Bread And Circuses: Why We Need Them

We all know the quote “Religion is the opiate of the masses.” It’s a paraphrase from a work by Karl Marx. Most of us have no idea of the context or his intended meaning.

“…Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions…”
– Karl Marx, “Zur Kritik der Hegelschen Rechtsphilosophie”, written in 1844

The conclusion of the passage is that it’s not religion itself that’s the problem, but rather that intolerable conditions in the lives of the majority of people drive them to religion as a solace, much as a severe injury would drive a person to a painkiller. And, much as a person could become dependent on painkillers, sometimes pursuing them to the exclusion of living their lives, Marx believed that people would become (as it were) addicted to religion. And of course that would be a bad thing and the addiction should be cured, but first, he thought, we ought to fix their lives.

The observation of a metaphorical opiate of the people was not original to Marx; that figure of speech likely came to him from a work by Heine, who stole it from Novalis, who probably modified it from a contemporary work by the Marquis de Sade. It was originally used as a metaphor for ignorance among the general populace.

It’s perhaps not terribly odd that certain forms of religion and religious observance are commonly seen by the hyper-educated as coextant with microsocietal ignorance. Well-known examples include the beauty and richness of churches, particularly Catholic churches, in poverty-stricken (and therefore ignorant) areas. In the world of Islam, the Madrasas are known to be anti-American pro-terrorist centers with little teaching and much political indoctrination.* In the American “Bible Belt”, Fundamentalist churches are widely understood to champion social intolerance and attack science.

These are all myths, commonly held to be true by the so-called “educated classes” in America and freely promulgated by a sensationalist media. Not to say there’s no truth to them, but rather that the truth people know and the truth that’s real are far different.

For one thing, forgiveness is the primary tenet of Christianity. Without it, the faith would be dead, meaningless, quite pointless. And yet, people read about the extreme views of such groups as the Westboro Baptist Church and apply their judgement of them to the entire religion. The Westboro Baptist Church has 39 members, and has been described as an extended-family extortion society masquerading as a religious protest movement for the tax benefits.

Here’s some more for your reading pleasure:

  • “Madrasa” is an Arabic word meaning “school”. Every school in a country where Arabic is the primary language is called a madrasa. A list would include high schools and colleges (though not major universities). Several exist for the specific purpose of teaching imams, just as seminaries exist in Christian countries. However, the majority are basic schools that do not concentrate on religious indoctrination.
  • Catholic Charities USA is one of the most effective charitable organizations in the country, with 89% of its nearly five billion dollar annual budget being used for actual program costs. This doesn’t include such independent Catholic charitable organizations as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, which is even more effective (on a percentage basis).
  • The Salvation Army is well over 90%, and is one of the world’s most effective disaster relief organizations. Despite some bad press, it focuses on charity, not discrimination; though proselytizing is their stated aim, the overwhelming majority of their budget is spent on disaster relief, maintaining hospitals, and on relief programs.

By comparison with the religious charities specifically mentioned above, many well-known charitable organizations seem anything but. The Cancer Fund of America spends approximately 1% of their nearly hundred-million dollar annual budget on direct cash aid. The American Association of State Troopers spends three times as much raising funds as it does on any form of charitable or even collective assistance. The Firefighters Charitable Foundation spends 90% of its budget on fundraising. The International Union of Police Organizations, AFL-CIO, states that funds it raises will go to benefit the families of fallen officers; in reality, about half a percent of their fifty million dollar operating budget actually leaves their organization.**

These are hardly the only lies we’re told on a daily basis. Today on Facebook, I saw several supposedly factual posts condemning childhood immunization despite vast amounts of evidence of its safety. A reported 1 in 4 American parents believe that vaccines cause autism, even though the original paper has been clearly demonstrated as fraudulent, subsequent rigorous studies have shown absolutely no links, and (tellingly) the symptoms of heavy metal poisoning (presumably from mercury-based preservatives) differ widely from autism.***

Another commonly-believed myth is that President Obama was not born in the United States, and therefore is ineligible to hold the office of President. This originated as deliberate disinformation spread by viral email, initially by (it is believed) disaffected members of the Hillary Clinton primary campaign before the 2008 elections. A great deal of evidence exists that he was, indeed, born an American citizen in Hawaii, but in April of 2011, more than 20% of Americans polled believed that he was “probably born in another country”.****

Is there such a thing as “Global Warming”? I’d say “probably”, but in this country as well as several others, there exists a tremendous belief that manmade climate change is unlikely. The trouble is, the issue has been so highly politicized that there’s no real way left to know for certain except for the tried-and-true “wait and see” approach. Far more disinformation is spread on both sides of the argument by political action campaigns than information disseminated by actual scientists, and it’s likely that the majority of skepticism on the subject by research scientists is kept quiet — for political reasons. The best part? It’s commonly agreed among the people that study these things for the US Government**** that none of the effort that we’re making to decrease the sorts of pollution that would lead to global warming will have any measurable impact.

(Even knowing all this, I’d still say “probably”. There’s not much ice left up near the north pole these days. Trust me; I saw a picture on Facebook.)

And these are the things we elect to care about. Here’s what we don’t:

There are eleven major armed conflicts going on in this world right now. Nine (including the Israel-Palestine conflict) are being fought between factions which follow different branches of Islam or between Muslims and adherents to other faiths. In addition, thousands of people are being killed each year in the Mexican Drug War, and there’s ongoing fighting in eastern Ukraine. Oh, and all that aside, in March 2013, North Korea announced that it had invalidated the 1953 armistice with South Korea and that a state of war currently exists — and North Korea probably has missile-launched nuclear weapons.

We’re often told that America is the greatest country on Earth.***** In 2008, the US was ranked 17 out of 19 in the Human Poverty Index — and, if more countries had been compared, it would have fared far worse. One indicator is an approximate 20% rating of functional illiteracy. Another is the high percentage of people that would not live to the age of 60; we’re top on that list. We also have the highest percentage of our population that is below 50% of the median income. The International Centre for Prison Studies reports that we have the highest percentage of our population behind bars of any industrialized nation — and that number doesn’t include youth prisons, detainees at Guantanamo Bay (122), prisoners on native reservations, and a whole slew of other categories. The only nation which beats us percentage-wise is the island nation Republic of the Seychelles, which has a total population of fewer than one hundred thousand people, many of whom apparently rob tourists for a living.

To take just one of these that’s widely reported: Everyone’s talking about the wealth gap, not between man and woman, or black and white, but between rich and poor. Economic inequality as a percentage of total wealth in the United States is growing rapidly, and the United States is about average in the world today. And yet, Vilfredo Pareto in 1896 observed that 80% of wealth usually belonged to 20% of the people due to a sort of natural economic law; that distribution is still, roughly speaking, true.

What does all this mean?

I’ve come to the following conclusions as a result of collating this:

  1. Things are bad and getting worse.
  2. Americans are in a state of near-complete ignorance of this.
  3. A lot of the people who might care will never know, largely because they’re functionally illiterate.
  4. A lot of the people who actually can read seem to get their news largely from Facebook.
  5. People are willing to be passionate about their beliefs, but those beliefs have little to do with reality.
  6. Political ideology, not truth, is more likely to influence public policy.

So, having thus logically confirmed that we’re all going to hell in a handbasket, let me pose this question:

If religion is the opiate of the masses, and if things are really as bad as they seem, doesn’t that mean the masses need more religion?


NOTES:
* Deliberate misquote from an article in YaleGlobal.
** This data originates in an annual review conducted by the Tampa Bay Times, CNN, and the Center for Investigative Reporting.
*** There’s a dedicated post on this subject that’s on the way. In the interim, here’s one of many articles on thiomersal, for one thing.
**** A few days later, the number had decreased, just after a physical copy of the birth certificate had been released. More recent polling shows a rebound effect. Source: Gallup Poll
***** This summary paper released by NOAA in 2011 includes this conclusion. There are several others.
****** http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BJWKccHQFOA – an excerpt from the first scene of the show “The Newsroom”.

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