Religion or Atheism, the Opium of the People?

Religion is a crutch. That’s a simplistic summary of what Karl Marx said in his critique of the philosopher Hegel. His sentiment still echoes in public discussions about the place of faith in society. “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature,” Marx said, “the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

Of course we have to admit most religious programming plays right into Marx’s stereotype. Turn on any prosperity-pawning televangelist and you’ll find an ideological drug lord.  Identify an armoni suit wearing “healer” asking for “faith donations” in packed out convention centers and you will see into the very soul of the spiritual narcotic cartel. This form of faith is opium indeed, sold at a premium price.

But I think most would recognize that we can’t judge a religious movement by its most luxurious self-appointed spokespersons anymore than we can think that atheism is well represented by angry YouTube diatribes. The irrational pamphleteers of any movement should never be trusted. That’s kind of like thinking you will learn something important by reading web comments on news articles. If you find anything of value it’s sure to be an anomaly.

To return to Marx’s oft quoted sound byte that religion is the opium of the people, I think he’s right. If there is indeed no god then the religious impulse, if it is of any value, is an illusory aid to help us cope in a careless cosmos. But if God does exist then might not Marx’s comments work the other way around? In such a case could not atheism be the opium of the people?

I recently tweeted an exchange between Stephen Hawking and John Lennox. “Religion is a fairytale for people who are afraid of the dark,” Hawking said. To which Lennox retorted, “Atheism is a fairytale for people who are afraid of the light.” As Lennox gladly points out in his public presentations, such witty exchanges don’t really prove anything.

But these statements in juxtaposition actually illustrate something real: whichever view in the end turns out to be wrong can (and should) rightfully be described as wishful thinking. If there is no god then religion is a fairytale. But if there is a God then atheism, the claim that he does not exist, is itself wishful thinking. Some skeptics will scoff at this saying they have no desire in the matter whatsoever, as though they are bundles of intellectual neutrality passively considering the options. Such a person does not exist. Don’t believe the hype.

That’s the point that the polish poet and diplomat Czeslaw Milosz was making when he flipped Marx’s creed on its head in his New York Times piece The Discreet Charm of Nihilism. “A true opium for the people is a belief in nothingness after death,” Milosoz writes, “the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders we are not going to be judged.” Milosoz goes on to sympathize with the skeptic’s position, “It is understandable that there are those who prefer nothing to religion, especially with nationalistic baggage . . .” But he leaves the door open just enough for the stubborn question to stick its foot into the crack, “But what if it’s true?”

And if it is true, if God really does exist, as of course I believe he does, then might Marx have misdiagnosed what intellectual position should rightly be called “the opium of the people”?