Possibly the most quoted line from Karl Marx is “Religion is the opium of the people”. It’s actually a paraphrase from a piece published by Marx in 1844, and it has become something of a mantra for atheists irrespective of their political philosophy. It is a reliable, if somewhat lazy, way of provoking a reaction from believers by asserting that their faith is just a human construct designed to repress them. I’ve been there, I’ve reacted.
Then I thought more about the actual words, and realised that Marx had a point. Historically across various cultures and ages, religious conformity has been a tool of social control exercised by those in power, for good or for ill. Religion has been a kind of drug in these circumstances; powerful and dangerous, just like opium.
The word “religion” has slightly obscure origins in Old English and French, but apparently has its root in words associated with “bond” and “obligation”, and referred to the way monks lived. And that is what religion remains; it is a set of rules, regulations and restrictions that bind people into certain practices. The premise of religious practice is that a person earns their salvation by accumulating ‘brownie points’, by doing stuff. That is what made it useful to enforce social cohesion; that is what made it a drug.
But the Bible does not offer religion that looks like that. Jesus declared “I have come so that you may have life in all its fullness” (John 10:10, paraphrase). Paul said “it is by grace that you have been saved… not by works” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Biblical Christianity is not about rule keeping, it is about a relationship with God made possible because of what Jesus did for us.
Religion that binds people is the creation of humans, not of God. Marx was right, religion in this form is a drug, and like all drugs the only appropriate response is to say no to it. Instead look to the Bible, which tells Christians “it is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Galations 5:1).