Chinese Theological Review 13

On Religion as Opiate

Bishop K.H. Ting

In China, religion is primarily a united front matter and is not treated as a life-or-death ideological problem. This view embodies a consistent teaching of Chairman Mao, Premier Zhou and the Central Party Committee: in religion, the central task lies not in "struggling against religion," leading to its weakening and destruction; nor in making atheists of theists; but rather in seeking the common ground while respecting differences and strengthening political unity with the masses who are believers, while placing differences in matters of belief among the people within the scope of mutual respect. As Premier Zhou said in 1957: "Everyone can support socialism, atheist or theist alike ... people's ideas are multifarious. So long as their activities do not hinder political life or economic production, we should not interfere in their affairs." This view, which lifts up the united front in religious work, must be linked to a deep understanding among the people of the rootedness of religion in the masses of the people, religion's affinity to ethnic minority peoples, its international ramifications, its continued existence over the long term, and its complexity.

Clearly some who call themselves Marxist-Leninists do not have such an understanding. They treat religion mainly as an alien ideology and unnecessarily exaggerate its alien character, equating it with political reaction. They exaggerate the role of propagating atheism. They assume this as a matter of 'course and make up crude atheist and anti-religion propaganda. They deal with the people's requests to hold religious activities by use of administrative measures. All these things offend the religious sentiments of the masses. These people think setting limits on and weakening religion is a "good thing," when actually it only serves to create an uneasy relationship between cadres and the masses, causes the Party and government to lose the good opinion of the people and damages the interests of the united front and the Party.

As regards China, following the restoration of order after the Cultural Revolution, the critique of "leftist" errors and the study of Central Party Document 19 (1982), the number of those who maintained the latter view and methods has been greatly reduced. We now see the appearance of a new kind of relationship between the cadres and the masses: a new common language which cadres in religious work and believers have found through their goals of improving economic production, enriching the nation and revitalizing China, has replaced the former antagonism between those who wanted limits and those who were against them. People have found that believers are the same as everyone else, with the addition of faith and some religious activities. Believers are also concerned about economic production and making a living, about the prosperity of the nation, about the development of young people. Thus, as long as suitable care is shown for the special character of believers, and there is cooperation in production, the common language will be greatly increased and clashes can be completely avoided.

It should be mentioned here that citizens who are religious believers are also normal citizens. Some scholars of religion inappropriately term all believers "religionists." People who make an 'ideology' of religion, who narrowly reject common sense and science, who understand and deal with everything in terms of religion, are actually very small in number. In terms of ideology, the vast majority of China's religious believers are patriots at the very least. This is more in line with the facts and in line with the Central Committee's assessment (as in Document 19).

In order to further reduce the number of those who hold the inappropriate viewpoint and apply the erroneous methods mentioned above, I would like to offer some views on a statement by Marx. Some people have exaggerated the importance of this statement to an inappropriate level. I refer to the statement "religion is an opiate of the people." This statement has been taken out of the context of the surrounding text as well as being isolated from the whole body of writings by Marx, Engels and Lenin on religion. They speak of it as Marx's definition of religion, as pointing to the very nature of religion, as an idea original to Marx, as the nucleus or marrow of the Marxist view of religion, and so on. They think it is a surefire formula for understanding and dealing with any religious question. Actually, Marx speaks of religion as opiate only once, almost glancing over it, and that was in his youth, when he spoke grandly of alienation.

The idea that religion is an opiate of the people is by no means original to Marx. In Germany alone, several decades before Marx mentioned it, those intellectuals I will mention below (and there may be others) published similar views. Some even used similar wording.

1) P.T. von Holbach in his Le Christianisme devoile (1761): "Religion is the art of making men drunk with enthusiasm, in order to hinder them from attending to the evils with which those who rule them overwhelm them here below. With the help of the invisible powers with which one threatens them, one compels them to bear the misery in silence with which the powerful afflict them, one makes them hope that, if they consent to be unhappy in this world, they will be more happy in another."

2) Goethe criticized the German revivalist F.W. Krummacher's volume of sermons, Blick ins Reich der Gnade (1828), calling them "narcotic sermons."

3) Hegel (1770-1831) in his Religionsphilosophie compared Indian religion to a man "decayed in body and spirit, who finds his existence grown dull and insufferable" and is therefore at pains to create for himself with opium "a dreaming world and crazy happiness."

4) Feuerbach in the notes to the first edition of his Pierre Bayle in 1838, wrote that "the man therefore who charms with enticing and flattering words of eternal joys and threatens separation from himself with the intimidating words of eternal hell, used methods of compulsion ... he administers opium to him to extract from him his word of honor in a condition where the passions of fear or hope have clouded his vision."

5) In his The Nature of Christianity (1841), Feuerbach again spoke of the "narcotic influences" of Christian language, and also of the "halo of sanctity" with which Christianity surrounds marriage in order to cloud the reason.

6) Heinrich Heine, in the fourth book of his discussion with Ludwig Borne (1840): "As the individual opens his arteries in despair, and seeks in death a refuge from the tyranny of the Caesars, so the great mass plunged into asceticism, into the doctrines of mortification . . .of the Nazarene religion. In order once and for all to thrust from itself the misery of life at that time . . . in order to number their aching heads with organ-tones and the tolling of bells." "For men for whom earth has nothing more to offer, heaven is invented ... Hail to this invention! Hail to a religion which poured for a suffering race of men some sweet narcotic drops into their bitter cup, spiritual opium, a few drops of love and hope and faith." Ten years later he said: "When a little gray dust is poured into my fearful burning wounds, and then the pain at once ceases, shall not one say that this is the same calming power which shows its effectiveness in religion? There is more relationship between opium and religion than most men dream."

7) In 1841 when he was still a theology professor in Berlin, Bruno Bauer wrote in his essay Der Christliche Staat und unsere Zeit: "The theological organization in the most Christian State was able to 'carry matters so far through its opium-like influence' that it finds no more trace of resistance and all the instincts of free humanity ... are lulled to sleep."

8) The next year he wrote that: "Religion in its opium haze speaks of a new condition hereafter."

9) Edgar Bauer, the younger brother of Bruno, in his short story Freedom and Myself (1842) wrote: "Others drug themselves with religion, they would wish to enter the seventh heaven, and in so doing forget the earth."

10) Moses Hess in Einundzwanzig Bogen aus der Schweiz, written in 1843, ranks intoxicants, opium, religion and brandy side by side and says: "Religion is well able . . . to make tolerable the unhappy consciousness of servitude ... Just as opium does good service in painful illnesses, faith in the reality of unreality and in the unreality of reality can indeed give the sufferer a passive happiness."

Clearly, Marx did no more than quote a phrase often used by enlightened people in intellectual and religious circles of the day. To say that this phrase is an innovation of Marx, that he was born with it, is hard to accept. To say that it is the nucleus of Marxist views on religion, not only seems to theorists a kind of unfortunate error in common sense, but lowers the Marxist religious view to a level long achieved by bourgeois intellectuals and enlightened religious thinkers.

Marx and Engels lived in a class society, so let us begin with a discussion of religion in a society made up of antagonistic classes. Religion is a complex social phenomenon that plays many roles. Its role as an opiate in society, its narcotic role, the role it has played to obliterate the spirit of rebellion among the toiling masses, is, of course, a fact. But this is only one of the roles it plays, certainly not its only role-and by no means its main role under all circumstances.

Opium causes people to sink into a stupor. In Western countries today, among certain reactionaries (for example, those high up in Christian fundamentalist bodies in the U.S. who call themselves the "moral majority"), religion is manipulated through preaching that fans the fervor of the believers and draws them toward the extreme right, so that they become supporters of the political forces of reaction and tools to attack the masses. This role of religion plainly surpasses by far its role as opiate.

Religion often provides the ideology for peasant movements, functioning to connect and motivate the masses. In The Peasant War in Germany, Engels commended Muenzer for "spreading revolution, having political religious thinking." "Muenzer's political doctrine followed his revolutionary religious conceptions very closely, and as his theology reached far beyond the current conceptions of his time, so his political doctrine went beyond existing social and political conditions. ... His program, less a compilation of the demands of the then existing plebeians than a genius's anticipation of the conditions for the emancipation of the proletarian clement that had just begun to develop among the plebeians, demanded the immediate establishment of the kingdom of God, of the prophesied millennium on earth." Engels believed that the plebian clergy of the German churches in the middle ages "gave the movement its theorists and ideologists, and many of them, representatives of the plebeians and peasants, died on the scaffold." There are many other examples like this the Taiping Rebellion is one-but it is not necessary to mention them all here. The role played by religion in peasant movements is much greater than what is suggested by the term "opiate."

In some European bourgeois democratic revolutions and even in certain workers' struggles, religion played a similar role. Engels felt that "the Calvinist Reformation served as a banner for the republicans in Geneva, in Holland, and in Scotland, freed Holland from Spain and from the German Empire, and provided the ideological costume for the second act of the bourgeois revolution, which was taking place in England." Marx pointed out that in England, "Cromwell and the English people had borrowed from the Old Testament the speech, passions, an illusions for their bourgeois revolution." Lenin did not propose to view all religion as a monolith. He stressed tile internal divisions in the Russian church, "the sectarian movements in Russian Orthodoxy, in many of their aspects, are one of the democratic trends in Russia." He proposed "absorbing them into the democratic socialist party." He said: "We socialists ought to support such movements as this, that the demands of the upright and honest among the clergy be thoroughly realized." Lenin, also pointed out that "the struggles of the democratic and proletarian elements sometimes take the form of the struggle of one religious idea against another." Obviously, under certain conditions, the role played by religion is far different from that played by an opiate.

Today quite a number of religious believers and persons in religious circles support, are involved in, and even serve as leaders of people's democratic movements in the Third World. In South Korea, many Christians are involved in demonstrations, strikes and protests to oppose fascism. In Latin America and the Philippines, under the banner of liberation theology, quite a few priests (and some bishops) have lost their lives because of their involvement in mass movements and armed struggle.

It would be forced and implausible when considering class societies with these and many other types of religious phenomena, to explain religion solely in terms of bring an opiate.

Thus a more realistic and objective view would be to admit that in class society, opiate is not a sufficient definition of religion, but rather a role religion may play, and moreover just one of its roles and not by any means its only role.

During the rectification campaign in Yanan, Chairman Mao Said: "Up to now, there are still quite a few people who see isolated words and phrases from the works of Marx and Lenin as ready-made cure-alls, as if having these one can cure any disease without lifting a finger." This is a statement that still has value today.

Lenin had this to say about making definitions: "What is meant by giving a 'definition?' It means essentially to bring a given concept within a more comprehensive concept. For example, when I give the definition 'an ass is an animal,' I am bringing the concept 'ass' within a more comprehensive concept." In the same way, if we want to define religion, we ought first to put it into a broader conception. But opium is simply one of the roles of religion. To make opium the definition of religion is to cover up the comprehensive with the partial and embrace all aspects of religion. Hence the difficulty and bewilderment in trying to use opium as the one explanation of all religious phenomena. People who attempt this find this approach explains very little. At times, they are only fooling themselves as well as others and they treat the many other religious phenomena as if they are hardly worth a glance.

Marx certainly did not call for attacks on and destruction of religion because religion played the role of an opiate in certain circumstances. He felt that the transformation of this world was the only path to eliminating the religious tendency. In the same essay, Marx exhorted people to turn "criticism of the Kingdom of God" into "criticism of the mundane world," and "criticism of theology" into "political criticism." At almost the same time as Marx was writing this (1843), he wrote in another essay that religion was "narrow-mindedness," saying that religion "is not the cause of secular narrow-mindedness, but its manifestation." He disapproved of regarding the overcoming of human religious narrow-mindedness as the path to secular liberation. He said that religious narrow-mindedness could only be overcome by ending secular captivity. Thus, he had no illusions about being able to do away with religious faith, instead he put forth "political liberation" as the prerequisite for human liberation from all fetters, including spiritual ones.

It is the belief of Marxism that as long as humankind is blind to the alienating power of nature and society, it will have no way to grasp its own fate and the emergence and existence of religion is inevitable. In this sense, human religiosity is a normal phenomenon. As long as the natural and social sources for the existence of religion continue to exist, even if atheism is very well propagated (this is extremely difficult), there will not be many people who will accept it and turn away from religion. If it is poorly propagated, it will stimulate the religious sentiments of the believers and provoke people's outrage on their behalf, as well as giving rise to sympathy for and interest in religion. Would this not function indirectly to help propagate religion? We religious believers do not necessarily agree with these views, but we do rather appreciate them.

If the narcotic function of religion is one of the roles it plays in class society, then it cannot be a sufficient description of religion's roles. In class society, it mainly fulfills the need of the reactionary ruling class to numb and control the masses. When the historical stage of socialism arrives and the exploiting class no longer exists as a class, using the narcotic function of religion for its own ends, how shall we see our way to continuing to define religion as opiate?

What transformations will take place in religion in a socialist society is a new question, one that cannot he answered with recourse to the writings of Marx, Engels and Lenin. The religion of which Marx, Engels and Lenin spoke was the religion of class society. The religion with which Marx and Engels were familiar was primarily that of western European class society, while Lenin knew mainly the religion of Imperial Russia. They did no study of religion in a socialist society.

After liberation in China, each religious group, under the correct leadership of the Party, put a great deal of effort into uniting their respective adherents. On the one hand they eliminated reactionary forces and illegal activities within their religion and undertook religious reformation; on the other hand they led their adherents on the path of patriotic socialism, contributing to the realization of the four modernizations in China and to enlarging the united front internationally. Each of China's religions has undergone a partial qualitative change and has turned onto a course that is healthier and more in harmony with socialist new China.

If we were to say that religion is an opiate of the people in socialist society, just as it is in class society, then those who would say this must speak up - which class is it that needs religion to anesthetize the people? If this is not the case, it functions at most as a kind of self-numbing, not its best use, but no more harmful than banishing melancholy with wine, not something that needs to be opposed or something that we must strive to destroy. Making a political problem of it in order to destroy it might seem a clever plan, but actually will only succeed in losing the sympathy of the people.

We ought to make a distinction between religion as narcotic for self-numbing today with religion as narcotic as it was used in the past by the reactionary ruling classes to control the people. We should recognize that the seriousness of the problem has been greatly reduced. Lumping the two together is, to put it mildly, a slapdash way of theorizing and research, and politically it is still the old business of "class struggle as the key link." In dealing with today's religious questions, this can lead to great harm.

Today, we should pay greater attention to religion's role in exhorting people to do well. This aspect of religion can be beneficial for unity and stability and economic production in socialist society. If the standard for the united front is not communism but patriotism, people can appreciate that believers' "good behavior" is good for the nation and need not scoff at it simply because they do not begin from a Marxist standpoint. As long as what believers do is acceptable, religion will be more compatible with socialism and we should allow different paths to the same goal.

The Bible says "There is no authority but by act of God" (Rom. 13:1). In the past the KMT used this to control the people, attempting to make them bow down to their rulers. But now, when Christians say this under the people's government, they can no longer be considered reactionary. Rather, it is beneficial to unity and stability. Plainly, religion does not at all function as an opiate in all circumstances. It can play many roles and is not necessarily antagonistic to socialism.

In the Central Committee Document 19 in 1982, the word "opiate" no longer appears and the Party has cast off dogmatism and a doctrinaire approach, beginning instead with the reality of religious phenomena in China's historical stage of socialism. This gives full expression to the fine tradition of seeking truth from facts.

Actually, the discussion of religion by proletarian revolutionary leaders like Marx and Engels is very rich. In China, as early as 1950 during the meeting of the CPPCC, Premier Zhou pointed out that with the victory of the revolution, it was not necessary always to emphasize religion as opiate. The important issue in religion now was to isolate and reform the small number of political counter-revolutionaries.

When Marx and others spoke of an opiate, they meant a narcotic, whereas in China we have had a tragic history in which imperialism imposed opium and the Opium War on our people. Our people harbor a particular hatred of opium. The equating of religion to opiate (which some writers have changed to opium) confers on it a criminal nature and relegates religious believers among the people to the status of opium addicts and turns religious leaders into drug dealers. Thus, this equation serves the promotion of ultra-leftism in religious work. Many people still think no more of religion than that it is basically a kind of thought deviation belonging to a certain historical stage.

There are still a lot of people who, though they are not religious believers but atheists, express in their thinking and work the subjective deviation of idealism. Furthermore the results of this kind of deviation are frequently more serious than the results of belief in religion. Not long ago, a scholar of religion once again claimed that the four modernizations could not be realized unless religion was abolished. Some cadres in religious work did not seek to unite believers under the banner of patriotic socialism, but took the prohibition and destruction of religion as their task-these are the inevitable results of a one-sided emphasis on religion as opiate and opium. This is subjective idealist thinking, the result of which is to incite hatred of religion. It is not conducive to unity and stability.

Is religion in fact the only opiate we find today? There are many things that can become opiates of the people. Politics too can bewitch people and function as an opiate. Some rebel factions during the Cultural Revolution blindly acted on the slogans "three-parts left in everything," and "Carry out what you understand; carry out what you don't understand too." These are good examples of what I mean. A famous writer described his mental state during his time in detention in the so-called "cow shed" this way: "I actually made 'ignorance' the goal of my transformation, admitted that I had done not one good thing my whole life, that everything I had written was 'poison', and I really believed that only the few 'model operas' were art. Settling for irrelevancies, I was completely taken in by the logic of the rebel factions and the more I thought about it, the more I thought that the rebel factions were right - I was a criminal." Many religious believers would be glad they had not succumbed to a narcotic to that extent. In saying this, I am not trying to smear politics; I just want to point out that when we call something an opiate, we have not exhausted the possibilities of that thing. An individual is always subject to human weakness; it is difficult to avoid subjective errors.

The Central Party Committee has done a meticulous study of the basic understanding and policy on religious questions during China's socialist period, summing up the experiences and lessons of thirty years since 1949, making complete proposal for theory, guiding policy and policy. Further, it points out that whether this question can be adequately dealt with is of vital significance for national stability and ethnic unity, for the development of international exchanges and resistance I infiltration by hostile forces overseas. This Document has been of great help to me and I am still studying and absorbing it. Today the most I can do is raise a few questions for us to study and resolve together.

A talk with friends outside the Church, 1985.