Forget Bill Maher, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. These atheists du jour have nothing on the most famous anti-theist of all time. Good old Karl Marx is still the most eloquent and thoughtful nonbeliever, and his "religion is the opium of the masses" is still the best one-liner in the business.
But as famous as that zinger is, it's too bad that most people have never read the sentences that come before and after it. Marx was a whole lot more sympathetic to religious faith than most people give him credit for. He saw religion as a source of solace that should only be abolished until the sources of people's pain -- an unfair economic system -- had been eradicated.
"Religious suffering, " he wrote in 1844, "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.
"The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo."
Marx wasn't just another hater of religion as a childish fantasy or a retreat from rationality. He saw faith as a symptom and not the disease, and he was interested in faith not in terms of right and wrong but because of what it told him about the human condition.
That's a far cry from the tenor of today's brand of assertive atheism. According to surveys, atheists make up only about 4% of the U.S. population, or about 5 million adults, who tend to be more educated and affluent than believers. But thanks to a slew of bestselling, God-debunking books and Maher's new film, "Religulous," in which the comedian lampoons religious beliefs, atheism has never had a higher profile in this country.
And, of course, you could ascribe at least some of the resurgence of assertive atheism to a backlash against evangelical Christians and the way they have assertively injected religion into civic life.
The fury of the debate between faith and atheism leaves little room for an inquiry as to why 90% of Americans say they believe in God or a supreme being and more than 40% say they attend religious services each week. These days, a typically silly argument between a believer and a nonbeliever revolves around whether religious extremists or godless communists murdered more people in the 20th century. Like so many other public debates, the one over religion is dominated by extremes.
A new study out of Northwestern University, perhaps without really meaning to, gets at something much more interesting. It starts to provide data and insight that add to our ability to understand what Marx was getting at -- not if there is a God and not whether it makes sense that humans should believe, but simply
The study, by psychology professor Dan P. McAdams and researcher Michelle Albaugh, was aimed at finding out about the religious sources of political leanings. They interviewed 128 devout Christians in and around Chicago, and they avoided the usual questions of "How do you know God exists" or even "Why do you believe?" Instead, they asked their subjects to describe what their lives and the world would be like if they did not have faith. In other words, what would the world be like if Christopher Hitchens were right and there were no God?
The study analyzes the results mostly in terms of political divisions. It found that politically conservative Christians described a godless world "as one of incessant conflict and chaos, expressing strong apprehension regarding people's inability to control their impulses and the attendant breakdown of social relationships and societal institutions."
Liberal Christians, on the other hand, had a different set of concerns. For them, a world without God would be "barren or lifeless, lacking in color and texture, an empty wasteland that would not sustain them" and in which they would feel lost.
All of the respondents generally imagined life without God as "entailing fear, sadness, interpersonal isolation and loss of meaning and hope."
The political findings are intriguing, but not nearly as interesting as the way the question and the answers it elicited get at deeper, core issues. It appears that we do believe out of need, but it's not, as Marx suggested, primarily because of material deprivation. Instead, it looks as if faith answers fear, and many different kinds of fear, which we can begin to delineate in some detail.
In the end, even these specifics don't intrigue me as much as this fact: Zero-sum arguments about faith and faithlessness just go round and round, generating heat and no light. It's better to return to real knowledge and fundamental questions. Rather than arguing over the existence of God, rather than playing believer-nonbeliever gotcha, we learn a whole lot more if we just keep asking ourselves -- in as many new ways as possible -- why it is that so many of us feel compelled to pray.