March 16, 2006

Opium of the people

Most people, when they think of the Karl Marx's attitudes towards religion, remember the quote where he refers to it as "the opium of the people." This sounds quite dismissive. When I first heard it, I thought he meant that religion was a hallucination, similar to that caused by drugs.

But when you read the full passage that leads up to this quote, the impression shifts slightly, but in an important way. The passage is in his "Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right" (February 1844) and and goes as follows:

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.

This is a much more poetic and sympathetic view of religion than that given by just the last sentence. It speaks of religion as the solace of a suffering people, a mechanism for them to obtain relief from the forces that oppress them, to endure suffering, and something that enables them to extract some happiness from life.

(Note that when Marx wrote this, it was soon after the end of the first Opium War in China (1839-1842), where Britain put down a Chinese rebellion that was trying to end imports by British traders of opium into China, which was causing widespread addiction in that nation. He must have been aware of the fact that having the people drugged on opium enabled the relatively small British presence in China to control that vast country and its peoples. So it was a very timely metaphor.)

Of course, Marx was opposed to religion because although he saw that it met a short-term need, it hindered the ability of people to achieve a more enduring happiness. It was clear that he was not against religion just for the sake of it, but because he wanted to get rid of the terrible conditions that tempted people want to find refuge and solace in it, rather than seeking to change those very conditions. He went on:

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.

As Amanda Udis-Kessler writes in this commentary on Marx's comment:

Opium, of course, provides only temporary relief for suffering, and does so by blunting the senses. In making suffering bearable, Marx argues, opium (and religion) actually can be said to be contributing to human suffering by removing the impetus to do whatever is necessary to overcome it - which, for Marx, is to relinquish religion and turn to revolutionary politics. Hamilton (1995: 82-3) points out the ultimate practical outcome of religion’s palliative function, from a Marxian perspective: "Religion offers compensation for the hardships of this life in some future life, but it makes such compensation conditional upon acceptance of the injustices of this life."

In other words, religion serves the social function of keeping people from becoming restive about their condition and is thus conducive to maintaining social order in the face of even massive injustice.

Marx's views on religion came to my mind when I was thinking about how the neoconservatives aligned themselves with religious Christian fundamentalists in order to achieve their political goals. The neoconservatives are grateful that religion is like opium, keeping people in a drugged, unperceptive state. It is this very feature that is attractive to those who benefit from that state of injustice.

Ronald Bailey, writing in Reason magazine argues that neoconservatives are cynically exploiting the palliative nature of religious beliefs. And to serve this end, they are even going so far as to align themselves with those religious people who are attacking Darwin. "These otherwise largely secular intellectuals may well have turned on Darwin because they have concluded that his theory of evolution undermines religious faith in society at large. . . Ironically, today many modern conservatives fervently agree with Karl Marx that religion is "the opium of the people"; they add a heartfelt, "Thank God!" "

There is reason to think that at least some of the neoconservatives are themselves not religious, but see in religion a useful tool that keeps people in line, like sheep. Their fear of what might happen if there is widespread existential angst leads them to a cynical support for the Christian fundamentalist view.

Bailey goes on:

[Neoconservative Irving] Kristol has been quite candid about his belief that religion is essential for inculcating and sustaining morality in culture. He wrote in a 1991 essay, "If there is one indisputable fact about the human condition it is that no community can survive if it is persuaded--or even if it suspects--that its members are leading meaningless lives in a meaningless universe."
. . .
Kristol has acknowledged his intellectual debt to [Neoconservative ideologue Leo] Strauss in a recent autobiographical essay. "What made him so controversial within the academic community was his disbelief in the Enlightenment dogma that 'the truth will make men free.' " Kristol adds that "Strauss was an intellectual aristocrat who thought that the truth could make some [emphasis Kristol's] minds free, but he was convinced that there was an inherent conflict between philosophic truth and political order, and that the popularization and vulgarization of these truths might import unease, turmoil and the release of popular passions hitherto held in check by tradition and religion with utterly unpredictable, but mostly negative, consequences."

Kristol agrees with this view. "There are different kinds of truths for different kinds of people," he says in an interview. "There are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy. It doesn't work."
. . .
A year ago, I asked Kristol after a lecture whether he believed in God or not. He got a twinkle in his eye and responded, "I don't believe in God, I have faith in God." Well, faith, as it says in Hebrews 11:1, "is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."

But at the recent AEI lecture, journalist Ben Wattenberg asked him the same thing. Kristol responded that "that is a stupid question," and crisply restated his belief that religion 
is essential for maintaining social discipline. A much younger (and perhaps less circumspect) Kristol asserted in a 1949 essay that in order to prevent the 
social disarray that would occur if ordinary people lost their religious faith, "it would indeed become the duty of the wise publicly to defend and support religion."

William Pfaff, writing on "The Long Reach of Leo Strauss" in the International Herald Tribune, traces the influence of neoconservative thinking, outlining the broader ideological framework under which religious belief is promoted by the neoconservatives:

They have a political philosophy, and the arrogance and intolerance of their actions reflect their conviction that they possess a realism and truth others lack.

They include Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz; Abram Shulsky of the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans, Richard Perle of the Pentagon advisory board, Elliott Abrams of the National Security Council, and the writers Robert Kagan and William Kristol.

The main intellectual influence on the neoconservatives has been the philosopher Leo Strauss, who left Germany in 1938 and taught for many years at the University of Chicago. Several of the neoconservatives studied under him. Wolfowitz and Shulsky took doctorates under him.

Something of a cult developed around Strauss during his later years at Chicago, and he and some admirers figure in the Saul Bellow novel, "Ravelstein." The cult is appropriate because Strauss believed that the essential truths about human society and history should be held by an elite, and withheld from others who lack the fortitude to deal with truth. Society, Strauss thought, needs consoling lies.
. . .
He also argued that Platonic truth is too hard for people to bear, and that the classical appeal to "virtue" as the object of human endeavor is unattainable. Hence it has been necessary to tell lies to people about the nature of political reality. An elite recognizes the truth, however, and keeps it to itself. This gives it insight, and implicitly power that others do not possess. This obviously is an important element in Strauss's appeal to America's neoconservatives.

The ostensibly hidden truth is that expediency works; there is no certain God to punish wrongdoing; and virtue is unattainable by most people. Machiavelli was right. There is a natural hierarchy of humans, and rulers must restrict free inquiry and exploit the mediocrity and vice of ordinary people so as to keep society in order.

There is something repulsive to me in the idea that there are some ideas that have to be shielded from people because they are unable to handle it. It is a dangerous and paternalistic attitude and profoundly undemocratic. But it is clear that the neoconservatives believe it. For them, the truth is not an unqualified good. Rather it is something that only a select few, who alone are wise enough to really understand it and use it, should know and those people get to decide what the general public should know, even if it is false.

To argue that one should present different truths for different people is wrong. One has an obligation to not deceive people. Of course, one may present what one perceives to be the truth to different audiences in different ways. It is like teaching the basics of mathematics or science. How I teach it to elementary school students and to doctoral students will be quite different but the ideas I try to convey should be the same.

Since the listener always interprets new knowledge in the light of his or her own experiences, we will each construct our own version of the truth.

But that is quite different from deliberately constructing different "truths" to present to different people in order to get them to conform to your will. Such things are no longer truths. They are simply manipulative lies. They are the modern-day opium of the people.


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I wonder to what degree the paternalists really feel they must protect the populace for their own good. Although I am sure they really do feel superior, I can't help but think the strategy is chosen primarily to aid in consolidating their own power. As we shield people from ideas and enlightmentment, we weaken their abilities to understand, thus providing more leverage and control to those in power.

It strikes me though that in the long run this is a bad strategy for those in power as well. As they encourage the masses to seek faith over reason, to not question, to not explore, they are creating a class that is not only obedient, but also one that is less creative and competitive.

From where in such a population will we find the inventors of new gadgets, the improvers of productivity, or the creators of arts and entertainment--the people who propel the economy that makes those in power so wealthy?

I could have made similar examples regarding the environment, education, etc., but it seems to me that these people are taking a rather narrow short term view to achieve certain goals without realizing the broader ramifications themselves.

If that is the case how could these be the people who are wise enough to make the decisions for the rest?

Posted by cool on March 16, 2006 03:36 PM

I think that such people really feel no need for about 80% of the population, except insofar as they provide a source of cheap labor. I think that they have a sense that the elites will reproduce themselves and produce the kinds of creative benefits that your mention.

In The Bell Curve, the authors pretty much write off the lower-IQ population as not having the capacity to achieve high levels of creativity. Couple this with a strong hereditarian outlook, and all that is left is to find means of pacifying and controlling the majority. Religion helps.

Posted by Mano Singham on March 16, 2006 03:53 PM

It all reminds me of Huxley's Brave New Worldbut a form of eugenics through social policy rather than through chemistry.

I often see examples of human stupidity, and being human have made some foolish decisions myself, but I'm also amazed at the human capacity for accomplishment. The fact that I can go into a bookstore or onto Amazon and find so many books from which to choose, that I can hop online and play with this nifty thing called the internet, push a button and listen to live music, be given a shot and never fear polio, etc. all is astounding.

To imagine that all of this has been accomplished through a mere 13% of the truly literate, or 20% at the top of the curve just seems improbable. When I see an ignorant neo-nazi on T.V. or hear about the latest foolhardy zero-tolerance infraction in a school I shake my head at the preponderance of idiots on the planet.

Yet when I hear wisdom emanating from a women scraping by selling trinkets on a beach in Indonesia, or learn something new from the person next to me in the checkout line at Target, I am imbued with hope that humankind is peppered with talents. The sadness is more that so many are undernurtured.

I bounce back and forth between the pessimistic and optimistic notions of humanity, but it seems rather wasteful to merely depend upon one small slice of the gene pool when we could accomplish so much more by developing the talents of those outside this caste. Especially if we consider that the elite tend to reproduce the least.

I think I've wandered off tangent a bit, but it seems to me that by educating people we could increase productivity and reduce social unrest and poverty all while making the wealthy even wealthier than they are now.

Posted by cool on March 16, 2006 04:32 PM

Yes, I agree. But I think you and I share the egalitarian view that qualities such as intelligence and creativity and wisdom are distributed randomly in the population and can also be nurtured and cultivated. Hence it definitely makes sense to open up opportunites for as wide a public as is possible, if he are to have the best chance of releasing creative ideas.

But the elitist view is that only a select few are capable of such things and that capitalism has already made that sorting, so the people who currently dominate society are doing so by virtue of being the best and are passing on those same admirable traits to their offspring. So in that view, you don't really expect or want much from the rest. You just want to keep them quiet and content.

Posted by Mano Singham on March 16, 2006 06:01 PM

Lest we forget, followers of the Christian faith are the "Lamb of God."

The Bible is actually telling people they are mindless worker bees following a leader (Shepherd) and they eat it up.

I've long said that religion is used as a tool to maintain order for the ruling class. It's just sad that in an information age such as this, people will cling to a belief structure that is present simply because it has been forced upon them.

I never know if I should pity the religious, or consider myself fortunate to have risen above the masses and see things for myself.

Posted by Barry on March 17, 2006 05:28 PM

I think "Lamb of God" is a term reserved for just Jesus.

However, his followers are referred to as his "flock" and he is also referred to as a "good shepherd", all of which imply that the followers are like sheep, though I am not sure if it was meant as the kind of brainless followers for which the term is usually used. It probably implies someone who has faith that the shepherd will look after him/her.

Posted by Mano Singham on March 18, 2006 09:49 AM

Wonderful post Mano. Well articulated thoughts like these are why I keep reading. You keep me thinking.

Posted by Aaron Shaffer on March 18, 2006 12:04 PM

I'm increasingly of the opinion that in our culture, Television has become the opiate of the masses.

Why fight the powers, why stand up for the oppressed, when you can sit back and passively absorb entertainments and a constant, soothing stream of messages that you are worthy... so long as you spend.

Posted by Marie on March 19, 2006 12:39 AM

Religion is compared to opium as it relieve the suffering, and achieve a more enduring happiness

Posted by Opiate Symptoms on January 15, 2010 11:38 AM