“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.“
I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve heard or read leftists arguing that religious movements shouldn’t be blanket rejected or dismissed, because through their religion they articulate the sufferings and aspirations of people, and thus mobilise those sufferings and aspirations in fighting for change
- and then-
hear them in the same breath contrast this with, or disavow, the ‘traditional’ leftist attitude towards religion expressed in the above quote.
This point – that religion can serve as an expression and mobilisation of people in struggle against oppression – is not just not opposed to Marx’s above quoted view, it is the whole point of that view.
Progressive religious movements are not some new phenomenon – they existed all through the middle ages in Europe, where every peasant revolt and democratic movement cloaked itself in religious references. This phenomenon, moreover, was not unknown to Marx and Engels – indeed, Engels actually wrote a lot about it.
The whole point of saying that religion is both the protest against real distress, and also an opiate, is to draw attention to the different ways it can be used – but to also maintain that it is nevertheless ill-suited to progressive purposes, because it relies on illusions, because it offers illusory satisfactions and thus stabilises the real frustration of those desires.
Today, I attended a seminar on the empowerment gained by Jordanian women from participation in the Jordanian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, where the speaker (herself religious) repeated this distancing from the ‘traditional’ view.
I suggested that the opium-approach actually provides an extremely good model of the role of religion in empowering these women – it provides them with access to a special gender-neutral “subject-position”, that of religious activist and authority, in which they can feel empowered without the base condition of women themselves changing. That is, it stabilises the situation where women as women are disempowered, by providing this route that a small number of women can take towards being empowered as something else, rather than as women.
I was told in response that this approach is false to the experience of the women themselves. Well of course it is. It is the suggestion that they are subject to religious illusions. We should listen to what people say for themselves, certainly, and far more than is usually done. But I don’t see the point of refraining from attempts at understanding which posit that people are deluded. This, however, was objected to because it ‘assumes’ a non-religious ‘world-view’.
No, it doesn’t ‘assume’ anything, nor did Marx when writing the above quote. It observes that religious belief doesn’t have a rational leg to stand on, that (in Europe) it emerged from several centuries of enquiry and philosophical debate as a shambling wreck of the impressive edifice it had presented in the time of, say, Aquinas, and now survives by pathetic appeals to feeling and emotion, and, more commonly, by straightforward social indoctrination.
There’s probably no God. Really, it’s very unlikely. This isn’t just one view among many, this is the one that makes the most sense. There are certainly arguments in defense of religion (arguments somehow appealed to by dozens of contradictory ones…) but none of them stand up.
Cosmological argument says God must be the first cause of the universe: fails because if God can be the start, withoutus having to ask ‘what created God’, there’s no reason to not allow some ungodly event to be the start.
Teleological argument says God must exist, because the universe is so beautifully designed: fails because the universe is in most respects a crock of shit, filled not just with suffering but with unremitting, compulsory, pointless evil, and also because we have no way to judge the probability of a universe being a certain way, any more than we can judge how likely it is for the laws of statistical probability to hold.
There’s also the crazy shit argument: that even if ‘God’ existed, it is hugely unlikely that an infinitely wise being would choose to communicate with us through methods as conspicuously bad as that of religious revelation – that such She or He would inform various people in different parts of the world that they should do different things and definitely never ever do the things that the people in the other part of the world do. Nor is it likely that an infinitely good being would inform people that there’s nothing remotely objectionable about slavery, nor about meat-eating, nor about beating up members of your family, etc.
I don’t want to go too much into philosophy of religion, because it’s old, it’s boring, and it doesn’t convince all that many religious people. The point is, the Marxist (and friends) approach to religion, which I consider one of the most insightful aspects of Marxism, emerges out of the context where religion has turned out to make no sense at all, but people keep believing in it. It is meant to avoid either being stupid enough to accept the truth of some religion, or assuming that religion is simply a matter of mindless fanaticism that must be fought by pointing out how little sense it makes.
It’s completely opposed to EDIT: the way that opposition to religion sometimes plays out, the painting of religious movements as homogenously reactionary and thus justifying repression and bloodshed to suppress them. Consider the ‘secularism’ of the Turkish state, the way that its bans on wearing the hijab actually held women back from entering universities. Consider the bloodshed of the Algerian civil war, when the secular government sought to wipe out the islamist opposition. And closest to home, the way that we’re told that Iran and Hezbollah and Hamas are not just self-serving thugs (as almost all politicians are) but irrational, unpredictable, maniacs. The ‘religious fanaticism’, for example, of Iran’s rulers is used to argue that if nuclear armed, they will actually use those weapons, whereas Israel and India and France won’t.
It also implies a certain set of priorities, that changing people’s lives is more important than changing their minds (though obviously not unrelated), and that often religion will persist regardless of rational arguments if the conditions that produce it persist.
Anyway. The point I wanted to make with this rant is that the view of religion that emerged among the workers’ movement in the 19th century – that religion is “the opium of the people”, “the soul of a soulless world”, “the spirit of spiritless conditions” - is not some sort of outmoded dogma, but is still, by and large, the most sensible and intelligent approach going.
We need to defend it both against those who want to use secuarism as a pretext for war and torture, and against actually religious viewpoints. We need to preserve its basic idea of sympathy for and solidarity with people struggling under religious banners, combined with an awareness of its illusory nature.