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Is Religion a Powerful Narcotic?

getting high on Jesus

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

— Karl Marx

One need only study world religions to understand that religion is a powerful force in our world — for good and evil. Marx rightly compared religion to opium — a powerful narcotic used to relieve pain, both physically and psychologically. Religion, in all its forms, is used by humans to find purpose, meaning, peace, and happiness. Ultimately, people worship deities because doing so benefits them in some way or the other. A good way to look at religion is from an economic perspective. Every religion has a cost attached to it. Sometimes those costs are clear: time, money, commitment. Other times, religion extracts psychological or emotional costs. Some religions, such as Evangelical Christianity, Mormonism, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, require an abandonment of self and total commitment to God and the church. I spent 50 years in the Christian church. Twenty-five of those years were spent pastoring churches in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. I can’t even begin to calculate the cost of my devotion to the Evangelical Jesus. Much of my time and money were spent in devotion to a deity whom I believed was the one true God, the creator and ruler over all. I abandoned self as I “followed the Lamb of God.” I willingly sacrificed my marriage and family, living in poverty and doing without for my God’s sake. Why would anyone live as I did?

Yes, serving Jesus was costly, but the benefits far outweighed the costs — or so I thought at the time, anyway. Through my religious beliefs, experiences, and practices, I found happiness, peace, and meaning. I had the privilege of preaching the gospel and teaching others the “truths” of the Christian Bible. I was loved and respected, and there never was a day when I didn’t feel God’s presence in my life. Oh, sometimes it seemed God was distant, but more often than not, the Christian deity was an ever-present reality.

It matters not whether Christianity is true; that its core beliefs are rational and reasonable. All that mattered, as a Christian, is that I thought these beliefs were true. Countless people believe all sorts of things that are untrue, but they believe them to be true, so in their minds, they are. While believing in the Christian God extracted from me a high cost, one I am paying to this day, for most of my life I believed the benefits of religious faith outweighed its costs.

Marx thought religion gave people false happiness. That said, he never underestimated its power, its ability to meet the deep needs of the human psyche. Atheists often wrongly believe that the solution to the ills of the world is for people to abandon their superstitions and embrace rationality rooted in reason, science, and intellectual inquiry. What atheists forget is that what humans want more than anything else is happiness. Until rationalists, freethinkers, and humanists show that their godless way of life leads to purpose, meaning, and happiness, we can’t expect religious people to buy what we are selling. We know that people don’t need to toke religious crack to feel happy and fulfilled, but we will never argue people into understanding this. Like it or not, feelings play a big part in the human experience. Life is short, and then we die. Religion offers a powerful drug that lessens the pain of that reality. We secularists must offer the same.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 62, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 41 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

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  1. Avatar

    I suppose if it were only about the positive feelings that certain aspects of religion induces it probably wouldn’t matter that much. However, it is so much more, and a large part of it is the insidious way it warps thinking and behaviour and this needs to be combated.

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    I have said for years that I hate feelings and emotions. They are irrational and get in the way of logic. I admire the Star Trek characters who are Vulcan, those who have spent their lives training to keep their emotions under control. However, I read in Jonathan Haidt’s book “The Happiness Hypothesis” that emotions are useful and necessary for decision-making. The amount of choices can be vast and overwhelming, and emotions can help us narrow down our options into “I like that” and “I don’t like that” categories. However, we sti need to be careful to employ logic alongside emotions during decisionmaking.

    I have to say, though, that I have yet to find a devout religious person whose decision to join a religion wasn’t mostly emotional. My brother recounts hearing the “voice of God calling him “my son, my son” and feeling overwhelmed with love during his conversion experience (which happened after both his parents had died, and his wife and kids and my family are his only family left -coincidence?) Most evangelicals join out of fear of hell, wanting to feel like they have worth and a purpose, and wanting to feel loved. I doubt that they are joining because the story of a man living inside a whale’s digestive tract for 3 days is such a scientifically compelling story.

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    Brian Vanderlip

    “Religion offers a powerful drug that lessens the pain of that reality. We secularists must offer the same.”
    Maybe I misunderstand this last bit but… Naw, drugs are good, sure, I get that but the power of secular living is not anything akin to the illusions of religion: I would say it is the absence of these illusions that offers a fullness of life and not the high lie of evangelical faith. Life is short and there are days that seem eternal, never-ending. When I crawled out of the Baptist gulag, I began the painful withdrawal from the lifelong effects of the lies of the Apostle Paul and my own dear dad too (who bought it all, the whole IFB hallucinogen pie). I writhed and suffered the Charles depressions. I attended therapy and spewed and moaned and finally wept the Full Loss, the very real and searing knowledge that illusion claimed my mom and dad before I was born and that I was born into a viral system of denial, of illusory words and outright lies. When the withdrawal settles, the king is naked before us and it is okay to let him be as he is, just one of us. I offer the believer the fullness of life as it remains with me, no promise of gold avenues and a crowd of virgins. If we can manage a helping hand, first to our harmed selves and then to someone else nearby, then I think we can know fullness without illusion. If we must rave in our pain of loss as Charles does vicariously, then good and fine, let us rave and rage and lament all we must to pour out the poison that we lived in, the Christian lies. But then, let the garden call us back to get the weeding done, to listen to the birds cheer us as we loosen the dirt for them, feel the sun on our necks and the ache of the old back. Life is full. God is a garbage can. Religion is the shadow cast by the vale of tears, the halo of history, of harm done.

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      Bruce Gerencser

      The happiness aspect of life. All of us want happiness. We have to show the religious that atheism/humanism is a better way of life, or at the very least a more honest way of living. Millennials are looking for models of ways to live. What’s our model? We rightly reject religion, but we do compete with it in the public square. Christianity has failed. Are we ready to step up and show people a better way? Make sense? Of course, you live in Canada and have a huge start on the US.?

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        Brian Vanderlip

        Your honest expressions regarding evangelical Christianity make me happy. Happiness is not the product offered free that we hear of on church signs. Their happiness is based in denial, denial of self and others, rather than acceptance and honesty. Bipeds are not born evil. They are taught to hate themselves, first in being harmed as babies and children and then, later, in Jesus’ name. Religion particularly of the fundamentalist strain is a viral opportunity and evangelical Christianity is the virus in full bloom. It preys on harmed people and formalizes their suffering: You are evil at heart and helpless to change etc.
        Humanism offers the opportunity to come home to the self, to care for self and therefore others too, rather than preach at them about gold streets or burning hells. Humanism offers a chance to honestly care, ‘just as I am’. Take that, Billy Boy…
        (And Canada’s Raptors have successfully slaughtered the USA in the NBA on CBC, hee hee hee! And the very great part of that is of course that the Toronto Raptors, I believe, are virtually all Americans! Destroyed the USA from the inside out! Gerencser, admit defeat!)

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        William Byman

        Firstly, thank-you for your service to the body of Christ for many years. Be careful not seek the praise of men, instead of the praise of God.

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    I have simply come to accept people are metaphysical emotional creatures seeking meaning and purpose in their lives. They will latch onto things that offer this. Things that do not offer this tend to fail or be just fringe.

    Religious ideologies can do horrible thing. So can secular ideologies for example communism, racism etc.

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    mary g

    great post. I am still struggling to let go of religion. it seems I fall back to it when I have difficult times. logically I know I can get thru, but I still long for comfort of talking to god etc. I have no problem w/gleaning the positive teachings of Christ, but I have all the other baggage from childhood indoctrination. parents paid a heavy price for their beliefs along w/us kids. no longer part of an organized church so that is progress for me. thanks for taking the time to post as it helps the rest of us who are struggling.

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    I ran to religion and to the fundies after extreme trauma and illness. I know it was an escape for me and acted like a drug. Reality had grown too painful. I wanted to check out, and sadly I checked out into many years of fantasy. Secularists can offer the positive world view of humanity actually working together to solve problems instead of begging a big man in the sky to fix it all, with ‘thoughts and prayers” but I know religion is so popular because it is emotionally driven. No one wants to die, or suffer and it’s easier to believe you will live forever or a God cares and will rescue you even if it’s not real. So yeah I think it acts just like a drug. Religion probably acts upon the dopamine too. The mainstream evangelical churches have the light shows and music, the Catholics the incense and Georgian chants and the fundamentalists, the bible prophecy, fantasy tales, and altering of reality. Who needs to smoke pot when you can imagine yourself being raptured or in Jesus’s multi-mansions and see this as reality?

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    Karen the rock whisperer

    There’s a fantasy novel, Priestess of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley and Diana L. Paxson, that describes a fictionalized account of the life of Helena, mother of Constantine the Great. The fictionalized Helena is raised to be a priestess in the manner of the Roman-oppressed British tribes, becomes concubine of a Roman officer, and experiences Roman religious practices and rituals. They don’t offend her–British tribal religion is polytheistic–but what bothers her is that the Romans in the high-class circles she now moves in all seem to be going through the motions of their religion. Didn’t they really believe in their deities?

    Fantasy aside, I think Bradley/Paxson touch on something important here. If your basic needs are met comfortably, if you’re confident that your life isn’t about to be turned upside down, it’s easy to use religion as a useful entity in your life (say, for community) and go through the motions while you keep your mind focused on other things. On the other hand, if you’re struggling to get basic needs met (including emotional needs), a fervent belief in promise of everlasting life in a situation where you don’t have the worries and stresses of your current life can really help you get through your day.

    The atheist position is that religion isn’t true; the humanist position is that we humans can make the world better for all of us, including ourselves. But anyone who lives in the current age and doesn’t understand how fluidly people can view truth isn’t paying attention, and humanism doesn’t fix PTSD or put groceries on the table at the end of the current month. j

    Bruce is right, we need something better.

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      Why not keep the good of religion like community and lose the bad: the falsehoods and fantasies? I’ve been happy enough in the UU, maybe that’s the closest thing to a humanist church. [my congregation leans towards free thought and has a humanist minister] Even if fantasy soothes nerves, maybe humanity is at a time in it’s history where it needs to grow up? Stories and fairy tales and myths can still serve some purpose. I disagree with you that humanism doesn’t fix PTSD, especially as much PTSD and spiritual abuse is often caused by religion, for some people with PTSD and abuse histories, sometimes humanism can be the rope thrown down to save them. At least humanists won’t teach them that they were ‘cursed by God’ or have to “beg God to fix their lives’ or “for his blessings”

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    Most of the converts I have known were mentally ill, addicted to drugs, addicted to alcohol or addicted to both drugs and alcohol.
    They swapped one addiction for another. God/Jesus is the worst addiction out of all of them.

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      Given the nature of the 12 step program it’s hardly surprising that people suffering chemical addiction wind up with a different addiction.

      The 12 steps need work as well.

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      Sadly many desperate and vulnerable people are exploited by religion. I converted in after medical crisis, and other problems. I got “addicted” to religion too, I realize now it was an ‘escape’ from the pain of life, however many don’t talk about what happens when the “high” wears off, and the false promises don’t pan out for those who have had life on the “hard setting”. The “hang over” can be quite intense.

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    Excellent post.
    I was fortunate to not have been indoctrinated as a child into religion. And fortunate as well, with a life that has been relatively smooth and I don’t possess an addictive personality.
    But my observations have been that the more miserable a life someone has, the more they tend to be overly religious. It is an emotional need for sure. And today’s world for many offers not much else.

    The path to a better fuller life is education and a government that truly is for all people and doesn’t function for its own means.
    Also today’s social media society is full of stress and there’s job stress, financial stress, drugs, crime and an ever present search for happiness and purpose. Life is stressful and you must have some core values and logical thinking to not fall into the trap of religion.
    Religion does harm because it alienates , excludes, causes a ” my god is better than yours” attitude that can lead to racism, hatred, killing and wars as history proves over and over again.

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      One reason the USA is now becoming the Republic of Gilead on steroids, is economic dispossession. That’s one of the many reasons I got suckered in. Disability led to my poverty, but I was so disenfranchised from normal everyday and adult society, religion seemed like the natural escape hatch. So what happens when you have millions who don’t fit into society or are not allowed to make normal money that allows for a place in society? They start turning to religion and more extreme religion at that. For the fundies especially who go into the “new world order” extremes, these are ready explanations as to why life has become so awful. What fueled the alt right? What has fueled the rejection of science and more? Liberals need to be mindful of the economic dispossession fueling religious extremism in the USA. People like Hillary and Biden, who ignored the numbers of people watching their lives economically fall apart are how we got Trump.

      I don’t think more education is going to fix things either, we need more economic parity. We have people with master’s degrees now who can’t even pay their rent. The lives of Generation X on down, are nowhere near the economic lives of the Boomers.

      I watched a small rural town with a 37 percent poverty rate [today] implode and they became more and more religious, and cheered for Pence. I moved out of there, but more and more people turned to extreme religion.

      Misery does lead people to religion in desperation. Sadly I don’t see Biden and neoliberals fixing this. Bernie is the only one who has any answers in my opinion. Some young people are questioning the excesses of capitalists at least. The idea that people are poor now from “lack of education” is very outdated.

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      It makes sense that the most ripe environments for evangelists are very poor, developing countries. There’s nothing else that promises that someday that the poor of these developing nations will be have everything they need that they certainly are unlikely have in this life. I believed in fairy tales too when I was a child with no control over my own life.

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        Those environments are ripe for any ideology that promises improvement this life or next. Look at all the communist revolutions in 3rd world countries after all.

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Bruce Gerencser