Opium of the people

Panic disorder is an illness, which makes the patient afraid of anything, e.g. driving a car. The patient becomes unusually aware of the risks of driving and therefore must abstain. One reason for panic disorder is the imbalance of regulatory chemicals. Reduced production of GABA-A causes physiological symptoms that lead to the disorder.

Other chemicals like endorphins (endogenous morphine) also play a major part in our behavior and well-being.

With an incorrect balance of body chemicals we can’t lead a normal life. As the first humans developed they got insights that were frightening – life is a risky road always leading to the inevitable final, death. The body chemicals helped them to endure and survive.

Religion emerged of the same reasons, to soothe people who were afraid of the many things they could not explain, like earthquakes, lightnings and other horrendous phenomena. By getting these phenomena explained through religion their horror was reduced or vanished. Karl Marx wrote; “Religion is the opium of the people“. If we interpret this as “Religion may have the same function as endogenous chemicals”, he was in fact right. (I wonder what he would have said if he had been informed that his doctrines also would develop to a religion, which dogmas could not be questioned).

Even though the explanations and myths in the original religions were false, believing in them was good for the individual as long as nobody else were hurt. The problem however was that the religious believes were hijacked by people to use them for their own ends.

I strongly remember standing at the Acropolis of Pergamon many years ago. The Royal Palaces and the Temples dominate the hilltop and there is a beautiful view over the fertile plain below. I thought about the role of temples in the old days; the poor people slaving on the fields below would never dare to rise against their oppressors, which were protected by the gods. The moment standing there was for me a revelation of the power you get if you can combine your secular title with a sacred one, you can suppress people without opposition.

Historically the combination of secular and religious power has been a success. There are of course cases when oppressed people have been rising against this force, as when the enormous Cluny Abbey was torn down to its foundations during the French Revolution, but mostly people have been firmly subdued by the dual power.

With the exception of people subdued under the violent religions of Central America, I wonder which benefits the indigenous people of the New World had in getting christened. Considering the threats on the environment, the old shamanistic religions with their reverence of our ties to nature could be at least as good as the Christian faith today.

Unfortunately the proliferation of a religion only partly depends on the inner values it transfers to the proselytes. More important are the secular powers that are promoting a certain faith. “Survival of the fittest” is not only applicable to describing the evolution of species by natural selection, but should also be applied to the religious world. And “fittest” will then not mean which religion has the best inner values, but the one who has the strongest and most determined supporters.

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