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Stuck in Big Idea mode again as I’m proofing the manuscript for Voices of Unbelief. I’m likely to share a few more bits of that project as I do.

I included a sidebar about Karl Marx’s “opium of the people” remark, which is almost always stripped of context. Let’s zoom out a bit:

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.

As long as the human condition is characterized by oppression and suffering, says Marx, religion will blunt the pain, as medicinal opium did at the time. So he’s not completely decrying it. But zoom out a bit further and he 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.

Now there’s some nuance I can get with.

For most of the people on the planet, for a hundred reasons, life is more painful than it is for me. Before I demand that they give up their pain reliever cold turkey, I need to do something about the pain itself. That’s why I think improving the human condition is THE great humanist project.

In the meantime, I think of liberal religion as the methadone of the people — oh so much better than the original addiction, and a therapeutic step toward the cure.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.