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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 to 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 another. 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, and 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 fifty years in the Evangelical 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 was 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?

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 if we expect to neuter the effects of religion on our world.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen 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.

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  1. Avatar
    MJ Lisbeth

    Bruce, I can only imagine what your fealty to Christ took from you. Me, I lost a few years in the Evangelical church and growing up in a conservative Catholic environment took its toll on me, which included sexual abuse from a priest. But at least I got away from those churches, and religion, when I still had a lot of time to find new work, community and purpose.

    Your post got me to thinking about a friend and former co-worker. His wife is a hyper-devout Catholic whose devotion is infused with what I can describe only as her culture’s analogue to voodoo or Santeria. Neither he nor I would try to disabuse her of it because it is about the only non-pharmaceutical means she has for dealing with her mental health issues, which are even more debilitating than mine have been at their worst. If believing in, and praying and singing to, something that doesn’t exist is helping her to be a functional human adult, let alone someone with the successful career she has (which, apart from her marriage and biological family, is all she has), how can anyone expect her to abandon it?

  2. Avatar

    Have you found anywhere where this is available? “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.”

  3. Avatar

    The rational and at times arrogant part of myself thinks that everyone should grow up and face reality without putting so much emphasis on belief in invisible spirits/parents/sorcerers to make themselves feel better. As a student of psychology, however, I have learned that humans have evolved certain skills that are sometimes helpful and sometimes not helpful. For example, infants have a need for a caregiver and will search/cry out for the caregiver to meet needs. Many people keep that feeling going and continue to search for a caregiver, especially in situations that are out of their control.

    Humans also learn through stories. Cultures developed stories to answer questions, like how did the earth begin, where do we come from, what is the moon, etc. Mythology and religion are closely intertwined, and religion provides stories that people use to answer their questions. Unfortunately, many people take these stories as factual and literal and will cleave to them even when scientific study has shown that they’re just stories, not literal fact.

    I understand that people towards the end of life or in difficult situations feel they need the comfort or hope that their religion offers. Sense of purpose doesn’t matter to me, but it’s meaningful to a lot of people who like the notion that a deity has a plan for them.

    What makes me mad is when people try to push their religion or beliefs onto others. Especially the religious nationalists that we see throughout the world legislating their beliefs to oppress, control, and discriminate against people.

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    Barbara L. Jackson

    Obstaclechick is correct. Some people need a political, religious, social, or mythological theory to understand the world. I do not care what people believe as long as it isn’t forced down everyone’s throat. Religions and other theories should be kept out of government. Ron DeSantis in Florida has proven how awful society can become when only one theory gets to control a government/society. Republicans in congress have proven how horrible their devotion to Capitalism is by fighting about the debt ceiling. Yes wealthy people will always have to pay taxes to support poor people. This is what they refuse to acknowledge. I have been asked by relatives why I do not BELIEVE in capitalism. It is an economic theory where it is impossible to create experiments and observations are always clouded by the theory.

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