Odor of Religion

From Karl Marx’s most hated quotation:

“Religion is the general theory of that world, its encyclopedic compendium, its logic in a popular form, its spiritualistic point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, its universal source of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence because the human essence has no true reality. The struggle against religion is therefore indirectly a fight against the world of which religion is the spiritual aroma.

Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and also the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

From Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law” Introduction “Speech for the altars and hearths” in Karl Marx Frederick Engels Collected Works, Volume 3, International Publishers, New York, 1975, page 175}

For Marx at this point, religion is a complement and consolation in reaction to history’s current configuration. Read carefully, the sentences state that religion is a means of expression and protest. It makes ‘spirit’ possible in a heartless and spiritless world. Second, a rhetorical relationship between aroma and opium is there. The aroma of religion is in the air. Religion has the aroma of opium. Now, is opium a narcotic or a pain killer? Using ‘opium,’ seems incongruous with the other ideas or just an ill-conceived choice of words to follow ‘aroma.’ The phrase “of the people” could be read as “for the people.” That might be more plausible depending on what the German phrase is, which I haven’t had time to consult. “For the people” might switch the valence from people accepting to be duped by religion to a veil cast by political and social institutions for the purpose of preventing people from learning the truth about their circumstances. The complex nature of religion is a way for people to find themselves along with real political and economic change or, even, revolution.

But what if Marx had not used the word “opium?” Would any other odor be less dismal or, instead, sacrosanct? What if the aroma of religion were gardenias, lilacs, onions, garlic, garbage, sewage, roses, pine trees, fresh bread, newly mown grass or hay, cilantro, dead fish, curry, oranges, or the Cedars of Lebanon? What about the Amorphophallus titanium at the climax of its rare blooming? What does any odor mask, at the altar, whether of incense, fresh flowers, or Christmas trees? Of course, the “rose” has a great deal of symbolic weight in the Bible and Christianity. But if Marx had written instead:

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the rose of the people. That seems to confound his meaning as well as that of the significance of the “rose” in Christianity. A rose can mask bad odors too. A rose aroma, associated with the thorns of the State, might have been more appropriate than the smell and effect of opium. A rose smell would have lulled people into a pleasant delirium of the senses too. Would then a ‘rose by another name’ smell as sweet?

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