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Is Religion Oppressive?

Below is the script from my talk at Imperial Christian Union from May 2024, on the title "Is Religion Oppressive?"

Today we are looking at this interesting but slightly contentious question of “is religion oppressive?”.

Now it is worth beginning by saying that I have no desire to impose any particular set of beliefs on anyone, or compel anyone to change your worldview, not that I’d be able to. Rather I believe university should be the time when you hear and discuss all sorts of ideas that you may agree or disagree with, so that you can make your own mind up on the big issues and questions in life.

So my aim is to simply to present to you some ideas, that you may agree or disagree with, or want to interrogate further. And I hope what we discuss today is intellectually interesting, and will help you make up your own mind up on these important issues.

So we turn now to this question of “is religion oppressive?”. And we are going to be look at this question from a historical perspective, a cultural perspective and then ending on a philosophical perspective.

So firstly, the historical perspective. And we begin with this man, Karl Marx.


1. A Historical Perspective

Now Karl Marx is without doubt one of the most influential figures in political history. He was a German philosopher and economist, and in February 1848, along with his colleague Friedrich Engels, he co-authored The Communist Manifesto, which became one of the most influential political documents in history.

In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels framed society as ultimately a struggle between two economic classes: the ‘Bourgeoisie’ and the ‘Proletariat.’ The Bourgeoisie were the upper economic class who controlled the means of industrial production and who are chiefly concerned with the preservation of their own economic supremacy. The Proletariat were the working class who laboured under oppression to produce the capital accumulated by the Bourgeoisie.

The Communist Manifesto was a call to revolution. Marx and Engels urge the Proletariat to rise up and gain power in order to overthrow their Bourgeoisie oppressors. Here are the opening lines of Chapter 1 of The Communist Manifesto:

“The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary re-constitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.”

The wording is a bit clunky when translated into English but hopefully you get the gist. According to Marx, society is a struggle between oppressed and oppressors, and the oppressed need to rise up in social revolution to gain liberation.

But not only did Marx frame society as a struggle between classes, but he also identified organised religion as one of the key influences that kept the oppressed from rising up. This gave rise to one of Marx’s most famous sayings “the opium of the people”. Here is that quote in full.

“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people."

Opium is a recreational sedative extracted from poppy seeds. And it the raw material from which we derive opiates such as heroine and morphine. And so Marx’s argument was that organised religion kept lower class people sedate and compliant with being under oppression. Religion gave people a false hope for a better tomorrow, so that they did not rise up to fight for a better today.  Religion kept people quiet, obedient and accepting of their oppression.


2. A Cultural Perspective

So, with that brief historical context in place, we turn from the 1840s to the modern day, as we look at this topic from our modern cultural perspective.

Now Marxism is seen today more as a historical political artefact rather than a major current active political force. However I would suggest that Marx’s ideas are actually still heavily influential today. And in particular, this idea that some groups are oppressed by hidden power structures in society, and that the oppressed should rise up and fight for their liberation- this idea can be seen right across Western society today.

For example, a lot of the social justice campaigns around race or sex are permeated with the language of institutionalised biases and oppressive power structures that need to be deconstructed so that ethnic minorities and women can gain liberation. The sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s also had a very similar narrative of the oppressive chains of conservative sexual ethics being broken, so that people could gain sexual liberation through no-strings-attached sex.

And even on the most trivial level, this narrative of liberation from oppression can even be seen in the films we watch and the songs we listen to- even those aimed at children.

For example, here is the bearded lady from the Greatest Showman:

“Look out 'cause here I come

And I'm marching on to the beat I drum

I'm not scared to be seen

I make no apologies, this is me”

Here is Queen Elsa from Disney’s Frozen:

“It's time to see what I can do

To test the limits and break through

No right, no wrong, no rules for me

I'm free”

Or, more recently, here is the chorus of this year’s winning song at Eurovision 2 weeks ago, by Nemo from Switzerland

“I went to Hell and back

To find myself on track

I broke the code, whoa-oh-oh

Like ammonites

I just gave it some time

Now I found paradise

I broke the code, whoa-oh-oh”

All across our society we see this narrative of the oppressed rising to fight their oppressors in order to gain liberation.

And furthermore just like the in the 1840s, organised religion in general, and Christianity in particular, is often seen as one of the oppressive forces that needs to be broken free of. Christianity is widely viewed as the source of much of the prejudice, discrimination and oppressive rules that restrict people’s freedoms and keep them oppressed.

Christianity is just an antiquated set of rules and institutions that stop us being free.

Now at this point I think it is worth acknowledging that this is not entirely unfair. I’d be the first to say that Christians have been responsible for some awful acts of discrimination, prejudice, and sometimes downright oppression and abuse, both historically and today.

The Christian Church has held consideration institutional power in our nation’s history. And all to often the way it has used this power has left much to be desired. And many people do many awful things in the name of Christianity that I would never want to defend.

All that being said, I do think it is still worth exploring this idea that Christianity itself is an oppressive belief system.

Which brings us on to our third heading: A Philosophical Perspective.


3. A Philosophical Perspective

Now at this point, I’d like to take step back and pose what I think is an interesting philosophical question that underpins our discussion. And that is the question: “what does it mean to be free?”.

You see, I would suggest that pretty much all of the cultural elements we have looked at so far, be they the sexual revolution or “Let it Go” from Frozen, these are built on quite a specific answer to this question. I think our modern Western culture is built, at least in part, on the idea that freedom comes from total autonomy. What does it mean to be free? It means having total autonomy.

Autonomy literally means self-rule “auto-nomos”- living life however I please, without any external rule or restriction. “I am my own king or queen”. I think this belief, that freedom comes from total autonomy, is such a dominant belief in our culture that few even think to question it.

But, is that really freedom?

After all, if we lived in a society where everyone always acted the way they wanted without any rule or regulation, surely it would be anarchy not paradise.

And furthermore, there are countless examples from day-to-day life when we willingly and happily forego our autonomy in the hope of gaining greater freedom in the long-run.

So to take a very boring example, I took my car for a servicing recently. I don’t actually own a Mercedes, but we can all live in hope. Anyway, I drove my old little Toyota to the garage, dropped my keys of with the mechanic and then walked back home. And in doing so, I completely relinquished control over what happened to my car. They could have done anything to it.

But of course I happily handed my car keys over to them because I trusted the mechanics, and because I knew that in handing over my keys I would gain greater freedom in the long-run- namely the ability to keep driving my car. I let go of my autonomy, in order to gain freedom in the long-run.

And the same goes for every time we self-isolate when we catch an infectious disease, or send our children to school, or wear a seatbelt. We frequently forego our autonomy in the hope of reaping longer-term benefits and freedoms.

Which then brings us on to the issue of belief in God. You see, I would suggest that Christianity speaks of a God who doesn’t just create rules to oppress us and restrict our freedoms. No Christians believe in a God who sets rules for our freedom.

Hear are a couple of verse from Jesus’ biography written by His close friend John. This is about halfway through the book, and up until this point, Jesus has been going Jerusalem and the surround areas publicly claiming to be the son of God, who had come to Earth to bring people back to God.

And unsurprisingly this claim was sparking a lot of controversy and questioning both from the Jewish leaders of the day, and the general public. And then we get to this brief interaction which we read in John 8:31-36:

To the Jews who had believed him [when He claimed to be the son of God], Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
They answered him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?”
Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.

You see, Jesus teaches that God created human beings, and gave human beings rules on how to live. However, these rules are not meant to be oppressive or restrictive. They are not there to stop us having fun. No, God gives humans rules to show us how we can flourish in His creation. This is how we can find true freedom: by realigning our lives back to our Creator’s intended moral framework.

Conversely, Jesus says, to disobey God rules is not liberating; it is actually restrictive. Jesus says it is tantamount to slavery. And this was as shocking to Jesus’ original listeners as it to us today. But actually I do think it makes sense.

Christian freedom can perhaps be compared to a camera lens that can only capture a sharp photo when dialled to the correct mode, or a car that can only drive when it is filled with the correct fuel. The photographer is free to capture whatever they like with the camera, and the driver is free to travel wherever they like in the car, providing that these objects are used in the way they were designed to be used. To do otherwise would be restrictive, not liberating.

And the same goes for our lives, says Jesus. God’s rules for our lives are not chains to oppress us, they are a framework to liberate us. This is how my friend and professor of psychiatry Glynn Harrison puts it: “We flourish as human beings when we work with, rather than against, the grain of God’s reality.” Might true freedom be found not through total autonomy, but by living the way God intended us to live?


Now there are a couple of footnotes I’d want to just mention at this point.

Firstly, I just want to reiterate that this does not justify many of the genuinely oppressive actions and decisions that have been done in the name of Christianity, both in history and in recent years. I do not think Christians should be going around imposing God’s rules on those who do not wish to follow Jesus. I think that is oppressive. Or to put it another way, on most ethical issues I do believe in the separation of Church and State.

And secondly, this view of Christian freedom does not mean that following Jesus is easy or comfortable. It often is not. In fact, in our broken world, in can often feel restrictive in the short term to obey God’s commands in the Bible. However the proposition from Jesus is that there is a God who wants what is best for us, who knows what is best for us, and who teaches us how we can flourish in His world. And that is how we can find true freedom.



And so as we draw to a close, this is the road we have travelled. We’ve been asking this question: “is religion oppressive? We have looked historically particularly at Karl Marx and his idea that religion keeps the oppressed from gaining their freedom. We’ve looked culturally at how the ideas of liberation from oppression, including from organised religion, permeate much of modern culture. And we’ve looked philosophically at this question of “what does really mean to be free?”. And we have suggested that maybe freedom does not come from total autonomy, but by living in line with God’s created moral framework.

Or to put it in the words of 20th Century Scottish author William Barclay:

“Christian freedom does not mean being free to do as we like; it means being free to do as we ought.”







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