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Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Marx, Opium, and not reading the whole book. . .

A few years ago, my curiosity piqued by the ongoing debate over intelligent design (an interesting idea inasmuch as even dedicated theologians have struggled for centuries with the disturbingly large body of evidence that is as indicative of malicious design as intelligent) I took a stab at actually reading Darwin's The Origin of Species. I was surprised to find Darwin an extremely gentle advocate for his own ideas -his tone is so carefully self deprecating, so literate, and so un-polemical that it stands in startling contrast to the often virulently ad hominem tone of his detractors. He comes across, in other words, as a nice guy, and one who was concerned to convey what he felt was the real beauty of evolution's miraculous proliferation of apparently inexplicable complexity of form and behavior:

"There is grandeur," he writes in conclusion, "in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whist this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful, and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."

I owe this rumination on authors taken out of context to a good friend who, in a recent email exchange on Orwell (we decided that of 1984 and Animal Farm, the latter is actually rather the more depressing) pointed out to me that the famous quote from Karl Marx, that "religion is the opiate of the masses," is actually a graceless and unjust excerpt of a longer remark that speaks of a tremendous compassion for the misery of humanity and a desire to find some solution to it. So, thanks Jesse, and here's the whole thing:

""Religious suffering 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.

"Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower. The criticism of religion disillusions man, so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses, so that he will move around himself as his own true Sun. . ."

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