An excellent opium
Karl Marx’s immortal jab—that religion is the “opium of the people”—can only be appreciated when placed within a minimum of its original context:
“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.”
Here Marx was obviously criticizing society more than religion. He did not stand with the New Atheists, who view religion as a disease which, in itself, spawns evil in the world. Instead he suggested that the world has its own evils, and that religion had come to be adopted as a warm blanket in the face of a cold reality. An illusory warmth, to be sure—like a draught of whiskey on a winter night—but the important point is that Marx’s condemnation in this instance was not of religion as such, but of religion as an escape from reality.
For Marx the problem with religion was that it obscured important issues. It held out to the people a false happiness which, if embraced, could obscure the reality of social evils. Such an “illusory happiness” any sane man, atheist or not, would seek to abolish:
“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.”
Taken in this sense, the Marxian diagnosis is pregnant with two implications that are easily overlooked:
First, we are given no reason to believe that the diagnosis applies always and everywhere, but only to a specific case. Religion may, under certain conditions, serve the function of an anesthetic; but this is not necessarily the nature of religion itself. In those specific cases, when religion-as-anesthetic becomes the rule, we are to interpret this occurrence as an indication that “soulless conditions” exist in that society. In short, Marx is condemning a diseased society for using religion as a form of escapism.
Second, if we are dealing with a case in which a diseased patient is clinging to religion merely in order to delude himself and avoid the reality of his situation, then religion as it is in that specific case ought to be abolished, not because it is in itself an evil, but because it is being made use of in a perverse fashion. It is providing a veil behind which an illness is allowed to fester.
It occurs to me that this observation contains a timely insight which, properly applied, would allow us to disentangle the web of chaos, hatred, and confusion that surrounds religion in America. In fact, it allows us to take a somewhat novel position: by adopting the insight of Marx, we can make a case against religion in American, while at the same time defending religion in general. The essence of the argument involves making the distinction between diseased and healthy religion, and resembles the surgical necessity of removing diseased flesh so that new, healthy growth can take its place.
To borrow Marx’s words, we will argue against “religion as the illusory happiness of the people” in hopes that, in doing so, we can make room for an authentic religious life in a society for which that sort of life is not currently a possibility.
The life cycle of the church building
Because the most obvious symbol of religious expression in society is the church building, we might begin with a few comments on the church itself as an independent, dedicated structure.
As members of the “house church” movement are happy to remind us, the early Christians did not worship in churches—buildings constructed for, ornamented toward, and dedicated to, the celebration of a liturgy. They worshiped in homes, we are told. So far, so good.
We do not find actual “churches” until around the time of Constantine and the Edict of Milan (313 AD). Now, regardless of whether or not you accept the authenticity of Constantine’s conversion, or how you interpret its cultural significance, it is undeniable based on archeological research that it was during this period that the church-as-dedicated-structure began to appear.
And so, we can say without much room for debate that the church building represents the ornamentation of a society which has become thoroughly infiltrated by the spirit of the faith. It could not have appeared before this point, which is to say that the church is the “fruit-ion” of the long organic process of conversion, and it implies a preceding period of growth and cultural flowering, nourished by real and deep roots.
Such an architectural phenomenon was entirely appropriate to the Roman Empire of Constantine’s period, given its stage of cultural development. The construction of these buildings was proper to the society in which they appeared.
To this period we might also compare the Europe of the Middle Ages, which was even more completely saturated by the Christian religion, so much so that it has been given the name “Christendom.” As with the churches which appeared in the Empire of Constantine, the apex of Christendom gave birth to its own structures which were completely appropriate to its personality, and these we call cathedrals.
The point of all this is that the architectural expression of religion springs from the religious life of the civilization as a whole. Churches cannot arise before, or persist after, the religious spirit that gives them birth. Just as every church or temple grows up as the ornamentation of a living organism, so it ought to decay and disappear along with the cultural life that sustained it.
According to this interpretation, it is only natural to expect that with the dissolution of Christendom we should no longer see the construction of cathedrals. In fact, insofar as the cathedral persists in the absence of Christendom, it is an anachronism, of interest only to the antiquarian. Left without roots it can only ossify.
This brings us back to our present situation. No modern nation-state is culturally Christian (and this remains true regardless of what proportion of the citizenry professes the Christian religion). Nonetheless, in countries like the United States, we still see the proliferation of church buildings. In fact we’ve even seen the emergence of megachurches—a phenomenon which flies in the face of everything we’ve said so far.
If the church building was the final manifestation of a vigorously Christian culture, it ought to have been the first thing to disappear when that culture died out. That it did not do so—that churches and even mega-churches continue to rise on our horizon—demands an explanation. If these structures do not owe their existence of a living, religious culture, then what sustains them?—for by all rights they should be dead and gone.
To answer this question we must keep in mind Marx’s lesson: that religion under certain conditions can take on an unnatural form of life which has little or nothing to do with its normal purpose. Even dead religion, corpse that it is, may still be propped up in order to comfort or deceive those who will not accept its death, and who wish not to see the reality of a world in which their god is dead. In such cases, we find the opiate religion.
But in order for religion to be distorted and bent to such a purpose, its original end must be obscured.
In our case, this has been achieved by reducing religion to its use value. Once a thing is judged merely by its usefulness, it can be made us of for anything. Tocqueville observed long ago that religion in America almost immediately took on a utilitarian guise. Even among the clergy, he reported, virtue was not taught as something holy or beautiful, but as something useful to oneself.
Naturally the utilitarian attitude permeated government institutions as well. The common courtroom practice of “swearing in” the witness before hearing testimony is symbolic of the whole phenomenon: here religion—in the form of an oath on the Bible—is utilized in a way that does not imply any confession whatsoever on the part of the government itself regarding the truth value of the text. The book is used purely as a device to manipulate the conscience of the witness. A more spiritually patronizing situation is difficult to imagine, but it shows us to what degree a secular government can enjoy religion, not as good or true, but as useful. “Useful religion” then leads directly to the situation Marx condemned.
Religion is, etymologically, supposed to be a means of reconnecting with reality (re-legio). It is therefore a technique to be condoned or condemned based on whether or not it serves that purpose. But if the value of religion is reduced to its social use, both from the point of view of the believer and in the eyes of the government, then it becomes impossible to distinguish between uses that are proper and those that aren’t. As Marx perceived, religion can be very useful as an anesthetic, rendering society numb to injustice and compliant in the face of oppression. Such a use is, of course, the opposite of that for which religion is intended, but it is comforting to the believer and helpful to the State, and so both parties drink readily from the Dionysian cup.
Under these conditions, religion has ceased to “re-connect” its followers with reality, and instead it distances them from it. Religion becomes anti-religion; Christianity becomes anti-Christ.
What, then, is to be done? Various movements have appeared which, sensing the artificial nature of Christianity as it is, fight others and each other in favor of a particular form which they believe to be the ideal. On the Protestant side, this movement is represented by the migration toward the “house church.” At the opposite end of the spectrum, there are vocal Catholics for whom nothing but the Latin Mass will do.
The mentality that these two very different groups share is their insistence on formalism. They each believe that there is a permanent form of religious expression which is “proper” to Christianity, which has presumably been lost in modern times, and which must be re-instituted in order to return Christianity to health.
Neither of these groups seem willing to take into account the full implications of history as a process—one which contains no two moments that are exactly the same. They each deny the uniqueness, not only of person and place, but of time itself.
The idea that each time and place has its own organic idiosyncrasies, occurring in its period and its period alone, is something that they either cannot or will not take acknowledge when formulating their ideals. The “house church” was proper Christianity, and that is all its proponents need to consider. It is seductively simple, but extremely shallow. Again, one may say that the Latin Mass was the ideal form, in which case it becomes irrelevant where we are and who we are and when we are—all that matters is that we ought to conform to that simple norm.
Neither of these will allow for the possibility that what was a completely natural and appropriate religious phenomenon for the first-century or the medieval Church is no longer either ideal or even proper for 20th-century America. And to force such an alien form onto into the present is an act of violence.
Church, as a social phenomenon, if it is to remain valid and healthy, must ultimately take into account to the word-historical conditions of the people whose souls are to participate in it. At one time it would have truly been an offense against the European soul to demolish one of its Cathedrals; in our day it would be an offense to build one.
And yet we are still faced with the reality of the mega-church, and the thousands of other modern churches that continue to rise out of soil which we have declared sterile. On this point, at least, we can agree with both the traditionalist Catholics and the radical Protestants: these churches are unnatural; they should not be here. What are they?
The optimist might claim that the persistence of church buildings in the modern world is a triumph against the times, proof that the Church is immortal and “the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” That is flattering and noble. But it looks to the keen observer more like playing pretend. More and more isolated from political realities, divorced from the everyday life of the modern world, the church-goer of today tends to leave the sanctuary more naïve than when he entered. If something is happening there, it isn’t re-legio.
Within the church building itself he engages in strange activities. He volunteers for “ministries”—artificial supplements to the Christian diet, the necessity of which proves how impossible the believer finds it to live a normal Christian life outside the walls of the church. And because these activities are artificial, they tend to be redundant, and because redundant, also tedious. But the supplement must be taken, and new “ministries” must be invented all the time, lest the believer be left with the suspicion that the lifestyle he treasures is not a possibility for him.
This is why, in response to complaint that Christianity is dead in our government, we would be inclined to reply: “Yes, it is, but in the Churches it is un-dead.” It lives there within those walls, but it is a most unnatural life, hermetically sealed at best.
The post-Christian West has turned out to involve, not a return to pre-Christian barbarism, but instead an advance to a new kind of strangeness. It is the age of what Sam Rocha has dubbed “Zombie Christianity,” where Christianity does not go extinct but rather persists as an untimely abomination. It is really no wonder that Christianity is viewed with suspicion by the outside world.
Toward an organic expression of religious life
The principle argument of this essay has been that there is no normative form of religious expression, but only that which accords with doctrine and is proper to the men who is participating in it. Any number of arrangements can meet these needs, and an official building may or may not enter into the picture.
The church as a dedicated structure is appropriate only to those civilizations whose spiritual capital is such that it brings these out naturally, of its own accord. In secularized times, church buildings become not only artificial but misleading to both believers and non-believers. It is hard enough to discern the reality of our situation without millions of believers, stumbling-drunk on Marx’s opiate-religiosity, arguing to the contrary, congratulating themselves on their “Christian nation,” just because it allows them to go about their secular business with a good conscience.
We ought to recoil in disgust from the rising mega-church because, perceiving the absence of sufficient spiritual capital in our cultural substrate, we sense that its growth is unnatural.
Every church building in America is an anachronism. They ought to please only the antiquarian. To everyone else they should appear strange and even repellent. The fact that they are not recognized as such is evidence, not of some remnant of spiritual vigor, but of an unprecedented capacity for self-deception on the part of the American people.
This is why it would perhaps be the healthiest of possible catastrophes if somehow or another all the churches were razed to the ground. The believer would suffer, to be sure, just as the alcoholic suffers when his bottle is taken from him. But perhaps without his church walls to blind him, the believer would finally have to face with courage the cold discomfort of his world as it is.
Then and only then could he hope to conquer the real problems that oppress him; only then could he build something real and proper to himself, because only then will he have truly been “re-connected with reality.” He will have escaped the religion of Marx and re-discovered the religion of Christ. Perhaps he will find that a house church is indeed appropriate. So be it. Perhaps someday he will build a cathedral. But the point is that whatever he does will be authentic and natural—and it will be alive with his life.
 Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right