Karl Marx's celebrated dictum, "religion is the opium of the people", had a quiet genesis. He wrote it in 1843 as a passing remark in the introduction to a book of philosophical criticism he never finished. When he did publish it the following year, it was in an obscure radical journal with a print run of 1,000. It was not until the 1930s, when all things Marxist were in vogue, that the maxim entered the popular lexicon.
Yet it still resonates. In many parts of the world organised religion remains the most powerful force in society: more than 4.5 billion people identify with one of the world's four biggest religions, and that figure is rising. In Europe, though, religious faith and expression have collapsed in the past 170 years. It's hard to think of anything that has taken their place—except perhaps, for a while, Marxism itself.
Marx was not exactly against religion. For him, faith was something that "the people" conjured for themselves, a source of phoney happiness to which they turned to help numb the pain of reality. It was "the sigh of the oppressed creature". Organised religion with its churches, doctrines and priests followed on from that, a useful tool by which the ruling classes kept the masses supine. Now it may seem elitist, even sneering, to ask what the opium of the people is, what keeps us—or, worse, "them"—down when we could be up, soporific when we should be fighting for a better world. Are we really dim animals, willing ourselves into submission?
The question is uncomfortable. Yet there is something in it that speaks to a niggling sense in most of us that were it not for time and energy wasted in some direction—be it a penchant for pints, an obsession with runs, goals or tries, even too long spent at work—then we too might have changed the world, staged a revolution, or even just written that novel.
So what do we drug ourselves with today? Society is more diverse than it was in Marx’s time. Our writers reflect that here in their intriguing...
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