So I’m sure most of my readers are familiar with the famous quote of Karl Marx “Religion is the opium of the people.” It is arguably the most famous atheist quote of all time, and though it is a misquote it still manages to become circulated pretty often among Communists, Socialists, and Anti-Theist circles. The message seems clear, Religion is simply a tool used to control people and make them dormant. Opium, after all, is still used today as a pain remover in most medical practices. The original quote doesn’t stray far from the purpose of the popular misquote:
“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”
– Karl Marx
You can see that the original quote needed to be shortened a bit, because when used in its proper context it tends to lose its sting. In this version, religion is nothing more than a means for oppressed and purposeless creatures to find solace and comfort. Religion in this view is a means to heal the pain of the reality many find themselves.
While this is a very morbid way to look at Religion, it is actually not as harsh as many have made it out to be. If we truly are, as Marx stated, creatures of a heartless world living in a soulless condition then I’ll freely admit that I am clinging on to hope and purpose with all I have. If in the end Marx is right about Religion, then the choice you make to accept or deny religion really doesn’t hold any weight. It seems the worst thing a religious person could be would be someone clinging to a false hope, and the greatest thing an atheist could be is a creature living in a heartless and soulless world that has simply become aware of its own insignificance.
But what if Religion is not the Opium in this allegorical scenario? What if it was the Atheist who was the Opiate hooked on a false reality and seeking solace through denial? This is the view of the Lithuanian poet Czesław Miłosz who replied to Marx with the following words:
“A true opium of the people is a belief in nothingness after death – the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders we are not going to be judged.”
― Czesław Miłosz
Now we are faced with the strange conflict of views, two ideals each convinced the other is no more than an Opiate abuser trying to deny reality through a comforting fantasy they have crafted. The only difference is where Marx’s version places the Atheist and the Religious on the same level (both pointless beings living in a pointless world) Miłosz’s scenario illustrates the severity of the situation from the opposite point of view. If the Atheist is correct then we all run around on this little planet for a while and then are no more, but if the Religious person is correct then this time we were given will have been of much greater importance than we have dreamed.
The French philosopher Pascal, summed it up this way:
If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible, since, having neither parts nor limits, He has no affinity to us. We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is….
…”God is, or He is not.” But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separated us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager? According to reason, you can do neither the one thing nor the other; according to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions.
Do not, then, reprove for error those who have made a choice; for you know nothing about it. “No, but I blame them for having made, not this choice, but a choice; for again both he who chooses heads and he who chooses tails are equally at fault, they are both in the wrong. The true course is not to wager at all.”
Yes; but you must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked. Which will you choose then? Let us see. Since you must choose, let us see which interests you least. You have two things to lose, the true and the good; and two things to stake, your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to shun, error and misery. Your reason is no more shocked in choosing one rather than the other, since you must of necessity choose. This is one point settled. But your happiness? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.
“That is very fine. Yes, I must wager; but I may perhaps wager too much.” Let us see. Since there is an equal risk of gain and of loss, if you had only to gain two lives, instead of one, you might still wager. But if there were three lives to gain, you would have to play (since you are under the necessity of playing), and you would be imprudent, when you are forced to play, not to chance your life to gain three at a game where there is an equal risk of loss and gain. But there is an eternity of life and happiness. And this being so, if there were an infinity of chances, of which one only would be for you, you would still be right in wagering one to win two, and you would act stupidly, being obliged to play, by refusing to stake one life against three at a game in which out of an infinity of chances there is one for you, if there were an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain. But there is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite.
Now Pascal has basically made religion a gambling game with a cost vs reward angle applied (of which I am not a fan) but he does make some very valid points in favor of why Religion may in the long run prove to be the safer of the two sides. Now those that hold to the Atheist point of view will often counter with something called the “Atheist’s Wager” which seeks to map out all the possible outcomes of living a good/bad life paired with the existence or lack of a benevolent god. It goes as follows:
- You may live a good life and believe in a god, and a benevolent god exists, in which case you go to heaven: your gain is infinite.
- You may live a good life without believing in a god, and a benevolent god exists, in which case you go to heaven: your gain is infinite.
- You may live a good life and believe in a god, but no benevolent god exists, in which case you leave a positive legacy to the world; your gain is finite.
- You may live a good life without believing in a god, and no benevolent god exists, in which case you leave a positive legacy to the world; your gain is finite.
- You may live an evil life and believe in a god, and a benevolent god exists, in which case you go to hell: your loss is infinite.
- You may live an evil life without believing in a god, and a benevolent god exists, in which case you go to hell: your loss is infinite.
- You may live an evil life and believe in a god, but no benevolent god exists, in which case you leave a negative legacy to the world; your loss is finite.
- You may live an evil life without believing in a god, and no benevolent god exists, in which case you leave a negative legacy to the world; your loss is finite.
Now while this seems all fine and dandy, it doesn’t really fit very well into Christian thought (which I obviously subscribe to) because it hinges itself on the presupposition that living a good life is the standard upon which a soul is judged. While this may be the way we as humans judge ourselves, those of Christian mind find this view lacking.
Christian though reverses this logic and instead asks the question of “Why do we suppose that we deserve heaven?” Now if heaven is truly eternal and contains no evil whatsoever, it would seem that in order to be worthy of such a prise one would need to also be completely lacking in evil. On this standard each person fails because, as most people eventually realize, no man is fully good or fully evil. Each of us is a various mixed bag of redeemable and shameful qualities. Are we to suppose that being a good person some of the time deserves eternal reward?
It is because of this that the Atheist’s wager falls apart in Christian perspective because no amount of goodness makes us worthy of eternal bliss, it can be assumed that if any man obtains eternal bliss it is due completely upon the mercy and grace of God. This thought is accepted by Christianity and it is believed that God gives such grace and mercy freely to those whom accept it. In this scenario (as Jesus said) it is only God who is good.
In the end one of these views will prove to be right. Either we will all perish into nothingness, leaving only a fleeting legacy of our deeds behind us, or we will go on to face something more. It’s a belief that can be put off only so long before a man must make his choice. But who is the opiate, and who sees the world for what it is? This question is ultimately up to you.
I have made my choice and I’m siding with religion on this one. With religion this chaotic world I live in begins to make sense and this strange desire for purpose and meaning become fulfilled. With religion I can strive for something and grasp on to something real, absolute, and lasting. The universe makes sense for me in the presence of a living God, and for those who believe it does not seem such a far-fetched notion that there does exist something absolute and true:
“The atheist can appeal to nothing [philosophically] absolute, nothing objectively true for all people, it is just mere opinion enforced by might. The Christian appeals to a standard outside himself/herself in which truth and qualitative values can be made sense of.”
“My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such a violent reaction against it?.. Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too–for the argument depended on saying the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my fancies. Thus, in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist – in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless – I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality – namely my idea of justice – was full of sense. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never have known it was dark. Dark would be without meaning.”
Then again perhaps it is I who is taking the Opium of religion to ease myself through this painful and utterly coincidental journey of life. Perhaps it is all hopes, dreams, and hog-wash that I indulge in so that I never face the reality of my insignificance. Even if this were the case, which I truly doubt is, would I be better off living without my religion? Would I be a better person if I truly believed that after I am dead nothing I did will have any significance on me, that I am here for no greater purpose than something I can fantasize or dream up, than I am a coincidence that occurred for no other reason than that I did and that I only continue to live because life for some reason wishes to continue (though there is on ultimate reason or goal to be achieved). Would nihilism or hedonism really suit me better? I think not.
My religion is my grand love affair. It spurs me on to improve myself and to selflessly give for others. It is my hope, my dreams, and my greatest passion. It is my all-consuming fire and my light that guides my way. If all of this is founded upon nothing more than lies and false hopes, then I can still think of no better way to spend my short life here on earth than living in the hope and beauty of the reality of a loving God.