Saturday, September 21, 2013

Religion: America's Drug of Choice

by Alex Romeo

In a recent post, Dr. Stephan T. Mayo explores the implications of Marx’s belief that religion functions as a kind of opiate, preventing the masses from changing society for the better by getting them to fixate on their future lives in heaven. Mayo, like many academic philosophers, feels compelled to offer a “fair and balanced” position on religion that avoids offending the delicate sensibilities of any believers who might read his piece.

I am not a “professional” philosopher, so, thankfully, I am under no such constraints. I’m a proud activist and an even prouder atheist. And in my mind, it is precisely my atheism that makes me so effective as a catalyst for social change.

There was a time, however, when I wasn’t quite so clear about my position on religion as I am now. As a naïve philosopher major at NYU, I dabbled at one point or another during my college years with most of the world’s major religions. I even had a stint as a Christian, having been persuaded by a classmate that I had the hots for to get involved for a year with the Catholic Worker movement in Manhattan.

But by my senior year I had been immersed in the ideas of Marxism and anarchism and had begun to realize that political activism was my true calling. After senior year, I moved into an anarchist community and began to work with other like-minded friends to change the unjust social structures in our society that condemn millions of Americans to lives of poverty, deprivation, and despair.

After ten years of doing this type of work, I can tell you without any hesitation, that the greatest enemy of social change is religion. Faith in an all-powerful, all-knowing God, and faith in the existence of some warm and fuzzy afterlife induces a kind of intellectual and moral inertia in the hearts and minds of believers that makes them simply incapable of acting collectively to fight against social and economic injustice.

Now, I’m not even talking here about mindless evangelic types, like the ones we have occupying most of the southern portion of the United States. These are people whose religious faith has literally turned them into zombies, rejecting reason, science, and most of the enlightened ideas of the past two centuries. These are people who dismiss climate change as some kind of liberal hoax, even though their communities have been hit hardest by droughts and wildfires that are directly attributed to climate change. And these are people who have placed their trust in the very right-wing politics that have driven them into the underclass.

I’m not talking about these types of believers who are, quite simply, beyond all hope and reason. I’m talking here about the average run-of-the-mill, everyday sort of believer. The kind of people who go to church or services on Sundays and who sincerely do their best to try to live according to the dictates of their own faith. These are not rabid reactionaries, racists, or homophobes. They’re decent, ordinary people, who feel badly about the poor and may even be involved in charitable activities, like working in soup kitchens or volunteering at homeless shelters.

They are the true enemy and need to be eradicated.

How can I say this, you might be wondering? Because the ordinary believers, no matter how compassionate they might seem, actually work against long-term progressive social change. They opt to engage in charity rather than activism, and aim at amelioration of unjust social structures rather than completely uprooting these unjust social structures And all their efforts do is perpetuate a status quo that has led to greater income inequality, worse working conditions for the poor and middle class, and the degradation of our planet’s fragile ecosystems.

This, I believe, is where Marx’s idea of religion as an opiate for the masses comes into play. The believer—by the very nature of his faith—is forced to see his ultimate destiny as transcending this world. This world is merely a way station on the journey to the believer’s true home—heaven. So no matter how committed the believers might be to social justice, there is always a limit to how far he is willing to go in his quest to fight for those who are the victims of injustice. Acts of charity are fine; political agitation and revolt is not. The very charity that stem from the believer’s faith act as a kind of opiate that eases the conscience of the believer (“At least I’m doing something.”), but at the same time prevents him from engaging in truly valuable forms of political activism (“That’s going too far for me”).

And, if things don’t work out quite so well in this world, the believer always has the consolation that the benevolent father-figure he calls God will make things turn out just fine in the next life.

In the end Marx was completely correct in his assessment of religious faith of all types. Once the idea of God is dead, and the delusion of an afterlife eliminated, then we have only this world to contend with. The fantasy world of the next life becomes just that—a fiction that I can contemptuously dismiss as a kind of insane temporary delusion.

In the end there is only one real choice: stay addicted to the opiate of religious belief and allow this world—my true and only home—to become a shithole, or I can work with others to change society and make it more just and humane.

What other option is there?


  1. Your position is even more extreme than Mayo's. Do you really think that religion is the cause of all the suffering, misery, and injustice in the world????

    Atheism is no panacea for the world's problems. Stalinist Russia was an atheist country, after all, and look at how miserable the people were there.

  2. This analysis of both religion and politics needs some very needed nuance. It is a rant, and like most rants it lacks pragmatic specifics about the age old question, "What is to be done?" The last paragraph is merely jejune, I am reluctant to say. That said, I share the concerns expressed here. But the road to hell is paved not only with bad religious and secular ideas, but also heart-felt concerns that have not been put through the proper filters of critical thought and experience. I'd be interested to see where the author of this post lands in ten years or so -- assuming religious believers have not blown-up the world by then.

    For some useful insights on what SECULAR people have done to the world, or at least people who may have been members of various faith traditions but never really consulted them, I recommend Jonathan Glover's book, Humanity. Glover will also point the author to religious believers, including clerics, who were nothing less than heroic in their stands against cruelty and evil. They drew their courage from their faiths. People like Bonhoeffer and King do not deserve the sort of invective and snap conclusions represented in this post.

    Finally, I appreciate the real-life experiences upon which the author draws. We all should draw on our real-life experiences when trying to figure out the world. But proper critical thinking requires an admission that all of our experiences are idiosyncratic, that other people have very different experiences, and those experiences count for something. Humility requires that admission.

    1. Jejune? I laid out two options, one of which was viable (secularism) and the other of which isn't (theism). In what way could that be considered jejune?

      Now I'll deal with your last point. My experiences are more relevant than other people's because we are talking about how religious belief interferes with the pursuit of social justice. I've been working in this area for some time. Others haven't. Therefore I believe that my perspective is more relevant than that of those who sit on the sidelines and simply talk about justice.

    2. Obviously David E. McClean did not care for your use of the term shithole, and therefore categorized your final paragraph as "juvenile; immature; childish."

      Personally I find it to be the epitome of egotistical self obsession and narcissism to presume that the eradication of an entire population of individuals, on the basis of any criteria at all - save perhaps those who are clearly self destructive Darwinian Socialites and Conservatives with Liars Stripes - would produce a more equitable and harmonious human existence.

      Rather than to continue on, let me simply point the reader to that paragraph above that does consist of a single sentence, and then suggest referral to Godwin's Law . . .

    3. I should qualify those comments. In my haste to compose this post, I engaged in a bit of rhetorical flourish that didn't adequately express my true views. I meant to say that the views of believers needed to be eradicated, not the believers themselves.

      Progressive theists can probably be reasoned with. Reactionary theists simply should be mocked or ignored, because their views are simply not worth taking the time to consider.

      But by no means do I support causing physical harm to anyone, no matter how much I may disagree with their views.

    4. I certainly cannot imagine why not. Darwinian Socialites would with ease legislate the deaths of millions of their own countrymen and women, and in fact they have done just that in the past, during the famine in Ireland for example. Indeed, some people, by their very nature and behavior, raise a continuous demand for slaughter.

      Perhaps they shall have all that they desire . . .

    5. Thanks for your reply, Alex. You state: "Progressive theists can probably be reasoned with. Reactionary theists simply should be mocked or ignored, because their views are simply not worth taking the time to consider." We differ, it seems, on whether discussion with those you characterize as "reactionary theists" is worth the time. I have plenty of discussions with people who I take to fit your label, "reactionary theists." Sometimes they are fruitful, and sometimes they are not -- at the moment. But people hear when you don't think they are hearing, and the dialectic effort can infect the conversation partner with ideas, can plant seeds that will take hold years down the line. Respectful engagement with fellow human beings, though sometimes very frustrating, is almost never a bad thing. I take "reactionary theists" to be suffering, searching, featherless bipeds, just like you and me, Alex. This is not to say that public policy should be set based upon dogmatic (i.e. uncritically derived) premises or conclusions, but one need not worry too much about that if the point-counterpoint process of democratic engagement is set in motion.

      You should also reconsider whether ANYONE who is a fellow citizen (or for that matter, fellow member of the species) should be mocked or ignored. The former strikes me as no more than arrogant, self-certain puffery; the latter is a form of cruelty or an affront to the humanity of the other. For my part, my mocking and ignoring, to the extent I ever engage in them, are pretty much reserved for demonstrably incorrigible and certified sociopaths, but I have encountered few of these in my travels. I don't take it that the Southern Baptist Convention or the Methodists or Sunni Muslims are comprised of such persons, even if they have fundamentalist religious views. As they are citizens, I owe it to them to listen to what they have to say. I have found that, lo and behold, one can learn a thing or two from them. In the contest that is cultural politics, I may sometimes want them to lose, and my "team" to win. But that does not mean that I think they should be ignored or mocked.

    6. [Here is the rest of my response to Alex, as there where character limits imposed.]

      Finally, although you did not say so explicitly, I take it that you place a great deal of currency on being "rational." If that is so, let me say that the charge of "irrationality" -- which certainly seems to underpin your perspective -- is no more than a convenient epithet people like to saddle other people with when the latter don't agree with them, when the former who can't see why the latter, the "irrational" ones, might consider things like the acceptance of Jesus as one's personal savior, the Quran, or the resurrection of the dead to be more relevant than unbridled free speech, free access to contraception, more social networks on the web, or even a Liberal state.

      Also, I am not sure that the people you describe as "reactionary theists" can't be reasoned with. Of course they can; just not on certain linchpin commitments that, should they let them go, will spin them into a period of painful disorientation, if not nihilism. Even on those linchpin commitments, people can change. They are less likely to change, however, if they are humiliated by people who don't know or don't care to know what it might be like to believe in "the end of days," the importance of sexual purity, or the importance of the Sabbath. But good cosmopolitan, pluralist democrats DO want to understand these commitments, commitments that are cherished features of the lives of billions of people around the world.

      I am not a "reactionary theist" or, for that matter, a reactionary non-theist. Like you, I think there are better and worse ways to construct a life or a civilization and to set public policy, and I have no problem arguing for my position, robustly, in the public square. But I have learned a long time ago that mocking and dismissing or ignoring people who may have something to teach me, out of their own baskets of beliefs, is the height of anti-democratic and anti-pluralist bigotry. True democracy and true pluralism require magnanimity. I am not sure you have expressed much of that virtue in your posts, Alex. I hope you, in due course, will reconsider.

    7. Excuse me for butting in here, Mr. McClean, but I simply cannot possibly hold my tongue. You stated, quite elegantly:

      True democracy and true pluralism require magnanimity

      And while this is obviously a fine sentiment and an ideal devoutly to be wished, it does, without question, completely ignore some very stark facts:

      - We have at this present time barely extricated ourselves FROM A WAR OF AGGRESSION, while at the same time begun operations at the largest and most expensive embassy ever built - and quite possibly the ONLY embassy ever built - WITH SLAVE LABOR.

      - Suspension of habeas corpus remains,

      - REPELICANS in Congress have spent the last 6 years doing all in their power to put the screws to one man, and one man above all others - and have done so in no small measure simply because he is the only BLACK MAN in THE White House -

      - REPELICANS have, for the past six years, done their level best to sabotage the nation's economy, and at this very moment stand YET AGAIN before the precipice of DEFAULT on this nations debt.

      - REPELICANS DEMAND a free market economy and toward that end they demand DEREGULATION of all kinds. Never mind the fact that DEREGULATION combined with outright FRAUD to produce this latest economic implosion - and they completely ignore the fact that a free market economy simply cannot exist while it remains based on a common medium of trade - for ANY COMMON MEDIUM OF TRADE demands regulation, just as every scale demands calibration. This they completely ignore, hence they demand a free lunch on the one hand, while insisting that there is no free lunch on the other. IF such a set of facts is not rectified then soon, I say, soon, a day must come, when there will be no lunch at all.

      - Not long ago election to the nations highest office was decided not at the ballot box, BUT BY A PANEL OF JUDGES, due to questions that arose in a state governed by the winning candidates brother . . .

      - while human usability experts did decry the construct of that ballot - which then does suggest the outcome was decided at the ballet box - not by the public BUT BY THOSE WHO DID DESIGN THE BALLOT

      - PNAC REPELICANS launched us into war on two fronts, without ever considering where the revenue these TRILLIONS in expenditures would come from, and now their REPELICAN brethren insist they will CUT FOOD STAMPS but that THEY WILL NOT even consider raising revenue OR curbs to corporate welfare.


      No sir.

      In light of such facts as these it seems clear to me. The only purpose of magnanimosity at such a point in time is to conceal the pointed blade aimed directly at the spine. The spine at risk here sir, is neither yours nor mine -

      it is the spine of our Democracy. There are men among us who intend to kill it.

    8. David, I admire you willingness to engage everyone, including "rabid reactionary theists." I haven't had much luck ever getting through to a social or religious conservative, but I have made some inroads with libertarians with whom I've argued on the Occupy Wall Street site. It probably a good idea to assume that real dialogue can occur with almost anyone--at least until we have evidence that we're simply wasting our time.

      Alex's bias against religion, I think, is typical of many young activists today who see religion as a reactionary force in society. During my own years as a campus minister and working for the Westside Federation for the Homeless, I had the fortune to meet some truly fantastic Christians who were doing more to promote social justice than any atheist I've ever met. It's people like these -- and I think that the new Pope is one of them -- that keep me open to the idea that religion can indeed be a constructive force in our society.

  3. I believe that whether others believe, that what they believe, or whether they believe not, in any spiritual condition of either man or of humanity, is an intensely personal matter, one which may well say more about the individual than they would otherwise care to reveal, if they only knew . . .

    I also believe that those who would preach anarchy as a practical solution have not thought it through, for surely it should be quite obvious: a population even half as large as that that exists today cannot be sustained in an absence of organization, and that even among relatively small groups of people rules are absolutely essential to the resolution of disputes that do arise due to fear or petty forms of selfishness.

    I believe that those who do preach anarchy as a solution and do so pointing at those very real and very glaring, very gaping, holes in our social contract, do so out of fear. I believe that they believe that, being shawled as they are with an anarchist A emblazoned on their back they cannot constitute the kind of threat to power and authority that must be taken seriously, because instinctively, intuitively, everyone is already well aware, anarchy cannot produce a genuine and viable alternative to governing.

    Not governing is not and cannot be misconstrued as governance. And therefore it cannot be seen as a practical and realistic threat.

    Those who do preach anarchy form the scholarly halls do so out of laziness, refusing to consider all the implications; or out of fear, terrified to tell the truth to power.

    All of civilization races toward an unknown crescendo, it is quite obvious and utterly impossible to ignore. The concept permeates our language, our culture and our art; from the Apocalypse to Zombie Zarmaggedon.

    All of civilization nears the end, of something, of what we do not know, but we know, it is very near, we can hear it plainly upon the winds screaming in our ear . . . and when we seriously consider the current shape of our reality we know fear, for the unknown is hard upon us, and there is no escape.

    There is no alternative at such a time as this. We must stand and bear the truth.

    Stand I say.

    Stand and bear the truth.

  4. If those people who talk about heaven and hell are right then I am f*cked either way. I'll definitely go to hell since I do bad stuff—even posting this very thing will get me screwed by an elephant in hell for all eternity. If on the other hand by some insane coincidence I would end up in heaven, can you image to be together with those religious creeps for ever, doing and saying the nice hypocritcal things that they do and say? Giving blowjobs to demons in the hallways of hell will look attractive compared to that. I take great comfort—if not pissing myself from laughing—in considering the cosmic human folly to think one can even start to understand a single bit of what The Big Non-Thing is, including the issue whether it's there or not there. "Love God and go your own way", I once saw on a grave that consisted of some nicely arranged stones of a nearby beach, waiting to be kicked around. That speaks to me. That's like saying, "Don't follow me because I also don't know where I am going." Anyone who pretends the opposite is in love with bullshit. Consider grandma Regina Brett's words of wisdom, "Burn the candles, use the nice sheets, wear the fancy lingerie. Don't save it for a special occasion. Today is special." And take a deep breath, Alex. It will calm your mind. I like your "shithole" paragraph though. We should have a beer some day.

  5. Progressive religion is truly possible if it is created. A religion is what one makes of it which is why there is Revolutionary or Liberation Theology. Religion is an opiate of the masses but it is only a readily available form of a complacency that exists throughout the masses with or without a religion. Get rid of the delusions of religion and you will still have North Korea.

    1. You have said that once before. It is not true. The cult of personality as it does exist in North Korea is a religious idolation, and as such should be sufficient proof that we have no need of new religions.

      There are no aliens who may yet save us from ourselves, for they do not exist, it is just another lie, one we must not tell to children.

      Long ago some human being picked up a stone, with learned to kill, and to dissect, and the killing and the dissection yet has never ceased, such that today we live upon the very pinnacle of human achievement. While we live among abundance and ensconced snugly in our comfort, that achievement lies barren and exposed and screaming out to heaven: WE ARE MAD.

      And indeed, this is the primary function of religion - to curb our madness.

      Though one can rely on Godwin's Law and prove the madness that is man, such proofs do not end there, and in fact from there they cannot be said to have begun. Yet that massive orgy of slaughter and of dissection does make it plain and completely undeniable. But there are other, more contemporary examples, examples where our overwhelming lust for comfort results in human suffering and death that rivals that of any single madman,

      it is unintended,

      and to it we remain indifferent.

      This TRUTH is undeniable, it resides within the eyes of men and women, and their children, throughout the oil fields of South America, among the Ogoni people of Nigeria, every bit as much as it may be said to have been written plainly in the rain that fell black as smoke and burned in the sands of Kuwait.

      We stand, I say, at the pinnacle of human achievement. We have no need of new religion. Why would we seek to devise some new method of manipulating the masses, when we have enough of these already, some of them highly evolved and far more delicate and precise than mere tv.

      We must simply understand the point of all religion, we must see that it has identified the source of all our madness, though no religion ever said: Conservative.

      Instead we have a list, a list of habits which the conservative does embrace, and which the conservative does teach, and which the conservative does reveer, a list of human traits to be esteemed above all else as if they were the sum and substance of all virtue:

      wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, gluttony

      Atlas may shrug, gentlemen.

      I will not.

      We have no need of new religion.

      We must decide if we will curb that lust for more that even now propels us toward a future that the human species may not survive.

  6. I think downplaying spirituality without having the slightest insight into consciousness is folly. There seems to be a convolution of atheism and intellectualism in the concept of this post. Therefore I would say the premise of this post is flawed.

    1. I don't know what you mean with consciousness but if you mean honesty then I agree.