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Sunday 14 November 2010

The Opium of the People?

At the time that he wrote his famous line: “Religion is the opium of the people” it cannot be denied that in many ways, Marx spoke the truth. Religion had, for centuries, long been used as a tool to keep the social order in place. During the enclosures in Britain, when the greater part of the rural population was illiterate, village parsons gave sermons threatening people with hell if they failed to obey and respect their ‘masters’ (no matter how cruel those masters were). In the Middle Ages, the illiterate people were, by means of pictures of hell (which must have come from the most macabre and unspiritual minds as many of them are more horrific than the worst horror films shown today) the consequences of not obeying their king. Basically, the message was, “You cannot think for yourself. You must obey those whom God has placed over you or you will spend eternity undergoing the most horrendous tortures imaginable....oh and, by the way, God is love!” And people believed it.

Surely a belief is the most powerful force there is, and when that belief is associated with the most basic and most prominent aspect of ourselves – our spirituality, who we really are, our view of what God/the Divine/Life is – the concoction is more powerful than sticking your fingers into an electric socket. Powerful people learned that very early in our history and used it to their own ends. Even the Emperor Constantine realised that the best way to control the Roman empire was to use religion, and hence the world became Christian, with a message very far removed from the message of the Galilean who first preached it. Terrorists today still kill innocent people when their spirituality is warped into the notion that they are doing God’s work.

But, paradoxically, some of the most powerful people on earth – the kings of the past – were more bound by that belief than by the masses who felt themselves wronged and to whom Marx was preaching. This, it seems to me, is a great and much misunderstood tragedy. A great many people, even now, condemn Charles I of Britain, Louis XVI of France and Nicholas II of Russia for clinging to their autocracies, yet
each of them was a devout man: a Protestant, a Catholic and an Orthodox king, all raised from their earliest years that they must accept their God-given role, as surely as the workers, the illiterate peasants and the masses must accept theirs. The Victorian hymn sung often in churches said:

“The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate.
He [God] made their lofty standing,
He made their low estate.”

It was all God’s will. Neither Louis XVI nor Nicholas II wanted power at all. They were obeying the belief instilled in them since childhood, that God had called them to sacrifice everything for this. They were no different, in that respect, from the drugged masses about whom Marx was writing. However, very few people condemn the drugged masses – on the contrary, there is great sympathy for the poor and downtrodden who chose to remain in that state through some mistaken belief that God wanted them to suffer.
Many people, however, speak glibly of Nicholas and Louis as arrogant and stubborn, whereas they were devoutly following what they saw to be their duty and they, along with Charles I, were literally martyred for their beliefs.

Much good came from religion in the past – education, the establishment of hospitals, schools and orphanages – but most of that came from individual thinkers within the institution of religion (and often encountered initially a great deal of resistance from the hierarchy of religion – how many saints met opposition from bishops!). Much good comes for some from religion now – the creation of communities and bringing people together, but the history of it is of so much manipulation and – to my mind – the greatest crime of all, depriving people of their immediate connection with the Divine.

It seems to me often, looking at Nature and Creation as the surest expression of what the Divine is, that religion is lacking. The word, coming from its Latin root ‘re-ligio’ means to reconnect with the Divine. When I was at school it was defined as a ‘measuring stick’ – something ordered and against which we measured how well we were doing, which so suited the interpretation of Empires when everything needed to be kept in line – the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate – but Nature, along with the orderliness of tides, planets, seasons etc. is absolutely wild as well: the chaos of overgrown gardens, the intermingling of colour at this time of year, the lavish wastefulness of leaves being shed year after year, the variety of creatures...And nowhere do you see a dog telling a cow that, “My way is the right way. I have the Truth”, or a daffodil telling an oak tree, “You are appointed as God’s king and must rule me.” Humans are so odd – and nowhere more so than in our powerful beliefs which are at the heart of all that is good in the world, and all that is catastrophic.


May said...

Dear Christina,

As you know, I cannot agree with everything you say here, but I do agree that these monarchs saw their position as a duty, not a pleasure. And many people do not seem to realize what a burden it is, in fact, to be born into that position.

Christina said...

Dear Matterhorn, because you cannot agree with all I wrote, I appreciate your comment even more and trust my views are never offensive to you (or anyone else). Thank you :-).

I absolutely agree with you that so many people don't see the world through the eyes of these monarchs - they were all doing what they believed to be right and for the good of their people. They were more altruistic than many who came after them. It was such a burden for them and I wish so often that they could have been relieved of that burden and the belief that God, whom they loved, required a sacrifice of them.