Marx hit the nail on the head when he famously said that “religion is the opium of the people”. But not the nail he thought. To bring out the meaning as I understand it, the saying should really be “religion is the psychedelic of the people”.
Marx was committed to a Counter Enlightenment philosophy, heavily indebted to Hegel, among others. In other words, over and above the corruption and cronyism of nineteenth century democracy and trade, he believed that the principles of liberal Enlightenment thought were basically wrong. Like many German Idealists, he sneered at the petty economic success of Britain, seeing it, as Napoleon did, as “a nation of shopkeepers”.
At the end of the nineteenth century, Britain felt that, as Jeffrey Tucker said, “where there is commerce there is peace”. Several decades had passed since the Napoleonic Wars without any major military conflict. Classical liberal Enlightenment values of individualism, limited government, democracy, free trade, etc. seemed to be working a charm. However, the German view, fed on a diet of Hegel, Marx and Nietzsche was very different. There was the prevalent idea, for example, that too much peace made for weak men – virile German men should be warriors and revolutionary heroes, not shopkeepers.
There are different ways of expressing this difference of outlook. One is by contrasting the “Enlightenment” (instigated by the British, especially the Scottish, the French and the Americans) with the “Counter Enlightenment” exemplified mainly by the Germans but also the French (and that great Dane, Kierkegaard). Another is by invoking Romanticism as a reaction to the so-called Age of Reason. Another is by identifying different versions of secular humanism: liberal humanism vs nationalist and socialist humanism.
Using the somewhat anachronistic terminology of the Wheel of Babylon, we can describe this as an ideological clash between Muggles (Enlightenment) and Muppets (Counter Enlightenment). A nation of shopkeepers is really a nation of muggles, or as Tolkien would put it, a nation of hobbits. A nation of Wagnerian heroes is really a nation of muppets, or Fighting Spirits (as they are usually translated from the original Tibetan Wheel of Life).
Muggles and muppets have different psychologies. A successful muggle is promoted to Diva status. They get rich and even better, rich and famous. They drink fine wine and go to the opera etc. An unsuccessful muggle is demoted to Addict status. They gamble their money away and get hooked on drugs and alcohol. Muppets feel nothing but disdain for the whole muggle “charade”. They would like nothing more than to get all the greedy capitalist divas against the wall and to blow up the filthy bourgeois opera house. Successful muppets (like Lenin and Hitler) become destructive Demons, whereas the unsuccessful ones become Victims. (See the Wheel of Babylon diagram on the Home Page).
The Great War of 1914 was a war between British muggles and German muppets. The Russian Revolution of 1917 was a dramatic takeover by Bolshevik muppets. The street fights in Italy, Spain and Germany between the Reds and the Blackshirts were muppet fights. The horrific battles (such as the Battle of Kursk and the Battle of Stalingrad) fought on the Eastern Front between Nazis and Communists in the Second World War were muppet battles.
So anyway, back to Marx’s famous definition of religion. The “people” or “masses” that Marx is referring to are basically muggles in a muggle world. They are ordinary folk going about their business, spending time with their families, going to the pub, etc. Some are rich and some are poor. But rich and poor alike (but especially the poor) are blissfully unaware that they are really just cogs in a capitalist machine, partly because of the distractions of religion. Remove the pacifying, soporific effect of religion and everyone would inevitably wake up and smell the coffee, awaken their revolutionary spirit and overthrow the system.
This is the classical Marxist story. Marx felt that the world of “getting and spending” inhabited by muggles was both superficial and unjust. Society was divided into the “haves” and “have nots” and people were alienated and unfulfilled. If this sense of injustice and emptiness could be harnessed, revolution was inevitable. He wanted to make proletarian muppets out of proletarian muggles. But this was only possible if people’s deepest spiritual longings were unfulfilled, in other words, only if religion no longer worked.
Secular humanism is the modern “religion” that has supplanted Christianity across the Western world. It is the materialist religion of the Wheel of Babylon, where muggles have the possibility of becoming divas. However, those who don’t buy the empty promises of liberal secular humanist capitalism (as they see it) become muppets and dedicate their lives to political activism. But they are still on the Wheel. No amount of activism or revolution, no amount of dead muggles (75 million in World War II; around 100 million all told under Communism (according to the Wall Street Journal (Satter, 2017))), will satisfy the human longing for spiritual fulfilment. The longing is merely displaced.
Without religion, the secular humanist muppet wars will continue indefinitely. Everywhere is war. Internecine war between muppet factions (like The Judean People’s Front and The People’s Front of Judea in Monty Python’s Life of Brian), the larger ongoing culture war between muppets and muggles (currently Woke vs Anti-Woke), and then of course the ultimate war for the soul of the world, between secularism and religion, which is essentially a War on God.
Britain is no longer a Christian country. Callum Brown, in The Death of Christian Britain, marshals a mass of statistical data which clearly shows that Christianity has lost all semblance of cultural hegemony. It is fashionable to say that we are all “post-Christian” now, but what we really are is Secular Humanists (apart from small pockets of “private religiosity”), members of a new modernist religion of muggles and muppets, where “salvation” is only to be found either in a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow or on the barricades at the end of civilisation.
“Man shall not live on bread alone” (Matthew 4:4) or even on bread and circuses, but neither shall Man live on blood alone. Political activism and bloody revolution will never make up for the spiritual shortcomings of a secular world. Ultimately, it is only the bread and wine, the “body and blood” of religion that can satisfy the human heart. Religion is the psychedelic of the people and people cannot live fulfilled lives without it. Who knows? Maybe we will find a way out of our secular nightmare when psychedelics are the religion of the people!