would provide temporary relief to those who are going through physical pain. What I find fascinating is that Karl recognizes that opiates do not heal the physical injury in the same way that religion whether organized or existential does not resolve the underlying causes of people’s pain and suffering. Instead, religion helps them to explore why they are suffering and helps them to look to an imaginary future, where pain and suffering would be completely eradicated. A future where the King of righteousness will return and establish His rule in our world. A future where there would be no more sickness, oppression, war, poverty, and dying. A future, where in the words of the Prophet Isaiah, the shroud that covers all people would be removed.
Although, it would be misleading for me to insinuate that Marx did not have disgust for organized religion, but when this quote is considered in it’s entirety, it seem to me that he inadvertently uses religion as a polemic to the temporary relief obtained from the unjust political and economic system that enslave and constantly keep the less privileged in perpetual poverty by policies which offer them temporary relief. That Marx is not entirely against religion could be seen in the resulting Liberation theology by the Latin American theologians, that utilized Marx’s analysis of religion as a critique of the economic injustice against the poor. What do you think about my thoughts about this quote?