The New “Opiate of the Masses”

July 26, 2009 | 34 comments
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In 1844 Karl Marx said that “Religion is the opium of the people,” and seemed to suggest that its abolition would bring true happiness.

His statement is often phrased in English as “Religion is the opiate of the masses,” implying that it is meant somehow for the common people, the lower and middle classes.

I don’t believe that this idea ever was true, at least not in the sense of true religion, but I do think that societies seem to find their own “opiates,” illusory dreams that hide us from reality, keeping us from true happiness.

Given our culture in the U.S. today (and in much of the West), I think it is probably more true to say:

Sex is the Opiate of the Masses.

Of course, I don’ meant that all sex should be abolished, or even that we should never think of sex. I do think that most of the focus on sex in our culture today is not healthy — leading to all sorts of undesireable side-effects. If nothing else, as it is portrayed in popular culture, it is certainly an illusion, something that distracts from things that are much more important.

You may disagree. [I could almost be persuaded that 'fame' is the new "opiate of the masses.] If you do disagree, please comment and let me know, and tell me what you think should be the new “opiate of the masses.”

If you agree with me, I think “Sex is the Opiate of the Masses” makes a great signature line, or bumper sticker, don’t you?

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34 Responses to The New “Opiate of the Masses”

  1. queuno on July 26, 2009 at 6:49 pm

    I’m not sure the comparison works. I think you’re attempting to change the obsessive focus on sex, while Marx was trying to get rid of religion (or just get people to ignore it).

  2. Jonathan Green on July 26, 2009 at 7:46 pm

    You have to explain what you mean before I could agree or disagree. Sex as the opiate of the masses? How would that work? What do you mean by sex? What elite is instrumentalizing it, and what don’t they want people to notice?

  3. Kent Larsen on July 26, 2009 at 8:11 pm

    Hmm, Jonathan, I thought I was pretty clear. I said “I don’t mean that all sex should be abolished, or even that we should never think of sex. I do think that most of the focus on sex in our culture today is not healthy.” So, its not so much sex itself as the glamourization or idealization of sex as some kind of justifiable motivation.

    As for the elites, as I read Marx, there weren’t any “elites instrumentalizing it” when he was talking about religion. But, if you want an elite, I suppose we could always trot out the favorie Mormon boogeyman, “Hollywood.” [GRIN]

    I think that our culture promotes an idealized and unattainable sexual fantasy that distracts us from much more important things, the same way that the illusions of an opiate distract from reality.

  4. manaen on July 26, 2009 at 8:33 pm

    Kent, I fully agree. Regarding #1 and #2, this simply says that sex is the way the masses dull their sensibilities without calling for its elimination or saying that someone is manipulating it — and, I believe, we’re approaching a pandemic.
    .
    However, regarding “What elite is instrumentalizing it, and what don’t they want people to notice?” see this earlier posting from a friend’s blog:
    http://modelminority.blogspot.com/2008/07/from-gossip-girl-to-ghetto-girl-what.html

  5. Jon Ogden on July 26, 2009 at 8:37 pm

    Marx meant that religion dulls the senses the same way opium does. He thought that believing in heaven caused men to stop questioning economic disparities because believers hoped for an illusory place where all disparities would eventually be set right. If the rich could get the poor to keep believing in heaven, the reasoning goes, the rich could keep the poor quiet. The poor would take the “opium” and forget how crummy life was.

    In this sense carnal lust has always been an opium. Humankind has always gone wild with fantasy, trying to forget the day-to-day sorrows of life. Being open about feeding one’s lusts has become more trendy and in-your-face, but lust is still the same opiate it always was.

    I’d say mindless media is the new opiate of the masses. Bowling Alone, a fantastic book by Harvard’s Robert Putnam, shows that the number one variable in what keeps people uninvolved in their communities is whether TV is their primary form of entertainment. Across the board, people who watch a lot of TV are less likely to attend church, less likely to join a club, less likely to write a letter to a friend or family member, and more likely to give the bird to another driver.

    Mindless TV watching is what is keeping Americans from really caring about religious and political issues. It’s dulled the minds of the masses, and if the trend continues we’ll remain largely unaware as politicians (from both sides) shift laws little by little to our disadvantage.

    Mindless media is the opiate. (Though I will say that a lot of what is mindless on TV is sexual in nature.)

  6. Chris H. on July 26, 2009 at 9:07 pm

    I would lean more towards Jon and the idea of mindless media (including video games and so on). However, I still think religion fits. Look at the mega-churches and the gospel of prosperity.

    I generally think that the American ideology of the “American Dream” is the mean opiate of the masses in America. I will spare you.

  7. Chris H. on July 26, 2009 at 9:51 pm

    That should be main and not mean.

  8. Stephanie on July 26, 2009 at 9:52 pm

    Brilliant. I totally agree.

  9. ZD Eve on July 26, 2009 at 10:01 pm

    I thought blogging was the opiate of the masses.

  10. Geoff B on July 26, 2009 at 10:09 pm

    Kent, CS Lewis had a great comparison, which I think supports your point. He pondered what we would think of a society where people go to “food bars” where waiters bring out great trays of food and then display it for salivating men, who then gorge themselves until they pass out. (CS Lewis was comparing these food bars to strip clubs and the like). His point is that clearly we have a sex drive, just as we have a drive to eat good food. But when we allow that sex drive to dominate all of our actions — when, in contemporary terms, every TV sitcom or movie is about sex and every joke is about sex — our society has become sick in just the same way it would be considered sick if we let our drive for good food dominate all of our actions.

    So, is sex the opiate of the masses? Yes, in the sense that we have cheapened it so that its sacred function — an expression of love between a married man and woman — is completely undermined by our society’s obsession with a cheap thrill.

  11. Geoff B on July 26, 2009 at 10:17 pm

    One more comment and then I will go away.

    Your calling sex an “illusion” is key here. Popular culture today holds out this promise — that sex is harmless and should be pursued by two consenting adults freely and without consequences (think of Joey on “Friends” having sex with dozens of women or think of “Sex in the City,” which is all about women pursuing the harmless pleasure of unattached sex) — that is clearly an illusion. In reality, there are ALWAYS consequences from this type of behavior. STDS, unwanted pregnancies, jealousies, hurt feelings, problems with self-esteem — the list goes on and on. There is simply no such thing as harmless “hooking up,” yet popular culture likes to pretend again and again that there is.

    The damage this has done to generations of young people who buy into this illusion is very difficult to measure, but is huge, in my opinion.

  12. caj on July 26, 2009 at 10:39 pm

    The idea that people should be having wild orgasms multiple times a day with multiple partners of both genders starting at age 15 and going on until death: that ideal seems to be reinforced by porn propaganda. Now if the purveyors of porn could somehow find a way to get people looking at it, then you might have an argument.

    While we’re at it, could we say that the NFL is the opiate of the masses?

  13. Jeremy on July 27, 2009 at 12:11 am

    I think drugs are the opiate of the masses.

  14. Tatiana on July 27, 2009 at 2:50 am

    TV definitely! I have a group of smart friends that likes to talk about all sorts of things: current events, future possibilities, life, the universe, etc. Sometimes TV shows come up and I just listen because I don’t watch TV. And now more and more of the conversation is about various TV shows. I bring up real world things like trying to end poverty using microfinance, or the risk of an impact like they’re thinking happened in the Clovis period, like just happened again on Jupiter. I want to talk about the world, about world music and culture. It seems that more and more the other people only want to talk about TV. To me TV is so boring and just bad… aesthetically bad, I mean. No comparison to good books. The characters are contrived and so on. Every time I watch it I feel like it insults my intelligence and lowers my IQ. I feel sad that all our powers, our wits, our technology, all the marvelous good things we could be doing in the western technologically advanced societies, but more and more it seems like we just want to sit slack-jawed and take in the spectacle on TV.

    I’m sure I’m prejudiced to a certain extent. I just like books. Magazines are also okay. Movies are good. But TV sucks. That’s how I feel. And real-world engagement, as well as actually doing something worthwhile, making or creating something, changing the actual world in some way, seems far more interesting and engaging to me. Why do people like TV? I just don’t get it. To me it prevents us from using our powers to actually do something that matters. Maybe the internet is my TV. I don’t know. I’m obviously the only one who seems to think this, so I’m probably blind or wrong in some way, but I can’t see it.

  15. Dan on July 27, 2009 at 3:14 am

    Kent!

    sex is the opium of the masses? Sex is explosive, not an opiate. If I were to attempt to say what is an opiate for today’s society, I would say mass consumerism, our total addiction to materialism. That is what distracts us from the more important things, like the things Marx wanted his listeners to consider which he thought religion was harming. Same with Ayn Rand. The two of them agreed on this one point: religion was their main enemy. Sex is not the enemy; mass consumerism is.

  16. nifty fella on July 27, 2009 at 5:47 am

    I think sugary and fatty foods are the opiate of the masses.

  17. Floyd the Wonderdog on July 27, 2009 at 6:01 am

    Opiate of the masses? Hummm…

    Sex, yes. TV, yes.

    I was going to say on-line life, whether it be Facebook, Second Life, Worlds of Warcraft, internet p0rn, excessive blogging, etc. But there seems to be in each of these an underlying component of disconnection from reality, as opium is supposed to provide. Each of these turns the person’s thoughts inward away from reality to a false world created in one’s own image. A world where the Natural Man can freely enjoy himself.

    Instead, we are called through our religion to turn ourselves outward to service to others. Sacrificing our own cravings so that we may take on God’s work and mission.

  18. Steve on July 27, 2009 at 7:18 am

    I don’t think we have one single opiate of the masses, and in fact we’ve become so compartmentalized, polarized and labeled that I wonder if we even have “masses” anymore. I guess a million people having a common interest could be considered a mass, but when it’s barely 0.5% of the world’s population, is it really that significant? Just about everything cited in other comments could be considered opiates of some mass of humanity, but I don’t think there really is a single thing I could point to that would qualify as an opiate of even half of humanity.

    Frankly sometimes I wish sex were a cheap thrill. I just took my wife to Europe, so sex for me has become a very expensive thrill! :)-

    btw, Honey, if you’re reading this, it was an awesome thrill, no matter how expensive it was.

  19. John on July 27, 2009 at 8:20 am

    TV is the opiate of the masses.
    TV (and radio)Talk shows are the opiate of the masses.
    Snowmobiles, motorcycles, ATVs, jet skis and various other expensive toys are the opiate of the masses (in Utah).

  20. Eric Boysen on July 27, 2009 at 8:25 am

    You know, there are other categories of drugs.

    If religion is/was the opiate, deadening pain and depressing desire for social change, sex might be considered the amphetamine, something that initially gets one moving but eventually steals away interest in anything else. Mass media is the hallucenogen, the LSD, of the masses, giving false to fact images that are so much more interesting than reality that the user can no longer distinguish between black and white.

    I suppose it doesn’t matter to much. They will all kill you in the end.

  21. Bob on July 27, 2009 at 9:21 am

    TV is the way I go mindless. I can even take a nap doing it. Try that with sex or church.

  22. Kent Larsen on July 27, 2009 at 9:59 am

    Eric Boysen, you know way too much about drugs.

  23. Adam Greenwood on July 27, 2009 at 11:18 am

    Insightful, KL. Based on the above, I think it might be more accurate to say that consumption is the opiate of the masses and sex is increasingly more of a product to be consumed.

  24. Wm Morris on July 27, 2009 at 11:48 am

    Good point, Adam. And the manean’s link in #4 illustrates this.

  25. Wm Morris on July 27, 2009 at 11:49 am

    Heh — apparently, I have decided that manean is definitive.

  26. larryco_ on July 27, 2009 at 3:57 pm

    Reality shows – being on them and watching them – is the current opiate of the masses. Everybody gotta get that 15 minutes of fame!

  27. Bean on July 27, 2009 at 6:55 pm

    New opiate 4 da masses? Politicized News Media. And yes, that includes Global Warming.

  28. oudenos on July 27, 2009 at 8:06 pm

    “If the cult of sexual satisfaction is the opiate of the American adolescent, then college is the eschaton…” See Ross Gregory Douthat, ‘Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class,’ (New York: Hyperion, 2005) p. 177.

    Perhaps someone beat Kent Larsen to the punch–or sex and drugs are on the mind of folks the world round.

  29. Manuel on July 27, 2009 at 8:47 pm

    I think the new opiate of the masses is the internet.

    Like religion, it is necessary and it can be good, but it can also be used in so many unhealthy ways.

    I know several people that are addicted to their digital world and digital online society. They literally stopped living in the real world, they live in their online computer games, in a mystic digital world, where they can have superpowers and meet other people to defeat “enemies.”

    If they need to know about anything, they open another window and search for their answer. The people I know with this problem spend 100% of their weekends in their rooms facing their computer.

    Sex is a powerful emotion, and some people decide to also live their sexual lives online. A disheartening (not to say pathetic) alternative.

    And I don’t want to be a party pooper but I once calculated how much time I spent “blogging.” It was scary. I’m not saying it is a total waste of time, but c’mon, it’s not very productive either. I have the feeling that a lot of the people in here would have more meaningful lives if they did other activities during the time they spend blogging.

    Since I found out how much time I was wasting on blogging and reading opinions, I decided to become a very sporadic blogger. I usually visit blogs only once a week and have limited myself to read only those things that really catch my attention.

    The August Ensign has an article about this, I couldn’t believe it! They are right on.

  30. queuno on July 27, 2009 at 10:28 pm

    If they need to know about anything, they open another window and search for their answer.

    That’s not inherently bad. This is actually one of the great blessings of the Internet, the ability to find information so quickly.

    Don’t throw out the good with the bad.

  31. Kent Larsen on July 27, 2009 at 10:41 pm

    oudenos (28):

    Shoot. I was hoping to have said something quotable! [frown]

  32. Raymond Takashi Swenson on July 28, 2009 at 3:58 pm

    Sex has become the official, government-endorsed opiate of the masses.

    The license for unlimited birth control, abortion on demand, pornography and the pornographication of ordinary media of communication, are the result of deliberate policies pursued through instruments of government, whether legislative or judicial. The push for “gay rights” and especially in the form of “same-sex marriage” is a conscious effort to elevate sex above religious belief and practice as the most important right of an individual. Same-sex marriage is directly aimed at establishing that superiority, reversing the old situation when certain sexual activities were censored in order not to offende religious sensibilities, and coming now to censor religious expression when it offends those who engage in certain sexual practices.

    Consider: The argument that religious freedom protected under the First Amendment overrode legislation banning polygamy was rejected by the US Supreme Court. Yet the argument, that sexual expression of a homosexual nature is so inherent to the core of human dignity that government cannot regulate it, goes far beyond what the Raynolds case sought to establish. It is clear that the path is open now for polygamists to argue that their sexual practice should have the same protection from government interference that homosexuals now enjoy, as a constitutional right.

    A government that says it can do nothing about a man who cheats on his wife with another man is in a poor moral position to claim it has the right to regulate the husband’s sexual relations with another woman. In American constitutional law, it is now clear that sexual action has far more legal significance and autonomy than religious action. In an America where mentioning religion in a high school graduation ceremony can be enjoined by a court, schools are told they have a positive mandate to teach first graders about homosexual relationships.

    Whether or not sex is an “opiate” it is on a trend to replace religion in the social system of Western democracies, as the ordering principle that sets priorities for all aspects of government.

  33. Eric Boysen on July 28, 2009 at 9:48 pm

    Kent-

    Fortunately my knowledge is pretty much secondhand. The sins of my youth never involved controlled substances.

  34. Vader on July 29, 2009 at 11:40 am

    Most of my social interactions come through the Internet. That’s because most people can’t handle me very well in person, or perhaps it’s that I don’t know how to handle myself around people.

    Does that make the Internet an opiate? I learn an awful lot on the Internet.

    I do agree that things like World of Warcrack seem to have great addictive potential.