Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The Opium of the People

There is never a shortage of individuals misquoting Marx in order to make it appear that he presented sentiments parallel to claiming that religion was nothing more than opium, the only function of which was to drug the masses and dull the mind. This is, of course, inaccurate. What Marx actually claimed, in his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, was much deeper in its analysis and broader in its implication. He says in his introduction:

“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….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 cull the living flower.”

Undoubtedly many have already become acquainted with a portion of this quote, that religion is the “opium of the people,” but many have likewise failed to actually understand what Marx meant by this. He does not mean by “opium of the people” that religion drugs the masses so as to dull the mind, but, rather, religion is the opium of the people in the sense that it is that which consoles and gives comfort to those facing impossible circumstances. Marx is stating that, through class struggle, religion is wholly dependent upon and is birthed by the material and economic realities which society faces. To Marx religion is the manifestation of a societal defense mechanism, not only the expression of societies suffering but of its protest against it and this suffering is caused by material and economic injustices, political connivances. He believes that by criticizing and abolishing religion one would be able to inculcate within society the foundation for political revolution, or, at least, its evolution.

6 comments:

elijeremiah said...

You have become an expert at exposing the sound bite crowd as the empty-headed, intellectually vapid crowd it is. People constantly misquote or misinterpret Marx's statement, and you have turned this fact into the springboard for another wonderful blog entry.

Quote: "He believes that by criticizing and abolishing religion one would be able to inculcate within society the foundation for political revolution, or, at least, its evolution."

What I love about your writing is that you're so good at creating thematically coherent pieces and then using tightly worded sentences to back it all up.

Great job, as usual!! I always look forward to your latest blogs. You're the first stop for smart pieces on religion and its related topics.

Stardust said...

Another great post, JD!

He does not mean by “opium of the people” that religion drugs the masses so as to dull the mind, but, rather, religion is the opium of the people in the sense that it is that which consoles and gives comfort to those facing impossible circumstances.

Excellent clarification. Your post has made me rethink an article I wrote back in December 2005 that I based on this quote.

JDHURF said...

Wow, eli, thank you for the very eloquent review of my post. I always feel like your responses are reviews and I am fortunate in that they are always very positive!

stardust:
I was unaware of the fact that you had posted a piece on Marx and his quote. It is certainly a very popular quote. The only problem is that it’s predominately taken out of context and misunderstood. However, this is not always the authors fault for they were never aware of the context in which the quote arose from, they were only aware of the quote as espoused so frequently through all the various forms of media, all of which, as I have witnessed, take the quote out of its necessary context.

I’m glad you both read the piece and posted with your responses, thank you!

MomSquared said...

Thanks for this post.

(Thanks for this post - that's what I always say when I think I've gained something from reading a post but I have nothing intelligent to say about it.)

JDHURF said...

momsquared:
I'm glad that you took something away from the post, thanks for stopping by and commenting!

Vercingetorix said...

With this excerpt in mind, I am curious what you think of the prevalence of religious fundamentalism in prosperous countries such as the US. I agree with you that the the quote is generally simplified, and that its full scope is not appreciated, but I also wonder if its popular interpretation is not a sort of application to the present times in which we define "impossible circumstances," or difficult ones at least, more broadly that Marx might have.