Whatever you say, don’t say it tice
If you find your ideas in anyone else, disown them
The man who hasn’t signed anything, who has left no picture
Who was not there, who said nothing:
How can they catch him?
Cover your tracts. (My emphasis)
Bertolt Brecht, “Handbook for City-Dwellers”
Many readers of Blak and Black will recognise the heading for this post as being the most frequently paraphrased statements of German economist Karl Marx. Its literal English translation is “Religion is the opium of the people” however, it is frequently referred to as “religion is the opiate of the masses.” The quotation originates from the introduction of his proposed work A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right; this work was never written, but the introduction (written in 1843) was published in 1844 in Marx’s own journal Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, a collaboration with Arnold Ruge. The phrase “This opium you feed your people” appeared in 1797 in Marquis de Sade’s text L’Histoire de Juliette and Novalis’s “[R]eligion acts merely as an opiate” around the same time. The full quote from Karl Marx is: “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 quotation, in context, reads as follows:
The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man – state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. 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.
Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower. (My emphasis)
Marx, K. 1976. Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Collected Works, v. 3. New York.
How important a drug religion remains to modern society can be measured by the influence organised religion continues to wield in political debate. In a recent post Penny Wong and the Christian lobby – what is prejudice? I look briefly at the destabilizing effect Christianity was having on the political debate in Australia, Russia and the United Kingdom with respect to the legitimate rights and expectations of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (“LGBT”) people. Why should people be denied the right to have their union sanctioned by society just because their union happens to be a same sex one? What right does society have to deny any segment(s) their legitimate rights and expectations just because those rights and expectations deviate from the accepted norm? When last I looked there were no #LGBT people spawning multiple heads or detonating themselves in public to the detriment of everyone else.
Hatred, to you I have entrusted my treasure
The above heading is a quote from Rimbaud, Saison En Enfer, and is the main point of this post. Over the week a number of papers from around the world have been carrying the same story, indeed in the fifteen online papers I have checked, the story has remained the same, word for word! Far from being about hate, the story I’m referring to is ostensibly about loving they neighbour. In fact, it’s about a visit made by Muslim leaders from around the world to the #Holocaust memorial at the #Auschwitz death camp in #Poland.
I have provided a link to the article for those who have not already seen it. What I find interesting about this story, beyond the fact that the international popular media has blindly followed an obviously centrally prepared text, without any attempt at critical examination, is that the central theme of all the symbolism associated with the visit and the venue is religious hatred.
The article itself speaks of millennium of Jewish life in Poland obliterated by the Nazi Holocaust. When speaking about the Museum of the History of Polish Jew, the article describes “a soaring rupture opening on to undulating walls marks its facade, an allusion to Exodus and the parting of the Red Sea, through which Moses led the Jews fleeing slavery in Egypt to freedom, a narrative shared by the Torah, the Bible and the Quran.” The three mentioned religions have a shared history of hatred, bloodshed and attempted genocide which spans more than fifteen hundred years, and continues to this day. One might ask what all this hatred and bloodshed is about, and that would be a very good question given all three religions share the same ‘Book’.
If you find your ideas in anyone else, disown them
While the world’s two great monotheistic religions, Christianity and Islam, together with their microscopic grandfather, Judaism might share the same mythological basis, their interpretations of these myths have diverged to such an extent that the only way any of them can see to addressing these divergent views is to exterminate, or in the case of Christianity and Islam, try and convert all nonbelievers, which doesn’t bode well for many of us. So what is all this hullabaloo is about?
Well let’s take the Abraham and Isaac myth, a myth common to all three religions. This myth is one of the highlights of the Old Testament, a tale of how God demands much from His chosen people, but in the end, at His own time and bidding, redeems all. Given the venue of this seeming attempt at reapproaching from Islam to Judaism one is left wondering why God failed to stay the executioner’s hand, before he extinguished the lives of so many innocents.
Bob Dylan, born and raised a Jew, addresses this issue in the opening verse of “Highway 61 revisited”:
Oh God said to Abraham “Kill me a son”
Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
God say, “No” Abe say, “what”
God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run”
Well Abe says, “Where do you want this killin’ done?”
God says, “Out on Highway 61.”
Dylan’s words are a rewrite of the Abraham and Isaac myth which is found at Genesis 22:1-3. The God who snarls, “kill me a son,” is a lazy, down-home version of the cruel, vengeful, jealous God of the Old Testament, the Urizen deity whom William Blake wanted to overthrow from the seat of religion and the state. There’s nothing either at #Auschwitz or in Dylan’s lyrics to hint at the coming of an angel of deliverance, because there ain’t one. The overall tone of venue and song is one of disbelief, at the cruelty of the sacrifice and the wanton arbitrariness of an authority that would demand it.
Man is the world of man
Many people, citing the aforementioned quote from Marx, think that he was saying that religion was dope manufactured by the ruling class to keep the masses happy. The real Marx, however, was concerned with much more weighty problems. Among other things, he was thinking about how an abstract human being could exist. He concludes that one could not. “Man is the world of man, state, society” and the conception of God was a necessary conception in an ‘inverted world’. Once the world was right side up, the idea would not be needed. Meanwhile we should pay attention to it.
What the gathering at #Auschwitz tells me is that religion is not merely the balm of the ignorant but a tool that is used by the powerful to control the powerless. Control, not simply relief from suffering, is likewise at the heart of all organized religions. The elite of the great societies of antiquity knew this well. No matter what the true nature of their own faith, they certainly recognized and utilized the powerful controlling element present in religion. This does not necessarily imply that the uses of such control were all entirely negative: Control over a fractious society can provide not just emotional comfort, but stability, law, collective identity, and dynastic and/or ethnic “manifest destiny.”
But we are now, no longer mired in a world whose causes and workings we do not at least begin to understand, and those who cling to the “Demon haunted world” as so wonderfully described by Carl Sagan, do so for reasons other than out of necessity. The light of science and reason shine, even if fitfully. They offer a better path I believe, towards a rich and deeper understanding of the world, and our place in it than any faith. It is a shame that the dulling drugs of our imagined promised lands and personal gods still linger on, but it is hardly surprising. Reason, science, and even philosophy does not always offer the easy consolations of the purely phantasmal, who can promise any sort or reward or punishment, in the next life of course, and point to the invisible workings of a deity which can be neither proved or disproved or even understood. And the element of control is still very much in play among the ranks of the faithful, control over reproduction, control over land and resources, control over wealth, and identity. The masses are still kept softly lowering by the heady fumes of the censors swung by those who have everything to gain, in this world, not the next.
Instead of looking for some kind of religious rapprochement at #Auschwitz, the world would be better served if its major religioions and sources of pain used the venue as a place to finally rid the planet of the divisiveness of religion and in so doing usher in new opportunities for intellectual and moral growth that are not tied to superstition, bigotry and prejudice!