The Opiate of the Masses

For many years I’ve wondered why people cling onto religious beliefs. Despite scientific discoveries that debunk the claims of theological scriptures, the majority of the planet still harbor a sense that the world was created by divine beings and is continuously overseen as well as governed by these omnipotent, omnipresent deities. The identities of these all-powerful individuals vary, alongside the methods by which their adherents treat and worship them. Nevertheless, a cornucopia of religions have blossomed from the human mind, and it seems to be a nearly futile endeavor to even attempt to replace these thoughts based on unprovable mythologies, with the verifiable counterparts presented by science.

Atheists like myself advocate the idea that a world governed by scientific theories and not mythologies would improve humanity in one way or another—from how we treat ourselves and others, constructing and developing our societies, furthering our understanding of the vague notion that is morality, so on and so forth. Personally I do not support the eradication of religions as a method of progress, but I digress. Yet if one were interested in accomplishing such a daunting task, then perhaps it would be beneficial for them to firstly seek the roots of humanity’s penchant for trusting in the spurious proclamations of ancient words.

Of course, many explanations have been offered in the quest for comprehending spiritual piety, all of them with their specific strengths and weaknesses. Yet it would practically be impossible for a sole writer to list and describe them all in a singular article. Hence, this body of text will focus primarily on the interpretation conjured up from the endlessly fascinating mind of Karl Marx.

Marx was first and foremost a social scientist, who devoted his years on understanding the conflict that occurs between the various socio-economic classes and its implications on humanity as a whole. However, while his work centered primarily on economics he still had the time to say a few things about religion.

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.

To Marx, religion is something which stemmed from a human being’s desire to reassure itself that there is a force of compassion in this apathetic world of ours. It is birthed by the thirsts for justice, love, kindness in societies that lack, or in the worst of cases, do not have most of these traits. Thus a person would comfort himself by faithfully bearing and sustaining in his mind, the concept of deities that would one day alleviate his sufferings, be it in his lifetime or in a realm that exists for the dearly departed.

Here we must ask ourselves, “How well does Marx’s claim stand the test of time? Is it credible in any shape or form?” I would say that it does, to a certain extent. Take a gander at the many nations of the globe and the peoples that inhabit them. These places and populations vary in terms of their wealths, cultures, and other equally significant elements. But an interesting deviation exists between them, in terms of how devout the citizens of these countries are.

Being a citizen of the developing nation that is Indonesia, I can assure you dear reader, that religion permeates through basically every aspect of an Indonesian’s life. Declare yourself to be a Christian and you’ll find yourself at odds with the Muslim majority, proclaiming to be an Atheist or an Agnostic is a very effective lure for verbal or physical abuse, being a Muslim meanwhile would grant you access to doors unaccessible by minority religious or non-religious groups. Religion directly influences everything from an Indonesian’s career path, social standing, and even love life. But why is this so? Why are the psyches of Indonesians saturated and highly affected by which deity one chooses to believe in? The answer may lie in the economic aspect of Indonesia.

As I had mentioned in the paragraph above, Indonesia is still a developing country. Its population is plagued by poverty, joblessness, income inequality and all the rest of the plagues that haunt any nation that was left behind in the eras of colonization and industrialization. Predictably enough, these societal illnesses create a general awareness of how difficult life can be for the financially average or impoverished Indonesia. He or she would have to struggle to survive, gather enough funds to purchase a meal, tightly save little by little to afford a one-room apartment or structures barely worthy of being called a “house,” and predictably enough dread at the prospects of the inability to bear the tremendous expenses of healthcare and education.

It would come as no surprise to Marx that nearly all Indonesians believe in gods. After all, to him “religion is the sigh of the oppressed people.” Individuals who find themselves in perilous situations—in this context, financially—are more prone to fall into the worship of deities. The divines provide comfort and security whilst living in an existence where such things are rarities; “…opium of the people” indeed. Thus, a plausible explanation for why religion is almost all-encompassing in Indonesia.

To reinforce Marx’s claim, simply compare the religiosity of Indonesians to those of the peoples of developed nations. The United Kingdom, Japan, Germany, Switzerland, Canada, France, etc. all of which are far more economically superior countries to Indonesia, have at least fifty percent of their populations claiming to be either not religious or are implicitly Atheists. These are territories with populaces that face significantly less severe financial troubles to Indonesians. In other words, they do not need to worry about the amounts of cash in their bank accounts as much as Indonesians do. Hence providing them the luxury of feeling relatively safe and comfortable without the need of believing that there is an invisible overseer devoted to protecting them.

What does Marx’s claim and its verification mean then? Its implication is rather simple, really. For a society to diminish the influence of religion it must firstly enhance the quality of life of its denizens. At the very least in the sector of economics.

If Atheists wish to effectively minimize the role of religion in people’s lives, they need to fully understand why said people chose to be religious in the first place. If indeed economics play a significant role in engendering such beliefs, then it is paramount to firstly solve the predicament that is financial crises. Shouting evidences regarding the absence of gods, miracles, spirits, and all suchlike things is an ineffective method for convincing those who are forced to endure poverty—who starve, sleep under the cold night sky without the comfort of beds or roofs, who see their loved ones fall prey to sickness and wither away all the while incapable of alleviating their agony as the medication is out of the reach of their wallets. To them, the existence of gods is an absolute truth; a need for the sake of sanity amidst lunacy and chaos. For who, or what else could justify and make amends for all the pain they have been subjected to? Certainly not their fellow men who have callously let them suffer, never offering a helping hand.

Perhaps, Atheists Should Walk Alone

Being an Atheist in a nation with the largest population of Muslims in the globe, could make one feel a little bit isolated at times. Not only do the majority of the populace believe in one deity or another, but they may also be openly hostile to the secularist ideas the likes of Agnosticism or Atheism. With the Indonesian government still coercing its citizens to fill out what their religious beliefs are on their identity cards. Unsurprisingly, there is no option for ‘Atheist’.

Thus I once imagined how pleasant it would be to be included in a gathering of Atheists of sorts, as it is incredibly difficult to find like-minded individuals in this country—I personally have only managed to find two completely Atheistic individuals, with the rest claiming to be so yet retains the idea that there are such things as fate, ghosts, and other supernatural invisible to humanity. Yet attempting to locate such a group Atheists was a far more difficult task than I imagined. Most do not cluster like religious groups and prefer to live individually, keeping their ideas regarding the absence of gods to themselves. But I kept trying anyway.

If I could not find a company of Atheists in the physical world, then I had no other choice but to delve into the digital realm. Hence I scoured the plethora of social media websites to find kindred spirits. From Facebook, to Twitter, to Reddit, and even Path or messaging clients the likes of Line were explored. And I finally found them. Not just a dozen or two circles, I discovered more than hundreds of Atheist assemblies. It was a pleasant surprise to realize that so many have similar views to mine, and that they are willing to share those perspectives online.

I immediately started to mingle with these newfound groups of people. I chatted, messaged, shared articles, discussed the role of religion in society, how Atheism could be used for the betterment of mankind, essentially whatever topics could be conversed about, I deliberated with these fellow Atheists. Unfortunately, these were the times when I began to realize that the abundance of Atheists I found did not necessarily agree with my ideas. Which should be fine, yet the things they said were in my eyes quite disturbing.

In my humble opinion, religion does not predicate violence, idiocy, and all those other negative traits of humanity. There would always be more than a singular element that influences how a being thinks, speaks, and acts. Ranging from economics, to culture, and of course personal life experiences. However, it seemed to me that the Atheist congregations I found disagreed wholeheartedly with my assessment. To them, religion is nothing more than a force which instills ignorance, violence, authoritarianism and all sorts of detrimental effects into the psyches of homo sapiens. Again, not a particularly harmful conclusion to conjure up, yet how they acted based on the hypothesis that religion is unquestionably bad should perturb any Atheist seeking to establish peaceful coexistence with the religious.

To the Atheist groups I stumbled upon—particularly the ones from Facebook, Line, and Reddit—religion is a virus that must be wiped clean off the face of the Earth. For them, this is an unquestionable truth that must never be debated and should be accepted plainly as fact. And to anyone who wishes to keep on being a member of these assemblies, they had better refrain from questioning this supposed truth. Does this type of dogmatic attitude remind the reader of something very similar? Something that should be the antithesis of Atheism? For myself, the stance adopted looked to be strikingly similar to the old church groups I was forced to join as a child.

Atheists are supposed to be open-minded people. That is to say, in this particular context, they should be capable of accepting what contradicts their viewpoints, not immediately cast mockeries and assaults on those who do not tread the same path they do. I witnessed how every single time an article concerning acts of terror were shared, not a single one doubted that religion is the root cause of the deaths of innocents and the insane actions of terrorists. Even though said terrorists could have been influenced by other factors, such as threats to themselves or their loved ones, financial incentives, mental instability, all things that have proven to be a recurring theme amongst the members of extremist organizations (do read the book Accidental Guerrilla, which explores the cloaked motivations of terrorists). Though this is not where the problem ends.

A dogmatic approach to Atheism should never have been constructed. It is a stark contradiction to one of its primary basis: That each and every Atheist must heed the call of reason above all else, see and understand the evidence presented before their eyes, and certainly not jump into random conclusions because it is simply the easiest one to reach. Declaring that religion is the root of all the world’s problems smacks logic in the face. It ignores whatever findings contradict the notion that religion breeds amorality. This is not how Atheists are supposed to think, as they should always hold on to an open mind.

Furthermore, the freethinking aspect of Atheism would be diminished as well, as the members of dogmatic groups are forced to unquestioningly absorb the “wisdom” forced into their minds. Atheists should be free to think for themselves as they are inherently disorganized; they should have no leader but fellow thinkers who are willing to accept, share, and at times debate ideas. If a congregation eliminates a person’s freedom to think for themselves then what is it but another herd of sheep led by shepherds? That, to me, means that these gathering of Atheists do not benefit its people in any way whatsoever.

Dogmas and Atheism are opposite sides of a spectrum. The former forces one to accept notions without the possibility of ever debunking them and encourages a willingness to welcome any ideas—no matter how disturbing—unquestioningly. Whilst the latter realizes that humanity’s preconceived notions regarding ourselves, the universe, our existence and all the rest of the great mysteries of the world are flawed in one way or another; hence allowing them to doubt and perhaps even refine or completely alter the answers offered to them. Yet somehow these opposing sides managed to find themselves intertwined, by the hands of Atheists surprisingly enough, and now work hand in hand within dogmatic yet Atheistic cliques. I cannot, from any perspective, endorse these peoples’ endeavors to promote subjugation among Atheists.

It would be an understatement, to say that I was severely disappointed with the Atheist congregations I found. They limit the potential of fellow Atheists to objectively analyze the state of the world, they project dogmas although they proclaim to stand against suchlike rumination whenever presented by the religious, and what is possibly their worst offense is the degrading of freethinkers into nothing more than a flock that follows one path and never dares to stray. For these reasons, I have to say that Atheists should walk their separate paths. Convene when necessary, but never allow our minds to be lulled into complacency, into a state of utter obedience; for those are not the characteristics of Atheists, rather of their counterparts.