Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Placebo Politics

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.

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.
- Karl Marx, Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, February, 1844

In context, Marx's so-called "opiate of the people" comment sounds downright compassionate. Given how the view of opiates has evolved over the last 160 years, a more up-to-date translation might call religion the placebo of the people.

A sugar pill works if you think it works, and if it doesn't, then no harm to anyone else.

Writers like local columnist Katherine Kersten (who is probably more responsible than any person on earth for this blog because her writings so consistently drive me over the edge of publishable letters to editor into inchoate raving... see?) are free to call Pope John Paul II "an icon for young people" and detect "an outpouring of religious interest among young people, at a time when popular culture emphasizes pleasure-seeking, and elites view religious belief with suspicion" — and the temperate nonbeliever says, well, yes, isn't it pretty to think so?

But the intemperate nonbeliever wants to shout: See?!! See what she just did? She tied liberals — because we know "elites" doesn't mean pious multi-millionaire corporate executives like Ken Lay or beneficiaries of wealth and privilege like the Bush family, Pat Robertson or Richard Mellon Scaife — to irreligious pleasure-seeking.

Kersten goes on, of course, in case you're harboring the mistaken view that religion could have anything to do with real life:

The Rev. William Baer, rector of St. John Vianney Seminary in St. Paul, who will lead Lahti's group [on a pilgrimage], explains it this way. John Paul II's great insight was that today's young people, though searching for meaning, have little interest in clichéd, '60s-rooted notions of spiritual "relevance."The Holy Father offered this generation of young seekers a truth and a spirituality that go back centuries in the Church," said Baer, and they snapped it up.

Yes, God save us from the clichéd, '60s-rooted notions of Pope John XXIII, Karl Rahner and Teilhard de Chardin. Let's go right back to medieval times for our guidance. But still, no great harm there.

Until religion establishes itself in public life and the conduct of the state, oy!

The extreme wing of believers acquires what it desires in this world (power, pleasure, freedom, repression of others) and justifies it as the product of God's will. And whatever thwarts them is the work of activist judges, over whom God presumably holds no sway. For these folks, who present humility but secretly believe themselves the true elites, religion is neither placebo nor recipe for relevance. It becomes the crack house whose residents are feeling high, while the surrounding community suffers the resulting pollution, the muggings and the smash and grabs.


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