Religion as history will testify has always been the most powerful and influential institution instrumental in mobilising people and enabling a collective articulation. But it is not without its own downsides. Marx called religion an opiate. What exactly does an opiate do? It sedates a person, numbs the senses, makes pain disappear. In other words, the pain is still there but the suffering isn’t. It appears as if the pain and agony have disappeared once one is under the influence of a drug. The truth however is that it is only a numbing smokescreen that gives us an impression that the pain has gone as we do not experience it anymore and it is convenient to believe it and even become oblivious of the reason behind the pain or to think of a permanent cure or a treatment.
Religion is an opiate in Marx’s view. Religion tells humans that it is our lot to suffer but that also it is ok to suffer because this is just a temporary phase, a temporary place to be in which comes very close to Neitzsche’s true world theory which posits that there is another world which is better, more permanent and our final destination and we should be focusing on heading towards it. All religions do this: whether they call it afterlife or moksha or nirvana or heaven, there is always a reassurance, a kind of hope of escape from the current circumstances. This lure of the world beyond is what keeps people going, what makes them even accept suffering and oppression.
Religion thus, in Marx’s view, also helps in maintaining the status quo because it makes one indifferent to it. In fact he goes as far as to say that religion is always a reflection of the economic order of its times. He compares the feudal system of economy to the catholic version of Christianity and draws parallels between the two orders. Both are hierarchical, stratified with the Pope and the king at the top of the order and then nobility, feudal lords and peasantry in a descending order in the economy and the bishop, the clergy, the pastor and finally the locals, the churchgoers in the religious order. In fact the Pope crowns the king as god’s surrogate in this world. So institutionalised hierarchy in the societal and economic order is legitimised by religion. It is not a mere coincidence that when Protestantism challenged Catholicism, it coincided with the overthrow of the feudal system and its replacement by capitalism under which the individual was supposed to be way more free than they were in the feudal system of governance. However society remained as stratified as ever, groups of the population were as segmented as before. Only it was an inequity of a different kind.
At an individual level, as someone from the working class, all the frustration that stems from a keen awareness of being exploited, deprived of entitlement and discriminated against which keeps accumulating and building inside you loses steam once you go to a religious discourse and listen to the Godman preaching how it is easier for people with no money to enter heaven than people with a lot of money or for that matter, whatever religious ordinance or faith you subscribe to or follow, listening to the master or the preachers of that religion who will always tell you one or all of the three things:
1. That there is something better than this that awaits you.
2. The problem lies in your reluctance to accept what you are going through rather than blaming the world
3. Suffering elevates you.
This inspires the follower to be acquiescent and sustain the existing order instead of challenging its loopholes and desiring a change. Marx says this is not healthy because every order is inherently flawed, however idealistic its projection may be. If we start being complacent and acquiescing, we can never bring about change and systems along with their flaws and drawbacks will become fossilised and normativised. The vital thing then is to question givens and resist naturalisation of oppressive and discriminatory practices that are often systemic in nature since they have religious and social sanction. In fact if something has a religious sanction or seeks justification on the basis of some larger rhetoric of an overarching ideology, it becomes all the more important to question its legitimacy. Because religion, unlike spirituality (which is deeply personal), is a manmade construct, an institution that manufactures consent, conformity, influence and compliance and encourages complete surrender to its dictates.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.