Opinion & Features

What Marx got wrong about religion

A Marx bust from a new German musical. He was an enthusiastic self-medicator. (AP Photo/Jens Meyer)

Due to circumstances beyond my control (and, as swiftly transpired, my doctor’s), I’ve spent the past week filling myself with opiates. Not, I grant you, a situation devoutly to be wished. But equally, not one without its recompenses either. For the intrepid scholar of atheism, you see, systematically dulling one’s senses with codeine offers opportunities for serious fieldwork – indeed, for participant observation. Religion, after all, “is the opiate of the people” (das Opium des Volkes): a Reader’s Digest-worthy Quotable Quote if ever there was one (not that, mystifyingly, they tend to feature much Marx).

This enduring and influential metaphor owes much of its force to its clear and arresting imagery. Conjuring up images of opium dens and heroin needles, “religion” is depicted here as addictive and damaging: a devastating social malady, cynically peddled to the weak by miscreants seeking profit and power. At least, that is what “opiate of the people” has come, more or less universally, to mean. Oddly and importantly, though, it is not at all what Marx himself meant by the phrase.

First off, Marx was writing in the 1840s (the famous passage comes from his otherwise fairly forgettable Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, published in 1843). Opium and its derivatives were held in high regard for their medicinal properties. Indeed, according to the scholar Andrew McKinnon: “Medicine, not recreational use, was the most common use for opium in the first half of the 19th century, and opium was a medicine of utmost significance; in the 1840s its importance is perhaps best compared with that of penicillin in the 20th century.”

The Victorians well appreciated opiates’ analgesic properties. But they were also valued for their supposed curative properties. From colds to cholera and much else in between, opiates – not least in the form of laudanum – were widely used. Marx himself, a well-known hypochondriac, was an enthusiastic self-medicator. Opium was not, of course, without its problems. The potential perils of both overuse and misuse, not least when used to “dope” infants, were a cause of growing social concern. And Marx was naturally well informed concerning the social, economic and political problems associated with the opium trade. Nevertheless, when Marx was penning his metaphor the growing negativity surrounding the word “opiate” was still several decades away from eclipsing its overwhelmingly positive connotations.

This much is obvious to anyone who bothers to read the rest of Marx’s “religion paragraph”. Ever the romantic, Marx tees up his master metaphor with a moving, indeed one might almost call it sentimental, litany. Religion is, he tells us, “the expression of real distress and also the protest against real distress … the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world … the spirit of spiritless conditions”. There is, I think, nothing here that one couldn’t imagine a Bishop of Rome uttering.

But what then does Marx mean by ending his stirring paean with “It is the opiate of the people’’? The essential point is this. Marx takes it for granted that religion – by which he basically means Christianity – is false. But, by and large, he thinks it serves a benign social function: it helps put-upon working people deal with the horrors of modern economic life. This is where the opiate-as-medicine idea comes into force. The very fact that one needs to be taking medicine in the first place is not, in itself, a thing to be celebrated (it is, indeed, the “expression of real distress and also the protest against real distress”).

But if one must be ill, then it is better that there are medicines to alleviate one’s suffering (to be, indeed, “the heart of heartless conditions”). Marx’s real point is that it is much better not to be ill in the first place. In a world of universal healthiness, medicines will no longer be needed; doctors and pharmaceutical companies will simply go out of business. And this is pretty much Marx’s own view of religion: once we fix the underlying social and economic diseases engendered by capitalism, religion will naturally wither away.

Of course, Marx was wrong – catastrophically – on both counts. Marxist revolutions didn’t cure the world of socio-economic ills (quite the opposite), and neither did religion wither away (which, by Marx’s own arguments, rather proved the first point). Still, he was right about one thing. If not for large quantities of codeine, I’d have spent the week in rainy Bicester, agonisedly bedridden, trying to claw back the cost of a cancelled flight from my travel insurance company. Instead I’m signing this off from Miami airport, having had a very pleasant few days, sitting in the middle of a swamp, surrounded by alligators and talking about Humanae Vitae. But that’s a story for another time. Wonderful thing, opiates – though not a patch on religion.

Stephen Bullivant is a consulting editor of the Catholic Herald and directs the Benedict XVI Centre at St Mary’s University, Twickenham. He tweets at @ssbullivant