Everybody knows the famous Karl Marx quote, “Religion is the opiate of the masses,” but because of a changing historical and medical context in regards to opiates, most people in the modern era misinterpret it.
In 2013, the word opiate conjures up images of heroin abuse and the stigma that goes along with it. You hear the word opiate and think of junkies, and you also think of the stigma attached to drug addicts which is that they are weak and to be looked down upon. (This misinterpretation explains a lot about New Atheism’s dickish attitudes.)
When Marx wrote that, opiates were mainly regarded as a painkiller for only the worst kinds of pain. This is before drug addiction was really understood from a medical standpoint, and decades before opium addiction ravaged China and the ensuing Opium Wars. (On a side note, it is interesting to note that the widespread opium addiction in China in the late 1800’s is one of the first well recorded drug epidemics, and can easily be compared to the crack epidemic of the 1980’s in America, the current meth epidemic and the spread of the drug krokodil in Russia. Also, it is interesting to note that Mao Zedong, an adherent of Marx, was hardline anti-drug and despite the terrible things he did in the 1950’s, Mao did play a crucial role in decreasing opium addiction in China during his stay in power.)
What Marx meant by that quote was that religion soothed the pain of the masses, not that the masses were weak, addicts, or “sheep” like so many New Atheists claim. In areas of widespread poverty, famine and overall hardship, religion does provide a sense of security, belonging and meaning for people afflicted by the horrors of the world. Karl Marx did not try and defame the intellect or moral fiber of the religious, but to understand why religion is appealing in the darkest times in life.
If only more people knew that.