Religion is Opium, Atheism is Ecstasy

Terry Eagleton famous Marxist literary critic, has currently been tackling some rather ancient topic, namely, the never-ending God Debate (simply, the debate on the belief of God or the absence thereof). To dangerously oversimplify his thesis, Eagleton argues that the God Debate is essentially a futile debate, for both sides operate on divergent linguistic spaces and hence will never be resolved no matter how much articulation each side will exert to prove his point (Eagleton somehow argues for a Lytordian differend). Not surprisingly, he has received many harsh criticisms from the staunchest disciples of both the theists and the atheists, arguing in ad hominem fashion that Eagleton is a literary critic, and he better stick to his line of work. Of course, this counter-argument is among other attempts to refute Eagleton’s thesis.

However, I would like to contribute to the discussion by focusing on the ideologico-political dimension. Or, to be much more precise, how must we see the developments in the God Debate in the contemporary context where liberal democracy is the political and ideological backdrop?

“Religion is the opium of the people’’

Other than being one of Marx’s most quoted statement, this idea is also one of his most misunderstood. If we take the whole two paragraphs from the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right:

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. It is the opium of the people.

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. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

Religion, therefore, is the immediate escape from the conditions of real suffering. Marx makes it clear that the demand to abolish religion is not a call to abolish religion as an opium/ illusion, but rather, a call to ‘give up a condition that requires illusions.’ Marx’s statement is clearly a critique of capitalism as an alienating condition of existence, not of religion as a way of life or cultural activity.

Capitalism, then, intensifies the illusory nature of religion, making it more promising, phantasmic and alienating. Hence, if we critic religion as an independent element apart from its capitalist underpinnings, we are contradicting ourselves by claiming that that ‘we annihilated the opium’ when in fact we have not destroyed the creators of the drug itself. No wonder why the followers of atheism are mostly middle-to-upper middle class intellectuals who experience capitalist alienation only at the minimal level. Atheists find it hard to preach their ‘Good news’ to the poorer people.

“Pseudo-emancipatory atheism is the ecstasy of the bourgeoisie”

Recently, there has been a renewed interest in the idea of atheism mainly due to the efforts of popular atheists (or anti-theists, as some prefer) intellectuals Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great), Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) and other ‘New Atheists’ who believe that religion must not be tolerated and in fact must be refuted and countered in every possible avenue. Organizations like The Filipino Freethinkers are also advocating atheism, rational thinking and are controversial for their provocative mobilizations that often feature outright blasphemy.

However, to understand this phenomenon, one needs to contextualize it as a symptomatic of the radical transformation of liberal democracy into a more tolerant, more accommodating democracy. Armando Malay (2010) said something about how Philippine democracy since the Marcos dictatorship has acquired a more liberal, pluralistic attitude:

The pro-government sector itself has no qualms about taking out full-page ads to drum up support for charter change, for instance. In a related development, opposition groups.. are increasingly resorting to gimmicks like costumes, masks, body paint, parodies of beauty contests, etc., in the service of their respective causes… In the “society of the spectacle” that is now ours, where the State propaganda machine itself resorts to well-choreographed and styled representations of the rulers’ benevolent caring for each and every citizen, and, on the part of the media, a quasi-mandatory coverage of these displays of paternalism, there has been a blurring of Left, Right, and Center social discourse. [i]

Malay illustrated the current culture of ‘tolerance’ in the mass media, a microcosm of the current picture of Philippine democracy. ‘Anti-government’ essays, statements, mobilizationns and works of art are now easier to publicize, as the government tolerates ‘soft-core’ social mobilizations and political criticisms in order to affirm the idea that the Philippines is indeed democratic. It is then understandable that NoyNoy Aquino never seems to attack his critics with hardcore counter-attacks, and even brushes them off as simply ‘annoyances’ and ‘abusers of the freedom of expression we now have.’ Slavoj Zizek explains this further in First as Tragedy, Then as Farce (2009):

The demands for new rights (which would have meant a true redistribution of power) were granted, but merely in the guise of “permissions” -the “permissive society” being precisely one which broadens the scope of what subjects are allowed to do without actually giving them any additional power…This is how it goes with the right to divorce, abortion, gay marriage, and so on and so forth- these are all permissions masked as rights; they do not change in any way the distribution of powers.

The recent outbursts of atheist radicalism is precisely a symptom of the increasing (but of course not infinite) permissiveness of liberal democracy. Despite the hegemony of the Catholic church in the country, and undoubtedly even in the bureaucracy, bills like the Reproductive Health Bill, LGBT pride marches, and even local anarchist-vandalists are permitted to express their views in public. The public is then allowed to ‘see for themselves’ which is the better view— a procedure which is undeniably democratic.

The democratic space gave way to open engagements between beliefs (the rise of ‘alternative’ Christian denominations e.g. born-again, self-proclaimed Satanists, atheists, etc). Blasphemy is becoming more popular, as for Mideo Cruz and others. In fact, blasphemy is now being articulated to be a legitimate form of expression, much to the delight of anti-Christian blasphemists and freethinkers. The battle of beliefs in our ‘pluralistic’ society is increasingly becoming antagonistic, engaging, ‘intellectually salivating’ and even emotional. Atheism, rational or otherwise, is deemed as ecstatic, liberating.

Time for some rehabilitation

Marx’s formulation of ‘Religion is the opium of the people’ has found its rhetorical opposite in today’s popular atheism. However, the emancipatory feeling of being liberated from the ‘opium of the people’ is in itself another drug.

The liberal democratic space enabled ideas to run freely, but one must note the underlying logic of this mode of democracy. Let us interrogate ourselves: why is it that despite the supposed freedom of the press, there is still censorship on selected articles with ‘subversive, rebellious (or communist-like) undertones? Why is it that rallies still require signed permit, given the situation that activities like ‘march for peace’, ‘run for a cause’, etc are more favored to be given permission than rallies against economic policies like wage hike increase and the abolition of the Oil Deregulation Law? The pattern only leads us to an obvious conclusion: the democracy we now have is selective, and therefore deceiving in nature.

More importantly, this pattern only tells us that indirect, ‘soft-core’, contradictions and antagonisms that are present in society today are topics that do not heavily concern the status quo. In fact, tolerating these ‘battles’ only strengthens the illusion that we are freer than ever, when in reality we are not.

The feeling of freedom in committing blasphemy and other types of rebellion is therefore another illusion to make us hit the decoy rather than the true target. A more legitimate, or as I would claim, more rational and justifiable endeavor, would be to construct a criticism of religion as illusory mechanisms of capitalism with the liberal democratic façade. Hence, a truly emancipatory project of ideology/religion critique is to go beyond foul-mouthing and childish provocation leading to pointless blasphemy.

What needs to be blasphemed is the baser religion, the fundamental belief in capital, which creates and intensifies the other illusions which we are attacking full force all this time. One does not need to be anti-God nor a theist to accomplish this.

[i] “Marxism and Civil Society: The Uneasy Encounter,” from Marxism in the Philippines: continuing engagements


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