Religion is the opiate of the masses. This misquoted phrase from Karl Marx continues to be a hindrance to members of the left who seek to usher in a new and just world. Through this incomplete and un-contextualised quote, marxists, communists, and socialists have seen it fit, along with other more visible and tangible reasons, to make war on religion in an effort to emancipate the people. I am here to tell them, especially my comrades on the Jamaican left, that we need to halt such moves and instead seek to make an alignment with the religious figures and institutions which share our goals.
Before I go any further, some explanation is needed. I am an atheist. I cannot see myself ever partaking in some religious rite or praying ever again, but I am appreciative of the fact that most Jamaicans believe in a God, who they worship. I am also well aware, as most of the people I know, that the full quote is religion is the heart in the heartless world, it is the opiate of the masses and that it was the first part which Marx was addressing because then as now everybody knew religion was the people’s opiate but were unsure as to why.
But the biggest reason why I call for an alliance between us on the left and like-minded religious figures and institutions is because they exist, something history and modern reality has shown and continues to show. Be it the heretical movements pre-reformation which challenged the dogma and supremacy of the Catholic Church and society as a whole, the Ahmadiyya Muslim sect which sees there role, Arab Socialism (heavily inspired by Islam and eastern Christianity), Baathism (whatever ones views) or liberation theology, Rastafari and Islamic republicanism (Iran) in modern times, we see where religion and what are termed as ‘secular progressive forces’ have much in common.
Let us be real though, I am by no means discounting the reactionary and backwards forces which are apparent and are at times dominant in our religions at home. I am by no means saying that they all share our outlook, but there are for example priests who operate churches which openly welcome homosexuals. There are imams in this country who practice and preach equality among the sexes. There are small religious groups which not only engage in charity but also operate schools and clinics open to all.
These people are the opiate of the masses, the heart in the heartless world and it is incumbent on us to work with them where and when we can, so our unified vision of utopia can be achieved. We are unnecessarily handicapping ourselves when we continue to shirk away from the progressive elements of religion and the progressive persons involved in its practice. I am by no means saying we as groups should bow down to the dictates of the religious figures, we do after all differ on the type of utopia and even in some instances how to get there and where necessary we will part ways, but we cannot hope to influence a people so deeply rooted in religion by alienating not only the religions in whole but also the religious leaders who are actually sympathetic to us.
It must be noted in nations closer to home, Venezuela, and Nicaragua the revolution they are carrying out are very particular and include elements of religion, sometimes with open mass prayers. You have to make do with what you have, and we are a religious society, whether we on the left like it or not. We should be aiming to elevate people to a higher plain of thinking yes, but until then we need to be working with them to get an equal and just society.
Literacy programs are great places to politically educate people and most of the programs which aren’t state run are operated by a religious institution. Feeding programs, which can be integrated with community gardens, are often again funded, and run by some institution affiliated to a religion. The same holds true for health, housing and even recreation. The biggest name in community and youth outreach in the country, was and remains the YMCA and the YWCA both of which are religious based institutions (represented by the C in their names).
We would be silly to say that members of the religious fraternity do not share some if not all of our goals, greatly hampering our ability to do outreach and deliberately depriving ourselves of platforms we could be using to reach our target audience – the worker of Jamaica. Religious personnel decry the unjust banking practices, lament the plight our farmers face, decry the destruction of communal life and are more often than not on the front line in things like the PMI and Dispute resolution foundation, diffusing communal tensions.
Is it my cup of tea? No, not really but again we must make do with what we have at our disposal and even a handful of religious leaders on our side could make a world of difference when it comes to attaining our goals. While still taboo, topics like abortion and homosexuality have found champions in the church for example, helping greatly to create a more reasoned conversation around the topic and even bring some over to their side.
A Cuban style revolution is unlikely in Jamaica and that therefore rules out a possibility of banning religion. A Chinese revolution is equally unlikely and therefore the chance of having these religious institutions submit to the ideology of my fellow travellers is again unlikely. If we are aiming to attain power through the ballot box as has happened in Brazil, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia, then a tacit alliance with the religious bodies at the most or at the very least alignment with leaders who share our outlook is needed.
The latter nations are much like ourselves, poor and with a populace firmly wedded to religion. Rather than turn the religious people away they worked with them where they could, shunned them where necessary and promoted (give full support) members of the church who share their ideology. We must understand that the people have their opiate and have it for a reason, and rather than take it away from them while giving them no remedy to the pain they suffer, we should instead be administering the opiates in regulated doses so we have a sober body able to accept and make the changes which are necessary.
We forget why opium and morphine exists, and in so doing we again totally misunderstand the purpose religion can play in creating a new and just society. Opium exists not only to get high with, but to alleviate pain, the loss of a foot for example. Religion, while naturally used to oppress the masses, also serves as the one balm people have in a world which otherwise abuses them. It can and has been used for evil and repressive means (Franco’s Spain and Modis India come to mind) but they can and have also been used for liberation (as seen in the first Mexican revolution).
We must therefore use this thing, this idea which puzzles us, for our purposes or else it will be used (as we are already seeing) to build a society which is the antithesis of what we are aiming for. Let us not leave religion to the hand of those who would have us remain sufferers. It must be manipulated, as all things are, aided by people who are in the religious fields and share a similar world view to ourselves.