There is a common perception of religion as a “comfort”, which is summed up in these words from Flip Chart Fairy Tales’ latest (and otherwise rather interesting) post:
We all like to think that there is some order in the world. That’s why religion is comforting and why some people believe in conspiracy theories. It’s preferable to believe that someone, even an evil someone, sees the big picture and is pulling all the strings, than to acknowledge that much of what happens in the world is messy and random.
This is what Marx had in mind when he described religion as “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, the soul of soulless conditions … the opium of the people”. As Terry Eagleton observes in Reason, Faith and Revolution (pp.40ff.), there certainly are manifestations of religion which conform to this. He suggests as an example the New Age spirituality that “offers a refuge from the world, not a mission to transform it”.
However, authentic Christianity is radically different:
For Christian teaching, God’s love and forgiveness are ruthlessly unforgiving powers which break violently into our protective, self-rationalizing little sphere, smashing our sentimental illusions and turning our world brutally upside down. In Jesus, the law is revealed to be the law of love and mercy, and God not some Blakean Nobodaddy but a helpless, vulnerable animal.
It is the flayed and bloody scapegoat of Calvary that is now the true signifier of the Law. Which is to say that those who are faithful to God’s law of justice and compassion will be done away with by the state. If you don’t love, you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you.
Here, then, is your pie in the sky or opium of the people, your soft-eyed consolation and pale-cheeked piety. Here is the fantasy and escapism that the hard-headed secularist pragmatist finds so distasteful. Freud saw religion as a mitigation of the harshness of the human condition; but it would surely be at least as plausible to claim that what we call reality is a mitigation of the Gospel’s ruthless demands, which include such agreeable acts of escapism as being ready to lay down your life for a total stranger. (p.22)