Religion and keeping “the lower classes quiet”

“I cannot understand why we idle discussing religion. If we are honest—and scientists have to be—we must admit that religion is a jumble of false assertions, with no basis in reality. The very idea of God is a product of the human imagination. It is quite understandable why primitive people, who were so much more exposed to the overpowering forces of nature than we are today, should have personified these forces in fear and trembling.

“But nowadays, when we understand so many natural processes, we have no need for such solutions. I can’t for the life of me see how the postulate of an Almighty God helps us in any way. What I do see is that this assumption leads to such unproductive questions as why God allows so much misery and injustice, the exploitation of the poor by the rich and all the other horrors He might have prevented.

“If religion is still being taught, it is by no means because its ideas still convince us, but simply because some of us want to keep the lower classes quiet. Quiet people are much easier to govern than clamorous and dissatisfied ones. They are also much easier to exploit. Religion is a kind of opium that allows a nation to lull itself into wishful dreams and so forget the injustices that are being perpetrated against the people. Hence the close alliance between those two great political forces, the State and the Church. Both need the illusion that a kindly God rewards—in heaven if not on earth—all those who have not risen up against injustice, who have done their duty quietly and uncomplainingly. That is precisely why the honest assertion that God is a mere product of the human imagination is branded as the worst of all mortal sins.”

—Theoretical physicist Paul Dirac, quoted in Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Beyond: Encounters and Conversations (1972). (OK, I didn’t read the book; I stumbled upon it in an online bio of Dirac.)


5 thoughts on “Religion and keeping “the lower classes quiet”

  1. Do you honestly want to tell me you agree with this guy? That the teaching of religion is some vast world-wide conspiracy to keep the lower classes quiet? That’s a laugh. Dirac’s parroting of Marx is tedious.

    • Conspiracy? No. But let’s be honest that this is one of the ways that religion functions, even if religion wasn’t specifically “designed” to do so. Look at a specific example: Why does the Republican Party love evangelical Christianity so much? Might it have something to do with the fact that evangelical beliefs encourage people to vote against their own economic interests in the hope of advancing a theological agenda?

      • Well you deny that it is conspiratorial thinking and yet, the last two sentences of your comment is obviously conspiratorial. You imply that the Republican Party loves evangelical Christianity so much because it allows the working class to vote against their economic interests, which does seem conspiratorial. The first two sentences of the Paul Dirac quote very clearly implies a conspiracy. “If religion is still being taught it is…because some of us want to keep the lower classes quiet”. It clearly ascribes a conspiratorial motive among those who teach religion.

      • Your initial comment referred to a “vast, worldwide conspiracy,” as if religious leaders everywhere were coordinating their actions to keep the lower classes down. And of course that’s not the case.

        But that doesn’t mean that many politicians and other powerful people don’t recognize the advantage of having a large group of people who will vote for them regardless of their economic policies so long as said politicians make a good show of upholding certain “Christian values.” Saying that powerful people often recognize this on some level doesn’t mean that religion is nothing more than an elaborate scam perpetrated by the upper classes.

        That said, religion does tend to be useful in reinforcing authority and inequality, and Dirac and Marx are hardly the first people to recognize this. As just one example, see my earlier post on Napoleon Bonaparte: Or the hymn “All Things Bright and Beautiful” (“The rich man in his castle, / The poor man at his gate, / God made them high and lowly, / And ordered their estate.”

        You’ll find variations on this theme expressed time and again throughout history. When people believe, with the Apostle Paul, that “there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God” (Romans 13:1) they tend to accept the existing power structure and distribution of wealth. Which is very convenient for certain people.

  2. In many ways we have moved on from religion’s rationale about the poor: “the rich man at his castle, the poor man at his gate, god made them low and mighty, and ordered their estate” to economics. In the first world apathy rather than religion of poor more likely to hinder, together with lack of opportunity and social mobility for the majority with ambition and drive.

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