The Opium of the People

Sam Harris

This is what Karl Marx actually said:

The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion. 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.

Everyone knows Marx was a theorist whose ideas have not come to pass in real life. I like to see myself as a nontheorist—open to what I see before me, rejecting all belief, driven by inner impulse to the point where I cast my fate to the winds. All the same, I can bear witness to some of what he said above. I have known religious suffering, real suffering, and the protest against suffering. As for the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heartless world and soulless conditions, I know them too but mainly as a spectator. I’ve known religion as illusory happiness. When I broke free from religion (a bhakti-meditation cult), it was as if the sky cleared and I could let in real happiness.

Today, in liberal affluent Western society, we have atheists who don’t understand that in this heartless world the poor and oppressed cannot afford man-made care but are forced to rely upon God’s care. If they stop believing in God they won’t have anything at all.

These highly-educated and well-off atheists think of religions as dealers—pushers, in fact—in some form of spiritual “opium”. They may be right, but it doesn’t mean that their customers are stupid or otherwise contemptible. So I address myself to Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, and I say to them: “If you ridicule their God, you are callous to their pain, you take away their only pain-killer.” And I say to them further, and to the late Karl Marx, “Who are you to say their happiness is illusory? You are in no position to say that another person’s pain or happiness is illusory. You take away, but what do you have to offer? Only that which the oppressed creature cannot afford; or, if you lean to the Left, only the promise of fairness and equality—a better future, like Heaven.”

Then Sam Harris, who I’ve never bothered to read till now, astonishes me with his book Waking Up: Searching for spirituality without religion. It doesn’t entirely exonerate him from my accusations, but I find he has been on his own spiritual quest from the age of sixteen. He has done meditation, studied under Gurus, been profoundly impressed by the doctrine of non-duality as embodied in the Indian saint Ramana Maharshi.

With his background in neuroscience, he ponders the “Mystery of Consciousness” and the “Riddle of the Self”, devoting a closely-argued chapter to each. I end up thinking it is not really my kind of book, he has addressed it to a different audience. Yet there was one thing that kept me turning the pages: eager anticipation of his delivering a bridge between science and spirituality, something the world has been waiting for. No, that’s not right. I cannot speak for the world, too many are trying to do that. It is I who have been waiting for something like this, someone with a properly-trained, coherent and structured mind who knows enough to bridge this absurd gulf. Sam Harris does have such a mind. It encompasses a lot of things that don’t mean a great deal to me. I’m happy to set those aside, so as to clear the stage for one big thing, one big accomplishment. He sets the age-old wisdom, the ultimate truth, in a new context, to a new audience, with his own modern kind of proofs that don’t rely on ancient sutras and and mythical Masters. The separate “I” is an illusion, there is only the One. And in his words,

Experiencing this directly—not merely thinking about it—is the true beginning of spiritual life.

And this might be a good place to end, but there is more to say. Harris prefers Buddhism and Non-Dual Vedanta to Christianity and the other Abrahamic religions, which in varying degrees he actively dislikes, especially Islam. Fair enough. But he doesn’t acknowledge that if the people’s opium is actually God, they don’t need a dealer in the form of pastors and suchlike. Indeed, it’s not Christianity’s but America’s fault that most things there, including religion, follow a business model where customer retention matters more than the product itself. It’s not Allah’s fault but history’s and human nature’s, that Allah’s name, whatever it signifies, has been associated with appalling behaviours. Religions can be magnets for every kind of evil intent. But love of God in the heart is true love to those who can find no true earthly love, and a stepping-stone to the One. Surrendering to the Unknowable is one of the ways, like having a guide-dog for the blind, letting go the illusion of “I”, trusting in new eyes. Whether one believes or not doesn’t matter, but the simple trust does.

Harris’s title is significant: “Waking Up”. His drug of choice is not opium, a pain-killer that gives you dreams, but MDMA, known as Ecstasy, which he seems to approve, along with sensible caveats. As a neuroscientist who has used the drug on himself, he says it released chemicals in his brain which made him love everyone. I don’t endorse his book wholeheartedly, but find much to admire; especially that he talks from his own experience and knowledge. Who can do more than that?


4 thoughts on “The Opium of the People

  1. Thanks Vincent – much I hadn't heard of here – and I much agree with you, both on conclusions and on your non-theoretical methodology. Theorists are apt to say that people who claim their approach is non-theoretical are deluded or even fraudulent: theory, they believe, must underlie all thinking. Maybe that's logical, but it isn't self-evident. I imagine I half-believe many theories that probably contradict each other. It seems better to pursue the journey than rip up the foundations.


  2. Over breakfast this morning I listened to a radio programme with Mary Warnock, well known over here & I have one of her books (Imagination). We checked up and found she is 91, completely undimmed by time. We also discovered, under “Personal life”, the following:

    “Although an atheist, she is an Anglican and a regular churchgoer.”

    Not that I was in the least surprised. The Church of England has harboured atheists up to the rank of bishop for as long as I can remember. If you Google “atheist anglican” you'll see much more.

    I was brought up in that church & was never required or even urged to believe anything at all. It was a cultural thing like Shakespeare.


  3. Just want to say I didn't sleep through this. I stood with injured hawk eye beside my hay bale and didn't say a word. Recircling now I just want to tip my wing to you, Vincent, and say that I understand now why you don't need guns or knives to protect yourself. Also, thank you for making this post personable and relatable to me as an American. False-pride, ego and love for my country aside, there is much I can learn from your lifetime of experience and wisdom to help me survive. Thank You!


  4. Thank you, WBM, especially as I’d given up drafting the post after two weeks’ trying & then tried to tell you why I couldn’t write it—which somehow made it possible to try again & succeed this time.

    And now you have astonished me with this comment, as if you have heard the thoughts I was dictating this afternoon whilst walking through the woods in Downley (as in this post)—about pride. I had thought to make those thoughts into a comment here or another place, and refer to ideas like good pride & bad pride. But “false pride, ego and love for my country” helps unlock the ancient conundrum, as does this from Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell”:

    The pride of the peacock is the Glory of God.


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