Do we need the opiate of religion?

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These are hopeless times. A widely-cited study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that 42% of high school students report persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness. Rates of sadness and hopelessness have increased steadily since 2011 when only 28% of high schoolers reported the same.

A variety of explanations have been offered for this alarming problem. Some argue for a return to traditional religion. But could it be that hopelessness is an appropriate response to a world afflicted by violence, sexism, racism, and injustice? And rather than prescribing the opiate of religion, might the solution be to reform systems built on alienation, exploitation, and hypocrisy?

The causes of alienation

Young people are not unwise to see the world as hopeless. The adults have messed things up. Rather than pretending things are all right, young people see looming threats. Political polarization, racial tension, gun violence, and rising authoritarianism fill the headlines. And climate change has added “climate anxiety” and “eco-grief” to the list of modern maladies.

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt has also suggested that social media plays a role in the growth of depression and anxiety among adolescents. Twitter and TikTok seem to exploit anxiety (for example in “the fear of missing out”). Social media also makes it possible to disseminate fake news and unrealistic expectations about friendship, body image, and happiness. And of course, unscrupulous actors take advantage and profit from this new frontier in exploitation and alienation.

As all of this is going on, some worry that the decline of traditional religion is part of the problem. One recent study by economists Giles, Hungerman, and Oostrom suggests a link between hopelessness and the well-documented decline in religious affiliation. Under the provocative title “Opiates of the Masses?”, the study argues that an increase in “deaths of despair” (caused by alcoholism, drug addiction, and suicides) is correlated with the decline of religiosity in the United States.

The argument against atheism

It’s a correlation worth considering. Defenders of traditional religion often suggest that loss of religion is the primary cause of modern hopelessness.

Consider this passage from evangelical preacher Ravi Zacharias:

Having killed God, the atheist is left with no reason for being, no morality to espouse, no meaning to life, and no hope beyond the grave. Significantly, the absence of future hope has an amazing capacity to reach into the present and eat away at the structure of life… There is a complete sense of alienation in in the world one hundred years after Nietzsche. It is this utterly morbid and hopeless philosophy that has sent many of our youth into a search for other realities. Those who do not have hope, in an effort to drown their despair, turn to drugs and alcohol.

Ravi Zacharias, The Real Face of Atheism

I quote this at length because there is tremendous irony in Zacharias’ work. Zacharias, who died in 2020, has been accused of sexual crimes and using funds donated to his ministry to cover up his sexual misdeeds. But at his funeral, then Vice-President Mike Pence called him one of the greats of Christian apologetics.

Others have claimed that atheism causes hopelessness. In a book that quotes Zacharias at length, Anthony DeStefano put the worry this way: “Human beings simply cannot survive without hope, and atheism is the philosophy of hopelessness.” Another Christian author, Steven Cook, says: “The biblical worldview offers value, purpose, and hope. The atheistic worldview—when followed to its logical conclusion—leads to a meaningless and purposeless life that eventuates in despair.”

But is our present sense of hopelessness really about the lack of faith in eternal life? Or does it come from a more mundane sense that the adults on earth have screwed things up?

The opiate of the people?

Now let’s return to the Giles study and its provocative title, “Opiates of the Masses?” The study notes that “nonreligious organizations often fail to successfully duplicate the sense of community, social services, and cohesion provided by participation in a religious tradition.” There is some truth here. Human beings need a sense of community. But again, the problem is not about hope for eternal life. Rather, it is about the human need for genuine connection, friendship, and belonging. And much of this is lacking in the world of TikTok, Trumpian polarization, and Zacharian hypocrisy. 

This study also suggests that alcoholism and other syndromes have increased as religiously based “blue laws” have been repealed. For example, alcohol is more freely available. And the 24/7 economy no longer includes a mandatory rest day on the Sabbath.

But is the decline of religion to blame for increasing alcoholism, anxiety, and stress? The problem is, rather, that unrestrained capitalism is fraying our nerves, while selling us booze, gambling, pornography, and prescription drugs as placebos. The eradication of blue laws is not about the loss of hope for eternity. It is, rather, about opening the door for exploitation by the addiction-industrial complex. And while religious communities can provide a source of comfort and hope, religious communities also involve exploitation and hypocrisy.

The provocative title of the Giles study is unexplained by the authors. But the phrase “opium of the people” comes from Karl Marx. Marx suggested that the oppressed masses turn to religion as a kind of anesthetizing illusion. In explaining the idea, Marx wrote, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.”

On this view, religion covers up social problems and defuses the revolutionary spirit of people who feel alienated and exploited. This alienation occurs under soulless capitalism. It happens when decent people watch political and corporate elites fiddle as Rome burns. It also occurs when hypocritical religious leaders exploit the faithful for their own corrupt and selfish purposes.

Beyond the opiate of the masses

If the pale hope provided by religion fades away without fixing the underlying human problem of alienation, despair may in fact result. If we are forced to confront the alienating world in which we live without the solace of religion, hopelessness is not unreasonable. This does not mean, however, that religion is the solution.

Beyond using opiates to mask our pain, we need to solve the underlying disease. The problem is exploitation and alienation. The preachers of hope prey upon their flocks. And corporations cash in on human anxiety. To fix that, we need to critique the alienation, corruption, and injustice that are the source of so much human grief. Solutions for hopelessness include a more humane economy, a reform of the political system, and a critique of religious exploitation. But those are human solutions to human problems that do not require a return to the opiate of the masses.