The new opium of the people?

The trashing of Thanksgiving (now just another shopping day) via crass material consumption got me thinking about religion in society.

Karl Marx famously wrote, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

Marx is saying that religion creates fantasies for the poor as it focuses their attention on the “pie in the sky after you die.” The more that workers think about bliss in the next life, the more they will accept the misery imposed upon them in this life. Just as opium deadens the pain of a wound, religion deadens the pain of exploitation. For Marxists, this willingness to endure poverty via religious beliefs is a major factor preventing the working classes from engaging in collective action against their oppressors. The ruling class doesn’t have to hold a gun to the head of workers to keep them in line. Rather, they simply fill their heads with fantasies of a paradise to come.

A 2012 study conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that “the number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated … the highest percentages ever in Pew Research polling.” A significant number of these individuals are atheists.

If religion is losing its “social control” function, how do we explain why there is so little public outcry (and almost no concerted collective protest) in a society with ongoing wars fought by lower- and working-class individuals, an ever-increasing disparity between rich and poor, high unemployment and underemployment, the outsourcing of millions of good-paying jobs, and high rates of home foreclosures and personal bankruptcies? Is there a new opiate of the people keeping the populace content and politically inert?

Consider this quote about the Marxist view of religion from sociologist Malcolm Hamilton: “Religion offers compensation for the hardships of this life in some future life, but it makes such compensation conditional upon acceptance of the injustice of this life.” Let’s change this statement to the following: “The Internet offers comfort for the hardships of this life via an endless array of distractions that result in acquiescence to the injustices of this life.”

In 2000, just over 31 percent of Americans and Canadians had access to the Internet. By 2012 that number had increased to 78.6 percent. A New York Times article entitled “If Your Kids Are Awake, They’re Probably Online,” says it all. Citing research from the Kaiser Family Foundation, Tamar Lewin states, “The average young American now spends practically every waking moment – except for time at school – using a smart phone, computer, television or other electronic device.”

Spending inordinate amounts of time online is hardly limited to children. According to a recent marketing firm survey, individuals between 35 and 65 years of age spend 27 hours a week online while senior citizens were close behind at 25 hours a week. In one study, 8 percent of respondents stated they would rather give up eating then give up their cable televisions, cellphones and computers. While I don’t believe any of these individuals would follow through on this boast for more then a few missed meals, this response is indicative of their passion for being plugged in – a passion demonstrated by only the most extreme religious adherents.

Collectively, Americans spend billions of hours annually online viewing pornography, social networking, shopping, surfing the Net and/or playing games including “massively multi-player online role-playing games” or MMORPGs. By way of these games, players can opt out of the real world for hours as they take on a new persona in an alternative reality. MMORPGs have been described as “immersive,” meaning that players quickly begin to think of these imaginary worlds “as a real place with real rules.”

Players assume a role in a fantasy or science-fiction world as they take control of their characters. Having control over one’s make-believe identity can be a satisfying and addictive experience. These games are especially alluring in a society wherein the typical individual has little control over events dominated by giant bureaucracies, especially governments and corporations. One commentator on a MMORPG website noted these fantasy worlds are a sanctuary where “you can do so much more … than in real life … and truly express yourself.” It follows that the more time an individual spends in a make-believe society, the less time he or she will devote to contemplating, much less trying to solve, the problems of this world.

There are dozens of MMORPGs with an estimated 50 million players in the U.S. One of the most popular games, “World of Warcraft,” had 7.7 million subscribers as of July 2013. Approximately 25 percent of MMORPG players are teenagers. About 50 percent work full-time, and 36 percent are married. The average MMORPG player spends 22 hours a week in a fantasy environment, and 70 percent of respondents in one survey reported having played a game continuously for 10 or more hours. People have found respite from life’s difficulties through books, games and sports for centuries. However, MMORPGs have taken this escapism to a new level of immersion and intensity.

Assuming the Marxist view of religion is accurate in some measure, increasing hours of Internet use for other than work- and education-related activities may be the new “opium of the people.” If you doubt the hold the Internet can have on individuals, try keeping your children away from the computer for a weekend. Then see if you can unplug from cyber space for a few days.

P.S.: Marx failed to recognize the disruptive component of religion. That is, behavior grounded in and legitimated by religious beliefs that does not acquiesce to, but challenges, the status quo. For example, religion was a crucial factor in the organization, solidarity and eventual success of the peaceful (on the part of protestors) Civil Rights movement. Think of Martin Luther King Jr. and the role of the churches in that struggle. Militant Muslims have used a radical interpretation of Islam to bring about political and social change through violence.

George J. Bryjak lives in Bloomingdale, retired after 24 years of teaching sociology at the University of San Diego.


Coser, L. (1977) “Masters of Sociological Thought,” Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers

“Dealing with MMORPG Addiction” (2012) MMORPG House,

“Infographic shows $13 billion spent worldwide on MMOs in 2012” (Dec. 15, 2012) PCGamer,

“Internet Users in the World: Distribution by World Regions – 2012” (2012) Internet World Stats,

Lewin, T. (Jan. 10, 2010) “If Your Kids Are Awake, They’re Probably Online” The New York Times,

“Millennials Up Their Time Online” (accessed 2013) Marketing Charts,

“‘Nones’ on the Rise” (Oct. 9, 2012) Pew Research: Religion and Public Life, The Pew Forum,

Yee, N. (2006) “The Psychology of Massively Multi-User Online Role-Playing Games” in R. Schroeder & A. Axelsson (eds), “Avatars at Work and Play: Collaboration on Interaction in Shared Virtual Environments, London: Spring-Verlag

“8% of Americans Would Rather Starve Than Get Disconnected” (Jan. 24, 2011) Techland,