Marx, then, accepted without question Feuerbach’s con-tention that man has invented God in his own image. This isone of those claims that seems obviously true, and a dazzling,liberating, insight to those disposed to believe it, but a crude,insulting and subversive misrepresentation to those who donot. But we can be clear that Marx’s sympathies are withthose who wish to ‘debunk’religion. And we should note thatthe significance of this debate extends far beyond academictheology. For to attack religion was also to attack the con-temporary political authority which took itself to be foundedearly writings18
on religion. This is why the atheism of the Young Hegeliansposed such a threat, and why, as individuals, they could notbe tolerated.However, Marx was not content with Feuerbach’s position.Once the truth was revealed, and religion exposed forthe sham it is, Feuerbach felt that largely his work was done.The truth would be passed from person to person, andreligion could not survive this intellectual assault. It woulddisappear, and human beings would be able fully to enjoytheir ‘species-essence’—their truly human qualities—withoutthe distraction, and indeed the barrier, of God.Marx believed this to be a superficial analysis. AlthoughFeuerbach had understood the phenomenon of religion, hehad not addressed its causes. But without knowing whyreligion had come into existence, how can we know how itcan be made to disappear? Marx argues, essentially, thathuman beings invented religion only because their life onearth was so appalling, so poverty-stricken. This is the contextof his notorious remark that ‘religion is the opium of thepeople’(M. 72). Now for certain modern readers, this maymake religion sound not too bad at all. But we have toremember that in the nineteenth century opium was apainkiller. Though, no doubt, it also had its recreational uses,its prime function was as a solace.For example, in the later work, Capital, Marx comments anumber of times that nursing mothers coped with their earlyreturn to the production line by stupefying their hungrybabies with opiates. In one particularly disturbing footnote,Marx describes the visit of a Dr Edward Smith to Lancashireearly writings19
to report on the health of the cotton operatives, who wereunemployed owing to a cotton crisis caused by the AmericanCivil War. Dr Smith reported to the government that ‘thecrisis had several advantages. The women now had theleisure to give their infants the breast, instead of poisoningthem with “Godfrey’s Cordial”’(an opiate) (Capital518). Inanother footnote, a couple of pages later, Marx quotes aPublic Health Report of 1864, which says that infants whoreceived opiates ‘shrank up into little old men’, or ‘wizenedlike little monkeys’(Capital522).