Christianity is the opiate of the masses according to German philosopher Karl Marx. Many of us around the country will hear this phrase uttered during Christmas celebrations by our nephew, on break after his first semester at college. What your fresh revolutionary means is that the powerful use Christianity as a way of keeping the population dumb and pacified. But this is not what Marx meant. His claim was much more interesting and nuanced. He writes,
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.[i]
By opium, Marx meant that which allows one to live with a chronic disease without curing it. To Marx religion was, in the words of one author, “the wrong answer to the right question.”[ii] That assumes that the hope placed in God is a dead hope that does nothing, of course.
But is it the wrong answer? Countless others have come to the opposite conclusion recently in one way or another, including the agnostic historian Tom Holland, environmentalist Paul Kingsnorth, storyteller Martin Shaw, and Muslim-turned-atheist-turned-Christian Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Though their journeys are different, what each of them has in common is an implicit rejection of Marx’s critique. Christianity does not offer a dead hope, but the only hope of life there is.
Tom “Not Spider-Man” Holland found in Christianity the genesis of Western values worth holding onto, such as self-sacrifice, protection of the vulnerable, and that it is better to suffer than to cause suffering. These values did not begin or exist in some golden, classical past of Greece or Rome, which he found out after setting out to prove just that. After the evidence was laid bare before him, it seemed he could see it clearly for the first time.
Today, even as belief in God fades across the West, the countries that were once collectively known as Christendom continue to bear the stamp of the two-millennia-old revolution that Christianity represents. It is the principal reason why, by and large, most of us who live in post-Christian societies still take for granted that it is nobler to suffer than to inflict suffering. It is why we generally assume that every human life is of equal value. In my morals and ethics, I have learned to accept that I am not Greek or Roman at all, but thoroughly and proudly Christian.[iii]
Environmentalist, poet, and former pagan/Wiccan Paul Kingsnorth was long troubled by the fact that unrestricted “freedom”—which is just the freedom to abuse rather than the freedom to create flourishing—fostered greed and the ecologically destructive hyperconsumerism. In Christianity, however, he found the freedom to create flourishing. He writes,
In the Kingdom of Man, the seas are ribboned with plastic, the forests are burning, the cities bulge with billionaires and tented camps, and still we kneel before the idol of the great god Economy as it grows and grows like a cancer cell. And what if this ancient faith is not an obstacle after all, but a way through? As we see the consequences of eating the forbidden fruit, of choosing power over
humility, separation over communion, the stakes become clearer each day. Surrender or rebellion; sacrifice or conquest; death of the self or triumph of the will; the Cross or the machine. We have always been offered the same choice. The gate is strait and the way is narrow and maybe we will always fail to walk it. But is there any other road that leads home?[iv]
Author and mythologist Martin Shaw, like Lewis and Tolkien before him, is a lover of story, myth, and indeed, true myth. He understands that these forms of communication are the oldest forms we have for telling the truth about reality. When we lose these forms of connection, we lose an integrally human part of ourselves. There is something about a story that can cut to the quick of the matter and show its true meaning more quickly and astonishingly than any other medium. And it is the openness to story that leaves us open to seeing and understanding more, much more. Shaw, for instance, saw himself in a story of the Old Testament, and all of reality was illumined for him.
What I’ve learned through many years of wilderness vigils is that it’s a Jacob wrestling with the angel kind of situation. You have to be gloriously defeated. You have to be made lame in a fashion. A decent laming will serve you much better than many petty victories, because it’s something you will never forget. It reminds you of your appropriate shape in the universe, which is on one knee, or both knees. There’s a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke that talks about it. It says, in essence, that the trouble these days is that our successes make us small, because they’re so small. What we long for is to be like the wrestler in the Old Testament, and desire to be beaten by a greater power.[v]
Research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and popular former New Atheist, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, is deeply concerned about justice and culture. And that is precisely why she has found Christianity so compelling. Ali cites several existential threats as reasons for her recent conversion: “the resurgence of great-power authoritarianism and expansionism in the forms of the Chinese Communist Party and Vladimir Putin’s Russia; the rise of global Islamism, which threatens to mobilise a vast population against the West; and the viral spread of woke ideology, which is eating into the moral fibre of the next generation.”[vi] The atheistic chant to the world that “God is dead!” is insufficient to answer the threats we face as a civilization, she writes. But it was perhaps another existential threat that was the deepest chasm to cross.
Yet I would not be truthful if I attributed my embrace of Christianity solely to the realisation that atheism is too weak and divisive a doctrine to fortify us against our menacing foes. I have also turned to Christianity because I ultimately found life without any spiritual solace unendurable — indeed very nearly self-destructive. Atheism failed to answer a simple question: what is the meaning and purpose of life?[vii]
Ali found that in the nihilistic vacuum the West created by rejecting God, many and great idols have moved in like squatters in an abandoned house. To her, the rejection of Christianity made GK Chesterton’s famous prediction into a true prophecy: “When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.”[viii]
It seems that Christianity is not the wrong answer to the right question but is the right answer to all the questions. All questions betray a deep, ancient longing for something that can only be found in Christ.
And yet, the question of questions—the one Marx asked—remains: what about suffering? Another inquirer, the controversial psychologist Jordan Peterson, had an interesting insight into this question during an online conversation with the atheist comedian Stephen Fry (who was brilliant in Black Adder, by the way). During a certain part of their discussion, Peterson began reciting to Fry some words he had written in the past. Fry had been asked what he would say to God if he met him face to face. Essentially, Fry said he would respond by saying ‘how dare you?’ to a God who would create such things as bone cancer in children. Fry, of course, does not believe in this God, but if he did exist, he would have a lot of explaining to do. But Peterson, now having gone through his own deeply personal suffering, doesn’t like this argument:
So, let’s take the argument you made there. And there’s a direction that goes in that’s nihilistic and resentful and vengeful and angry, and all understandable, … it doesn’t look to me like there’s anything good in it. It looks like it’s entirely counterproductive. It makes the problem it purports to have been generated by worse. So then the question is, what’s the appropriate attitude given that the argument you make is actually an extraordinarily powerful argument? And I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know that resentment and anger and even the motive that would make you want to say that to God himself, I think that’s probably not helpful, even though it’s so …
Perhaps quizzically but not uncharitably, Fry began to laugh at Peterson’s suggestion. Peterson pauses and begins to speak rather emotionally and from a state of deep, personal understanding of pain, and the bleakness that comes with blaming and rejecting God in moments of suffering:
It came to be with great difficulty. I mean, I’ve had my reasons to be resentful and angry, especially recently. And because I’m suffering a lot of pain, it makes me resentful and angry and wanting to shake my fist. But I found upon intense consideration that there was nothing in that that didn’t make it worse and that therefore that must be wrong even though it’s justifiable.[ix]
In CS Lewis’s The Problem of Pain, Lewis embarks on a pathway of answering the problem of pain and suffering by making a few key arguments about the audacity of the Judeo-Christian worldview, which looked at the natural world—which can seem frightening and intent on mauling us to death—and see the loving goodness of our Creator God. Intellectually, we cannot remove God from the equation when lamenting pain and suffering without making pain and suffering both meaningless trivialities. After all, we should expect nothing else from a godless world, Dawkins tells us.[x] But let’s expand upon this.
Without God, there is no reason to believe the world should have, should be, or will be any other way. Christianity is the only worldview that actually makes pain a real problem, and that is good news for Christianity. You see, Christianity first tells us that the world should not have been this way, which means that our intuitions that something is wrong are correct. Second, it tells us that things should be some other way, meaning it gives us not just moral values but moral duties, moral oughts. It also gives us a moral lawgiver that stands outside of us and does not allow us to tweak morality to fit our whims, and a moral judge who holds us accountable to these standards. These are necessary for real morality to exist. And lastly, it tells us that it will one day be another way, which is both an encouragement to bring heaven to earth and a certain amount of peace in knowing that all wrongs will be made right in some unfathomable way in the world to come. And so, as Lewis concludes,
To ask whether the universe as we see it looks more like the work of a wise and good Creator or the work of chance, indifference, or malevolence, is to omit from the outset all the relevant factors in the religious problem. Christianity is not the conclusion of a philosophical debate on the origins of the universe: it is a catastrophic historical event following on the long spiritual preparation of humanity which I have described. It is not a system into which we have to fit the awkward fact of pain: it is itself one of the awkward facts which have to be fitted into any system we make. In a sense, it creates, rather than solves, the problem of pain, for pain would be no problem unless, side by side with our daily experience of this painful world, we had received what we think a good assurance that ultimate reality is righteous and loving.[xi]
What the figures above have wrestled with is, among other things, chaos and the suffering it brings. They have sought to find bright spots and the Source of their brightness. God reaches us all in unique ways, and “apologetics” looks different to each person surveyed above. But ultimately to them, as to us at Embrace the Truth, and everyone else, we receive the same answer to many of the why questions. It is the same response Job received. It is the same response my mother received after the death of her 17-year-old son, my brother. It is silence. But not just any silence. It is a pregnant silence, a silence full of God’s presence, his incarnational love, the longing and waiting for his Advent. As Lewis wrote in Till We Have Faces,
I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice?[xii]
Christianity is not the opiate of the masses. It soothes, yes, but not through a numbing of the senses. Christianity is, as its people were called to be, the salt of the earth. Salt was used in the ancient world for taste, as a preservative, and as a fertilizer, and so it is a metaphor for creating shalom in a disordered world. Christianity, as salt, creates flourishing, stability, and delight, and in so doing it draws down heaven to earth, even if just for a glimpse at God as he passes by, even if just for a taste of the good Lord. From the reflections from agnostics and former agnostics above, we see that it is doing all of these things: it creates a flourishing culture; it preserves what is worth preserving of morality and civility; it promotes love and understanding and peace with all of creation; it gives life meaning and hope and fullness. It will do much more than that in the end, of course, but what it offers us here and now should not be passed over so quickly.
The masses are tired of opiates that soothe through numbing and offer no solutions. The prodigals grew up and are waking from their benumbed slumbers and looking again to the mocked king from Galilee. They have set out on a quest of discovery and are asking once again, as all ages eventually do: “Who is this man?”
[i] Karl Marx, “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right,” originally published in Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher (February, 1844). Accessed November 16, 2023, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/critique-hpr/intro.htm.
[ii] Peter Thompson, “Karl Marx, part 1: Religion, the wrong answer to the right question,” The Guardian, April 4, 2011, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2011/apr/04/karl-marx-religion, accessed November 17, 2021.
[iii] Tom Holland, “Tom Holland: Why I was wrong about Christianity,” New Statesman, September 14, 2016, Accessed August 13, 2020, https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/religion/2016/09/tom-holland-why-i-was-wrong-about-christianity.
[iv] Paul Kingsnorth, ”The Cross and the Machine,” Paul Kingsnorth, July 2021, https://www.paulkingsnorth.net/cross.
[v] “Mythologist Martin Shaw Converts to Christianity,” The Anselm Society, June 2, 2023,https://www.anselmsociety.org/blog/2023/6/2/mythologist-martin-shaw-converts-to-christianity.
[vi] Ayaan Hirsi Ali, ”Why I am now a Christian,” UnHerd, November 11, 2023,https://unherd.com/2023/11/why-i-am-now-a-christian/.
[viii] Widely attributed to GK Chesterton. Oxford Essential Quotations reports that while it cannot be traced to Chesterton’s written works, the first attribution of it is linked to Chesterton. According to them, it is ”first recorded as ‘The first effect of not believing in God is to believe in anything’ in Emile Cammaerts Chesterton: The Laughing Prophet (1937).” Oxford Reference, accessed November 16, 2023, https://www.oxfordreference.com/display/10.1093/acref/9780191826719.001.0001/q-oro-ed4-00002890.
[ix] PhilosophyInsights, ”Jordan Peterson Confronts Stephen Fry on ‘God is an Utter Maniac,‘“ YouTube, May 18, 2021, 13:28, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EVSZrnxRO3o.
[x] “In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the prperties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evila nd no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (New York: Basic Books, 1995),133.
[xi] CS Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 2001), 14.
[xii] CS Lewis, Till We Have Faces (New York: HarperOne, 2012, orig. 1956), 351.