“Religion is the opium of the people.” In 2017, the notorious Karl Marx quote could be restated more literally: Opiates are the opium of the people.
As President Trump and the rest of the media highlight the massive opioid epidemic in America, I was immediately reminded of the famous Karl Marx quote. If we assume the Marx quote is true, the current plague of opiates — in the form of prescription pills and illegal drugs like heroin and fentanyl — does not necessarily represent an increase in the use of opioids (metaphorically speaking). Instead, it may represent an inverse correlation — a transfer from an age-old panacea to a new-age alternative.
Over the past 60 years, religion has dramatically declined in America as secularism has risen. In a recent Scientific American article, the author, Allen Downey, documents this trend and shows how it is accelerating in recent years: “Since 1990, the fraction of Americans with no religious affiliation has nearly tripled, from about 8 percent to 22 percent.” Downey analyzed data from the General Social Survey and predicted a continued acceleration over the next 20 years: “by 2020, there will be more of these ‘Nones’ than Catholics, and by 2035, they will outnumber Protestants.”
Since 1999, the number of overdose deaths in America involving prescription opioids — drugs like oxycodone, hydrocodone, and methadone — has quadrupled. In 2015, opioids killed more than 33,000 Americans, which is more than any previous year on record. Overdose deaths are now the leading cause of accidental death for Americans under the age of 50, recently surpassing deaths caused by motor vehicle accidents, guns and HIV infections. The 2015 National Survey on Drug Abuse and Health suggested (using weighted averages) that about 92 million Americans (37.8%) had used prescription opioids in the prior year. More than 11 million misused opioids, and, of those who misused, 40.8% obtained prescription opioids for free from friends or relatives for their most recent episode of misuse. This last statistic is especially concerning, considering that many who later transition to cheaper and more dangerous illegal substitutes — such as heroin and fentanyl — start out by misusing prescription opioids.
While there is no direct evidence for a causal relationship, the simultaneous decline of religion and growth of opiate use offers a potentially troubling correlation for consideration. Harvard Business Review recently ran an article titled “To Combat the Opioid Epidemic, We Must Be Honest About All Its Causes”, which addresses over-prescription by doctors, over-zealous marketing by pharmaceutical manufacturers, and socioeconomic forces such as unemployment, lack of health insurance and poverty. While these forces are primary and need to be addressed, I wonder about a deeper and more difficult cause potentially embedded in the human condition.
As Religion Falls, Opiate Use Rises In America – Forbes