Religion…is the opium of the people.
Karl Marx [Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, 1843-4]
Marxism is sometimes seen as a secular alternative to religion. Indeed some would argue that it is the major secular religion to have emerged in the last century. Karl Marx saw religion as both an expression of human distress and a means of disguising its true causes, and so he argued that it was the opium of the people because it offered them happiness that was not real but an illusion (Hinnells 1984a:205).
The great architect of Communism would have us believe that people seek an escape from reality via religion, which offers a social anaesthetic from the ills and evils of life. Addictive religion might be, but not for the reasons Marx puts forward. It is not without irony that religion (particularly Christianity, both Orthodox and Western) is witnessing a renaissance throughout Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union in the wake of the collapse of Communism, as a newly liberated people rediscover the life-changing capacity of religion, and existing believers emerge from their chrysalises of covert worship and fellowship.
Edmund Burke said in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) that ‘man is by his constitution a religious animal’. The same theme is echoed nearly two centuries later, by Yi Fu Tuan (1976:271-2), who pointed out that ‘religion is present to varying degrees in all cultures. It appears to be a universal human trait. In religion human beings are clearly distinguished from other animals’.
Given that this human trait is universal, and that it leaves indelible fingerprints on so many aspects of society, landscape and environment (as we saw in Chapter 1, pp. 2-7), it is important to reflect on what religion actually means (in theory and in practice), how it is expressed, and how it functions in the modern world. This is our task in this chapter.