In Arendts What is Authority she writes:

A convenient instance may be provided by the widespread conviction in the free world today that communism is a 'new religion'; notwithstanding its avowed atheism, because it fulfills socially, psychologically and 'emotionally' the same function that traditional religion fulfilled and still fulfills in the free world today.

This according to Arendt is due to the 'functionalism' of the social scientists; in

whatever fulfills the same function can be called the same

This erases differences; it's as though by identifying the both red and green as colours; we then assert that they are the same.

More colourfully (and disdainfully) she adds:

it's as though I had the right to call the heel of my shoe a hammer, because I like most women use it to drive nails into walls.

This ignores, I suppose essences.

Is this an example of functionalism?

And is it correct to say that only by ignoring essences that functionalism, and it's variations can hold?

  • 1
    I read your post but I am afraid to say, I was not able to find the "good relationship" that can explain the proposal you posted at the title and the question you are asking at the end.......
    – user13955
    Jul 17 '15 at 21:09
  • As well as the Ardent's line was so difficult for her own thought to communicate with each other, so was perplexed by your question I. I wish you had questioned separately completely.
    – user13955
    Jul 17 '15 at 21:25
  • @tomono: it's no more than the fact I've heard communism described as a religion in various places I can't recall now; and Arendt is simply saying that just because communism has been evangelised into a religion (so she is implicitly acknowledging this description); we need not then describe or think of it in its essence as a religion. Jul 18 '15 at 10:20
  • What would be interesting I think is just how communism interacted with religion in places like East Europe, and the Far East like China and Vietnam. Jul 18 '15 at 10:22
  • I apologize to say I am not able to follow you enough. Yes, some say the so-called "communism" stuff is quite likely to be a "religion". Well but I would like to say, it depends on the definition of the communism by numerous numbers of thinkers, but when a person just analyzed the capitalistic mode of the production and then he did not quite mention what exactly the "communism" is, how could you or we know? And I am sorry I can not follow you why you go to the Eastern areas with this communism thing. For the contribution to this site sake, I may be just able to translate
    – user13955
    Jul 18 '15 at 11:50

Arendt is misidentifying what is going on, broadly.

There is no similarity, even in the most extreme functionalism, for anything like her shoe analogy. Her shoe fulfills other functions as well, and fulfills them better, so it is not functionally equivalent.

So are you.

No one paying attention to function, after identifying both red and green as colors, would declare them the same. One signals ripeness of apples, the other, their unripeness. They serve different functions.

Beyond that, there remains a difference between using definitions in terms of intention and roles, and demanding that this is the only proper way to define things.

We can posit deeper aspects of the definition of a chair, but refusing to use the definition in terms of being intended to be sat upon primarily by an individual in the meantime is pretentious silliness.

And one need not get anywhere close to even that standard, to consider Communism religious. One just needs to look at how philosophy deals traditionally with the belief systems of other cultures. Many versions of Buddhism and virtually all forms of Taoism and Confucianism are as atheist as Communism. But we in the West have decided to look upon them as religions.

To exempt Communism from the same label, it would need to have a distinction from them, with a difference. Simply declaring itself atheist is not enough. These other religions have variants that explicitly declare themselves atheist, and a range of popular interpretations that disdain the question of theism altogether, as pointless.

And any form of prophesy that is based upon a specific belief that does not bow to material contradiction, and compels some degree of action, seems only to fit into the realm of religion.

This observation is not a "functionalist" one. It does not lay down a theory of the intentions and roles of religion. It only links one similarity to others inductively in a relatively straightforward way that is not tied to any specific rigid formula for definitions to take.

It seems to me that there is a whole range of options short of rigid functionalism on which one should reasonably identify many strong political philosophies with 'magical' components as religious.

To my mind, these include certain forms of racism and nationalism, which involve origin or foundation stories that are clearly mythologized, and such things as the belief in trans-gendered people, which involves a definition of gender that is completely immaterial. These notions tend not to aggregate up into a whole religion that can stand as a basis for a style of life. But they are religious in form, and when they are assembled into a system that assigns life a purpose, at some critical level, that clearly becomes a religion.

This whole middle ground could also take or leave essentialisms of different varieties. So these two cannnot represent a clean division, where the absence of one necessarily presumes the other.


Is "x" a religion can only be answered if we settle on a definition of a religion. There are a few options. If we rely on Ninian Smart's seven dimensions of religion then it might be possible to consider it a religion.

Smart's dimensions are as follows: Doctrinal, Mythological, Ethical, Ritual, Experiential, Institutional, Material (Didn't have it memorized so I pulled the list from wikipedia)

However, if we relied on Jan Van Baal's definition of religion, then it would not be. Van Baal's definition is as follows: "all explicit and implicit notions and ideas, accepted as true, which relate to a reality which cannot be verified empirically."

I do not care for Smart's dimensions of religion because it is too vague as to whether or not something is classified as a religion or not. The definition that I tend to rely on is similar to Van Baal's but I modify it slightly: a collection of beliefs for which there is no known method of obtaining empirical evidence along with a possibly empty collection of patterns of behavior associated with those beliefs. By that definition as well, Communism would not be considered religion by itself.


As to the nominal question, yes perhaps but only by uselessly broad analogy.

Marx certainly inherited a bit of Messianism and Hegelian Geist, as well as an unexamined humanistic assumption of universal moral values. Yet his historical materialism was implicitly open to "scientific" criticism, new historical evidence, and "progress," as with the advances by Luxembourg, Hilferding, and Lenin, incorporating financial capitalism and imperialism. Marxism was never intrinsically dogmatic, yet it was, under revolutionary circumstances, often obliged to act by appeal to authority, just as an army cannot afford the luxury of self-criticism on the battlefield.

As to the real question, it seems that Arendt does appear to be criticizing some sort of "functionalism" perhaps by way of an appeal to an Aristotelean "essentialism," in which her shoe exhibits the four-fold causality of "shoeness." Since Arendt was Heidegger's protégé, one immediately thinks of Heidegger's famous example of the "hammer" as the "ready-to-hand." In this reading, the shoe may become a "hammer" only by a sort of crisis that lifts it out of its pre-theoretical being. It doesn't seem to me that her analogy is a good one. But her point is that the "Marxism-Religion" analogy is a really, really bad one.

Functionalism and essentialism have many variants, but by any standard are basically incompatible.

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