First, reread the classic statement, but note in particular its deeply sympathetic tone:
“Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man—state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion. Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. 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. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. 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. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.”
– Karl Marx. ‘Introduction’ to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Collected Works, vol. 3. New York.
Then update it for one of the more prevalent contemporary forms of ‘religion’:
In our own time, one of the most popular, influential branches of the culture industry is unquestionably sport. If you were to ask what provides some meaning in life nowadays for a great many people, especially men, you would do worse than reply, ‘Football’. Not many of them, perhaps, would be ready to admit as much; but sport, and in Britain football in particular, stands in for all those noble causes – religious faith, national sovereignty, personal honour, ethnic identity – for which, over the centuries, people have been prepared to go to their deaths. Sport involves tribal loyalties and rivalries, symbolic rituals, fabulous legends, iconic heroes, epic battles, aesthetic beauty, physical fulfilment, intellectual satisfaction, sublime spectaculars, and a profound sense of belonging. It also provides the human solidarity and physical immediacy which television does not. Without these values, a good many lives would no doubt be pretty empty. It is sport, not religion, which is now the opium of the people.
– Terry Eagleton, The Meaning of Life. Oxford University Press, 2007.
And last of all, take note of this sobering anecdote:
Since 1984, the economic structure of New Zealand has been transformed from one of the most egalitarian Western democracies in the world. This stupendous feat has been achieved by overturning what was a comprehensive welfare state and fearlessly adopting ‘free’ market reforms of the type introduced in the U.S. and UK in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. The politicians responsible for the reforms, members of a party which had originally been formed in the early twentieth-century by trade unionists (if you are old enough to remember such folk), solemnly promised that the ‘trickle-down’ benefits for the middle and lower echelons of society would eventually enrich everybody, without any need for government ‘intervention’.
Last Sunday, the lead article in New Zealand’s largest Sunday paper, the Sunday Star-Times reported that New Zealand now has the sixth highest level of disparity between the rich and the poor of any Western country.
Richard Wilkinson, co-author of Spirit Level (2009), told the Sunday Star-Times:
inequality rose faster in New Zealand in the late 1980s than in any other country.
Not coincidentally, the late 1980s was the major period in which the most drastic ‘free’ market reforms were introduced in New Zealand.
An inset to the same newspaper article is much more positive however. It reports that, “on the brighter side”, New Zealanders are still “generally happy” and “hopeful of a positive 2011 – as long as the All Blacks win the Rugby World Cup”. The inset concludes: “Woes aside, we’re a cheery lot”. The juxtaposition of lead article and inset is priceless. Is this merely a naive presentation of what journalists like to call ‘the two sides of the story’? Or, I wonder, was it cynically orchestrated by some ‘vulgar Marxist’ operating deep within the ‘Fourth Estate’. You be the judge:
Sure, sport is much more than a form of crack cocaine for the masses. But it is that particular function which is playing a crucial role at this present time in obscuring economic depression and deprivation with the excitement and ephemeral distractions of the circus.
On a structural level of analysis, a vulgar Marxism is sometimes invoked in viewing sports as an opiate and as producing unreality, mystification and false consciousness.
– Elden E. Snyder and Elmer Spreitzer, ‘Sociology of Sport: An Overview.’ The Sociological Quarterly 15 (1974): 467-487, 471.