When Karl Marx said “religion is the opiate of the masses” (or the “opium of the people”) he was referring to the idea that powerful politicians and corporate leaders rely on religion to keep the public complacent about social injustice and political corruption. Genuine spirituality, as opposed to religious dogma, doesn’t make people politically unaware and docile. However, when religion is misinterpreted as meaning the individual should live in denial and ignore the outer world, or when it becomes virulently authoritarian and anti-intellectual, it can create a passive, easy-to-manipulate populace.
Today some traditional religions and non-traditional “pop religions” promote the idea that it’s not spiritual to pay attention to politics or be politically active. Some who embrace pop religion say it’s ideal to focus exclusively on the inner world where love is the ultimate reality, where thoughts help shape reality and where life is experienced as peace and bliss. They say the way to create a better outer world is to focus only on the inner and help create a new paradigm based on spiritual perception. This failure to pay attention to the external world does cause religion, or spirituality, to function as an opiate.
I think the view that it’s ideal to focus solely on the inner world at the expense of the external is based on basic misunderstanding of the root meaning of spirituality. Enlightenment isn’t about an either-or, black-or-white false dichotomy. Instead it’s a matter of embracing “both-and,” understanding paradox. Years ago I attended a lecture by the Sufi Pir Vilyat, and he mentioned that living in alignment with spirit involved “keeping one eye on the telescope and the other eye on the microscope.” It’s the ability to live with paradox that really keeps one aligned with spirit and the deep psyche.
There’s no inherent contradiction between keeping an eye on politics (the microscope) while at the same time keeping the other eye on the interior world (the telescope). All world religions are subject to misinterpretation, and Christianity is no exception. We could focus here on lack of clarity among followers of Buddhism, Hinduism and other worldviews, but in the interest of brevity here’s just one example of a common misreading of the teachings of Jesus. Some people cherry-pick Bible quotes and claim Jesus admonished people to serve only one master, or “render unto Caesar,” but he also purportedly made a big political point of challenging the corrupt Pharisees and Sadducees and vigorously evicting money changers.
The Gnostic Gospels have Jesus saying real enlightenment comes when you “make the inner the same as the outer.” Living in that paradox—not ignoring or pushing away the material world, but encompassing both that and the spiritual world—means having whole rather than partial awareness. The world definitely needs a new paradigm, but I don’t think that can be achieved by turning a blind eye to the old one.
What I’m talking about isn’t just abstraction, or mere words, but a vivid and palpable reality—one that’s complete and not partial. It has to do with integrating the two worlds, the material and spiritual, and being attuned by being non-judgmentally aware and awake to both-and. Most traditions include the idea that what people push away persists. It’s the “resist not evil” injunction, and it works in this situation, too. Not paying attention to the political world is that very kind of resistance. Being stuck in the political world is one thing, but staying aware and paying attention to it is another.
The end result is more love and increased mindfulness. The words about the experience of living the paradox aren’t ultimately about those words, but about the wisdom behind them. When people let religion or spirituality make them apolitical and anti-intellectual—averse to paying mindful attention to the political world and deeply understanding paradox—then religion/spirituality does serve as an opiate in the way Marx warned would allow corrupt political leaders to easily manipulate the public and dominate the world by default.