Materialism is the belief that there is no supernatural of any kind; no God, no gods, no angels, demons, demiurges; no “fairies at the bottom of the garden,” in Richard Dawkins’ memorable phrase.
Many thinkers today write meaningfully about materialism as a set of doctrinal principles, but in the main, materialism is presented as what it isn’t, instead. It’s presented as non-belief; as the absence of belief in God or those fairies. As such, materialism gets a pass on being more thoroughly examined as a set of doctrinal principles unto itself. What we’re expected to do instead is to examine the competitors to materialism, such as Christianity, and to find those competitors wanting. Then, we’re expected to default at materialism, never asking the dangerous question how it is that materialism is a coherent belief system on its own merits.
We have remarked upon this phenomenon in a variety of contexts. One contributor is the difficulty we have with the concept of “nothing.” When we posit a belief as a non-belief, rather than affirmatively as what it is, we conceive it as the absence of belief; that is, nothing. We think of rejection of A as if it were acceptance of nothing, which we have already shown to be impossible. We are primed to this fuzzy thinking by already misconceiving what “nothing” is. We readily substitute something – an undefined something – for true nothing. In that way we reject A but disavow having accepted Z. In that way we may reject theism, but at the same time fail to adequately defend materialism. That is the subject of “Nothing” Is Not Religious Neutrality.
Materialism in History
Another contributor to materialism as an unexamined default position is the misguided notion that modern materialism is a restoration to a classical way of thinking. The idea is that materialism, or absence of belief, is somehow man’s natural state, and existed as such in early days of civilization, before it became corrupted by religion; in particular, the advent of Christianity. Is that conception true?
Short answer: no. To understand this, consider history in three epochs, to understand cultural influences now. As with any generalization, one can certainly think of many caveats and exceptions, and make the charge of over-generalization. But a concept (like an “epoch” of history) is an overgeneralization only if it is so broad as to fail to serve its limited purpose. The limited purpose of this generalization is to understand thinking about a reality beyond mere space and time, in the history of western civilization.
The three epochs are pagan, Christian, and materialist. The first of these is discussed in The Pagan Epoch.