Religion is indeed man’s self-consciousness and self-awareness so long as he has not found himself or has lost himself again. . . Religious suffering is at the same time an expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world, the soul of soul-less conditions. It is the opium of the people.
KARL MARX: Introduction to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right
This is a slightly longer excerpt from Marx than “Religion is the opium of the people” To me, while the latter is blunt, the former demonstrates his compassion for the poor, who lived in soul-less conditions. He demonstrates his understanding of the nature of drugs (including alcohol and tobacco): that they give solace, that they ‘take the edge off’ suffering, drown one’s sorrows. This, in my belief, is an aspect of all drugs, no matter how mind expanding. In giving solace they encourage denial, avoidance of dealing with problems and thus perpetuate problems. (When my marriage fell apart I stopped smoking marijuana. Then I suffered. I saw, as if for the first time, how the marriage had never worked, how I had glossed over the problems, not dealt with them.)
Then Marx claims that religion is a drug, that it soothes the people’s troubled brow but does nothing to solve their problems. From Marx’s perspective their problem was political oppression and the solution had to be political. But maybe Marx did not understand what Gandhi fully understood a century later, that the means and the end are not separate, that violent means lead to a violent end. His followers advocated violent revolution. When these ideas were put into practice in Russia they led to the imposition of a violent communist dictatorship not the withering away of the state which he predicted. Communism had become a religion insomuch as it was an ideal imposed on the masses by the powerful.
Are religion and tradition separate entities? Hardly. They are very-much entwined. I met an Irish woman in Ooty who said Ireland is returning to its traditions. I said, “You mean that the Irish are returning to Catholicism?” “No, no…” “You mean to pre-Christian traditions?” I guess she meant to folk music and folk dancing.
This is why I define tradition as the means of transmitting culture from generation to generation, the process not the content. Religion is a major part of the content. The process is imposition, a form of conditioning the mind, channelling it into stereotypical forms, thus limiting its potential. Religion offers a formula for the good life, such as the Ten Commandments but then imposes such beliefs as, ‘respect and obey established authority’, ‘accept your station in life’ and ‘do your duty’. I can understand why Marx didn’t like it.
I went to a talk by a Hopi Indian once. He gave a different perspective on large civilizations. He said that at one time all people practiced their own spirituality, which was their healthy relationship with the land. Then, in some places a priestly class arose. They offered to perform the sacred rituals on behalf of the people. When the people handed over their rituals they lost their close connection with the land and started to misuse it. The priests became powerful and corrupt and also stopped performing the rituals. They enslaved the people into building huge temples at further expense to the land.
In this simplified history, established religions have been corrupt for a long time. It brings to mind a paper I once read about growth and decay in trade unions. It suggested that all human institutions are subject to a natural process of growth and decay. That in their early years institutions serve people well with vitality and originality but that in their later years they become corrupt and self-serving.
In my interpretation of its history the Roman Church has been thoroughly corrupted for the last 1700 years since it became the official religion of the Roman Empire. If this is the case how can it have continued its existence for so long? The power of tradition was the power of the Church to command the heart and soul of its adherents. From the Catholic Church we have the words ‘indoctrinate’ and ‘propaganda’. It was a Jesuit priest who said, “Give me a child till the age of seven and I will give you the man.” [fully in-doctrine-ated] ‘Propaganda’ comes from the propagation of the faith.
Ultimately, I can only see organized religion as a corruption of spirituality. When, at age 21.
J Krishnamurti declined the offer of the Theosophical Society to make him into the new Messiah, he said, “I maintain that truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect.”
Each of us can only follow our own path to the truth and no-one else is in a position to tell us the way, no priest, no pope, no guru, because, though we may have the same destination, we all have different starting places. (This is not to say that no-one can help us in our process.) For every general rule there are exceptions. Don’t take what I say as gospel. It’s only my opinion, only the view from this angle.
These thoughts give me a new perspective on religious fundamentalism. Religious traditions provide a set of rules to live by, defining right and wrong. This gave people a sense of security and identity as these rules and the structures that supported them remained essentially unchanged. Fundamentalists see issues in black and white: “If I’m right then you are wrong,” “If you’re not with us you’re against us.” For them the decline of tradition is nothing less than tragic and they seek to restore traditional values at all cost. In vain.
At the same time I must recognize that there are many who interpret religion symbolically, figuratively as opposed to literally. There are those who seek to live by the principles of their religion, who, for example, take Jesus as a role-model. In my view these people are an entirely different constituency from fundamentalists, living religion as spirituality.