I had the esteemed privilege of opening the Proposition in the Oxford Union debate: This House Believes that Religion Remains an Opiate of the Masses. Debating at the Oxford Union, a debating society with over 170 years of tradition, is a rare honor that few people may ever get in their lifetime.
I'll instruct you with the wise words of Jalaluddin al-Balkhi, known as Rumi:
"Sit, be still, and be silent. For you're drunk, and this, this is the edge of the roof."
It is a profound privilege to serve in the proposition of tonight's debate. This House Believes Religion Remains the Opiate of The Masses. A debate commenced by Karl Marx in 1843; he wrote in A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right:
"Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soul-less conditions. It is the opium of the people".
Perhaps one of the most quoted and misquoted postulations on religion, together tonight, we wish to further an old argument for a new generation of skeptics and faithful alike.
It is a profound privilege to be addressing you today. My fellow teammates have my veneration and admiration. Veneration for one, being the same age as my grandfather, and admiration for the other as a leading activist in tumultuous times.
Furthermore, it is my divine duty to introduce the Opposition:
Gabe Rusk: A Masters student in Religion, he is both the LGBTQIA+ Officer at the Union and as well as the International Grad Officer for the Oxford Student Union. He also has actual debate experience, so I expect nothing but utter brilliance from you this evening.
Sheikh Dr Usama Hasan: Senior Researcher at The Quilliam Foundation, a thinktank specialising in human rights and counter-extremism. He is a trained Imam, and has argued in favour of compatibility between Islam and evolution.
The Very Reverend Professor Martyn Percy: He is the Dean of Christ Church and Founding Director of the Lincoln Theological Institute. He is also only living theologian mentioned in The da Vinci Code. Tom Hanks would be proud.
It appears the opposition deemed it unnecessary to include female voices. Of course, let us not assume that this is ordinary decorum for religious voices at large.
Mr President, these are your guest speakers, and they are most welcome.
I want to tell you something about myself that I've never told anyone in this room. The Autumn of my sophomore year of highschool, I became ill. I began sleeping nine, ten, even 11 hours a day. I was sleeping in class, perhaps not a surprise to anyone who's had an 8:30am lecture with me. I even began falling asleep behind the wheel on my daily hourlong commute. After a trip to the doctor, rife with blood tests and examinations, the doctor began asking me a series of uncomfortably personal questions. Finally, he stated with confidence, "I have determined your diagnosis..." and handed me a prescription for an antidepressant. I was sixteen, and diagnosed as clinically depressed.
In hindsight I don't really know what led me to this place. Perhaps it was the succession of dramatic exits by important people from my life: first my mother moving to California, followed months later by my eldest sister's incarceration, followed yet again by my other sister's dramatic act of running away. I was living with my father who was battling both sleep apnea and manic depression, leaving him worn out from no sleep and adjusting to zoloft. I felt alone.
For those of you unfamiliar with the embrace of depression, it is not some great sadness. It is not the searing sting of a broken heart, nor the long sigh of a rainy day. Depression is the great nothingness that swallows your soul. It spits you out into the cold of a vast and empty universe, and shrouds your light in darkness. It is not red nor blue, but an endless sea of grey.
In that doctor's office, I had a choice. I could accept that I was a broken person in a purposeless world. I knew where that dark journey ends, and I've lost a dear friend there. I could also choose to believe that no matter how bad, how hard, how cold, how confusing, that I can, I will, I must push on through. But this choice required a central belief in me. I had to believe that my suffering served a purpose. I had to believe my life served a purpose. If I wasn't destined for greatness, I had to believe that at least I had a chance.
When someone says "opium" you probably imagine Tom Wingfield taunting his mother with trips to the opium den, from Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie. But the proposition states that "religion remains the opiate of the masses". I believe this requires defining:
Opiates are painkillers. You are probably more familiar with them than you realise. Codeine, Oxycontin, Hydrocodone, Morphine. These are lifesaving drugs spare people from incredible pain during times of their greatest need.
I once was prescribed opiates after a tonsillectomy. Powerful! But I'll never forget one night when I woke up after the drug wore off, in searing pain so intense that I couldn't even think. My throat was on fire, as if I'd swallowed lava. I know opiates are potent, and potentially prone to abuse, but I honestly don't think I could have survived that week without them.
Which brings me back to the moment in the doctor's office, holding the prescription. I made my choice. I walked out, tore up the prescription, and went to Church. I went on Sunday, and then I went to Youth Group on Wednesday. Driving 40 minutes each way, crossing a state line, I dove into the deep end of the dirty baptismal. I joined the Bible Study, and the Worship team. I felt no less broken, but at least I could feel like what is was like to be whole, even if just for a moment. There was a man named Jesus, who was born immaculately, loved radically, died horrifically, and rose miraculously, just so I could feel whole.
To be clear, I do not believe that religion can replace medicine, heal mental illness, nor is the answer for all our social ills. But science is revealing the potent power of religious beliefs in physical and mental health. Dr. Harold Koenig of Duke University compiled 93 different studies demonstrating that religious belief lowers feelings of depression and anxiety. Other studies have suggested that a sense of spirituality leads to longer lifespans. In American Grace, Robert Putnam found that participation in a religious community, regardless of belief, correlated with higher levels of civic engagement.
Is religion an opiate for the masses? You bet it is. It was for me in my darkest days, and it is for the 84% of the world's population. That's billions of people, right now, virtually everywhere.
What's so important to note here is that religion doesn't have to be factually correct to be hugely powerful. You only have to believe it is. Whether I have a real relationship with a personal God, or I am simply experiencing the effects cognitive biases, whether survivor's bias, the conjunction fallacy, confirmation bias, or even the aptly named "halo effect", it works. Like a drug!
You'll hear the opposition explicitly defend religion outright, positing that it is inherently a force for good in an otherwise fallen world. I know better and so do you. I've spent the last eight years leading World Faith, a global nonprofit focused on ending religious violence. I've seen the scars of of a young survivor of the 2002 riots in Gujarat. I've spoken to the mother of an EMT who died working at his ambulance when the second tower fell on September 11th. I've borne witness to too much suffering caused by religion to say it is inherently good. Moreover, goodness is not mutually exclusive to being an opiate.
But I also ask you to listen keenly. I hope my fellow supporters of the proposition will abstain for the tired tirades of tyrants seeking to rid the world of religion. They may recount the silencing of women, abuse of children, and casualties of religious tyranny. As a Christian myself, I know these criticism hold merit. But be not tempted by the narrative that seeks to banish religion to history with the same fervor of religious zealots. Let us not replace one conflict with yet another.
Here is the fundamental truth. Religion is not inherently good, nor bad. Like all social constructs from tribe to nation, culture and language, it can be a source of identity, meaning, and belonging. Similarly, opiates can both help you heal, or destroy your life. Both are a reflection of our human nature. Shitty and beautiful, we are the problems and solutions.
Can I get an Amen?
Religion is not for everyone. Painkillers are for pain. But for many around the world, like you and I, we struggle with the fact that we are simply a bag of meat, stuck on this rock, flying through an endless space we call this universe. Like an opiate, religion helps us with the pain of the greatest uncertainty.
Even Karl Marx knew this to be true. Just two sentences after the "opium of the masses" line, he shares:
"To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions."
This evening you'll hear a procession of soundly articulated arguments for and against the proposition. Enjoy them, but hold not them. Instead I want you to remember this moment. I don't want you to just know, but I need you to believe that religion is the opiate of the masses, for better or worse.
Supporting the opposition is to deny my life-changing experience. Therefore, I ask you, I beseech you, I pray you, when you leave this chamber, join me in embracing religion as an opiate for the masses. Only then, in the spirit of Tikkun Olam, can we heal this broken world.
Thank you for sharing this moment with me. Perhaps we've changed, but I hope after today, the world will never be the same.
And with that, I will close as I opened, with Rumi:
"Out beyond the ideas of right and wrong, there is a field. I will meet you there."