Voices

Is religion the opium of the people?

2019-02-26 23:14

Karl Marx used evocative language to describe his view of religion, surely as relevant today as ever: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

Despite much negative current opinion about Marx’s philosophy, it is worth remembering that he was the grandson of a rabbi, although his parents had converted to Christianity.

At times, he sounded like a biblical Hebrew prophet, demanding justice for the poor and oppressed, berating the unfeeling rich and choosing for himself a life of austere poverty.

In addition to criticising established religion, he encouraged the cultivation of true spirituality, calling for social conditions where all had sufficient time and space for creative activity and spiritual quality of life.

However, he frequently witnessed religion being misused – offering false hope of escape from desperate hardship and financial poverty, alienating people from society, only providing redemption from suffering in the afterlife.

This serious epidemic of religious leaders of all traditions abusing their ethical obligations to guide and enhance the wellbeing of their followers has, understandably, led to the call for a moral code of conduct to be implemented in an effort to halt this intolerable scourge.

Marx’s views resonate in much contemporary propagation of religion that has become divorced from morality, where numerous charlatan leaders have abandoned their recognised responsibility by manipulating and exploiting followers to submit to morally repugnant practices, such as purchasing fraudulent snake oil cures, drinking petrol, exorcisms involving spraying with Doom insecticide, and the sick and paralysed queuing for hours to access “miraculous cures for life-threatening ailments.

Sexual inadequacies are frequently treated with invasive physical manipulation of genitals amounting to rape, with an instance of a pastor trampling over the naked bodies of women.

This is offering fake deliverance to the desperate, producing a tranquillising, soporific effect by providing illusory happiness, masking the real causes of human suffering.

Such inauthentic religion distracts from the motivation to take steps to identify and attempt to solve the problems confronting people, instead encouraging a submissive acceptance of their plight, allowing ruthless charlatan manipulators to exploit their adversity and grow obscenely opulent on their duplicitous claims.

This serious epidemic of religious leaders of all traditions abusing their ethical obligations to guide and enhance the wellbeing of their followers has, understandably, led to the call for a moral code of conduct to be implemented in an effort to halt this intolerable scourge.

It seems clear that much religious practice being peddled is largely of the “opium” type – some of it positively physically harmful, other aspects inimical to spiritual wellbeing.

Any attempt to establish controls to counter such misuse of religion needs to distinguish between what is actually criminal, such as sexual abuse, physical violence, fraudulent demands of payment for “healing” substances – many of which are demonstrably toxic – and, on the other hand, encouraging fatuous responses from often unsophisticated and gullible followers who easily fall prey to the quick fixes on offer, exploiting ignorance, wishful thinking and superstition.

South Africa already has sufficient laws, many enshrined in the Constitution, to prosecute religious leaders and others who act in a criminal fashion by infringing such regulations. What is crucially important is to insist on more efficient implementation of these legal requirements.

However, we need reminding that South Africa already has sufficient laws, many enshrined in the Constitution, to prosecute religious leaders and others who act in a criminal fashion by infringing such regulations.

What is crucially important is to insist on more efficient implementation of these legal requirements.

There are other immoral practices that are endorsed because of the muddled, incoherent choices made by the naive and credulous.

Somehow, in this complex confusing situation, the populace of this much-abused country must be helped to stand tall and assume responsibility for their own actions and failings; to make choices that lead to a healthier, more abundant life in a robustly moral society – to put heart into a heartless world.

However, the conundrum of the human condition is that all societies have to cope with those individuals who, for one reason or another, will choose to remain the Hollow Men, withering in the wasteland of unreality, or inhabiting the lush pastures of the lotus-eaters, languishing forever in the somnambulant apathy of pain-dulling opiates, unwilling to engage with reality.

Neither of these responses to life’s challenges will help people encounter the kind of spiritual experience described by the Buddha as “enlightenment”, a searing sense of awakening to a revelation of reality – to see the world as a place of exquisite beauty and wonder, provoking the motivation to participate actively in preserving and promoting this vision by creating a more empathic and sustainable environment for all.

. Diesel has a doctorate in religious studies and gender studies from the University of Natal

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October 20 2019