Sam Wight

Dialectical materialism, religion, and science

I originally wrote this for my Religion and Science course I’m taking this semester. I shat it out about an hour before it was due, so forgive me if it’s not the best 😅

In Vladamir Lenin’s 1909 essay, The Attitude of the Workers’ Party to Religion, Lenin discusses the Marxist definition of religion and how that influences his party’s politics. While the main subject of this essay is religion, Lenin includes an implicit definition of science and how it relates to religion.

Lenin’s understanding of religion aligns with Marxists’ definition: that religion is the ‘opiate of the masses’. To Marxists, religion is a series of cultural practices that arose naturally as a coping mechanism for the atrocities of capitalism. As these practices grew and evolved, they became oppressive instruments of the bourgeoisie. The wealthy used religion to keep workers from acknowleding the conditions of their material reality and the oppressive forces that shaped that reality. To a Marxist, capital and religion are inextricably linked, each benefiting and securing the future of the other.

Included in the essay is what I argue is an implied definition of ‘science’. Marxists use dialectical materialism to arrive at a ‘scientific socialism’: an argument for socialism rooted in observation of the material world. For Marxists, science is one of the roots of dialectical materialism; the ‘observation of the natural world’ (science) is the core of their entire methodology. Dialectical materialism, and therefore science, is viewed as a tool used to rescue the working class from their oppression, the hand that snatches their veil of ignorance.

In his essay, Lenin argues that the Marxist definitions of science and religion are fundamentally at odds. Science requires one to look at the world through a purely material lens while religion distracts one from observing those conditions. Because of this, Lenin says, the rise of Marxism / science will eventually result in a withering away of religion. It’s logical that once people acknowledge their material realities, they will recognize and shun the oppressive force of religion.

It’s important to note that certain Marxist definitions are radically different from their colloquial definitions. For example, the Marxist definition of ‘private property’ is any property that is used to exploit workers. A significant chunk of what is colloquially called ‘private property’ is not included in this definition: Marxists call the property not included in this definition personal property. This is done for reasons I won’t cover, but it’s something to be aware of.

The same is being done here with the definitions of ‘religion’ and ‘science’. Lenin wasn’t talking about what we colloquially call ‘religion’. As the leader of a radical leftist party, he wasn’t interested in trying to come up with a single, inclusive definition of religion. Instead, he used a broad-enough definition of religion that included groups that interacted with capital and the bourgeoisie. So when Lenin said that science / scientific socialism would lead to the eradication of religion, he was talking about specific groups of religions, a subset of what we colloquially call ‘religion’.

Throughout Marxism and dialectical materialism, words are moreso used as tools instead of universal definitions. Instead of attempting to create a single, universal definition of a word, dialectical materialists tend to focus on sharp, narrower definitions. Definitions are not descriptors, but tools: small windows used to isolate different groups and observe how they move and change in relation to other groups.

Like physical tools, these definitions don’t have to be perfectly accurate or work 100% of the time. From my understanding, dialectical materialism recognizes that the world is inherently chaotic and hard to understand. Instead of taking the path of science and attempting to create laws that are true every time they’re tested, dialectical materialism creates generalizations that are ‘good enough’, and then takes action using those generalizations.

What does it mean to agree or disagree with a definition or description of ‘religion’? For me, ‘agreement’ requires a logical argument to be made. Is it even possible for humans to create universal descriptions of social phenomena? Can we make logical arguments for a particular definition?

My answer to these questions tends to be no, that it’s not possible to nail down definitions of complex social phenomena. Humans are incredibly intricate creatures with advanced, subjective social systems, ‘religion’ being one of the most complex. Academics have debated for years about an objective definition for religion, to the point where it might not ever be resolved. I’m not interested in trying to find a definition that I agree or disagree with because I don’t even think that’s possible for me to do.

Carpenters don’t debate for hours (or centuries) on which hammer is objectively perfect. They don’t care that the hammer is perfect, but that the hammer is good enough for the job, that it is useful. If they see a hammer that’s broken, they don’t use it. And if they use a hammer that doesn’t produce the expected results, they find another hammer.

To me, definitions and descriptions are like that hammer: they are tools. They allow us to distinguish and observe specific social phenomena in isolation. They’re programs for the classification algorithms in our brains. They are ‘correct’ insofar as they are useful, and they are useful insofar as they allow us to learn new information about the world.

Lenin’s essay demonstrates this idea perfectly. Lots of people disagree with the Marxist definition of religion. It’s not one that’s widely accepted, at least in the US. But that’s again missing the point. Lenin, Marx, or Engels didn’t want to create a definition that was perfect or correct. They wanted to glean actionable, useful information about a group of human behaviors and how those behaviors relate to capitalism. This definition was their hammer and like the carpenter, they said, “Good enough” and used it.

So I don’t care about trying to find an objective definition of ‘religion’ or ‘science’. I don’t care about trying to make a distinction between the two. To me, they’re all part of the big, confusing pie of human social systems, and definitions are the myriad of knives, cake cutters, and other tools you can use to split it however you see fit.

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