Opium for the Masses?


When I discuss religion with other people, very often they are making the comment, that religion does them good. It helps them to come through stressful situations and cope with life generally. They even claim, it makes them better persons.

I have to confess, right at the outset, that I’m an atheist happily married to a Roman Catholic who does her utmost to save my and her soul. She wants to make sure we will end up in Heaven together. Indeed, how can it be Heaven without your lifelong partner. It would give anybody a hellish feeling, even in Heaven, knowing the beloved is burning in Hell. Such are the vagaries of religion and belief. Or is my wife my insurance?

Having observed life for a very long time I came to the conclusion, through the study of history, that religion is bad, however belief in a supreme entity can have a calming effect on the believer. Some believers, of course, are not calm but angry and I would call them fundamentalists and their behaviour does not do them, nor others, any good.

But how come, I ask myself, can have a non entity, like God, have an effect on people? It clearly has and it is observable. The churches are full, at least at Christmas, and the sacred music of Bach and Hildegard von Bingen does something even to us non-believers. So what is this effect?

Today, it finally occurred to me that belief has a placebo effect, plain and simple; no more, no less. On this placebo effect, like on a rock, people have build their churches. They say, there is a God, therefore there is a God. I say, there is no God, therefore there is no God. The world is still the same but I have to live without the placebo effect. A believer achieves happiness by submission to God, the creator. We non-believers have to become stoics to achieve happiness by submission to destiny. Marcus Aurelius was a good example.

But it is not easy to be a believer or a stoic – and here we find ourselves both on the same platform – because often we are in discord with our beliefs or are challenged in our stoicism. The placebo won’t always work. When Marx made his famous remark about religions, did he really mean, “ Placebos are the opium of the masses”?

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3 thoughts on “Opium for the Masses?

  1. I think religion has done a lot of good for the world, providing a moral compass for those who don’t seem to have one independently. Having said that, I can’t see any evidence that any of the religions have got it right – particularly the Judeo-Christian beliefs. If you remove the fear of punishment from religious doctrine, then there is absolutely no reason for anybody to follow them.

  2. I do agree. Isn’t it awful, though, the way the pendulum always swings to the extremes – never stopping in the middle? When society saw severe punishment, or even just the fear of it, as a good thing (parents could have their own children thrown in prison just by asking the authorities!) it went too far: galleys for a stolen bread or handkerchief. Whenever it was decided that other ways were more desirable, like education, understanding, reasoning, psychology etc, and not imposing any rules, it must have been based on the belief that everyone is perfectly capable of behaving like a mature, responsible adult all the time. Hmmm!
    Only perhaps in times of conflict, when people have nothing to loose are they able to act unselfishly.

    • The better we are off the less we need our placebo, because we feel good already.

      You are right to say, “when people have nothing to loose are they able to act unselfishly.” This is true too in times of war.

      Instead of moaning we should be happy that we have all we need. The religious can thank his/her God, the non-religious can thank his/her lucky fate. Both will strengthen their feelings of well-being.

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