"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. (…) 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. (…) 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. (…) 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.”
(Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, 1843)
That would be Karl Marx, being smarter about religion than Richard Dawkins will ever be, 170 years ago. The same text include the line about religion as ‘the opium of the masses’, which is probably the most wildly misused line from Marx. Opium was a medicine and comfort while also being a potent drug – when the phrase is used to mean “LOL religious people are so dumb it’s like they’re on smack LOL I am the great rationalist”, it misses precisely Marx’s recognition of the *social function* of religion, as well as its contradictory content, as both protest against suffering and a consolation that often enables its perpetuation.
On that consolatory function, this: I was raised Catholic. When my grandfather was in the weeks where he was dying, I found myself in Soho Square – for non-Londoners, the heart of London’s historical gay district – reading in the sun. To the east of the square is a Catholic church, one of first built after Catholics were allowed to build churches in England again. I received a phonecall telling me to come to the hospital this evening, because the time was coming near.
I found myself walking into the church and sitting down on one of the back pews. I genuflected, because muscle memory is hard to overcome, even when you haven’t been in a church for many years. I didn’t pray. But I thought about the instinctive Catholicism, deep-rooted, of my grandfather’s generation. I thought of his early jobs, of which he was so proud, hauling flour on the docks at the age of 14 (“earning a man’s wage so young.”) I thought of his war service and its horrors. I thought of his hands, back and knees giving out because he had worked all the flex out of them. I thought of his particular stubbornness. I thought of him lying in a bed a few miles away on a drip, all the weight gone out of him. I thought of him ill-treated by the state, unwilling to provide in his last years a small measure of justice for what he had done for decades. The impossible inequality of that never-agreed contract. I thought we do struggle with the powers of this world, princes and potentates – Ephesians – and I thought about redemption. What would redeem the endless work, the stress, the privation and the loss of over eighty years. How to give thanks, also, that to be born in a tenement in Bermondsey was not always to die there. How to finally understand the attraction of the promise of redemption and the horizon of a new world, in which the manifest injustices – the things left unfinished – shall have passed away.
I don’t believe the New Jerusalem is waiting for us. And I could see, walking out of that church, how such a promise might be an inducement to inaction. But I also thought how all the old stories and psalms had a better way of naming and giving shape to the – very normal – suffering of a boy losing his grandfather, the sense of a pain shared and repeated many thousands of times over the generations, and a sharpening rage for the quotidian misery that made up so much of his daily work. I don’t think this is an easy fable. In some way it restates the obvious, about pain and knowledge and reflection. Heart of a heartless world indeed.