Letter submitted the editor of the Bryan Times on August 18, 2020
Jerry Bergman’s latest letter to the editor about Karl Marx, Marxism, and atheism would be hilarious if it wasn’t for the fact that his distortions of history are believed by millions of Evangelical Christians. Marxism, socialism, and atheism are the new boogeymen used by preachers to foment outrage and fear among the faithful. Worse yet, many of these same preachers tell congregants that Donald Trump, a fascist, is the only thing standing between them and the socialist/Marxist horde taking over America.
Bergman takes one line from Marx, using it to paint a distorted view of 20th-century history. Here’s the rest of the quote:
“Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions.”
As readers can see, Marx’s view of religion is more nuanced and complex than Bergman suggests.
Marx believed that religion provides a fantasy of sorts for the poor and disenfranchised. Economic realities prevent the poor from finding happiness in this life, so religion promises them happiness in the life to come. This Faustian bargain chains the poor to the rotting carcass of immoral American capitalism. It is only when the poor and disenfranchised see beyond the false promises of eternal life and heavenly prosperity that they see their only hope of a better tomorrow rests in casting off the chains of religion and resolutely standing against the political and social status quo.
It is clear to anyone who is paying attention that American capitalism is a failed economic system. Is Democratic Socialism the answer? Maybe. One thing is certain: capitalism is not the answer. Once Trump and his robber baron cronies are voted out of office in November, we can then begin anew to not make America great again, but to make her more fair, equitable, and just for all Americans.
Bruce Gerencser Ney, Ohio
Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 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.
I can recall when a yellow haze hung in coffee shops, transportation terminals, and other indoor public spaces. Most adults, it seemed, smoked. It was even socially acceptable to give a carton of cigarettes as a gift for Christmas, a birthday or some other occasion. I know: I gave cartons of Lucky Strikes, Pall Malls and other brands to aunts, uncles, godparents, and godchildren, even though I never smoked.
Most young people simply cannot imagine such a world. For one thing, the price of cigarettes has multiplied. For some people, that cost is a disincentive to start smoking; for nearly everyone else, it’s a reason not to wrap up cartons of Kools and Marlboros and tie them with colorful ribbons. If anything, most young people want to discourage their family and friends from lighting up.
It is not surprising, then, that in 2018, a lower percentage (15) of the US adult population smoked than at any time since such statistics were kept. Although more than 38 million Americans still smoke, the habit is less likely to be passed along inter-generationally: more than a few people decided not to pick up cigarettes after watching family members and friends struggle with, and die from, nicotine addiction.
Now anti-smoking campaigns like the ones initiated by the US Surgeon General in the 1960s have taken hold in Australia, Japan, and Canada, and even in countries like France, where lighting up a Gitane or Gauloise was part of the image of a soigne sophisticate. Throughout the developed world, rates of smoking are falling faster than a pack of Viceroys dropped off Big Ben.
So what have tobacco companies done? They’ve gone to China, Russia, Somalia and other low- and middle-income countries. Worse yet, though not surprisingly, they’ve targeted the young —I mean, the really young. In my travels, I recall seeing boys who hadn’t reached puberty lighting up and puffing in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. In those parts of the world, it’s even more common than it is in the US or Europe to see stores selling individual cigarettes, which is how most teens and pre-teens buy them. If anything, the tobacco companies are encouraging such practices: the teenager who buys a cigarette a day could easily become the adult who smokes a pack, or even more, a day.
Now, it seems, pharmaceutical companies are following at least part of the tobacco companies’ playbook. Although the opioid epidemic still devastates families and communities, prescriptions for OxyContin — the most commonly-used opioid painkiller — in the US have fallen by 40 percent since 2010. The overall volume of opioid prescriptions, which include hydrocodone (Vicodin), oxycodone (Percocet) and other drugs, as well as OxyContin, has fallen by about a third since 2011. So the makers of those drugs have begun campaigns to encourage doctors to prescribe those drugs, and are even encouraging over-the-counter sales in countries where pharmaceuticals are less regulated.
In a sad, cruel irony, Mexico is experiencing its own opioid crisis, as its citizens are using the drugs to cope with the traumas of forced migration, gang violence, political corruption, and economic stagnation: problems brought on, at least in part, by the demand for those, and illegal, drugs in the United States!
Of course, tobacco and opioids aren’t the only means people in poor and developing countries use in their attempts to cope with the disruptions caused by the whims, decadence, and cruelty of richer countries — which, in some instances, were their actual or de facto colonizers. What I am about to mention has, in essence, the same effect on people who are poor, dispossessed and otherwise victimized through no fault of their own.
Not for nothing did Karl Marx call religion the “opium of the people.” Opioids are so named because they mimic opium’s ability to numb or kill pain. For many people, faith, prayer, and participation in religious rituals allow them to forget, if only for a moment, the terrible conditions in which they live, and to believe (or at least hope) that there will be something better after this life. This effect can be powerful enough to prevent the poor and powerless from seeing, let alone understanding or fighting, the people and institutions that keep them oppressed. For that matter, the narcotic of faith can actually keep people from knowing that that the people and institutions responsible for their misery have, as often as not, some role in the creation or propagation of the very religion that they’re being encouraged or forced to adopt.
I can’t help but think that the leaders of the Roman Catholic, Mormon, and Evangelical churches, as well as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and other powerful hierarchical religious institutions, understand what I have just described. They also know that, to put it crudely (some would say crassly), folks, especially the young, in the developed world are no longer buying what they’re selling. While it’s true that the more extreme and depraved forms of Evangelicalism are having a heyday in the US (where they have the ear of their President and other powerful leaders), their hold on the U.S. can’t last. Their kids eat lunch with gay and gender-fluid peers as well as Muslims, Buddhists, and kids with no religion at all — and cultures very different from their own. Some young Catholics, Evangelicals, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses will cling to their beliefs for as long as they can, but even for them, it’s not a sure bet that their faith will withstand exposure to the facts.
A few religious leaders have admitted as much, whether tacitly or explicitly. They know that the U.S. is not a “growth market.” Latin America won’t be one for long, and Europe, at least in the north and west, is declining or even dying as a “market” for their faith. As people in those places are exposed to more ideas, practices, and cultures different from their own — which is to say, as they become more educated — they simply see less reason, and thus have less need, to live their lives according to half-baked, warmed-over Bronze Age myths. If anything, those people, especially the young, see the harm that clinging to those ideas has caused the generations before them, in much the same way I and other people of my generation saw the harm tobacco and painkillers caused older members of our families and communities.
But the young, let alone their elders, in much of the poor and developing world have not yet seen the destruction caused by addictive substances, nor do they understand the corrosive effects irrational beliefs will cause them and their societies. And they are experiencing enough pain, whether physical or emotional, to try anything that might help them forget, even for a moment, that the one offering the opium or the opioid is, in fact, causing the pain. It is among these that the pushers of religion have their only hope of expanding their capital.
At least the third-world “market expansion” of western religions will have an expiration date. When that will come, I don’t know, but come it will: inevitably, someone will understand that addiction — whether to toxic substances or ideas — leaves the addict in a worse state than he or she was in with his or her pain. Oh, and they will also realize that those offering relief or salvation are the ones who caused their malaise and oppression in the first place. Then they will remember when the pall of that malaise and oppression hung in the air, and be happy their children won’t have to inhale it.
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.
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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