Christmas Opium

The child who asks “Why can’t it be Christmas every day?” deserves an answer. For the leisured class, it might as well be; but for those who worry and scrape all year, the festive season means a lot. It is a time to indulge the traditional fantasy of harmony between the opposed interests of employers and workers, robber and robbed. A time of “peace and good will”, as people die in wars in the Middle East, Ireland, El Salvador, Afghanistan and Africa, in the quarrels of rival rulers. Nerve gas and plague are developed as weapons. One person dies of starvation each second, while food is destroyed to maintain profit levels . . .  and yet people’s minds are preoccupied with praising the glory of a “god” invented in the infancy of the human race.


Religion, which is not an inevitable feature of human society, generally rests on acceptance of unproductive and unprovable ideas: the existence of a supernatural power beyond our comprehension, of a supreme being with total control and of life after death, to compensate for the misery of life before death. The fantasies of an after-life have always reflected the favourite pastimes of the particular group who invent it. For example, the Red Indians had a “happy hunting ground”, and the ancient Greeks dreamed of Olympus, where athletic heroes could fight out their contests. This is because religion arose from the problems faced by human society in its attempts to achieve order and to control nature. We made god in our own image. The first gods were images of dead chiefs and warriors; the gods of the early Chinese were yellow-skinned and slant-eyed; while those of the negroes were dark-skinned.


Religion in general, and Christianity in particular, preaches humility, submission, self-contempt and obedience. It puts forward the most conservative view of society. The bible openly advocates slavery and offers compensation to the poor only after they are dead. On authority and freedom, it is explicit:


Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation (Romans 13, 1-2).


But it is on the subject of poverty that christianity really comes into its own. In Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical letters on the Conditions of the Working Classes, for example, there is a section on “The Poor Must Accept Their Lot”:


As for those who possess not the gifts of fortune, they are taught by the Church that in God’s sight poverty is no disgrace, and that there is nothing to be ashamed of in seeking one’s bread by labour.


Christianity will often be prepared to “speak up on behalf of the poor”; but when it comes to ending the difference between the class who produce wealth and their employers who possess it, the church is among the first to defend the status quo. Religion is based on fixed authority and stands in opposition to scientific knowledge and critical investigation. Above all, it opposes the mental revolution which is the necessary first step of the social revolution we so urgently need.


As the number of days until Christmas rapidly approaches three hundred and sixty-four, it is fitting that Karl Marx should have the last word:


Religion is the sign of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions . . . The abolition of religion, as the illusory happiness of men, is a demand for their real happiness. The call to abandon their illusions about their condition is a call to abandon a condition which requires illusions.


Clifford Slapper