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Religion: an "Opiate of the People"?

by Dr. David Livingston

"Religion is one of the forms of spiritual oppression that everywhere weighs on the masses of the people, who are crushed by perpetual toil . . . Religion is the opium of the people. Religion is a kind of spiritual gin in which the slaves of capital drown their human shape and their claims to any decent human life." 1

Lenin and Marx both said that religion is the "opiate of the people." People who are religious usually reject this and say, "Impossible." But, if we know the context in which they spoke, we may agree that Marx and Lenin were partly right.

Religion as an "opiate" is an extremely important concept to understand. We will examine the reasons behind Lenin's accusation and how religion has been used as an opiate.

  • What is meant by "opiate"? An opiate is something that dulls, blinds, desensitizes, but gives a sense of well-being.

  • What is meant by "religion"? We will consider "religion" as man's attempt to formulate what he understands about God, man, and the universe.

When religion has been devised or manipulated by man to control people, it becomes a binding, blinding system. No doubt, this is what Marx and Lenin considered to be the situation in Germany and Russia.

An opiate in Russia: The "Third Rome"

How did Lenin come to such a radical conclusion? Prior to the Bolshevik revolution, the Russian Orthodox Church and the Czars had been in collusion to keep the people in bondage. The Czar had become the "protector" of the church and, in so doing, had it in his control. Thus, he could "use" Russia's most influential religious organization as a political tool.

Prompted by the Bolsheviks, the people under new leadership overthrew their rulers. But the Bolshevik leaders carried the attack to the extreme, developing an anti-religious system. They threw out the Czar's religion for their own means of controlling people, through non-religion or the atheism of Communism.

Investigating further, we find that the state-controlled church in Russia considered itself to be the "Third Rome." This was most useful to the rulers, for the church could be and was equated with the Empire in Russian Orthodox theology. That is, the great, universal kingdom of God was being established in Russia. To understand the hold Communism has on Russians it is essential to grasp the significance of church doctrine. Communists were themselves "using" a theology ingrained in the Russian people for hundreds of years.

We learn from Russian scholar Dimitri Stremoukhoff, that the theory of the Russian Empire was based on a misinterpretation of Scripture. Basic theories were worked out in the 16th century:

The theoreticians of the empire always based their work on the visions of Daniel, but they did not always acknowledge their sources or the identifications that they drew from them, because of the ambiguity of this notion of the last empire, which was sometimes considered as the Christian Empire and sometimes as that of the Antichrist.

In his epistle Against the Astrologers and the Latins, Philotheus (a Russian theorist) summarizes . . . Chapter xii of the Apocalypse about the woman dressed in the sun. The latter, according to the commentaries of Saint Andrew of Casarea, which were very widespread in Russia, represents the church. In speaking of her flight into the desert, when she is pursued by the dragon which spits out water in order to submerge her . . . Philotheus expresses himself thus: "the water signifies unbelief. You see, 0 chosen of God, that all the Christian empires are submerged by the infidels and the empire of our sovereign is the only one to exist by the grace of Christ."

In his epistle to Ivan IV . . . he declares that the woman dressed in the sun -- the Church -- flees ancient Rome (1st Rome) because the latter is fallen into heresy. She also flees the new Rome -- Constantinople (2nd Rome) -- because at Florence the Greeks joined with the Latins. She flees into the third Rome which is the new great Russia, that is to say, the desert, for it was empty of the holy faith, the divine apostles not having preached there, and it is only after all other countries that it has been enlightened by divine grace -- . . . , and now, alone, the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church of the East shines more brightly than the sun in the universe, and only the great Orthodox Tsar of Russia, like Noah saved from the flood in the ark, directs the Church. 2   Such is the apocalyptic image which enables Philotheus to legitimize his conception of the removal of the Christian Empire to Moscow, and which justifies, in his eyes, the title which he gives to the Tsar, that of "the only emperor (Tsar) of the Christians in all the universe."

The theocratic nature of the Tsar's power enabled the sovereign to keep his hand upon ecclesiastical affairs. 3

The Third Rome was in principle, universalist. The theory was that Moscow, in Russia, is the Third Rome and is the head of all the Christians in all the world. And that the Russian people were destined by the Creator, God, to be the ruler of the whole world. The Russians were taught this before Communism arose. It was basic church doctrine. The goal was to liberate the rest of the world, so all men could be subject to the great Czar of Russia, and come under his "benevolent" influence. The communists have simply exploited religion as distorted by Russia's emperor.

Russian Orthodox Theology Flipped To Communism

In an article written by another Russian, Arno Kolz 4, we see that national traditions were basic to Communist ideology:

Russian Orthodox religious teaching has always stressed cosmic over personal redemption. The duality of the City of man and the City of God was alien to Russian thought. God's immanence in history, as in nature, led to the conviction that the Eastern Orthodox Empire was to be transformed into the final heavenly kingdom. Thus, reliance on prophecy and a sense of historic mission, combining eschatology, and national aspirations are very old Russian traditions. It does not require too much intellectual or emotional adjustment to transfer this sense of mission into the Marxian framework, making the concept of the classless society the culmination of history. All the traditional elements are still present: universal, this -- worldly redemption, Russia's unique role and leadership, the attainment of an ideal society on Russian soil. Thus, Kruschev's boast, "We will bury you," had deeper roots than Communist ideology.

Similarly, in Russian tradition the Tsar was not merely wielder of the secular sword, leaving spiritual authority to the church and intellectual pursuits to academe but, as the "living icon of God," represented God's real presence in society and history. Today, the Russian Communist Party, through its leadership, claims to be the depository of all truth and to hold the key to the future. The "Party Line," as Orthodoxy before, consequently is infallible and ruthlessly enforced. Dissent is viewed at best as ignorance, at worst as treason. Education as encouragement for independent thought and judgment, as a search for truth and values, as stimulation for creative and humanitarian endeavors is, consequently, as lacking today as it was during much of Russia's history. Instead emphasis is placed on indoctrination, training requiring primarily automatic responses, and disciplines like the mathematical and most natural sciences, which rely heavily on application of learnt formulae.

Moreover, Tsarist autocracy was not primarily maintained by Cossack sabres and secret police, but much more significantly by the faith and loyalty of Orthodox believers. Similarly, the authority of the Communist Party rests primarily on the myth of its infallibility. Ironically, a bankrupt ideology must today serve as opiate of the people to keep the ruling clique in power. As a result, ideological indoctrination is continuing as a matter of high priority. How much the people believe their leaders is hard to determine, but it appears that a combination of devotion to their country and faith in the ultimate humanitarian claims of communism make the great majority of Russian people loyal supporters of the Soviet State. (Remember that this was written in 1968).

We can see in this how Communist thought derives from a distortion of God's Word. As man distorted God's revelation, and worked up governing theories, to control people through religion, they developed a system which Communists would later use. The Russian people have been taught for centuries that they were destined to rule the world. They were taught this by a church, which was in turn ruled by political power.5   How the world has suffered from the results.

Religion an opiate in the Far East

So much for Russia as an example of rulers using religion as an opiate. We look farther east at two more examples: Japan and China.

The situation in other countries has been similar, wherever religion is used as an opiate. Many today will remember Hirohito, Emperor of Japan, who was believed to be a divine person by his own people. An article by Albertus Pieters, written in 1920 6 revealed then that Shintoism, which deified the emperor, was coming more and more to the fore. Pieters was concerned about the effect this would ultimately have on the Japanese, and their relationship with the rest of the world. For the Japanese people, even then, were getting a sense of destiny as world rulers.

Pieters' article entitled "Emperor Worship in Japan" is concerned chiefly with two recent books (in Pieters' day of 1920): one entitled The Invention of a New Religion(sound familiar?) which is really in reference to a second book by a brilliant Japanese named Kato, entitled (in English) Our National Constitution and Shinto. Kato says that Shinto is the heart of the Japanese "Kokutai" (system), and that Emperor Worship is, and always has been, the very essence of Shinto. Kato says,

The Emperor of Japan has occupied the position which among the Chinese was accorded to Heaven, and among the Jews to Jehovah. He is god manifest in a human body. In speaking of Shinto as a religious faith, he explains that its essence is in absolute trust in and complete personal self-surrender to the object of worship -- that is, the Emperor. He further explains that whereas Abraham and Job had as objects of faith Jehovah, the Japanese have the Emperor. And that this surrender is not slavish but the highest liberty. The great Messianic ideal the Jews and Buddhists looked for in their leaders, the Japanese already possess in the Divine Imperial Dynasty. Thus we see, rising in the eastern heavens that great hope of humanity, Messiah the Prince!

A newspaper of the era says:

The Imperial Education Rescript (of 1889) transcends all criticism. The standard of right and wrong, good and evil, is found only in the imperial will ... It is the Rescript of the Emperor. For this reason and for this reason alone it is implicitly obeyed by the millions of Japanese.
Of the growing feeling of destiny among the Japanese, another newspaper article makes plain,
The Imperial Family of Japan is the parent, not only of her sixty million, but of all mankind on earth . . . The League of Nations proposal to save mankind from the horrors of war can only attain its real object by placing the Imperial Family of Japan at its head.

This sense of destiny continued to grow as the government deliberately fostered and nurtured Shintoism until, twenty years later, some of us experienced the fanatical devotion of Japanese fighters to the "divine" emperor as suicide planes hit our ships, the pilot knowingly destroying himself. And Christians died in Korea and other countries simply for refusing to worship the emperor.

Even now, although deposed, the emperor still has a unique status.

To his 105 million subjects, Emperor Hirohito -- once worshipped as a living god -- is Japan itself . . . The war was actually fought in his name, with Japan's military leaders extolling the virtue of dying for the Emperor . . . At the end of World War II, he renounced his "divinity" and went mingling with his dispirited people . . . This was something new for the Japanese people, who until then had been forbidden to look at the imperial person . . . Hirohito is often briefed by those who do rule, and because of his spiritual status, his influence is not regarded as insignificant . . . He is 124th in an unbroken line of Emperors over 2,631 years. 7

A cause for deep concern today is that Shintoism is gradually coming back into prominence, and it may only be a matter of time, if Japan develops economic or other serious problems, that the leaders may resort to Shintoism to pull Japan together.

Imperial China

In China, a similar situation has prevailed. Emperors used religion to control the Chinese people.

For nearly three thousand years in China, until the abolition of the monarchy in 1911, the emperor was the focus of those ritual activities by which the prosperity and well-being of the whole empire were established from year to year. The ritual was designed to harmonize all human life and activities with the cosmic forces which governed heaven and earth, and, at the same time, constituted an attempt to control the unpredictable elements of human experience.8

Looking for harmony and unity in the midst of change, the Chinese mind long ago developed the idea of China the Beautiful and China as the Middle Kingdom, the center of the world. In its political manifestation, the one who truly knows the Way, the Tao, has the Mandate of Heaven and becomes the Sons of Heaven, the Emperor, to rule over the Middle Kingdom and the Empire. Those who help the Emperor to rule are the spiritual sons of the Emperor, chuntzu or gentlemen. However, if an Emperor misrules his people and loses the Mandate of Heaven, another person may receive a new Mandate, rise up, and become the new Emperor, beginning another dynasty in the series of dynastic cycles. 9

More recently, with the advent of a Communist state, Mao Tse-Tung was for twenty years worshipped and served by the Chinese people.

The constant sense of Mao's presence was oppressive. Each morning, for example, I was awakened by the guards singing, 'The East is red'. This anthem of the Cultural Revolution contains the lines: "China has brought forth a Mao Tse-Tung. He is the people's great savior." 10

His picture was everywhere, and no one else's was. Children and adults sang, acted, and danced to his praise. Every person carried Mao's Thoughts as his Bible. They brainwashed themselves with it. Mao, as a god, controlled his people's religion, thoughts, wills and actions. In a recent issue of Time (9/26/83), the fall of Mao was considered in China: Burnout of a Revolution.; Even here (p. 31,32) it is recognized that Mao ruled all the people through his will alone.

In closing, we note what Mark Hatfield said recently,

Man will always have a god. In communist countries, where the death of God is made a tenet of government belief, the leaders and their dogma are deified so they can be worshipped. Man has an inherent instinct to worship; if God is not the source of his ultimate allegiance, he will then create his own gods. He will worship other people, or his country, or institutions, or money, or power or fame -- and all of these are different ways of worshipping himself.11

How to use religion as an opiate

There are some basic principles for "using" religion in controlling others. If we know and understand them, we may not so easily be caught in a trap ourselves.

To begin with, everyone yields final authority to someone, some person. There are five possibilities among which everyone chooses who will control his life.

First, we may choose ourselves. This kind of person may say, "I am the captain of my own fate, and hang everybody else. I will do my own thing." Such a one tends to be proud, defiant and sometimes lawless because he has set himself up as his own final authority. This was the position of the kings and emperors of the ancient near east, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome.

A second possibility is to yield to someone else's final authority. This can be imposed on people by force. But however it happens, people become somebody else's slave.

The third possibility is to yield to God. This may sound like a good way, but there can be trouble with this position. The problem is that if the god to which a person yields is a figment of his own imagination, he is in the first category mentioned above. He is worshipping himself. People may think they are worshipping God, while they are only worshipping an idea of God they themselves imagined. Or, they say "visualize God to be as He is represented in some great painting." But, that is not God at all. Some may say that actually all ideas of god are nothing but the creation of man to meet a deep-felt "god-need." Those believing this need to go on to consider the next two possibilities.

The fourth possibility is to yield final authority to someone else's idea of God. This is where real trouble arises. If we yield to someone else's concept of god, we become his servant. This makes one a slave of the most complete kind. Because anybody who controls someone else's religious thoughts really controls his whole person. Israel was warned in Exodus 23:33, ". . . if thou serve their gods, it will surely be a snare unto thee." And by the time of the Judges, Israel had already discovered that serving someone else's idea of god ultimately leads to servitude (Judges 2: 12,14). Jeremiah later pled with Israel not to serve the gods of the nations,  "And it shall come to pass, when ye shall say, Wherefore doeth the Lord our God all these things unto us? Then shalt thou answer them, like as ye have forsaken me, and served strange gods in your land, so shall ye serve strangers in a land that is not yours." (Jeremiah 5:19, see also: Amos 5:25-27).

When we serve a god that someone else has "dreamed up," we become their slave. That is what the rulers of Russia, Japan, China, and other nations have done to their subjects. Rulers in the Ancient Near East did exactly the same.

By now the reader will have begun to discover the most basic method used in gaining control over others. It is simply this:

Whoever controls a person's religion, controls his will; whoever controls his will, controls his thought-life; and whoever controls his thoughts, controls that one's actions. Possession of another person as totally as this, makes him a complete slave, even though the person may actually seem free and have a high living standard.

If there is one word which describes the method used to control others, it is "deceit." Those who employ deceit are following the Father of Lies who has gone out to deceive the whole world (Revelation 12:9; 20:3,8,10). The fact that he can deceive everyone indicates that he has a number of agents using his methods. It also indicates that great masses of men -- hundreds of millions of them -- have been living in spiritual slavery.

How to be really free

Thank God there is a fifth possibility. That is, we can allow our lives to be controlled by the True God Jesus Christ as revealed in the Scriptures. Jesus said, "If the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed." (John 8:32) To be sure we have yielded our wills to Jesus Christ Himself, we should read for ourselves about Him in the Bible, the Word of God. No other description of Jesus is completely trustworthy. And having decided to follow Him, we want to be certain we are not just following someone else's understanding of Him! Of course, we should listen to and read of the exposition of God's Word by other men of God. A very important aspect of our obeying Christ is to be in fellowship with those of like mind. But, even so, we want to get God's will for ourselves as directly as possible from His revealed Word.

The True and Living God HAS revealed Himself. He is not hiding from us. He reveals Himself in His Word very plainly. Then, in the written Word we discover that in this last period of time in history, He has come into the world in the Person of His Son.

God, who at sundry times and in divers manners, spake in time past unto the fathers by prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by His Son, Whom He hath appointed heir of all things, by Whom also He made the worlds; Who being the brightness of His glory, and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high. (Hebrews 1:1-3)

Will you ask yourself, "To whom have I yielded to have the final authority in my life?"

"Religion" IS an "opiate"... but CHRIST IS LIFE!
And He said, "You are my friends if you do whatever I command you."

The antidote to spiritual slavery is to surrender our wills to Jesus Christ, then let our minds be washed with the pure water of the Word of Truth as we determine to obey Him. Meditating on God's Word day and night will make one prosper and set him free (even though he might be a slave in Caesar's court: Psalms 1: 2,3).

  1. Lenin, Selected Works, XI: 658. back
  2. "Tsar" or "Czar" is a form of Latin "Caesar". back
  3. Dimitri Stremoukhof, "Moscow the Third Rome: Sources of the Doctrine", Speculum 1/53: 98-100. back
  4. "Russian National Traditions and Communist Ideology in the Soviet Union", The Gordon Review, Winter, 1968: 3-11. back
  5. James Bryce's Holy Roman Empire traces the development of church-state rule in western Europe. The concept of a "Holy" Roman Empire has gripped masses of people for centuries and has been cleverly used by church and rulers. back
  6. "Emperor Worship in Japan", Int'l Review of Missions, IX,1920: 340-356. back
  7. "What Japan Expects of the Emperor", USN & WR, 9/27/71, see also: Time, 8/l/83. back
  8. D. Howard Smith, "Divine Kingship in Ancient China", Numen, 4 (1957): 8. back
  9. Paul Szto, "The Chinese Communist Mind", Christianity Today, 4/14/72: 15. back
  10. "Hostage in Peking", Reader's Digest, 1/71: 10. back
  11. Mark 0. Hatfield, "The Vulnerability of Leadership", Christianity Today, 6/22/73: 5. back

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© 2003 David Livingston