For the past several articles, we have been examining the roots of modern subhumanism in the revolt against religion that dominated the thought of the 19th century. This week, we’ll examine one of the key assertions of anti-religious writers:
This idea was best and most famously expressed by Karl Marx, who was deeply influenced by his reading of Ludwig Feuerbach. Remember in reading the following that the word “opium” did not have all the pejorative force it does today. While opiate drugs were known to be addictive, they were also considered almost miraculous for their pain-blocking effects: for the first time in human history, surgery patients, and wounded soldiers did not have to howl in agony until they recovered (or most likely died). Now to Marx, whose famous statement about religion is presented in its full literary context here:
The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man – state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence, since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. 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.
Thus for Marx, religion is a form of mass delusion produced as a necessary complement of – and a psychological mechanism for masking and making bearable – a world that some men have made unbearable for other men through political and economic exploitation. Religion serves to distract serfs or industrial workers from the wealth that their employers are stealing from them; to sanctify and make untouchable unjust social and political structures; to pacify and make obedient men who would otherwise revolt; to divert the energies needed for pursuing earthly good into an entirely imaginary arena. Thus as a necessary part of rectifying these injustices and achieving what the masses really want (earthly justice), it is essential to discredit what they think they want – eternal happiness. On this model, the masses of men (especially in Marx’s time) are akin to an alcoholic leaning against a bar with a bottle in his hand. The socialist is the temperance crusader who barges into the bar with a hatchet, smashes the bottles, and drags the dipsomaniac (against his will, if necessary) to a rehabilitation clinic. If bartenders or bouncers try to prevent this rescue, of course they too must be subdued by force, since they are essentially poisoners working on behalf of systematic thieves. Hence the mass persecutions of unarmed priests, nuns, and religious folk which had already been seen in history – for instance, in the French Revolution’s genocide in the Vendee, which killed between 150,000 and 300,000 religious peasants – were entirely justified. So too, by plain logical deduction from Marx’s theory, would be the mass persecutions conducted against ordinary Christians and their clergy in revolutionary Mexico, Spain, Russia, Ukraine, China, Vietnam, Cuba, North Korea, and other nations caught up in socialist revolutions. A level of savage coercion which Islam prohibited its armies from using against Christians at the height of the Arab conquests, which no bishop or pope would have endorsed against pagans in the Spanish conquest of the Americas, is here implicitly called for by a humanist philosopher and social reformer.
What is easy to overlook in Marx’s statement is the flabbergasting paternalism with which he views the common man. While hundreds of millions of souls have held a wide array of religious faiths all around the world, a small coterie of secular Europeans can safely dismiss in advance their arguments and experiences, without even troubling to examine them, because we know the real reason they believe – which they do not. They have been swindled, snookered, beguiled by their landlords and employers into glumly accepting a grim earthly fate in return for pie in the sky when they die. We know this; they do not. It is incumbent on us to use whatever means we must to drag these enslaved souls to the sole oasis of freedom that we have discovered. But what is more noteworthy than Marx’s cynicism here is his hubris, which he shared with many other political philosophers, right and left alike. Indeed, here we must cite a classic observation by the French libertarian thinker Fréderic Bastiat, from his classic work, The Law:
In fact, these writers on public affairs begin by supposing that people have within themselves no means of discernment; no motivation to action. The writers assume that people are inert matter, passive particles, motionless atoms, at best a kind of vegetation indifferent to its own manner of existence. They assume that people are susceptible to being shaped – by the will and hand of another person – into an infinite variety of forms, more or less symmetrical, artistic, and perfected.
Moreover, not one of these writers on governmental affairs hesitates to imagine that he himself – under the title of organizer, discoverer, legislator, or founder – is this will and hand, this universal motivating force, this creative power whose sublime mission is to mold these scattered materials – persons – into a society.
These socialist writers look upon people in the same manner that the gardener views his trees.
In The New Science of Politics, Eric Voegelin diagnosed the temptation of intellectuals to arrogate to themselves this kind of all-encompassing insight as a modern revival of the ancient attitude of the Gnostics, early competitors with Christianity who held that salvation from a world of suffering and alienation was possible, but only through the attainment of a set of secret insights that an intellectual and spiritual elite would pass on among themselves. Of course, the ancient Gnostics were never keen on sharing their private insights with the masses. They sought not political power but status as a spiritual elect. The democratizing impulse of Christianity, exercised over many centuries where ignorant peasants were seen as likely to attain eternal salvation as mitred abbots or kings, influenced those with Gnostic aspirations in quite a different direction. They would not separate themselves from the ignorant hordes in private reverie, but instead organize to spread their privately decanted doctrines to the masses – by force if need be – and enjoy, instead of splendid isolation, the heady satisfaction of seeing their own ideas reshape the lives and even the souls of millions of other men. Instead of elitism, they would be practicing broad-based benevolence, by “freeing” the ignorant many through the brilliant insights of the few.
Jason Jones is a producer in Hollywood. His films include Bella, Eyes to See, and Crescendo. Learn more about his human rights initiatives at www.iamwholelife.com.
John Zmirak is the author of The Bad Catholics Guide to the Catechism and blogs regularly at The Bad Catholics Bingo Hall. This column is from Jones’ and Zmirak’s upcoming book, The Race to Save Our Century (Crossroad, 2014).