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Skholiast’s blog pointed me to an excellent review of a collection of Marx’s and Engels’s writings on “religion.” (The author goes by “pomonomo2003″ in his review; his own very interesting website reveals his name to be Joseph Martin.) The topic is notable today, at a time when the militant atheists Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens grab the headlines – and those whom one might expect to be their staunchest allies, Marxists like Terry Eagleton, have instead been among their sharpest critics.

It is likely to the Communist regimes of the 20th century that we owe Marx’s reputation as a despiser of religion. Stalin and Mao ruthlessly persecuted Christians and Buddhists, and found scriptural support for their actions in Marx’s famous claim in his “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” that religion is “the opium of the people” or “the opiate of the masses.” From there it seems a short step to Mao’s infamous claim to the Dalai Lama that “religion is poison,” as the Cultural Revolution burned so much of Tibet’s great heritage.

But hold on just a second. Martin’s review points to an important insight that blew me away when I first heard it in Geoff Waite‘s class on Marx, Nietzsche and Freud: opium, to someone of Marx’s time, was not the addictive danger that it seems to us, or to the post-Opium War Chinese. To Marx opium was a painkiller, pure and simple, with addiction a possible but unusual side effect – a status somewhere between today’s Tylenol and Vicodin. (A friend once suggested we translate Marx’s phrase as “Religion is the Tylenol-3 of the masses.”)

This point about opium is supported by the wider context of Marx’s quote: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.” If religion is an evil here, it is a necessary evil – important to alleviate the pain that arises from living in class-stratified societies. Marx sent a copy of the text containing this quote to Ludwig Feuerbach, the Young Hegelian philosopher famous for urging the superseding of Christianity by atheism. Marx chided Feuerbach (who was far more sympathetic to “religion” than were Dawkins and Hitchens!) for thinking he could make religion go away that easily: it would never disappear until the suffering produced by human material conditions also went away. And so Marx continues:

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of men, is a demand for their real happiness. The call to abandon their illusions about their condition is a call to abandon a condition which requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, the embryonic criticism of this vale of tears of which religion is the halo. (translation in Tucker, The Marx-Engels reader, p. 54; emphases in original)

Here as in so many other cases, Marx’s ideas were distorted beyond recognition by the 20th-century régimes that attempted to put them into practice. But once we understand what Marx’s ideas actually were, the next question is: was he right?

Here, I would likely make a Buddhist extension and critique of Marx. Yes, much of what we call “religion” can be viewed as a painkiller, something that helps us kill our pain, our suffering. But that suffering doesn’t come primarily from living in exploitative class societies, whether capitalist or pre-capitalist. It comes from being human beings. Imagine the classless society as best you can – wave a magic wand to transform this world into one where everyone is equal, envision hundreds of years’ worth of reflection and gradual transformation, whatever – and you will still end up with a world where people get frustrated, get angry, grow sick, and die.

The traditional biography of the Buddha tells us that he was raised in the sumptuous life of a prince, never leaving the palace, never seeing any suffering – until the very first time he left the palace, whereupon he saw a sick man, an old man and a corpse. And he realized that, no matter what the material conditions of his life, someday these too would be his fate. What cheered him up was the fourth sight he saw: a monk, looking for the way out of the suffering of this world.

I sometimes think of Marx’s thought as leaving us in the Buddha’s family palace, hoping that changes in our material conditions will alleviate our suffering. For Marx, religion is a temporary painkiller that we must take until we get a better world that doesn’t require it. For the Buddha, we live our lives in chronic pain, and this pain that can only be ended by the dharma. I think his vision is more profound and more accurate. Our pain will not be ended by changing the world, only by changing ourselves.