Is Religion the Opium of the Masses?

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Close examination of this old charge against religion raises the opposite question: Might atheism be the opium?

“Religion is the opium of the masses” is the argument often used by atheists to dismiss religion without addressing the substantial issues it deals with. Though others before Karl Marx had promoted the idea, he made it famous: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

What does the religion-as-opium argument imply? Atheists allege that just as opium intoxicates people with illusory feelings of well-being without offering any real relief, so does religion. Only when people shed the false hopes offered by religion will they strive for actual well-being.

The juxtaposition of religion with opium captivates many people, who start viewing religion negatively without critically evaluating the validity of its equation with opium.

The religion-as-opium argument has several unstated assumptions. Let’s examine these in the form of three questions.

1. Are the hopes offered by religion false?

2. Can we have real well-being without religion?

3. Does religion divert our energy from real well-being?

1. Are the hopes offered by religion false?

Religion usually centers on the existence of a benevolent God by whose grace we can attain a world of eternal happiness. It frequently tells us that our present world is a station, not a destination. This world is a place we pass through during our journey towards eternal existence. By living here according to God’s guidelines, we can live fruitfully and evolve towards spiritual perfection.

Are these religious beliefs false?

By material methods of observation and inference, we may not be able to conclusively prove the otherworldly truth-claims of religion. But we can definitely look at its this-worldly effects.

Unlike opium, which harms our health, religion heals us in many ways, physically and mentally. In the Handbook of Religion and Health, published by Oxford University Press, Harold G. Koenig, M.D.; Michael E. McCullough, Ph.D.; and the late David B. Larson, M.D., carefully reviewed no fewer than two thousand published experiments that tested the relationship between religion and everything from blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, and stroke to depression, suicide, psychotic disorders, and marital problems. Some of their findings:

* People who attended a spiritual program at least once a week lived an average seven years longer than those who didn't attend at all.

* Religious youth showed significantly lower levels of drug and alcohol abuse, premature sexual involvement, criminal delinquency, and suicidal tendencies than their nonreligious counterparts.

* Elderly people with deep, personal religious faith had a stronger sense of well-being and life satisfaction than their less religious peers.

The authors' conclusion? "A high SQ [Spiritual Quotient] faithfulness to God appears to benefit people of all means, educational levels and ages."

These findings are so consistent and compelling that Dr. Patrick Glynn in his book God – The Evidence poignantly states their implications: “If this [religious belief] is an illusion, it is, first of all, not a harmful one, as Freud and the moderns taught. On the contrary, it is mentally beneficial. It is also, more puzzlingly, physically beneficial. And strangest of all, by deliberately interacting with this illusion in a sincere spirit, through meditative prayer, one can create improvements in symptoms of disease that otherwise cannot be medically explained.” His last comment refers to findings like those of Dr. Herbert Benson, reported in his book The Relaxation Response: the benefits of religious belief are greater when those beliefs are deeply cherished, not nominally held. What are we to infer from this? Is religion an illusion that somehow accidentally offers real benefits? And is it such a peculiar illusion that the greater our belief in it, the greater the benefits? That is, the more we believe something wrong to be right, the more it sets right things that are otherwise nearly impossible to set right?

Rather than swallowing such a twisted preconception, can we be open-minded enough to consider a more natural and logical inference? Could it be that religion may not be an illusion at all? Might religious belief and practice harmonize us with some deeper reality, thus benefiting us mentally and physically?

I hear the objection “Wait a minute – religion is the cause of so much violence and war.”

Is it, really? Statistics reveal that violence has been far more prevalent in atheistic parts of the world than elsewhere. R. J. Rummel, in Lethal Politics: Soviet Genocide and Mass Murder Since 1917, documents that the victims of Marxist governments amounted to 95,200,000. By comparison, the battle-killed in all foreign and domestic wars in the twentieth century totaled 35,700,000.

In utter disregard of such serious analysis, the religion-as-opium argument swaggers with intellectual arrogance. It summarily dismisses religion by equating religious beliefs with opium-induced hallucinations. Aggressively dismissing ideas that contradict one’s own beliefs – isn’t that what intolerance is all about? The religion-as-opium argument reflects an arrogant, intolerant faith, the faith known as atheistic fundamentalism. Of course, this atheistic faith conceals its intolerance under the garbs of science, secularism, and social progress. But when we strip it of its misdirecting jargon, it stands exposed for what it is: a fanatical belief in disbelief.

2. Can we have real well-being without religion?

Atheism assumes that the material level of existence is the only reality; whatever well-being is to be had must therefore be had at the material level alone. Atheists believe that if people stopped taking the opium of religion, then they would strive for and achieve real well-being at the material level.

Has that hope been realized by propagating atheism and relegating religion to the sidelines of intellectual and social life, as has happened in many parts of the world in recent times?

Not at all.

The material level of existence is characterized by misery and mortality. Even Marx in his religion-opium quote referred to people as “oppressed creatures.”

If we reject religion as an opiate, can we free ourselves from the oppression of our inevitable mortality? No, because atheism rivets us to matter and material existence, which are temporary. Atheism implies that:

* We are material beings who will end with death. And death comes arbitrarily on anyone at any time. It knocks us all out of existence fully and forever. Period.

* Our life has no ultimate purpose or meaning. We are made of nothing but particles of matter moving about endlessly and meaninglessly.

How can such a dreary, draining, and depressing worldview foster well-being? As the theoretical physicist – and atheist – Steven Weinberg states, “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.” With such a gloomy vision of life, many naturally doubt whether living itself has any value. Albert Camus states this explicitly at the start of his essay The Myth of Sisyphus: “There is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide.”

A Godless, soulless worldview makes life meaningless, purposeless – worthless. It drives millions to ennui and despair. Millions bury themselves in pointless distractions like video games, spectator sports, and movies. Even atheists find such obsession undesirable. As American Atheists' founder Madalyn Murray O'Hair commented about contemporary society, "Marx was wrong – religion is not the opiate of the masses, baseball is." But what they often don’t realize is that by labeling religion an opiate and turning people away from it, they force them to seek refuge in such opiates.

3. Does religion divert our energy from real well-being?

Atheists argue that just as taking opium distracts people from working for real well-being, so does believing in religion. Is that true?

Religion does indeed direct our vision to another world, an eternal world – the kingdom of God. Does this otherworldly hope make us indolent or impotent to work in this world?

No.

This is not to deny that some religious people may neglect their worldly responsibilities. But that’s because they misunderstand or misapply the teachings of religion.

What is the nature of religion’s actual contributions?

Throughout history:

* Religious believers have created many of the greatest works of art, architecture, and literature. Their belief didn’t cause them to reject everything of this world for the sake of God, but inspired them to do wonderful things in this world to glorify God.

* Religious beliefs have motivated millions of people to acts of charity and compassion.

In addition to looking at religion’s practical contributions to the world, we also need to assess religion’s conceptual attitude towards the world so that we can gauge whether it has an opiate-like effect.

No doubt, religion promises us a better world beyond this world. At the same time, it instructs us that, to attain that world, we need to act morally and responsibly in the here-and-now. This injunction contributes to making things better in this world.

The Vedic worldview informs us that our spiritual development takes us through four progressive stages: dharma (religious practice), artha (holistic economic prosperity), kama (physical and emotional satisfaction), and moksha (liberation from material existence). Thus, it outlines a master plan that integrates both this-worldly and otherworldly well-being.

Similarly, the Bhagavad-gita centers on a call for devotional activism in this world. Arjuna wanted to renounce the world, but Krishna instructed him to engage in the world and to engage the world in devotional service by establishing the rule of morality and spirituality in the world.

The Gita’s teachings of bhakti offer a dynamic way that helps us contribute to this world while also attaining the next world. The path of bhakti urges us to neither romanticize nor demonize the world, but instead to utilize it and thereby realize God.

Many people, including most atheists, romanticize the world, picturing it to be the arena where they will fulfill their fantasies. When the world dashes and smashes their dreams, they sometimes oscillate to the other extreme and demonize it; they paint it as an intrinsically evil place to be shunned at all costs.

The Bhagavad-gita (2.64) urges us to avoid attachment and aversion, thereby pointing to a balance between these two poles of romanticizing and demonizing. Further, the Gita (5.29) declares that the world belongs to God, Krishna, and so should be used for His service. When we lovingly offer the resources of the world to the Lord of the world, this devotional contact with the all-pure Lord purifies us. This purification peels away the layers of ignorance and forgetfulness that have obscured our spiritual identity for eons.

As we progressively realize who we actually are, we understand that rendering devotional service to Krishna is our natural, eternal activity as His beloved children. This understanding inspires us to continue serving Krishna with conviction and devotion. Then, as we rise towards God-realization, we discover that all the peace and joy we were constantly searching for externally was present all along in our own hearts in the form of Krishna, the source of all peace and joy. Helping us get that realization is the world’s ultimate purpose.

Thus, Gita wisdom helps us steer clear of the extremes of romanticizing and demonizing in dealing with the world. By showing us the middle path of utilizing, it leads us to life’s ultimate perfection: realizing Krishna.

Srila Prabhupada demonstrated this devotional dynamism in our times. Did the religion of bhakti make him inactive when he could have been active? Far from it, it made him superactive at an age when most people become inactive. Despite being over seventy, Srila Prabhupada traveled all over the world several times, wrote dozens of books, and established more than a hundred temples. For him, religion was not an opiate, but a vitalizer.

That same rejuvenating potency of religion is available to us too. All we need to do is assimilate and apply the principles of bhakti, which theBhagavad-gita (18.66) indicates is the summit of religion. Thus, the true contribution of religion, especially in its highest expression of bhakti, is far from that of an opiate. And its contribution is far higher than merely being a source of better physical and mental health, though these may come out. It provides a lasting and fulfilling direction for our innermost longing for love. By so doing, it makes our life meaningful, purposeful, joyful. Nothing enriches our life as does bhakti.

Atheism, on the other hand, devalues life into a meaningless accident, a procession of dead chemicals. It offers little if any reason for compassion and all reasons to use anything and anyone for one’s own pleasure. For the atheist, this life is all that exists, it is meant only for enjoyment, and there’s no God to oversee how we get that enjoyment. Such a worldview fosters immorality and corruption and degradation.

So, if evidence and reasoning were allowed to speak, perhaps the question would need to be turned around: might atheism be the opium of the masses? Could it be a deceptive and destructive opium that has been widely fed to people in the name of science, secularism, and social progress, while it actually erodes the foundations of our material and spiritual well-being?

About the Author: 

Chaitanya Charana Dasa

Chaitanya Charana Dasa is a disciple of His Holiness Radhanath Swami. He holds a degree in electronic and telecommunications engineering and serves full time at ISKCON Mumbai. He is the author of eighteen books. To read his other articles or to receive his daily reflection on the Bhagavad-gita, "Gita-daily," visit thespiritualscientist.com.