Is religion & spirituality opium of the people?

Yes, it certainly can be, if it’s used that way.

When Karl Marx called religion opium of the people, he talked mostly about organized religion. It’s true that organized religion often has been used to pacify people and make them accept unjust social structures. This is a well-trodden territory so I will only mention a few things about it, and then explore how it may apply to our own life.

The distracting and numbing function of religion and spirituality

In Christianity, people are taught to accept second-hand views as true even if they can’t verify it for themselves and it may not make much sense. Traditionally, people have also been taught to not question authority, to accept hierarchies, and to wait for their reward in the next life. Many religions have a similar history, and this is one of the ways religion is used to control people and protect those who benefit from the system.

This is often “invisible” to those within the culture because it’s so familiar, and that’s why contrasting traditions and outside views are valuable – and sometimes perceived as a threat.

This happens in society and culture in general, not just connected to religion. Why do we accept royalty? Because of tradition. Why do we accept that some accumulate wealth that’s taken from the commons and goes far beyond what any person would ever need? Because we are taught it’s OK and even admirable. Why do we have a fascination with celebrities? Because celebrities and media benefit from it, not because there is anything particularly fascinating about these people.

The comforting function of religion and spirituality

There are some benefits to the comforting function of religion and spirituality. At a personal level, we sometimes want – or need – comfort more than shaking things up. That’s natural and even healthy, although it’s good to be aware of what we are doing.

At a social level, this comforting function of religion can be used to justify injustice and protect those in power, and this is the opium Marx referred to.

Traditions can also shake us

There is another side to this, and that is that religion and spirituality can intentionally shake and wake us up. They can help us find and reprioritize our values. (Although the prioritization may be colored by the values of the tradition.) Some segments of traditional religions invite us to actively work for social change to benefit those in the weakest position in society. (Liberation theology and more.) Some traditions – like Buddhism, Taoism, Sufism – actively invite us to discover what we are behind our assumptions.

Religions and spirituality can also unintentionally shake and wake us up, and especially if we use them that way. They can inadvertently bring us to question the underlying assumptions behind the tradition, and by extension the assumption of other subcultures we are part of and the general culture. That’s what happened to me and some of my friends when we were required to take Christianity classes in elementary school.

In our own life

The world is our mirror, and these dynamics also play themselves out in our own life.

In a practical sense, that’s as or more important since it’s right here and something we can do something about.

Do I identify and question underlying assumptions in religion and spirituality? Do I use pointers from religion and spirituality to explore deeper?

Do I use religion or spirituality as opium? As something comforting? Do I use something from it to tell myself I’ll get my reward later? Or that a comforting idea is true even if I cannot verify it? Or that I don’t have to be a good steward of my life here and now?

In a broader sense, what do I make into my religion? What beliefs and identities do I feel I need to defend? How do I use these to feel safe or comfort myself?

Any thought I hold as true – whether it’s conscious or a part of my system holds it as true – becomes my religion. I identify with it, defend it, and hold onto it for safety.

A note about Marx

This is perhaps obvious but worth mentioning.

Marx had many very valuable insights. And he got an undeservedly bad reputation in the West – and especially the US – during the cold war since he was associated with the horrors of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union may have been communist in name, but not so much in reality. The atrocities of the Soviet Union had more to do with authoritarianism and dictatorship than communism.

Magic tricks

Off and on since childhood, I have been fascinated by magic tricks and how they are done.

First, there is the enjoyment of being baffled. Then, of learning how it’s done. And with the best performances, the enjoyment of recognizing the skill with which it is done.

In addition to this, magic tricks tells us something about the mind.

Good magicians are experts on certain ways the mind works and they use this to entertain and fool us. And when the secrets behind the tricks are revealed, we also get some insights into how the mind works. (See, for instance, Teller’s Seven Ways to Fool the Brain.)

Mainly, the world of magic tricks shows us how our minds operates on expectations and assumptions about the world, and that these are not always accurate. Most of the time, they are accurate enough and very helpful to us, but sometimes these assumptions break down. Assumptions won’t always be accurate, and magicians take advantage of this and – if we allow it – reminds us the fallibility of our assumptions.

Some even think that magic tricks are “real” magic, and that too shows us something about the mind. It shows us how our hopes and fears can hijack a more rational and down-to-earth view, and what happens when we don’t do sufficient research and lack knowledge about a topic.

A few sources I have enjoyed:

Hiding the Elephant by Jim Stenmeyer.

Penn and Teller: Fool Us – in addition to some googling.

A range of YouTube videos explaining certain tricks.

And there is also an increase in psychology articles on the topic these days.

Leaving no stone unturned

There is an important difference between mainstream psychology and inquiry: Mainstream psychology leaves many underlying assumptions unloved and unquestioned, and inquiry leaves no stone unturned.

Of course, it depends on the practitioner. I know psychologists who addresses even the most basic underlying assumptions and identities, and I am sure there are people using inquiry who don’t.

I assume that as inquiry and Buddhist practices keeps influencing psychology, there will be a change in how mainstream psychology operates. They may soon recognize the importance of identifying and questioning our more basic assumptions and identities.

What are some of these basic assumptions and identities?

I am X. (My name. Gender. Nationality. Occupation etc.)

I am X. (Personality traits.)

I am X. (Thoughts. Emotions. Awareness. Love.)

I am X. (A body.)

X is as I perceive it. X is findable. (The world. People. Objects.)

X is as I perceive it. X is findable. (Thoughts. Emotions. Sensations. Awareness. Love.)

X is as I perceive it. X is findable. (Space. Time. Past. Future. Present.)

There is a findable threat. There is a findable compulsion.

And more. Whatever we can name, which we usually don’t question.

Why is it important to leave no stone unturned? To leave no assumption unloved and unquestioned, even the most basic ones? It’s because these too are stressful beliefs and identifications. These too are limiting. These too are out of alignment with reality. These basic and underlying assumptions are what most or all of the other (stressful) assumptions and identities rest on.

Questions and their assumptions

Any question rests on assumptions.

So one resolution to the question is to (a) identify these assumptions, and then (b) examine them.

There are of course many other types of answers too, each one potentially helpful in its own way.

One question may be why did I lose my awakening?

Assumption: It’s lost. Question: Is it true it’s lost? Is it true it’s not here now? Can you find it in immediacy? (Even if it’s perhaps less strong, more in the background?)

Assumption: It belonged to me. Question: Is it true it is yours? Is it true it was yours in the first place? Is it true it belongs to a person?

And there are other types of answers. For instance….

It’s a very common experience. It’s here, then apparently gone.

Also, it may appear gone for a couple of different reasons.

(i) It’s here, but doesn’t look the way you expect. You associate it with how it appeared initially…. perhaps in the foreground, extremely clear. It may still be here, only more quietly and in the background.

(ii) As soon as identification (beliefs, velcro) returns, the clarity may appear to be gone. This is not a bad thing or wrong. It shows you what’s left. It is an invitation to meet these identifications with presence, love, and curiosity.

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He (she, it) doesn’t love me

When I trace back beliefs, I often arrive at a quite basic underlying belief:

He doesn’t love me.

She doesn’t love me.

My body, the weather, life, God doesn’t love me.

My room (where I am staying) is cold. –> They should provide heat. –> They don’t care about me. –> They don’t love me.

Noticing their love for me (whether they know it or not), it takes the edge of whatever is going on for me. They may notice they love me or not, they may do something about the lack of heating or not, and I may do something about it. And all that is OK, when I notice their love for me, and my love for them.

I also notice something else related to this.

When I meet parts of me with rejection – whether they are emotions, fearful images and thoughts, or physical pain – these parts, given a voice, tell me they feel rejected, isolated, lost, unloved, and not at home. And I feel that way, since these are part of me.

When I notice this, and instead welcome these, thank them for protecting me, thank they for their love for me, then these feel welcomed, understood (to some extent), recognized for what they are (protection, innocence, devoted to me, loving me), and loved, to the extent they are. And I feel that way, since these are part of me.

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