Religion is the Opium of the People

In the famous work, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1844), Karl Marx wrote that “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.”

Let me state here that this writer is not a Marxist, and neither am I anti-religion. However, recent events in global current affairs seem to vindicate Marx’s statement, as in some quarters of the world, a misdirected religiosity seems to persist.

For instance, the recently sacked South African former minister of Co-Operative Governance and Traditional Affairs, Shicelo Shiceka allegedly abused taxpayers’ money on several luxuries, including ZAR55 793 for a night’s stay in a hotel with a sangoma (an African traditional healer who practices divining and foretelling through ancestors, and who is believed to have metaphysical healing and psychic skills). My guess is that the sangoma didn’t foretell that the former minister’s job was in jeopardy.

Former minister Shiceka’s dealings with this sangoma at the South African public’s expense are representative of a generation of leaders and businessmen who have failed to understand that belief without action is meaningless. One can offer several sacrifices and perform innumerable rituals, but without hard work and diligence, there can be no reward. Across the African continent, there are several examples of men and women who attained the status of petite bourgeoisie in high density African townships prior to independence through hard work and diligence. This, in spite of oppressive policies such as segregation and apartheid. But where are these families now? In most instances, great potential has translated into great failure, owing to weird superstitions and misguided beliefs. Now, some of the African youth are putting their trust in the same warped belief-systems that they saw their parents embrace, and as a result many of us strut about believing that sangomas can cure HIV/AIDS, and that unemployment is caused by witchcraft.

On the other hand, the more educated African seems to be turning away from customary beliefs, and towards Christianity, Pentecostalism in particular,  and the World Christian Database reports that Pentecostals now represent 12%, or about 107 million of Africa’s population of nearly 890 million people, and in Zimbabwe for instance, it has been reported that Evangelical denominations, primarily Pentecostal churches and apostolic groups, were the fastest growing religious groupings in the period 2000–2009.

Having said that, while recently conducting research in a Pentecostal church in South Africa, I found that although many people admit that they are “praying for jobs and blessings,” further probing reveals that most people are praying for a blessing in the form of a job, particularly one of a permanent nature and preferably in government. No one seems to pray for, say, ideas to start a business, or for the power to work harder, or the strength to wake up earlier, or the ability to spend less, or the grace to further one’s skills. And, it also seems that some Pentecostal pastors are encouraging their congregations towards this self-beneficial religiosity, apart from which there seems to be no faith. Now I’m not a theologian, but I believe that it is written somewhere that faith without deeds is dead. We as Africans need to compliment our beliefs with diligent works, without which our beliefs and religious practices become sensual and self-beneficial, like a drug, opium.  

 Tau Tawengwa is the Secretary General of Zimbabwe Renaissance Society.