I was thinking today about something Karl Marx said. He called religion, “the opiate of the masses.” Opiates are a class of drug including heroin and morphine that relieve pain. Often people interpret this statement as meaning that religion is a poor solution to problems just as morphine only masks pain rather than treating the root cause of the illness.
But if you look at it in another way, what Marx is saying is really a compliment to religion. In fact, not only is it a compliment, but it’s one of the kindest things anyone has said about religion in a long time. He’s saying that religion relieves the pain of the impoverished people on the bottom of the social ladder. It eases the hardship of those who suffer the most. Religion gives people hope that a better world exists.
Also, the quote is rarely seen in its original context. Here is an English translation of Marx:
“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.” (http://atheism.about.com/od/weeklyquotes/a/marx01.htm)
Granted, he says that religion needs to be abolished and that religion is illusory. Yet he also calls religion, “the heart of a heartless world.” Honestly, if one were to attribute that statement to Jesus rather than Marx, one could fool many people.
Marx, perhaps inadvertently, expresses a vision of what religion can offer the world. It can provide solace in times of pain. It can remind people to care in the midst of uncaring times. It can redirect society’s energy from the head to the heart.