“Rumor Has It, They Don’t Grow   Religion in Their Land” by Tini Ngatini

Traversing Narrow Margins


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 [2004] 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 [1847], 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 [1844], Economic Original Sin, the Holy Family, or Critique of Critical Criticism [1844], Critique of Hegel’s Dialectic and General Philosophy [1844], Concerning Feurbach, German Ideology and Ideology in General [1844-446], and Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right [1844].

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 [1889]. 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             ***********         




Tet @ the Coffee Shop by Tini Ngatini

Traversing Narrow Margins

Image by: Bryan MacNeill, friend of author

Viet Nam has changed my relationship with coffee shops. They used to be a space where I worked and entertained my friends. Then, recently, they became a sort of anthropological space where I encountered a religious event which brought me to another level of appreciation and respect for local culture.

That local culture is called Tet. The Coffee shop where I encountered is called ABC.

The ABC coffee shop in Ha Noi, Viet Nam is a fusion of Asian and Western atmosphere. It has some Western characteristics like those found in Starbucks and some that might only be found in Viet Nam. By the former I mean comfy-soft seats, satisfying internet connection, people sitting by themselves with eyes fixated on a laptop or book with earphones on, casual outfits of course. Meanwhile, the latter characteristics are that the majority customers [mostly female] are wearing nice clothes, nice shoes and makeup on. Also, 90% of the Vietnamese customers are in a group with friends or family. The activity they engage in the coffee shop itself ranges from chatting, playing board games, holding a meeting, chilling with their lovers, napping, or eating sunflower seeds, or even just playing with their phones and smoking.

Such contrasting coffee shop features exist side by side at the ABC coffee shop. From my usual seat in the corner I can see a few European-looking customers in casual outfits. They sit quietly by themselves with eyes glued on their laptop or book and earphones on. And on the left side, just a few steps away, there are groups of three to six Vietnamese customers in lovely outfits gathered around a rather large table, lavishly chatting and laughing, or watching something on YouTube without earphones attached. You are most likely familiar with the kind of scene on the right. But, the one on left could elicit a glance or two out of curiosity. Or, it could be out of slight irritation that makes the glance more a “can you please tone it down” gesture. But, if you have been living in Viet Nam long enough, you might just be okay with it.

At lunchtimes, the whole of Viet Nam goes quiet. Between 12 and 2 pm, it’s nap time for the Vietnamese in general. Vietnamese customers who come during these hours are often by themselves, popping in to take a rest on the comfy sofa areas; or, if they don’t fancy a nap, they take a moment to rest, munching on sunflower seeds, eating food they brought or ordered from outside.

Such are the common views to be found at the ABC Coffee.  These scenes have been on my mind a lot recently, and have made me see coffee shops in a completely different light. Indeed, it all changed on the second day of Tet when, coincidently, I was at the ABC. That day not only upgraded my relationship with cafes to another level; it also helped me see the beauty inherent in the local tradition called Tet.


Image by: Bryan MacNeill, friend of author

Tet, short for Tet Nguyen Da, is the Vietnamese Lunar New Year festival.  It is usually celebrated either in January or February, depending on when the first day of New Year in Lunar Calendar arrives. During Tet, all businesses are closed for seven to ten days, which makes it near impossible to hunt down open restaurants and coffee shops. My landlord even advised me to ‘stock up’’ on supplies before the festival began, such is the extremity of the situation!  Here in Ha Noi, People get busy preparing for Tet about a week before the actual holiday. At this time, found ubiquitously across the city are ‘new year gates’. These are banners exclaiming  the new year greeting “Chuc mung Nam Moi,” reminding locals and visitors alike that Tet is just around the corner.


Image by: Bryan MacNeill, friend of author

Inside the cities, pavements are transformed into temporary marketplaces, selling flowers and plants associated with Tet celebration such as Cherry Blossom, Apricots, and oranges.  Shopping malls are flooded with people hunting for new clothes to be worn on the new year, ornaments to decorate their houses, and foods for Tet. It is also one of the best times for shopping, as every store offers discounts of up to 70%. With all these activities going on, the traffic becomes even more chaotic than usual. Vehicles move at a snail’s pace, Tet plants and decorations balancing precariously atop wobbling motorbikes. Take a gander around the streets during Tet and, you will spot houses, offices and other public spaces decorated with red and yellow ornaments such as lampion, flower, plants, small flags and, of course, the Viet Nam flag.


Image by: Bryan MacNeill, friend of author

Meanwhile, inside people’s houses, families become preoccupied with cleaning the house and ancestor altars, and preparing continual offerings for the ancestors’ spirits from the last day of the year to the third day of the new year. The offerings they prepare during these times of the year are more special than the usual type of offerings people do twice a month. The offering during Tet has more flowers and fresh food every day. The women of the house are expert at preparing both these offerings and the special Tet dishes such as Bánh chưng.  Most often, the whole family also go on visits to the family members’ and ancestor’s graveyards before Tet. They go to clean the graveyard, to pour some water over it, to spread flower petals over the graveyard, or leave flowers at the feet of the tomb. And, of course they pray for them.


Image by: Bryan MacNeill, friend of author

On the first day of the New Year itself, people gather with their family to exchange “lucky envelopes (money?)”—a Tet themed envelope with paper money in it, starting from 10,000 dong to any number you want to put.  This exchange is viewed as the most important Tet ritual because the lucky envelope represents the wish for a prosperous and lucky year ahead . A native Hanoian told me about it at length:

“That envelope represent for lucky money means you will have more money, Successful, basically it’s the same as wealth. It based on unreal story from China. Like Chinese they have a story about it, mainly to put a ring of coin to the children during new year so evil may not touch them. If you tell this original story from Chinese to any Vietnamese, they will refuse, and say that they never heard of it. And not many Vietnamese ever heard of it. [It’s] Vietnamese culture but not many people thinking as it was in Chinese in the past. We turned into our own way long time ago Vietnamese understanding. They [Vietnamese] give envelope, not because of reasons as they did in china. They [Vietnamese] give envelope to all age Not only children….”

“…. But in the past [in Viet Nam], it supposed to be coin, not paper money like nowadays Envelope. We switched to paper money 100 years ago. may be. Since I was small we did not use coin. Until I was 13, 2003 or 2004. But, they switched back to coin again. They did 1 time, but it last 2 years, people don’t like to keep it cause it heavy and not convenient. So they switch back to paper. May be 14 years ago. They produce coins for 1000, 2000, 5000, 10000, but it lasted for 1-2 years. [because] at the same time we still had 1000, 2000 paper money. People rarely use coin. So, 2 years after, government took coins back and never used them again.   The main thing about [lucky] envelope is the way Vietnamese use it is different from Chinese one [that Vietnamese give envelope not only to children]. Even now, Chinese also give envelope to all age.”

She explained that older members of the family give lucky envelopes to younger members. For instance, “my grandpa will give lucky envelopes to my mom and me and my brother. Then my mom will also give envelopes to my grandpa.” The exchange moves downward: her mom then will give lucky envelopes to their children. Similarly, older siblings in the family often the same to their young ones. This ritual also extends toward children in their neighborhood who may visit during this period.

Another important ritual people engage in the first day of Tet is buying salt. It symbolizes a hope for prosperous year ahead. “Why salt?”, I asked a Vietnamese friend of mine.

“…You know in Viet Nam we have this saying đu năm mua mui, cui năm mua vôi meaning buy salt in the beginning of the year, buy lime at the end. Vôi is lime. Like cacao, they usually use to paint the wall..it will help to erase bad things, bad spirit they believe, that’s why usually bought at the end of the year, aiming to let go all the bad things. Buying salt at the beginning of the year will bring luck to the house and help family members to be more connected, to live in harmony. and we also use it in rituals in Pagoda, salt is something you can never live without.”

On the second and third days, people put on their new clothes and go to the Pagodas to pray for a lucky year. Another Vietnamese friend of mine says, “people start going to the Pagodas to pray on the New Year Eve, usually after watching the firework displays.”   During these days people also visit friends, usually already having met their relatives at the grandparents’ house on the first day., So if you happen to be in Viet Nam on these Tet days, you would see many people in their nice clothes on the streets,  or you would see houses widely opened, showing scenes of  families chatting and enjoying the delicious Tet delicacies.

It was on the second day of Tet, at the ABC coffee shop, that I accidentally participated in such a special moment. I came there with my usual intention to grab a coffee and get some work done. As it was still Tet celebration, they opened only the first floor.

I sat at the very end of the room. There was not much going on in the coffee shop; a few customers sat at the other end of the room, playing with their phones. After a while, the owner of the ABC came in with two men. They sat at the table two chairs away from me. I saw them talk with one another; I didn’t take too much notice.  Then my eyes stumbled upon the cookies and cakes on their table. Wait a minute, I thought to myself; they are not customers. I took my eyes off my book and subtly threw intermittent glances at their direction.  The two guests spoke to the ABC owner respectfully, making a slightly bowing head movements as they talked. Finally, they shook his hands, stood up, and left. They must be either friends or relatives of the ABC owner, I concluded. And those cakes, cookies, and beverages on the table are amongst Tet food I have read online.  It then clicked in my head: This place, after all, is also where the ABC owner and his family live. And today is the second day of Tet. People are supposed to visit their relatives or friends.

As I held my gaze, observing this interaction, a palpable and yet unnamable feeling seeped in. I am participating in Tet ritual, I thought to myself. I somehow did not feel like a customer at that very moment. The fact that ABC is also the residential place for its owner suddenly became interesting to me. I think it was the familiar living room format of the coffee shop which facilitated me to have such an insider experience of that Tet’s ritual: the living room has no partition whatsoever. It put me in the same space with the guests. The proximity made the experience intimate, as if in some way I was part of the family.

Later that day, on my way home, I had a similar feeling when I saw a father and a son in their suits riding bicycles (presumably to visit their relatives or friends).  There was a certain kind of beauty that emanates from the two men in suits on their bicycles; it was a precious moment to witness I felt humbled and embarrassed at the same time just by seeing their dedication to their cultures. In the past, I’ve personally done anything I can to escape participating in similar social conventions involving family visits. I was leaning toward some of my Vietnamese friends who see Tet rituals as unpractical considering the money you spent on flowers and food, especially for offerings, that will end up at the dumpster next day.

But in this moment, I could see the social power and functions of local culture such as Tet for people who hold on to it.  In the case of Tet, its significance lies in its religious element. The religious aspect of Tet is encapsulated in the activities of praying and giving donations to the temple some people engage in, in the offerings to the ancestors’ spirits in the house, in the visits to the ancestors’ graves, and in other forms of reverence one pays to the elderly.  These are religious activities as far as they centered around the idea of Divine other in the form of spirit and its celestial virtues. One may argue that these religious gestures are what Pure Land Buddhist Shinran and Honen referred to as the ‘miscellaneous acts’. Majority Buddhists in Viet Nam are Pure Land Buddhist, after all. Within this view, the religious gestures themselves are meant to evoke good karma. They are activities which are believed to bring one closer to and/or to enter divine realm [the Pure Land]. Yet, not the one which result in the rebirth in the Pure Land.

The offerings, the flowers, foods, and money sacrifices and other forms of reverence appear to be a simple way to pray to god. It is so simple that it often deceives us into thinking of it as unintelligible, superstitious, or even devoid of reason. So, it is no surprise if some people may suggest an abandonment of traditional religious practices on this basis. This simple way to salvation seems similar to the bhakti yoga [devotion]. It exists presumably to accommodate to followers who, for one reason or another, have no access to the other two means to salvation which are claimed to be more sophisticated. The first is what the Bhagavad Gita refers to as jnana yoga, the way to know God through knowledge [philosophy in Platonic sense]. And the other is karma yoga, the knowing god through work.

I think it is safe to say that local cultures such as Tet have a certain degree of intelligibility and practicality. They may be simple and repetitive, and yet they are not devoid of reason. On the contrary, local cultures can be important assets for countries which are on the journey to become “modern”:  they can offer something that might complement modern values and other forms of progress they wish to adopt. That is so, especially because modernity may come with unexpected results such as social or spiritual alienation. It is these possible alienations which the continuing practice of local cultures might be able to answer. Last but not least, their simplicities fit modern people who have limited time for more sophisticated and intellective practices, such as meditation and philosophy related practices.