Opium of the People

In a recent blog I wrote about suffering. Karl Marx famously saw religion as a nostrum for the suffering of the soul. The full quotation is:

"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."

He saw its role in society as to reduce suffering by the provision of false but alluring illusions, but he also perceived that it promoted a fatalistic acceptance of suffering, rather than an energetic will to bring about change. He was right. Nowadays, opium users are a rare breed. But we have replaced opium with a range of other recreational drugs that dull existential pain. I am no anthropologist, but I would venture to say that there is not, and never has been in the history of the world, a culture that has not had a drug of choice. Noah’s first act after the flood was to plant a vineyard and get drunk on its produce. Beer, and later, gin, have for centuries deadened the pain of working class life in the West. The discovery of America was most immediately notable for the introduction to the West of tobacco. Further south, Indians to this day chew coca leaves regardless of the demonisation of cocaine in the north. The poppy is grown throughout the East, no longer for opium, but to fuel the heroin addiction of rich pop stars and deprived black Americans alike. And until the last century, no one minded at all. All the above drugs were available on a free and open market, both in their pure forms, and as ingredients in a wide range of snake oil medicines. But then, the same high-minded, hypocritical idiots, mostly driven by religious conviction, that lobbied for alcohol prohibition in the USA, succeeded in getting all other drugs banned as well, with exactly the same consequences – demand didn’t go away, but supply was driven underground into the hands of criminals, and the so called ‘war on drugs’ that is being so comprehensively lost today has been the result. 

Marx’s perception that religion, like drugs, is the enemy of social progress was perceptive and important. And the solution to both is the same. We don’t need ‘war’ on drugs. And atheists shouldn’t declare ‘war’ on believers either: that just drives them back into the arms of their congregations where they can find comfort and reassurance - a bit like a group of drunks on a park bench, embracing their addictions together. The recent advertising campaign on London buses, inspired I think by Richard Dawkins, may seem a reasonable response to similar Christian advertising. But it is probably ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst. All the atheist polemic in the world will fall on deaf ears if the believer sees no alternative. There is no Religious Addicts Anonymous. Atheism by very definition is negative and any adman will tell you that knocking copy rarely works. The Humanist Society has the right approach. Through its trained ‘celebrants’ it offers non-religious alternatives to the religious ceremonies (like christenings, weddings and funerals) that have been so effective in cementing religion into the fabric of social life. And in its insistence that positive moral and ethical values do not need the crutch of supernatural belief to be efficacious in society, it offers an answer to those who regard religion as the last bastion of civilisation as we know it. 

In my book – published last week and available online from Amazon, Waterstones and others, and in select bookstores across the country – I try to take the same approach. It is not just another atheist rant – it is a positive account of events in early Christianity based on the assumption that the supernatural does not exist. Insofar as it occasionally takes a deliberate swing at supernatural belief, I hope it does so with humour and empathy. Read it and judge for yourself!