Opiate of the Masses

Karl Marx called religion “the opiate of the masses.” If religions are the opiate of the masses then the faith-based religions are to heroin as the Greco-Roman gods and goddesses are to aspirin. The early pagan gods were punitive and reward based — if we please them then we’ll have a good harvest; if we don’t please them then we will not prevail in war. Like aspirin cures a headache, the early gods could cure droughts or stop enemy armies. Then along comes Christianity peddling its message of salvation at a time when people believed gods controlled weather and the outcome of battles. A simple message these Christians had, believe in Jesus as the son of God and you shall be granted eternal life; but not just any life, you’ll be granted life in heaven free of fear and privation. An intoxicating message, the promise of eternal life, especially to simple people who contemplate stars as gods capable of preventing droughts.

Simple people, with limited or no education, then contemplated this intoxicating message and changed the world they knew by developing codes of law, and forms of behavior that had not existed under paganism, bringing justice and fairness to a world that had none. The great Roman Empire touted science as proof of its greatness. Roman aqueducts carried water across miles of desert to irrigate crops and to supply their great cities. Roman engineers created cement that allowed the construction of great buildings, not just piles of shaped stone that tower like mountains in the desert, but baths, coliseums, and pagan temples that have survived until today. The Romans also destroyed whole civilizations with the inhabitants murdered or forced into slavery, and their laws permitted women and children, forced into slavery, as the sexual toys of the rich and powerful. Today we call it genocide because behavior like that of those Roman conquerors offends that sense of law developed from the faith-based religions.

When a scientist saw a falling red orb commonly served in pies, that scientist gave us the revolutionary theory of gravity. Sir Isaac Newton then took a prism, placed it in a darkened room, shone sunlight through a crack in a blacked out window and discovered the spectrum, but more importantly he created scientific method. The observation of natural phenomena, the development of a theory of the phenomena (hypothesis), the recording of those observations, and how those observations compared to the hypothesis. With the development of scientific method scientists revolutionized life on earth, creating machines of extraordinary capabilities; medicines capable of curing diseases that in the past killed millions, and generally made life more convenient, giving humans more freedom to pursue their interests rather than being preoccupied with survival from famine or war.

With the stage set religion and science have become diametrically opposed ideologies that continue in this perplexing battle that disprove each other based either on faith or scientific methodology. Christianity, the dominant ideology, stands entrenched behind dogma and centuries of sacrifice. Who could forget the thousands of Christians sacrificed to “the games” in the Coliseum when Nero needed a scapegoat for the great fire that swept through Rome? Or how barbarian pagans boiled and mutilated those tribesman seduced by Christianity’s promise? Science, the emergent ideology, rises from centuries of disease and privation with pasteurization and bathing to rid bacteria, with fertilization to help crops grow, with engineering to control floods and save water in time of drought and easing the sufferings of mankind. It seems then that God offers a promise after life, while science delivers during life.

However, the faith-based religions have created a residual ideology that is more important than our own ethereal survival. A residual ideology that teaches us that while scientists can create weapons so terrible that tens of thousands of lives can be destroyed in seconds, ethically, the price is worth the millions of lives that could be saved if using such a weapon ends a terrible war. Ethics, as a residual ideology born of faith-based religions and the philosophers who contemplated their importance to humanity, are as important to scientific development as Newton’s scientific method because greedy powerful men will use scientific inventions without caring who suffers.

Oppenheimer stated, after observing the explosion of the first atom bomb, “I am become death, destroyer of worlds.” Oppenheimer’s fellow Manhattan Project scientists, unchecked by ethics, created the neutron bomb, which the Soviets called “the perfect capitalist weapon” because it kills the people without damaging the stuff, but President Jimmy Carter, a peanut farmer from Georgia with a devout Christian ethic, refused to permit them being built in the United States. Ethically world leaders condemned above-ground nuclear bomb testing, because scientists had determined that fallout levels created by such tests were detrimental to human life. Maybe Karl Marx was right, and religion is just something to get us through a cold dark night, and maybe science is the panacea that can end the darkness forever, but without the ethics created by the faith-based religions science could very easily be “the destroyer of worlds” and of humanity.

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August 2007

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