I recently heard about a story from the BBC about an artificial Christmas tree put up near the demilitarized zone in South Korea and I was struck by what seemed to me to be an odd comment in the report.
The tree is seen by some as a potential provocation to the atheist North at a time of heightened tensions.
I thought it would be good to comment on this view since it is repeatedly pointed out by religious apologists of all stripes that communist regimes tend to be atheistic as if there were a causal relationship between the two and not simply a correlation. Why is this the case?
Karl Marx, usually recognized as the father of socialism/communism, is often quoted as saying "Religion is the opiate of the people." but this is an extremely crude simplification of the actual quote:
Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions.
Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right
In this quote Marx is not simply saying that religion is addictive. He's saying that the use of religion as a means to provide hope or "the heart of a heartless world," is a symptom of a greater disease which he viewed as economic and social inequality. He is also saying that Religion is an illusion that ultimately fails to fix the disparity. In the same way that an opiate fails to fix an injury (mental or physical) but only helps one to forget the injury for the time that it is in effect; religion only covers up the real reasons for people's suffering or social problems.
Aside: I am not a communist but I am a secular activist and secular activist and as such, I tent to think of this is as good response/critique of the "religion gives people hope" argument. Yes it gives people hope but it is a false hope which can and has ultimately blinded (not just individual people but) entire cultures for thousands of years to the real reasons for human suffering.
This was the original reason that religion was antithetical to communism because it not only attempted to cover up the real reasons for people suffering but it also was a tool through which leaders could maintain power by quelling people's reaction the suffering they imposed upon them. As time went on though religion became antithetical to communism for a different reason.
The rather crude attempt by communistic governments to simply abolish religion was seen by many religious people and institutions as an attack. In true Cold War style, religion began to be seen as more than simply an "opiate", it was seen as a foundation for resistance to communism (which was not completely unfounded) and so communistic governments opposed it with brutal force (which was unwarranted and self defeating). Religion then became (once again) a tool to be used by the leaders who opposed communism. During the height of the Cold War, "In God We Trust" was adopted as the national motto of the United States in 1956 as a reaction to "atheistic communism" and the shock waves of this have yet to subside. Atheists are still one of the most hated groups in the United States today and are still linked with communism.
I'm an atheist and I've already made my views on Christmas as clear as I could here. In my opinion, anyone who happens to be an atheist who sees a Christmas tree as a provocation or even a potential one has issues with religion more attuned with those of Soviet Communism or Kim Jong-ill's North Korea: You know… The dogmatic kind. The atheism of the North Koreans has almost nothing to do with the reason that some say the North might see a Christmas tree as a provocation, it has everything to do with the brutally dogmatic form of communistic dictatorship that enforces the ban on religion.
But I could be wrong. Let me know what you think.