Religion is the opiate of the masses.” In a single, swift turn of phrase, Marx had created a credo for the secular left. Opium, of course, is the drug of addicts; addicts cannot see beyond their chemical dependency. But if they were to lock themselves in a room and face the cold sweat withdrawals of truth, the addicts could be freed from their affliction. The veil of ignorance blinding their judgment would be torn away. Rationalist sobriety saves.
But what if irreligion is the true opiate of the masses—what if unbelief is the valium of the self-professed valiant?
The ontological arch of modern political liberalism’s prehistory can be traced to the figures of Michel de Montaigne and Blaise Pascal. The great dialectical struggle between reason and faith, instantaneous joys and eternal bliss, predates Marx, and even Enlightenment secularism, by centuries.
Because sixteenth-century France was roiled by sectarian bloodshed, Montaigne averred, without ever formally renouncing his faith, that life’s guiding principle in the public sphere must be “immanent contentment”—that is, various pursuits of pleasure. Everyone was to become a hobbyist or a dabbler, never taking himself too seriously and flitting gaily from one pursuit to the next. If sixteenth-century Renaissance humanism was in some respects a dry run for the historical materialism that came to predominate modern thought, seventeenth-century Baroque literature and art was in many ways the precursor to the great Romantic religious revival of the early nineteenth century that echoes into the present.
Pascal is famous in modern eyes for his “wager”—that by betting on God you have nothing to lose and everything to gain. But there was more to Pascal’s thinking than that. Pascal’s greater philosophical “wager” was not just that we should bet on God, but that, ultimately, thoughts of eternity—whether of eternal life or infinite nothingness—could not be avoided, no matter how hard we tried to distract ourselves with amusement.
“We do not need a greatly elevated soul to understand that there is no real and solid satisfaction here; that all our pleasures are only vanity,” Pascal tells us in his “Letter to Further the Search for God.”
In the same letter, he goes on to characterize two kinds of atheists: the true searchers, we might call them, and those who indulge in the opiate of thoughtless unbelief.
The immortality of the soul is something so important to us, something that touches us so profoundly, that we must have lost all feeling to be indifferent to knowing the facts of the matter. . . . Thus our prime interest and prime duty is to become enlightened on this subject, on which all our conduct depends. And that is why, with respect to those who are not convinced, I make a sharp distinction between the ones who labor with all their power to inform themselves and the ones who live without being troubled or thinking about it [emphasis mine].
Is there really any doubt, in a world where you can order dope to your doorstep and access porn from your smartphone, which kind of de facto atheism our society has embraced? Is our society not by and large religiously illiterate, or “indifferent” in Pascal’s word, to arguments such as those of Aquinas in his Summa Theologica proving the existence of God? The French word divertissement, the word for “entertainment” in English, also contains the Latin root for “diversion”; “to turn away, divert, make a detour, digress.”
Unbelief is the actual opiate of the masses. By tuning in to diversionary pleasures, we are actually tuning out; we are all addicts of the momentary rush of dopamine that sundry amusement, from jogging to drug use, gives us.
Every time I crack open a beer on a Friday afternoon, I recognize Montaigne in myself; and every time I lie awake at night racked with worry, I imagine Pascal’s Pensees, his tormented thoughts, have become mine.
Perhaps it's time for a paradigm shift in the way we think about God in the modern secular West. After two centuries in which religiosity has been widely seen as the “opiate of the masses,” it’s time to turn the screws on the comfortably agnostic and atheist. The intellectual laziness is theirs. As Pascal says: “Let us reflect . . . and then say whether it is not beyond doubt that the only good in this life lies in the hope of another.”
Kurt Hofer is contributing editor at the European Conservative.
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