Monday, 12 March 2018

The placebo of the people

In the Nineteenth Century, when Marx decided that religion was the opium of the people, some variety of organised religion was the one stop shop for all of most peoples' religious and spiritual needs. Now that organised religion has lost a lot of its (sometimes coercive) power across the more prosperous areas of the world, we have a new distinction, with increasing numbers of people identifying as "spiritual, not religious."

I've never been very impressed with this formulation, but it's only just occurred to me how useful Marx's famous quote is for clarifying the difference between religion and spirituality.

The thing about opium is that it contains an active ingredient which has a real effect in the physical world. Likewise, religion, as opposed to spirituality, also produces real-world effects, whether you believe in it or not. People actually get off their backsides and congregate together on a specific day and go through a specific ritual. They raise actual money to support good causes, or to propagate their ideas, or to build/renovate churches, mosques or temples, or to educate/indoctrinate children.

Religion has, for good or ill, a presence in society and creates objectively real things, from community cohesion (and sometimes exclusion), to some pretty stunning buildings and music, all of which undeniably exist the real world.

Spirituality, in contrast, is one of those things that might work for you, if you believe in it. So if religion is the opium of the people, then spirituality is the placebo of the people.