When I first came to the Bồ Đề Pagoda to see this fish release ritual in person, to observe each religious gesture and object involved in it, to listen to the invocation of the divine name, to hear them telling me the story of the ritual and reasons behind it, I already knew what it was. I had studied it back then in graduate school. Yet, I was still taken aback. Not so much by the ritual itself, but more by the fact that it occurred in Viet Nam, a country which I imagine closely followed Marx’s warnings about the potential of religion as ‘opium’. That is, put simply, as a tool by which masses are distracted from seeing suffering and the conditions which produce it. Such was the dominant picture of religions in Marx’s time which preach suffering as something ought to be accepted as preconditions for eternal and/or future happiness. Marx’s religion as opium, I believe, is the basis for Lenin’s view of religion as that which Ronaldo Munck called a ‘competing ideology’: a means through which the ruling class maintains its control over and stupefies the masses. In my mind, either Marx or Lenin’s perspectives would make it unlikely for the country to grow religion in their soil.
This piece aims to engage with Marx’s thoughts on religion as opium of the people, his suggestion that it generates a kind of inverted consciousness and, by implication, his call to abolish it. As someone who is both pretty religious and fond of Marx’s work, this is a topic that I am, by default, extremely interested in. I aim to explore what Marx actually means by his aforementioned thoughts on religions; and, ultimately, what he means by abolishing religion and why such measure is needed. Through a Buddhist group I recently worked with, I want to see whether Marx’s thoughts and religion are compatible in society. But first, I wish to understand why religious people often strongly disagree with communism.
Growing up, my mother used to tell me about her experience pertaining to communism in Indonesia when the Suharto’’s reign committed themselves to combating the movement. My mom’s older brother, who was actually a member of an Islamic party, was accused of being involved with communism and was imprisoned for a year by the government. The whole raid was rather rough. Although his name would later be cleared, it deeply scarred my mother; it left her with an intense despise of communism. She even equated communism to anti-religious agency and atheism. She still thinks it is only natural for pious Muslims to see communism as inherently evil.
Until that Sunday evening when I visited the Bồ Đề pagoda in Ha Noi, I thought such ideas had surpassed me. That the experiences she shared over many dinners had no effect on altering my personal views. After all, I spent most of the time finding excuses to leave the table as soon as possible. Moreover, though I am quite religious, I am friends with many Marxists, and have a keen interest in works on Marxism.
However, as I researched a little into the area, I found that my mom’s glib idea of communism being anti-religious was not entirely unfounded. Historically, despite Marx’s view of mid-nineteenth century religion as being ‘opium for the oppressed masses’, communism has periodically struggled to get along with religion. You may recall that event when British strikers carried poster images of Karl Marx alongside Pope Leo XIII, after Leo defended the right of workers to strike for better wages and conditions in Rerum Novarum in 1981. In addition, Ronaldo Munck’s work Marx 2020: After the Crisis points to a few examples of this internationally. Albania in 1976, where Enver Hoxha declared religion as ‘alien’ to Albanian culture and was subsequently banned. China, too has held similar attitudes toward religion that was not controlled [recognized] by the state. Munck also points us to the fact that the Soviet Union, after the early 1920s was very hostile toward religion.
But Munck’s examples appear to represent the view of religion as a “competing ideology” in society. This view I think is more of Lenin’s [yet it is indeed built upon Marx’s religion as opium of the people], the idea that religion is used as a tool by the ruling class to maintain their exploitation and stupefaction of the proletariat. Lenin, a somewhat infamous Marxist thinker, certainly created a society in Soviet Russia that was very hostile towards religion. His interpretation of Marxism was one where religion had no place in communist society, and thus took measures to remove it. However, Lenin was famously extremely anti-religious, which may suggest that there were factors external to his interpretation of Marx’s work that informed his ideological beliefs.
That religion appears as a competing ideology to many communist countries may indeed remain the case. But the way some of these countries relate to religion obviously, to a varied degree, better (although still cautious) than it was in the period between the 1920s and 1980s. Viet Nam seems to be a country that has taken such an approach. When it comes to Viet Nam, the whole treatment of religion cannot be dissociated from the memory of the historical events between 1963 and 1966 laid out in Sallie King’s Socially Engaged Buddhism. During this time, The Unified Buddhist Church of Viet Nam organized an anti-war movement in South Vietnam and fought against the Communist North, with the latter winning the war and unifying the nation. The anti-war movement involved actions ranging from strikes, boycotts, refusals to serve in the military, massive demonstrations demanding freedom to practice Buddhism, to – most importantly – the self-immolations of Buddhist monks, nuns and laypeople, etc. Perhaps that is why, Viet Nam now has a Ministry of Religious Affairs and religion unit within their police department. They exist principally to ensure that religion is not used to provoke riots, as a policeman I met told me. Yet, within this seemingly cautious watch, religion appears to grow pretty well in Vietnamese soil.
Returning to my mother’s stance on Marxism as anti-religion and, thus, inherently evil, I think there has definitely been a ‘softening’ approach of communist countries towards religion. In fact, Marxists such as Ernst Bloch in 1970 and Lucien Goldman in 1950s attempted to show the compatibility of communism and religion. And Misbach -an Indonesian-Muslim public figure- was actually in agreement with communist thought in terms of fighting against oppression, though such knowledge remains hidden from popular minds. This is perhaps one of the reasons why you would still find people like me and my mom with a misunderstanding of Marx’s thoughts on religion [and communism].
Again, related to my mother’s particular case, religion has only ever divulged to her its social function to empower people for good ends, especially to help them survive difficult times socially and individually. Religion has undoubtedly been part of the process of alleviating poverty, illiteracy, homelessness, etc, through the schools, universities, hospitals, nursery houses, orphanages, minimart which her religiously-based organization have set up. In this environment, it’s easy to understand her insurmountable conviction of religion as a positive entity. She, of course, has heard about this alternative narrative of religion, in which religion often backs the oppressive ruling class who claim to champion social peace only to place the burden of that peace on the oppressed, and in turn advocate the workers ‘acceptance’ of suffering. Nevertheless, her view of religion as a fundamentally positive entity remains.
Below, in this scene from the British Television drama North & South  episode 3 is an example of how religion covertly appears as advocating the oppressed to accept the sufferings and calling them on finding ways to cope with it. This scene is from the brief exchange between factory worker Higgins and the clergyman Richard in relation to the death of Higgin’s daughter and the terrible working conditions of the factory:
“ .. My poor Bessy, she lived a life of a dog. Hard work and illness. She never had one moment of rejoicing”, Higgins said.
Clergyman: “She may not have had an easy life but she will find comfort in the next [after life].”
“I’m not saying I don’t believe in your God. But I can’t believe he [god] meant the world to be as it is; the masters ruling over us; the rest of us left to live a half- life in the shadows…” , replied Higgins.
Clergyman: “..he gave us the world and our wits and intelligence to discover the grace and beauty in Harlem…,”
“ ..to believe that he gave some more than others and that was his will?” , Higgins cut in.
Clergyman: “ it’s our duty to make peace with others. It’s a pity that you seem to think in terms of war and strife. I know the suffering and I know there are cruel and greedy masters but surely it would be better for people of goodwill on both sides to sit down and share ideas of how to do God’s will to live together in peace and harmony”.
In the remark “She may not have had an easy life but she will find comfort in the next [after life]”, I sense what Marx meant by religion as opium of the people: that religion indeed is used to both distract from and help people survive the sufferings and difficult situations they were confronted with on a daily basis. Religion does such function by interpreting the sufferings or difficult times as a necessary thing to go through in order to go to the next ‘stage’ (heaven) and achieve eternal happiness. In such an eschatological view, suffering or difficult situations is seen as either a test of one’s faith, redemption of one’s wrongdoings, a necessary stage to pass through before the promised land, or simply an inevitable price one must pay for what he or she desires.
Within such an understanding of suffering, one’s duty is likely to find a way to cope with it, to get through it, including finding the beauty in such sufferings. In the case of the TV show, it is quite obvious that such eschatological reinterpretation of the sufferings is meant more to ease pain than to deceive it for the personal gain of the clergyman. In the last half of nineteenth century, when labor conditions were characterized by low wages, child workers, unsafe working conditions and so on, one could understand and accept such an argument the Clergyman makes. As in the cases of communities with severe religious persecutions I worked with, seeing terribly painful times and conditions from such an eschatological view is indeed helpful for them to survive and to move forward with their lives.
But, such an eschatological view is very unlikely to remove the conditions which give rise to such misery. In other words, the oppressed is only surviving. They still work in the terrible working conditions mainly to meet their bodily needs. Such is insidiously violent if only because it holds back the oppressed from necessary work to manifest their potentials as ‘thinking” beings. from their genuine freedom, so to speak. I guess it was this kind of stagnancy Marx felt unsatisfied with. He desires for the underdogs to have genuine freedom and happiness which would enable them to live as thinking as well as corporeal beings. Religion, and philosophy or intellectualism, especially in Marx’s times, often stand in the way to such freedom he envisaged, in that they often stand on the side of the oppressive ruling classes, justifying oppressive conditions which give rise to suffering for the disadvantaged groups. That is one of the reasons why Marx sees religion as the opium of the people – it distracts the oppressed from seeing the real condition and doing the necessary works to end it.
For Marx’s elaboration of how religion and philosophy /intellectualism have contributed to such sufferings (and what he really mean by that) one can check Marx’s works Social Principles of Christianity , the Reformation and the Pauperization of the Masses, Religion and the Material Condition of Society, on Working on Sabbath, Protestant Persons and the Population theory, the Decay of Religious Authority, Religion and the Monetary System, early Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts , Economic Original Sin, the Holy Family, or Critique of Critical Criticism , Critique of Hegel’s Dialectic and General Philosophy , Concerning Feurbach, German Ideology and Ideology in General [1844-446], and Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right .
Those works are crucial for one to better understand Marx’s later view of religion as a form of opium for the people, of inverted consciousness of the people/ the world, and, by implication, his call for the abolition of religion. That being said, I do think that we would do Marx a form of injustice if we define him as purely against religion before reading the aforementioned works or, at least, Hegel’s works and Feurbach’s with which his views of religion are heavily based upon.
For now, I hope it suffices to say that one of the aspects of religion and philosophy which Marx was against is this sort of ‘top-down’ approach. The tendency to generalize, to diagnose and treat certain social and/or religious issues by applying formulaic understanding or theory without taking into account the actual and particular aspects surrounding the object of the study. Such a method seems inconspicuously dangerous for several reasons. Firstly, it is alienating in that those which are seen as do not fit the established religious or social theories/ understandings/ standards, will automatically be place in the “heretic”, “social outcast” box; or even as a threat to public stability/ safety to be dealt according to established standard of theirs.
In Addition, to the degree that generalization is a form of Hegelian absolutism, it implies a thought of sufferings resulted from oppressive conditions as acceptable, as well as the thought that they can be solved simply by the oppressed changing their view about it. This is the view which I think causes the idea that sufferings and oppressive conditions are a natural part of one’s journey to be coped with, not challenged. As such religion and philosophy are being uncritical, Marx would say. The philosopher, intellectualist, or religionist is also being uncritical in that it stopped only at the level of thinking, at the level of understanding the suffering per se; not ending it.
For Marx, I think, being critical means understanding the sufferings and oppressive conditions, and taking concrete steps to end it. The concrete action will include tackling the conditions which give rise to the sufferings, including the intellectual or religious systems which may have preserved such conditions, as he discussed, especially in the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right . This critical approach is indeed challenging to adopt mainly because it seems to be on the borderline of being radical- if not already in that space. As such it often demands total elimination of the causes of suffering to its very root. Not to mention the demands of complete, abrupt change of the old systems with the new one. In doing so, it may portray us as waging war against religion or other representations of established systems and values. That is to say, to come off as defiant, and worse, as “public enemy”. You see when we criticize the established systems and values -which have deeply ingrained in the mind and body of our society and is believed as the true path to “happiness [good life], we essentially rock the very path of the happiness of general society. As such we cause them anxiety; we put their certainty of happiness in danger.
Nevertheless, it seems that there is not much we can do to avoid it. In my view, popular-based movements tend to be radical, perhaps because they are often fueled by and ground in the very experience of pain and suffering. The suffering resulted from the failure of attending to the corporeal and non-corporeal needs which are very fundamental and often demand immediate fulfilment. In addition, the object to fulfill the needs are often very few, thus, competition with one another in all its form is inevitable. Nonetheless, I think the degree of intensity of that competition is varied depending on many factors.
Finally, the ritual I saw that Sunday evening in the Bo De pagoda is actually an attestation to the power of religion as beyond the opium. That is, as a source of power to sort of creating the kingdom on earth itself, in here and now by responding to the social issues of poverty and animal abuse and conditions from which suffering / obstruction to God’s kingdom arose. But, as you’ll see in my next discussion, it is not the one with the highest criticality [radicality]
*********** To be continued ***********