The Opium of the People
When a doctor prescribes pain medication to us when our pain is unmanageable, we are grateful to be given relief from that pain. Often, we are in so much pain that all we know is our desire to be rid of that pain as soon as possible, often without a care for understanding the reasons why we are experiencing pain. Medication and the medical field in general tend to focus on the symptoms instead of the cause, which is why the pain relief industry is so tremendously profitable. In matters of spirituality, which could be described as our view of life, ourselves, and our place in the universe, we also seek “pain relief” from the inevitable difficulties life so often presents to us.
When we look at any successful business, we can see they are successful because they solve a problem or fulfill a need and/or want better than most other “solutions” available. Problem solving and need and want fulfillment is the essence of successful business practice. The fact we need to get food is a “problem,” which is solved by grocery stores. The “problem,” or desire to be entertained gives movie stars, athletes, and other entertainers a job to do. What religion and “spirituality” do is also an attempt to solve a “problem” – that is, to fill in the blanks for things we do not understand, to help fulfill our craving for meaning and purpose, to pacify our fears of our own mortality, and to comfort us when we lose others inevitably to death. It also satisfies our desire for “justice” in which everyone “gets what they deserve.” As we can see, these reasons, among others, are why we buy in to religion. It is the fulfillment of a need, just like anything else, or “wish fulfillment,” as Freud described it. While we do not like to think of God and/or religion as just another “business” like any other business which fulfills a need, that is the situation when we examine it honestly. However, unlike other solutions which offer us real things to deal with real problems, religion depends on the belief in delusions to fulfill primal ego needs.
The actual definition of a delusion is “a belief held with strong conviction despite superior evidence to the contrary.” Since all religious belief in the supernatural is based on contradictions and double-standards, which are always false as we have discovered before, and there is absolutely no credible evidence whatsoever for religious beliefs in the supernatural, then religious belief in the supernatural is therefore clearly a delusion. Some may question, “even if the religious are incorrect and what they believe is a delusion, what difference does it make as long as it makes people feel better – as long as it provides the necessary “pain relief” we seek from dealing with the difficulties and pains of life?” It was famously and correctly said by Karl Marx that “religion is the opium of the people.” There are not many people – believers or non-believers who would honestly say that believing in delusions is a good idea for maintaining a healthy and stable lifestyle for ourselves or for society, just as taking opium or any other drug is not a healthy way to cope with life. Nobody thinks delusion is a good thing. The reason they feel this way is because it is not healthy to view life and go about living our lives from the perspective of a delusion because a delusion is non-reality. To act from non-reality is a guarantee we will create further contradiction and conflict since it is based on an abstraction – a belief of what we think is true instead of actual real life – what is actually true. We need to first deal with the actual, and not the believed. This is why faith is irrelevant in matters of dealing with life honestly. Dealing in abstractions solves nothing.
The real issue is that we be aware of why we believe in things if we choose to do so. If we choose to believe in God and religion, then let us do so with our eyes open, instead of being tricked into believing these ideas are true or factual by clever salesmen who preach a sugar-coated gospel of delusion which makes promises to fulfill all of our deepest, most primal ego needs. We have to be very mindful of our tendency to be gullible and vulnerable to those who promise us “eternity” or some other idealistic abstraction, and instead deliver only smoke and mirrors in return. We all can get sucked in to this because we are afraid and unsure – because we do have our doubts and want answers. While these things are very real, that is all the more reason we have to be ever vigilant not to fall prey to unscrupulous and even well-meaning people who preach to us on how we “should” believe and live our lives. The Apostle Paul actually speaks to this in Ephesians 4:14.
“Then we shall no longer be children, carried by the waves and blown about by every shifting wind of the teaching of deceitful people, who lead others into error by the tricks they invent.”
Sadly, Paul fails to see his own hypocrisy in not applying his own truthful logic to the deceit of his own teaching. Paul uses truthful words to promote a fraudulent paradigm, as any sophisticated charlatan does. Why is it fraudulent? Because he teaches us to “just believe,” while at the same time telling us to use intelligent discernment. The two actions are mutually exclusive. As we have discovered before, either we believe something is true or we know something is true. Either we seek truth through knowledge or we believe in faith. It is always either one or the other. It can never be both.
I heard a sermon today about “growing up” in faith, or obtaining a “mature faith.” Mature faith is a contradiction of terms because maturity has nothing to do with faith, which is the blind acceptance of a given premise with no evidence to back it up – something children in particular are especially prone to do. Faith therefore, is the essence of childishness, not maturity. True maturity has everything to do with intellectual integrity in which we seek the truth through evidence, awareness, and logical, rational thought that is without contradiction. To be “mature” means we do not accept something just because someone tells us it is true, because we accept the words of some arbitrary “authority,” or because it pleases and validates our egos as we do in faith. True maturity involves accepting what actually is, regardless of whether or not it corresponds to our desires and beliefs. We need to be honest about why we believe, instead of lying to ourselves, calling our beliefs “fact” or “truth” without any evidence to back up these claims. The real danger lies in ignorance, not so much in what we actually do or believe. If we believe, and we are aware we are doing so without evidence, then at least we are being honest about it, making our belief less dangerous. However, to believe without understanding the fact our beliefs are only opinions instead of fact is far more dangerous, as we know especially in our world today from Christian and Islamic fundamentalists. While some may passionately believe they will be rewarded with 72 virgins in Paradise after flying an airplane into a building, killing themselves and thousands of innocent people in the process, does not mean this idea is true. Nor does believing these same fundamentalists are going to Hell because they killed innocent people or didn’t accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior make this idea true either.
If we agree that the essential “need” religion fills is to pacify the symptoms of our fears of life and death by believing a benevolent “force” is always “watching over us,” then we could reasonably ask ourselves how we can actually cure the cause of this fear instead of covering it over with the “opium” of religion. The bottom line is, regardless of whether or not God and the afterlife exists is not even the point, since religion is only pain relief – a “drug” which covers over our pain of living, without bringing us closer to actually understanding this pain and therefore equipping us to deal with it in a more honest and healthy way than through religious belief. That is the essential problem with religion. Just like pain relief prescribed by doctors, it only masks our symptoms, but never heals or addresses the cause. It only covers our pain, but never deals with it, which would enable us to in essence, “transcend” it. This does not mean we live a “problem-free life,” which is impossible, but are empowered because we can actually deal with our problems instead of running away from them. That is why religion only perpetuates slavery instead of empowerment. We are never truly empowered by religion, but only enslaved to authority, hope, and fear. Christianity embodies this fact disturbingly well, telling us we need to “accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior” instead of showing us how to deal with the fact of our pain in an honest, healthy, and responsible way. We are told from Christianity we cannot handle our problems on our own, in essence telling us point blank we need to submit ourselves to authority since we are inadequate to cope with our problems without an external, “transcendental” authority. While I agree with the religious the notion of “self-sufficiency” is ultimately an illusion since we all need others’ help in this journey through life’s difficulties, helping each other and even surrendering our control over something by letting go is not at all the same as taking drugs or believing in delusions to cope with life. The difference between the two is that in letting go of what we cannot control, or asking for and accepting help from others is about being honest and responsible, while simply believing in and following an authority through blind faith is dishonest and irresponsible. The truth is, we can do this together, but not alone or hidden away in the smokescreens of our dishonesty, ideologies, or belief in “supernatural powers.” In other words, we do not need authority, as the Church claims, but honesty with ourselves, and our need for others.
Like it or not, if we really want to be free, then we need to come to accept the Truth of Life instead of denying it by hiding away in delusions to deal with our fears. The problem with this is that while our beliefs may offer us apparent consolation, it never rids us of fear. The only way we can be free of fear’s grip on us is when we face our fears head-on – when we come to accept what it is we are afraid of, without running away from our fears in beliefs which comfort us by fulfilling ego needs. Such a response to life’s challenges is pure denial. While in many ways understandable, this response to life’s challenges, contrary to being an adult way of coping with reality, is actually a vestige of our childish ways of coping with reality. This is well reflected in the words of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:11.
When I was a child, I talked like a child. I thought like a child. I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.”
We can debate whether or not Paul himself actually did this, but that is another subject for another time. Nevertheless, this passage is profoundly truthful about what it means to grow to true maturity – a state most of humanity unfortunately never attains. We still run away from our fears like a child, and never face the Truth of our lives as precious, fleeting, and impermanent beings instead of “immortal souls” who need to “get it right” in this life or pay an eternal price from an imaginary authority in the sky. Again, if we are going to be grown adults instead of immature children, then we too need to put childish ways behind us…
Listen to the audio version of “The Opium of the People”