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The Pessimism and Optimism of Religion

September 23, 2011

At Feminist Mormon Housewives, nat kelly had a post regarding religious addiction and disaffection. Of course, the titular “Religious Addiction” part is an allusion to Karl Marx’s idea of religion as opiate of the people (the idea and meaning of which nat investigates further in her article.)

Karl MarxI don’t know what it was (…probably the fact that nat kelly is awesome), but the article got me thinking about a lot of things, and I had a moment of insight that I wanted to write down, but I didn’t think would be 100% on focus with where she wanted to go with the article. (I nevertheless wrote a comment with my thoughts anyway, because I am a terrible person.)

The first thing I got to thinking about was the idea that sometimes, religion can become a source of pain rather than a painkiller. And isn’t that interesting, especially when contrasted with Marx’s quote?

When the promises of religion start to break down – when religion becomes a matter of guilt, of obligation, of massive cognitive dissonance – congregants leave. We find our painkillers elsewhere – new salves to make this mortal journey bearable. For some, that is in intellectual pursuits, for some it is in destructive substance abuse, for some it is in physical activity, or spirituality outside the realm of religion; for some, it is in alternative communities, like our own pink pages here.

Consider the situation: Marx considered religion to be a way for people to cope with the suckiness of their lives…but for some, religion becomes a source or contributor to that suckiness, to the extent that some people have to disassociate or disaffect to cope.

But that wasn’t the only thing I thought about.

nat wrote:

Marx of course, atheist that he is, believes that religion should fall away as economic suffering is eradicated. But his perspective still really resonates with me.

But the interesting thing about this is that this isn’t just something that Marx “believes” as an “atheist”. This is an empirical question. Do we see that, as nations or individuals become more economically secure (particularly if central institutions like governments can implement social nets), secularism rises?

Without trying to post data to answer the empirical question (protip: look at Europe), I’ll take a long theoretical detour and say that even the Book of Mormon posits this idea (although from a negative point of view): it’s the pride cycle. As the people become more prosperous, they stray away from religion, which causes their downfall and humbling.

At this point, I tried to work out why theoretically this should work out like that, and interestingly enough, I came up with two processes of thought, based on two very different conceptualizations of religion and faith. After coming up with those two conceptualizations, I realize that one big issue is that people aren’t all on the same page when discussing what religion is for. There is a pessimistic and an optimistic approach.

The Pessimistic Approach

When Karl Marx talks about religion being the opiate of the masses, he assumes a pessimistic understanding of religion (but as nat points out in her article, it’s not the same pessimistic understanding that many people misread Marx as having.) The pessimistic grounding for religion is that there is something about our earthly life that sucks. But not only does it suck, it is irredeemable. Maybe it’s the fact that human beings suck and our behavior toward ourselves and each other sucks. (This is what is implied when people say human nature is fundamentally broken, that humans have a sin nature, etc.)

Because earthly life sucks and human beings suck and there’s not much we can do to change it, we will get nowhere by hoping for change here. Instead, what we should try to do is not focus so much on the here and now and instead hope that something bigger and better than we are can make things right or make us right. This is the concept behind salvation, being saved, etc.,

Marx then, views religion as opiate of the people because it is a way for people to dull the fact that humans and life suck. Because the source of the pain cannot be removed, instead we have to hit the symptoms of pain by focusing elsewhere.

In the pessimistic approach, the idea of faith comes because one doesn’t know that there will be a cosmic force to “right” things. Since one cannot trust on humans to do it ourselves, we need to find a way to hope for something better and bigger than us to do it for us. This medicine works as long as we can believe in God enough to find it a plausible place to put our hope in. So, when Nietzsche declares God to be dead, he writes that something has caused a shift in public consciousness so that we are no longer able to reasonably put our hope in the God idea (and with that comes the collapse in the foundation of all sorts of other-world-affirming values.)

The Optimistic Approach

One thing that I see in a lot of discussions is a desire for religions to focus more on the here and now than on an afterlife. But until now, I took for granted that they were arguing from a similar grounding for what the point of religion should be. Now, however, it seems trivially clear that this framing works from a polar opposite foundation.

With the optimistic approach, there is still something about human life that sucks. But the optimism comes into play because instead we do not assume that whatever sucks is irredeemable. In other words, even though humans are jerks to each other, perhaps it won’t take divine intervention alone to make humans be less of jerks to each other (or, barring that, provide comfort for those who were victims in this life.)

So, the hope isn’t for an afterlife to fix everything and provide the justice that was so missing in this life. Rather, the hope is that we can create institutions to improve people and improve society, that we ourselves can practice values that change our nature to something better. We can choose to follow commandments, to repent, and so on. Religion isn’t about dulling the pains of modern life we feel today with an emphasis of an ideal future, but about focusing us laser-like on the pains we feel today so that we are inspired to work at solving these problems. The goal of a religious communities is to provide a stronger arm (like a “corporation”) for solving life problems than individuals or small groups would be able to accomplish.

So the faith is profoundly differently focused. You just have to hope that human nature (or the other problems of earthly life) can be reformed on the ground, so to speak.

So, why would religion decline with economic stability? Why wouldn’t it?

From here, both of the religious outlooks, pessimist and optimist, provide slightly different theoretical backgrounds for suggesting when religion would naturally recede or advance.

From the pessimistic approach, religion declines in popularity when people are economically stable because those people no longer have a major source of pain (economic destitution) that needs to be killed. (And they say that money doesn’t buy happiness?) However, even in this system, this doesn’t necessarily mean that religion would be completely vanquished. After all, there doubtlessly are other sources of pain in life than economic ones. You can be well-off or financially stable but still feel pain because everyone you deal with is a jerk. (If human nature is still fallen, then that’s going to be the case regardless of whether people can pay the bills.)

As for the optimistic approach, religion declines in popularity when people are economically stable because the job for religion is “done.” For example, if one job of religion in the “here and now” (assuming that mortal conditions can be changed with elbow grease) is to help the poor, then if and when the poor are helped, then that calls for a Mission Accomplished.

Yet, there could be other things in mortal life, once again, for religion to “improve.”

…but once again, whichever view point you take, what’s interesting is that because humans are humans, there are very real cases where religions succumb to being part of the problem they either wish to address or whose symptoms they wish to numb.

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  1. Awesome post. I am going to seek out some Marx to read this weekend.

    Religion doesn’t just decline with economic stability. I think it also has to do with technology and scientific knowledge… (All comments based solely on my opinion…) I read a ton of science fiction and the future almost always shows future worlds and cultures growing out of religion.

    Religion and God tend to be used to explain the unexplainable.

  2. kiley,

    That’s a good point, but I think I can actually fit some of that in with my general hypothesis. After all, one of the big instances of “the unexplainable” that religion has tried to address has been things like sickness, disease, and death. What technological advance and science do is solve the root causes of these things (think of all the diseases that have been eradicated. Literally wiped off the face of the planet.)

    I’ll say that even here, there is a “gap.” I mean, of course there are still quite a lot of diseases (many of them horrific, and seemingly incurable.) And there’s still death (which remains as a universal fact for everyone.)

    …but now, I think people have more time and energy to focus on ills of the mind and of existence. In a world where life isn’t AS fragile as it once was (but it is still plenty fragile), we still haven’t gotten all that far into explaining things like our nature, our purpose, etc., We have neurology and psychology that are beginning to explain why we do the things we do and think the things we do, but there are still a lot of unexplained questions.

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