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Karl Marx famously observed that religion is the “opium of the people.” But the phrase is almost always stripped of the context that makes it interesting.

In 1843, Marx said:

Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.

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.

Karl Marx, “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” (1843)

As long as the human condition is characterized by oppression and suffering, he says, religion will blunt the pain, as medicinal opium did at the time. He’s not simply decrying it—he’s decrying the need for it.

Pull back further and Marx makes his position even clearer—that the pain relief of religion is ultimately a hallucinatory happiness that keeps humanity from seeking the genuine good:

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.

For most people, for a hundred reasons, life is more difficult than it is for me. I have layers of privilege protecting me from most of that pain most of the time, layers of security. But none of us escape the pain all the time. I think the pandemic brought this home to a lot of us. We felt our vulnerability in a new way and more acutely registered the vulnerability around us. I know I did.

A lot of this vulnerability stems from the fact that we are so profoundly unsuited for the world in which we live.

The natural instincts you possess are not intended to help you survive while traveling at 70 miles an hour in a metal box, surrounded by other great apes doing the same thing. It’s not meant for a 24-hour news cycle that informs you every day of chaos and death in every corner of the world. It’s not adapted to social media that inundates you with messages of approval and disapproval from hundreds of people every day. It’s not even adapted to making good decisions while standing in front of an open fridge. And the gap between the world we were adapted for and the world we live in is increasing with blinding speed.

As it result, it’s getting much harder to be human.

Just a thousand years ago, 50 generations ago, we lived at the center of a comprehensible universe made just for us, about 6,000 years old, small enough to fit inside what is now known to be the orbit of the moon. We were specially created in the image of God and given dominion over the earth, including animals to whom we bore no relationship other than master. Most of us lived in small communities in which we knew most of the people around us, who also tended to look and act and speak like us.

That’s a very different world.

Today we are just one animal among many, surrounded by an unfathomable number of diverse strangers, clinging to a ball hurtling through a random corner of a universe that is 13.7 billion years old, with properties so bizarre that only a few specialists can grasp it.

Now it’s easy to ignore most of that. The whirling ball is an abstraction. But the rest of modern life is harder to ignore. The philosopher Marshall Berman listed elements of what he called the “maelstrom of modern life”:

Industrialization creates new human environments and destroys old ones, speeding up the whole tempo of life; immense demographic upheavals sever millions of people from their ancestral habitats, hurtling them halfway across the world into new lives; cataclysmic urban growth throws together the most diverse people and cultures…

Marshall Berman, All That is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity

He wrote that in 1980, before the Internet, social media, 24-hour news. “Maelstrom,” pfft. He had no idea.

Less ignorable than the whirling ball is the crushing anxiety and uncertainty and unfairness and loneliness and vulnerability of daily life in an alien world, a world for which we are not adapted. To our Stone Age brains, this is all terrifying, alienating, anxiety-producing.

Our situation is not okay. It’s hard, and unacceptably so.

So we declared it untrue and wrote a better story. I am loved and protected, and Everything is Part of a Plan, even if I can’t see it. When I die, fingers crossed, I will live in eternal bliss, reunited with those I’ve loved and lost.

See? Much better story.

I never felt the need for that story. I’ve been protected by things like regular meals, shelter, money, education, parents who were not authoritarian, health care. I never had a fundamentalist religion forced on me. Religion didn’t invent the terror of being human, but it’s designed to stoke those embers, then offer itself as the solution.

Now religion is declining, fast. It’s dropping fastest among people under 30. Our kids are living in an increasingly secular default.

And too many of us who see religion as just a bundle of false claims are looking at those numbers and saying <dust hands> job well done! The kids are all right.

The kids are not all right just because they are secular. As a nonreligious parenting author, this is the alarm I’m sounding right now. Multiple studies have shown that rates of depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders have been rising among young people in many parts of the world.

Removing a bad solution doesn’t remove the problem. When they are born with Paleolithic wiring and thrown into late-stage capitalism and climate disaster and all the rest, our kids are going to find either a solution or the door.

Patches on the abyss

A lot of us are absolutely mystified that so many Millennials and Gen Z, after finding their way out of religion, have flopped right over to astrology and crystals. Between 40 and 62% of Gen Z give at least some credence to astrology.

It should not mystify us.

I have a beloved friend of 30 years, someone I just adore, who is deep into every imaginable kind of pseudoscience—Reiki, crystals, astrology. Consumed with it. Years ago, she was telling me about a prediction her star chart had made that came absolutely true—then she did something she had never done before: She asked me, “Don’t you think that’s too much to be a coincidence?”

It was a direct question.

My first sentence was, “How can you not see that this is complete bullshit?” followed by many sentences eviscerating the whole foundation of astrology.

When I was done, she looked at the floor for a minute, then said quietly, “It helps me.”

Shit. My heart sank. It helps me.

Here’s the thing: She comes from a deeply difficult background of abuse and addiction. I do not. She lacked a lot of the protections I had growing up. Astrology orders her world. It gives her a feeling of control. I think it’s a bad solution—but it’s a solution. If I yank it away without offering anything else, the problem remains.

Not everyone in Gen Z has abuse and addiction issues, but they are all confronting a world that is increasingly impossible to deal with. Helping them and ourselves find solutions to that problem should be our main focus.

We seculars tend to bang on about “25 reasons prayer doesn’t make sense” instead of addressing the problem of loneliness and powerlessness and vulnerability and alienation that that bad solution is meant to fix.

So what should we be doing?

The heart of a heartless world

The first time I heard what I eventually came to think is absolutely the answer to that question was at a convention in 2007. British filmmaker and science activist Matthew Chapman (who is also Charles Darwin’s great-great grandson) had just finished a talk. I’m sure the talk was great, but I only remember his answer to an audience question afterward. Why do you think Europe rapidly secularized after the Second World War while the US remained devout?

He paused, then he said, “Honestly, I think socialized medicine had a lot to do with it.”

Not the answer we were expecting.

We wanted to hear that the robust intellectual life of the continent combined with seeing the horrors of the war up close to make people abandon religion.

No. Among many other things, you’d have to explain why religious observance and belief went way up after the First World War.

For most of the history of our species, he said, we’ve been haunted by an enormous sense of personal insecurity, and for good reason. The threat of death or incapacity was always hanging over us. Religion offered a sense of security, the illusion of control, of being cared for. Once the states of Europe began to relieve some of those basic fears, people began to feel a greater sense of control and security, and the need for traditional religion began to wane.

The spike in secularism in the UK begins right after socialized medicine was introduced around 1950. And you know what else started in the 1950s? A plummeting suicide rate.

This is now the accepted explanation among social science researchers. Traditional religion is driven by human insecurity. If you want people to let go of religion, don’t give them your shiny arguments—help them feel secure. Help them feel safe.

Before I demand that they give up their pain reliever cold turkey, I need to do something about the pain itself. That’s why improving the human condition is the great humanist project.

In the meantime, for those who suffer the pain of being human more than I do, things like astrology and crystals and other pseudoscientific beliefs might serve as the methadone of the people—still addictive, still not good for us in the long run, but less toxic than the original addiction, and perhaps a therapeutic step toward the cure.

Dale McGowan is chief content officer of OnlySky, author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies, and founder of Foundation Beyond Belief (now GO Humanity). He holds a...

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