Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.Karl Marx, 1843.
I was born in a county hospital deep in the rural Pineywoods region of East Texas. My mother—aged sixteen—was the daughter of a Missionary Baptist Preacher and electrician—in the southern backwater country where Evangelicalism dominates, pastoring is a part-time job. Sixteen months later, after spending her eighteenth birthday in the same county hospital giving birth to my brother, she began the process of “turning her life back to Christ.” Of her own volition—as she insists—my mother apologized to her parents and the church in front of the altar, shaking, to around all thirty or so congregants. They forgave her and formed a line between the pews to hug her. We attended services every Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night. She married my stepfather, a logger, and soon after, the two became youth pastors at our church. On Saturdays, there was typically some sort of group project for the church to work on—mowing an elderly member’s lawn, helping a newly married couple renovate an old house they’d purchased—if anyone needed money because of illness or unemployment, the church would be happy to help. It was the type of sophisticated autonomous organization and mutual aid I would later develop a retrospective admiration for as a young Marxist. Life in this 40-or-so member congregation consumed much of my childhood. Still, there was a strong sense of comradery, solidarity, and communalism that has become increasingly rare under consumer-capitalism, as I would quickly discover.
I remember distinctly—when I was aged eighteen or so—a friend of mine bringing me to her parents’ church in the county seat, which lies around thirty minutes away from where I grew up. We sat at a cafe downtown, smoking cigarettes. She was stressed over the possibility of losing her job as a nursing assistant. The area’s population had nearly doubled since I was born, and the same county hospital I was born in was being privatized, sold off to the “non-profit,” organization Catholic Health Initiatives. Rumors of layoffs were circling. Her mother was on the phone, demanding that she attend services at their local Assembly of God church to—among other things—pray for her job security. When we arrived, we entered the giant stucco building and paid $5.99 for Hazelnut lattes. I smiled to myself, thinking of the time my church had debated the ethics of allowing the Youth Group to hold a benefit yard sale in the church parking lot, ultimately deciding that participating in commerce on church grounds was an affront to God, seeing as the gospels had so clearly documented Christ overturning the money changers’ tables in front of the Temple.
Inside the sanctuary, it was crowded, and no one seemed to know each other very well. The music was hip and contemporary, people wept and burst into tongues, something I was not used to hearing (as a Baptist). During one particular song, when everyone except for me were raising their hands, an elderly man nudged me. He motioned for me to do the same, as though my lack of participation in this gesture of oneness would somehow demystify the experience for the rest of the congregants. In some sense, I suppose it might have. The gesture was, after all, merely a gesture. Here there was no real solidarity or community; only two hundred disparate, atomized souls gathered to consume expensive coffee and collective transcendence, if only for an hour and a half, one who had come to ask God to shelter her from the tides of privatization and austerity. She wept cheap mascara down her cheek, then tried to brush it away. In doing so, she created a cross. Poetic enough to make you believe in God again, if only for a moment.
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Of course, it is not very surprising the precarious, the victims of austerity, the workers, depend on God for the hope of material preservation, but material depravity is not the only depravity religion serves to alleviate. A few months ago, I witnessed a middle-aged man in his thirties being roasted on Twitter for claiming to have—with much prayer and help from God— overcome his struggle with “SSA,” or “same-sex attraction,” a term commonly used by proponents of so-called “gay conversion therapy.” The attacks were pretty brutal, and although I had accepted my sexuality and abandoned religion at a relatively early age, I understood his frame of mind and knew how deeply he must have been hurting. The insults hurled at him were petty and cruel, and almost exclusively hurled by seemingly “woke” people and self-proclaimed empaths who had clearly no first-hand experience with the strict Evangelical subculture, no real empathy, no real understanding of emotional oppression, no matter how often they talk about it. Feeling uncharacteristically emotional that day, I clicked on his account, sent him a short message which said something to the effect of “I’m sorry people are being unkind. If you need anything, message me back. I understand what you are going through.”. In his bio, listed after the typical evangelical “Jesus 1st, husband, father,” etc., was a link to his blog titled Stocktrader4god.
I stared at it for a long time, feeling a mixture of first anger, then amusement, then finally a deep sadness which colored the rest of my afternoon. Having been raised by parents who believed stock trading was gambling—and therefore a sin—it was shocking to see. But again, I felt sympathy. I saw this man’s embrace of religion and application of it to his occupation not as a cynical attempt to create a sort of moral laundromat for the truly exploitative act of stock trading—as some might expect—but rather as an attempt to construct meaning that extends beyond one’s position as a market actor in a society where it is increasingly impossible to do so, even if such a construction came at the expense of denying his own sexual proclivities. As Karl Marx said in Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right:
“Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.“
This quote is often misunderstood. The term Opium of the People is often interpreted to mean that religion functions simply to placate the workers, and therefore must be destroyed in the interest of some future revolution. This is incorrect. Religion gives individuals meaning, purpose, and—most importantly—hope in a directionless society plagued by scarcity, deprivation, and atomization, and to destroy religion in a society in which these attributes still exist is to simply reassign the functions of religion elsewhere. If this idea is applicable even for a bourgeois closeted homosexual, then it must be even more true for workers, both for my friend—whose church provided no real material support or solidarity—and for my parents, whose dying breed of a church did. Of course, not everyone is religious in the traditional sense, a fact which is becoming more and more true as time goes on. So then the question becomes: what happens when the opium is gone? Austerity and atomization are pain for the disaffected, and simply taking away painkillers is not doing someone a kindness if all it leaves behind is the pain.
Around a year ago, I discovered a podcast called “The Life After,” a project by Chuck Parson and Brady Hardin about leaving fundamentalist Christianity. I was intrigued. The podcast deals heavily with the concept of “deconstruction” and “reconstruction.” I interviewed Hardin, asking him to define these concepts. He defined them as the process of picking apart one’s previous beliefs, and rebuilding a new belief system. I joined the member-only Facebook group associated with the podcast and began to look around. The general tone of the posts is often “woke” and liberal. When I asked Hardin about this, he said:
“Primarily, what is calling people to question (their faith) right now is the treatment of gay people or women. A lot of people were abused or know someone who was abused, so a lot of these things are empathy-based. A lot of people in the community are bonding over the trauma. So naturally, I think a lot of people are going to be hyper-fixated on that sort of thing which perhaps leads to some of them being more of [sic] that woke culture.”
I recounted an incident I witnessed where a woman in the group posted a lengthy statement—which gained a lot of traction in the 2,000 plus member group—accusing Parson and Hardin of hateful misogyny for a Patreon advertisement in which Parson plays a character “Megan,” with a stereotypical “Valley Girl” accent. When I asked Hardin for comment, he said: “I do see with the more performative woke culture a lot of people, who it seems haven’t really dealt with their own shit yet, sort of recreating some of the same sort of cancel culture (in the church) that was once used against them… anytime you have a community with 1,000+ people in it online, you are going to have a lot of people with insane beliefs or convictions, but also some who question your own, perhaps unconscious biases, and you just have to decide which hills you are willing to die on.”
Obviously, this issue was not a hill in which the podcast’s creators were willing to die on. They issued an apology on the Facebook group and promised not to use the advertisement in the future. He pushed back on the idea that this specific incident was a cancellation, noting that their response was essentially:
“Okay, we understand, we hear you, now let’s learn together from that. Whereas cancellation culture and woke culture bullshit is all like “Oh, you trampled over my sacred cow, now I’m going to discipline you for it. And you have all these hidden, sacred cows just waiting for you to step on.”
Nonetheless, I cannot help but feel that the embrace and execution of social justice dogma, which seems widespread among the podcast’s followers, has become something like new opium to fill the void left by religion. One that is perhaps even worse because it serves to divide the working class and oppress them evermore—the fentanyl of the people. It serves all the same functions as religion: providing a framework for social relations, a common enemy, a duality of good and evil, purpose, community, hope, even if it is a hollow kind of hope. In other words, you can destroy religion, but it will only replicate itself in other forms. There will always be an opium of the people because the functions the opium serves are a product of the depravity, both social and material, produced by the society itself.
In our interview, Hardin also noted that he knew a number of people in the community that had even turned to Witchcraft as a form of the reconstruction as well, but that most of them he had spoken to had admitted to him that this too was a placebo.
I asked Hardin how he was filling the void, what his reconstruction looked like. He told me he had embraced a form of secular humanism informed largely by the writings of Joseph Campbell, a mid-century literature professor whose essential thesis is that the themes in nearly every culture and religion are essentially the same, and if he had to imagine a goal for humanity it would be something along the lines of the Star Trek Universe, where racism and sexism have been abolished, and no one wants for anything because “replicators” provide for the general material need of everyone, leaving them time to simply explore.
It made me smile. I explained that like him I was gay and when I finally grew tired of repressing my sexuality and left the church, the most influential author I read, apart from Marx, was David Mitchell, whose experimental novel, Cloud Atlas (2004), is essentially six loosely interconnected stories, all of which are written in a different style, setting, and genre, but share the exact same themes and whose protagonists seek to overcome humanity’s fundamental problem, articulated throughout the novel, perhaps most poignantly in the phrase “The weak are meat, the strong do eat” (p. 508). I also admitted that I had never watched Star Trek but that what he articulated was essentially the classical view of communism—a utopian post-scarcity economy with a state which provides for the material means of all, built by workers seizing the means of production (otherwise referred to as socialism), an idea promoted most recently, and somewhat controversially, by Aaron Bastani in his book Fully Automated Luxury Communism. We ended the conversation in agreement that in order for any “reconstruction,” to work, it must be built upon hope, not just for one’s self, but for the future of all humanity.
After our interview Hardin reached out to me, saying he was interested in learning more about Marxism and wanting to know which of Marx’s writings he should start with. I happily gave him my recommendations and let him know I’d be happy to answer any questions he might have about them. It seems that even after all these years, my inclination to proselytize remains, and perhaps in my heart of hearts, I am still an Evangelical of sorts.
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I could have simply said that communal Christianity was dying, being commercialized, and replaced with bible-coded capitalism and woke culture and self-help witchcraft amidst an ever-commodifying culture rife with meaninglessness and austerity. I could have cast my teenage mother, my weeping friend, the closeted stock trader, Brady, his listeners, all as anonymous political subjects. But to do so would be to negate their complexity and their humanity. There is a reason our ancestors told stories which have persisted well beyond their own lives, their governments, their own civilizations. These things are fragile and temporary. Empathy, guilt, fear, love, the quest for meaning and purpose, these things perpetuate themselves.
As for hope, I am not precisely suggesting that we treat Marxism as a religion. Although for better or worse (and likely worse) it always has always adopted religions most depraved aspects, with its long history of adherents flinging accusations of fundamentalism at some and heresy at others, its various factions—Marxism-Leninism, Trotskyism, Maoism, Titoism, etc.—all of which to varying degrees declaring themselves the one true church. But what do we have to lose? It is a sign of weakness on the part of Marxists that people have to come to our ideology via Star Trek. If people are searching for a framework, for a purpose, for a community, I would much rather them find it in Marxism than in the stock market, bourgeois identity politics, or Stevie Nicks-style witchcraft. Perhaps I am naive, but despite all our setbacks, I still believe that Marxism has a story to tell about the world, and a future worth fighting for.
It must be said that utopia is a future project, a hopeful one, something material to be built, something which we shouldn’t expect to see in our lifetimes. The utopia cannot be self-contained, even as though some might hope it could be. The anarchist fantasy which produced something like the Capital Hill Autonomous Zone, quickly crumbled into dystopia, complete with murder and rumors of Sound Cloud rapper warlords. Similar projects of ultra-insular and ideological mutual aid and cooperation that do not end as dramatically are often only mere distractions, carnival house mirror reflections of the folk communalism contained within my childhood church, which provided much for the psychic and material needs of those within but next to nothing for those outside.
If we Marxists can overcome our delusions, our narcissism, our pedantic differences, and tell a story worth telling, perhaps then we will be in a position to win converts. Maybe then we can begin building a utopia worth dreaming about.