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. Continue reading