“Religion is the opiate for the masses” -Karl Marx
I heard this often repeated quote again last night as I was watching a Netflix show. The full quote by Marx is even more direct:
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”.
Have you ever wrestled with this idea? Is religion simply the opiate that keeps the masses in check, prevents a great uprising, holds the poor in their proper social sphere? It is repeated by all types of leading atheists, in television shows, it has become a trendy position and yet it fails to align with reality.
Think about the origins of Christianity in the 1st century and you’ll find that the Roman government had no problem controlling the masses. They were gifted at dominating, assimilating, and infiltrating competing cultures or ideas. Yet, the Romans feared Christianity because it couldn’t be controlled. Christianity instead of controlling the masses, drove the minority, to stand up about the monstrosity of the Roman empire.
Is Christianity the “soma” in which Huxley spoke about in The Brave New World? As I was pondering this idea, what hit me first is that an opiate is an escape. When you want to escape a pain you pop a pill. Yet, the Gospel’s greatness is that it doesn’t escape pain, it takes pain head on. It doesn’t run from heartache, it endures. It doesn’t quiver at the great questions of our day-it answers them. “Soma” puts the masses to sleep, holds them back in the superficial, leaves them in a coma of comfort. Christ calls us out of the haze, sleep, slumber, and solitude and brings us into the light of true humanity. He doesn’t overlook our brokenness but he also doesn’t let it define us either.
Popping a pill can become a reflex. The Gospel calls us out of what is normal or reflexive to a life that stands apart. It is difficult, divine, and dangerous. There is no safety in standing apart from the masses or from holiness in the hell of a warring world.
Ultimately, there are opiates for the masses. Popping the pills of entertainment, pleasure, and the superficial. Don’t put true religion on that list. Christianity calls us out of what is comfortable and calls us to “die to self daily…” as we become more and more like Christ. As experiencing the Holy Spirit who in their right mind would settle for popping a pill.