But what does Karl Marx really have to say on the subject? What is the source of this oft quoted line and what is the actual context? When prompted, few can give the actual source or its significance. Something I find quite sad as it reveals much more about his views on the nature of religion and says more then most have been led to believe.
The quote comes from Marx's Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, and the entire quote is thus:
Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions.To put this in further context, we must consider the piece Marx was critiquing, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's Elements of the Philosophy of Right. Without getting to far into detail, Hegel's work can be loosely summed up as the argument that humans cannot experience true free will outside of the confines of an established government of some sort. His arguments include such things as humanity having the chance to be free from the basic needs of survival in the wild as well as access to such state sponsored services such as education and protection. He further argues that such establishment of government is the direct will of god.
To clarify, he never argued that any and all governments held sway by divine right, just that the abstract concept of a central government was divinely willed. This is crucial, as his philosophies, like those of Nietzsche's have been hijacked by fascist and totalitarian governments in the past, the most famous being Mussolini's.
While Karl Marx agreed that a government was key to humanity reaching its potential, he was highly critical of how it had gotten to its point of power and the intentions of current forms of government. His views on class warfare are still highly relevant today and he saw the ruling class as essentially parasitic upon the lower classes. He argued, and I believe rightly so, that for any form of equality as well as the free will that Hegel saw dependent upon government to exist, there had to be a gross restructuring of government.
While I do not agree with everything Karl Marx had to say, I believe he was on the right track. The fact that so many of his works had been hijacked has made his name almost taboo in some circles. This I believe is unfair as it dismisses what the man actually had to say on a vast array of subjects within the field of government and human freedoms. His views on religion are a prime example of this.
"[Religion] is the opiate of the people" is one such line. It is often embraced as the end all be all argument against religion, as an argument for religion as a sort of salve for the common 'man', or as the foolish ramblings of a mad man. But it is, in reality, none of these.
It is an argument that takes one of (though surly not the only) the root causes of the modern choke hold religion has upon both the multitude and so many governments and succinctly exposes it to the light of logic. Karl Marx argues that religion is a numbing agent used by the down trodden masses. That in a society that seems unfair and uncaring, religion offers an escape for those that might see no other.
This may sound like an argument for religion, but it is anything but. While Marx was highly critical of religion, he was not entirely without sympathy for those who followed it. He knew that, at least at the time of his writing, that many had no hope of escaping their place in life, either due to those in power or due to their own upbringing, or even the religion itself.
He also knew that religion was a tool of those in power to keep those it dominated in their place. We now believe that government and religion co-evolved together. Religion gave those in power a reason to have their power and those that received such blessing of the dominant religion allowed the religion to flurish. While there is a symbiotic relationship, there is also an arms race between the two. If the government became too powerful and independent, it would negate the need for religion. If those in power were too quick to shun those who controlled the religion, they could be ousted and replaced with a more submissive ruler.
Marx saw religion as the very tool those in power used to maintain their dominance. The fact that he likened it to opium is no mistake. Opium is a central nervous system depressant. Those who are users will become lethargic and clouded in mind. It will ease their pain, but only temporarily and by over riding the pain signals, not by curing the ailment. Its addictive properties were not lost on Marx either in his analogy. He knew, just like opium, the more a religious 'user' devoted themselves to a belief, the more they would need it. And the more they needed it, the more they would defend its use.
The fact that religion had become the source of the masses oppressors power would be lost on many, something those in power counted on. Marx argued that the only way for humanity to be free would be to shake off the shackles of their addiction and see past their own illusion. See the very classes that strove to control them and keep them in a place of dependence and weakness for their own gain.
Karl Marx went beyond labeling religion as a simple stupefying substance and as a part of a power play that has existed longer then history has been able to record. He saw it as a tool of subservience and control. In many ways, his views reflected those put forth by Plato in his Allegory of the Cave, a series of illusions meant to keep the human mind docile. Illusions that could be broken by the bright light of day that would, at first, leaving those that experienced it afraid and overwhelmed, but would soon become the source of their joy, enlightenment, and freedom.