Sunday, 14 June 2009

Religion as the opiate of the people

Barclay in his commentary on Luke's Gospel talks about the Romans encouraging “religion from the cynical motive that it kept people in order. They regarded it as the opiate of the people” (p 85). This same view is portrayed in games such as Civilisation IV.

To some extent, there is validity in this view, since “religion is a man-made activity” (Knight 1981). Unfortunately, we use the word randomly for any belief or practice of faith when we really should be applying it to our economic practices and love of money.

I don't doubt that there are people who claim to be Christian who are doing little more than the rituals on Sunday. In that sense, they are practising their religion. However, there are many more for whom their walk of faith is about a way of living. The association between a belief in Christ and being religious is wide spread but it is possible to have a belief in Christ and not be religious. The idea of belief in God being a way of life isn't a new invention nor one that Christ introduced. Knight when he talks about Leviticus 19:1-4 says “the word “religion” does not occur in the Old Testament” (p 114). God wasn't talking to Israel about a religion or religious practices. He was calling them to be a congregation, a witnessing community. A community that lived out their faith in every act of their lives.

Knight argues that this is reflected in the Leviticus laws through their emphasis on family life and relationships with people. Every law called for a higher standard of ethic than anything that was practised at the time. Knight talks about an eye-for-an-eye as being a higher level of code than the retribution of life for an eye that was happening at the time and could be argued continues in many places around the world even today. Jesus took that ethical stand further calling for us to love our enemies. Something that is not easy to do.

Maybe those computer games that portray religion need to consider the idea of portraying faith or a religion that actually has real influence on the way that people live. Many things have been done in the name of Christianity that are a long way from being what God called for. Those that have done these things have often believed they were upholding the faith but in the end, they destroyed the very witness that God is calling for. The Old Testament is full of examples and God's continual call to Israel to uphold his calling on their lives. The result of their lack of being the congregation, a witnessing community continues in the bitter confrontations of the middle east.

I have no problem in being negative about religious practices that see people living a double standard but I do have problems when this is then equated with any belief in God being unacceptable. In computer games and other media, we need to restore some of the positive messages of being a witnessing community and one that really strives to live out its faith despite our many failings.

Religion can be an opiate of the people, a way of keeping them satisfied but real faith stirs people into action to live out their beliefs in a world that often rejects and discards the believer.


Barclay, W. (1975). The gospel of Luke (revised ed.). Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press.

Knight, G. A. F. (1981). Levitcus. Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press.

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