In 1843, Karl Marx, author of The Communist Manifesto, said that “religion is the opium of the people.” For thousands of years, there have been people proclaiming the same thing, though not in those exact words. Essentially, these people believe that religion, regardless of which camp to one subscribes, is a crutch – something to lean on when life is tough or circumstances become difficult. This has been one of the greatest objections to religion, and Christianity, since antiquity. How do we, as Christians, deal with this objection? Is it true? Was Marx right in saying that people need something to lean on and Christianity provides just that? I don’t think so, and I aim to answer that objection here.
Let us first begin by observing what proponents of this objection intend to mean. Proponents of the objection, Marx included, argue that man experiences hardships and trials in their lives and that some revert to developing something within their minds that reduces or distracts man from his hardships, much like an opiate reduces the awareness of symptoms in a sick man. They then conclude that religion was developed by the human mind as a natural response to the problems facing them and was spread through collective efforts of helping others suppress, or distract themselves from, the issues in their lives.
So how do we address this? Does it not seem logical that man could have developed religion as a way to mask his suffering? On the surface, yes, it does seem like a logical explanation, especially with Christianity, but that is the very reason we must think critically about this objection and do our best to answer it from a Christian perspective that is able to communicate effectively to the objectors.
As Christians, we believe that the true revelation of God is through the canonical 66 books of the Bible and that Jesus is the ultimate, final authority of God in the Earth realm. We must, then, be open to the idea that other religions, such as Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and even Judaism, were possibly created by their adherents for the purpose suggested by Marx; after all, we do believe those camps of thought to be incorrect and untrue. But then how can we distinguish Christianity from those religions and claim that it was not birthed as a crutch for our suffering though the others may have been?
Let us begin by acknowledging that Christianity does not, in fact, claim that it will alleviate all suffering and hardships. For this, we can look to the words of Jesus and his apostles.
According to Jesus himself – the founder of Christianity – Christianity will not bring peace to the Christian; rather, it brings divisiveness and further problems even in the family. It is not my goal to explain what that means or to offer a theological explanation to this passage, but I do want you to realize that this religion claims from the foundation that its goal is not to bring peace – a crutch – to its believers. The Apostle Paul also wrote to the church in Rome that Christians are not immune to suffering.
Paul explains clearly that Christians are going to experience all things, not just the good things. The fundamentalist might believe that Christianity is a way to avoid life’s struggles, but that is the very opposite of what it claims. Rather, it claims that Christian circumstances are no better than a non-Christian’s circumstances. I would even go so far as to say that Christian circumstances are worse than the non-Christian’s, arguing from the perspective of our position beside and against God.
In Christianity, a truth is recognized that prior to our conversions, our enemy was God and that after conversion, our enemy is Satan. The difference here is that our enemy as a non-believer was still radically in love with us and though he was against us, he was fighting for us to join his ranks; he was an enemy whose goal was conversion, not destruction. Now, however, our enemy is not as loving; our enemy is the dirtiest, nastiest war general in existence and his goal is not conversion, but destruction. Prior to becoming Christians, our enemy loved us, but now our enemy hates us. Christians are not immune to the effects of the enemy, and that makes me believe that our sufferings and problems have increased rather than decreased after becoming Christians.
How, then, can we say that we developed this religion to suppress our sufferings if we fundamentally believe that our sufferings are greater now than prior to our conversion? For those who believe Marx’s words about our religion being an opiate, they now face a problem with his logic. If Christianity was simply a religion developed by ancient people to suppress or mask our sufferings, why would they have created a religion founded upon the claim that they will suffer more for its sake than if they had not developed it at all? Marx’s words, then, make no sense, and that is probably because he himself was not a Christian and was not aware of its true claims. Had Christianity said, “Convert to this religion and all your problems will be solved,” I could understand and probably agree with what he said, but that’s not the truth of Christianity; the truth of Christianity is that we acknowledge our problems and sufferings and through the acknowledgement of their existences, we are to go into the world and do our best to alleviate those sufferings from other people, even if that means sacrificing our own selves. That would be the strangest crutch I’ve ever heard of.