This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

This Dark Age is now available in paperback on Amazon. The print version is MUCH cleaner than this online version, which is largely unedited and has fallen by the wayside as the project has grown. If you’ve appreciated my writing, please consider leaving a review on the relevant paperback volumes. The print edition also includes new sections (Military History, War Psychology, Dogmatic Theology).

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Marx’s opium and American Christianity

“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

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, which is provided above.

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 where 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 America, 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.

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 where 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 mega-churches—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 where their god is dead. In such cases, we find the opiate religion.

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