January 24, 2016

BHOWMICK | The Opium of the People

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Karl Marx’s famous and, to an extent, hackneyed speech which describes religion as the “opiate of the masses” are pithy, profound and still captivate the world we live in today. However, there was more to what he said: “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.” His profound words are often brandished as an ideological weapon by atheists validating their belief. However, most people fail to note that Marx did concede the tremendous power of religion which brought societies together across the world.

The word religion itself stems from the Latin word ‘religare’ which means to bind together, and it is applicable if we come to think of how churches have been the epicenter of life in several societies for decades. Whether it is celebrating birth and marriage or remembering the deceased, the church is paramount. Similarly, synagogues, temples and mosques have served as centers of learning and social cohesion. Karl Marx was accurate when he described religion as the opium of the people. Like opium, the positive effects of religion are being overpowered by its negative effects — intolerance, fundamentalism and dogma.

However, it is crucial to remember before my point spurs a tirade against Islamic extremists that the concept of bloodshed in the name of salvation is not a new aspect of human history. The Crusades were by no means bloodless. There are no indefinitely violent and inadvertently peaceful religions. For instance, Buddhism is often considered synonymous with peace and tolerance. In Myanmar, however, Buddhists are immolating Rohingya Muslims, who happen to be the minority. Like I said, religion is in fact, acting as the opium of the masses today, and people have lost the ability to reason.

I was talking to my mother one night and I told her I just don’t understand how people can despise each other or be scared of each other because their ‘Gods’ appear different in form. I visit Sage Chapel every day, have been to the most beautiful mosques in Delhi (India), a synagogue in my city (Calcutta, India), Gurudwaras, Jain temples and Buddhist monasteries, and I am absolutely certain I felt the same sense of awe and peace when I visited each of these places of worship. I do not quite understand how so many can of revere one while being absolutely terrified of the other.

Moreover, it baffles me that religious antagonism is growing simultaneously with technological progress; it almost seems like an anachronistic anomaly. It is unfair and makes absolutely no sense to discriminate, shun, kill and destroy everything that humanity is trying to achieve in the name of something which was supposed to be constructive. I think especially today, with widespread Islamophobia, Islamic fundamentalists waging war on Western cultures and women’s rights, growing intolerance in a secular country like India, it is important to reconsider the role religion is playing in the way political, social and cultural interactions are taking place in our society. I think it is important to think about religion and mitigate the effect of the “opium” before we sanction more hatred and intolerance.