Marx famously called religion “the opium of the people.” Some opiates are better for the people than others, as Chris Hedges and his co-author Joe Sacco discovered hanging with desolate West Virginia pillheads. Excerpts:

During the two years Joe Sacco and I reported from the poorest pockets of the United States, areas that have been sacrificed before the altar of unfettered and unregulated capitalism, we found not only decayed and impoverished communities but shattered lives.  There comes a moment when the pain and despair of constantly running into a huge wall, of realizing that there is no way out of poverty, crush human beings.  Those who best managed to resist and bring some order to their lives almost always turned to religion and in that faith many found the power to resist and even rebel.

Some who haven’t found religion discovered something else to relieve the pain:

The reliance on government checks, and a vast array of painkillers and opiates, has turned towns like Gary into modern opium dens. The painkillers OxyContin, fentanyl — 80 times stronger than morphine — Lortab, as well as a wide variety of anti-anxiety medications such as Xanax, are widely abused. Many top off their daily cocktail of painkillers at night with sleeping pills and muscle relaxants. And for fun, addicts, especially the young, hold “pharm parties,” in which they combine their pills in a bowl, scoop out handfuls of medication, swallow them, and wait to feel the result.

A decade ago only about 5% of those seeking treatment in West Virginia needed help with opiate addiction. Today that number has ballooned to 26%. It recorded 91 overdose deaths in 2001. By 2008 that number had risen to 390.

Drug overdoses are the leading cause of accidental death in West Virginia, and the state leads the country in fatal drug overdoses. OxyContin — nicknamed “hillbilly heroin” — is king. At a drug market like the Pines it costs a dollar a milligram. And a couple of 60- or 80-milligram pills sold at the Pines is a significant boost to a family’s income. Not far behind OxyContin is Suboxone, the brand name for a drug whose primary ingredient is buprenorphine, a semisynthetic opioid. Dealers, many of whom are based in Detroit, travel from clinic to clinic in Florida to stock up on the opiates and then sell them out of the backs of gleaming SUVs in West Virginia, usually around the first of the month, when the government checks arrive. Those who have legal prescriptions also sell the drugs for a profit. Pushers are often retirees. They can make a few hundred extra dollars a month on the sale of their medications. The temptation to peddle pills is hard to resist.

Ye who think that legalizing drugs will lead us all to a libertarian paradise should read Hedges’ account of spending some time in the living room of these sad desperate men, and think about what in the world they could be good for in their current condition. How, exactly, would making it possible for them to obtain their pills legally change their lives for the better?

Marx’s famous remark reflected his judgment that religion kept the masses tranquilized and passive in the face of their exploitation. If not for religion teaching them to accept their fate, he reasoned, they would become conscious of their plight and act to better their material condition.

There are a couple of problems with this. For one, as Hedges says, religion not only gave some the ability to endure their suffering, it gave some the wherewithal to rebel against it (e.g., Solidarity). For another, there is the inescapable fact that we will all suffer and die. You may be a poor man living in a trailer in West Virginia, or a rich man living in a Manhattan penthouse, but sooner or later, you will meet suffering and death. It is the great equalizer. Some seek to escape their mortality, their finitude, through booze, drugs, sex, and suchlike. There are people who use religion as a kind of drug, getting high on spiritual fads and pious emotionalism as a way to avoid confronting themselves and their problems.

Yet I believe Hedges is on to something when he says that among the poor he saw, those who have managed to survive and even to thrive were “almost always” those who found God. When I interviewed my late sister’s oncologist for the book I’ve written about her, he told me that in his quarter century of treating cancer patients, they have all, at some point, made peace with God, however they conceived of Him. Of course not all do (think of Christopher Hitchens), but in this doctor’s experience, it’s very common — and, he told me, the sooner a cancer patient reconciles to God, in that she puts her fate in God’s hands, the stronger her capacity to resist the disease’s progress in her body, and to fight depression that threatens to blight and ruin the days she has left.

Reading that Hedges dispatch, I find it hard to imagine what power on earth other than belief in God will give those men the strength to get off drugs and take the steps that they might to change their lives for the better. This does not make religion true, I understand; but what else do you have?

This afternoon I had a nice long visit from a childhood friend who is a country preacher. This man and his family have known real poverty, and real suffering. His discovery of faith — simple Christian piety, believed with a stout heart — has brought to his life so much dignity, order, and gentleness, and peaceability. He’s a working-class white man, married to a black woman, and he preaches and worships in the black church.  That is not an easy thing to pull off in the Deep South, but he does it. He sat on my screen porch, rocking in a rocking chair and talking about prayer, and teaching me. I kept thinking about how this man has a high school education, but he knows so much more than I do about things that matter, because he has lived it, and prayed his way through it. How badly things could have gone for him, and have gone for more than a few folks around here who had it as hard as he did growing up. But he found Jesus as a young man, and that has made all the difference.

He was telling me today that he gives thanks for all the times he felt ashamed in high school because of what he didn’t know, or the things he didn’t have, because God used it to humble him, and bring him to faith. Here in front of me was a man who doesn’t have a lot in this world — not a lot more than those doped-up young men dying in front of their TV sets in another poor rural part of America — and yet, he is rich.

This sounds so cliched, I know. I know. But I saw it today. I heard it. It’s real. The dignity and goodness of that man. It’s from God, and through God. Again, that doesn’t make God true, but it does make Him real.

Here’s Robert D. Kaplan, from a 1994 Atlantic Monthly article about Third World culture, religion, and poverty:

My point in bringing up a rather wholesome, crime-free slum is this: its existence demonstrates how formidable is the fabric of which Turkish Muslim culture is made. A culture this strong has the potential to dominate the Middle East once again. Slums are litmus tests for innate cultural strengths and weaknesses. Those peoples whose cultures can harbor extensive slum life without decomposing will be, relatively speaking, the future’s winners. Those whose cultures cannot will be the future’s victims. Slums—in the sociological sense—do not exist in Turkish cities. The mortar between people and family groups is stronger here than in Africa. Resurgent Islam and Turkic cultural identity have produced a civilization with natural muscle tone. Turks, history’s perennial nomads, take disruption in stride.

… Whereas rural poverty is age-old and almost a “normal” part of the social fabric, urban poverty is socially destabilizing. As Iran has shown, Islamic extremism is the psychological defense mechanism of many urbanized peasants threatened with the loss of traditions in pseudo-modern cities where their values are under attack, where basic services like water and electricity are unavailable, and where they are assaulted by a physically unhealthy environment. The American ethnologist and orientalist Carleton Stevens Coon wrote in 1951 that Islam “has made possible the optimum survival and happiness of millions of human beings in an increasingly impoverished environment over a fourteen-hundred-year period.”

Again and again, this does not make Islam, or any religion, true. But that’s not the point of this post. Yet, no religion can be useful for the sake of surviving, much less thriving (and that includes inspiring one to organize, to protest, to clean up, to go back to school, to build something, to work, etc.) unless people believe it to be truly true.

UPDATE: A friend e-mailed a good question about this piece: “What is this ‘regulated capitalism’ Hedges is talking about, and how would it have made a difference for these people?” I don’t know. All I can figure is that Hedges thinks government should have prevented the mills from closing. That strategy did not work so well for the former communist states. Do you know what Hedges meant by this?