The jump to materialism
Here’s a curious phenomenon. Many Americans today come from a Christian background but become disaffected by it, for one reason or another, and then find “permission” in the culture to reject it altogether, saying they’re now atheists.
Didn’t they skip a step? If we’re to come off the claims of Christianity – that God became one of us; that He atoned for our sin on our behalf; that He was bodily resurrected — then wouldn’t the rolled-back position be some tentative form of theism, rather than absolute materialism? If a person acquainted with Christianity rejected its claims, couldn’t he reject the One who claimed to be Christ, and not reject God?
After all, giving up “religion” means adopting materialism. That would be obvious, but for the fact that we can fool ourselves into thinking we believe nothing, or even that we believe in nothing.
A mysterious belief system has arisen in recent years: beliefs centered on nothing-as-such. This is more than the idea of nothing as being the absence of something. This is the notion of nothing as if it were a vacuum in the mental space of somethingness. It is the idea of “nothing” as an entity of sorts unto itself. It is really a subtle shift in the concept of nothing. “Nothing” means “something.” That of course has the effect of eradicating entirely the very concept of nothing. If we call “nothing” that which is something, then we have no word left for the concept-formerly-known-as-nothing.
This plays out in the understanding of physics. It is how, for example, physicist Victor Stenger can make the absurd statement that the universe could have sprung forth spontaneously from nothing. It can do so only if he’s first fooled himself into thinking that the nothing from which it supposedly arose is really a species of somethingness.
This plays out in the culture, as well. As always in the history of man, we want freedom. Many philosophers (Friedrich Hegel, among many others) considered the history of philosophy to be primarily a searching of mankind for freedom. Freedom has come to be understood, rather artlessly, as freedom from constraint of any kind. Aiding and abetting that misunderstanding is the notion that the moral constraints of yesteryear should be replaced by: nothing. So what we misperceive as the absence of any moral construct for our lives is really just the replacement of it with another, which we don’t recognize because we’re pleased to call it, wrongly: nothing.
If there can be a nothing-as-such, then there can be a blank space left, when religion is removed. When people say now that they’re atheists, they tend to think it means only that they haven’t adopted any of the religions known to them. They believe in the absence of something, they would say. They believe in “nothing.”
That’s obviously false. If someone believes that material reality is all there is, that is just as fundamental a belief about reality as the belief that something like God exists behind and through the material reality we perceive.
An atheist doesn’t really believe “nothing” about reality. He’s not agnostic about all of existence. He thinks all of existence is comprised of that which we can perceive in the three dimensions of space, and that of time. He should therefore now turn his attention to the systematic “theology” of the belief system he has adopted. It’s not “nothing.” What is it? How exactly does materialism explain the awesome mystery of existence? Of consciousness? Of individual conscience? Of the reality of transcendent values?
If a person is agnostic because he has turned away from Christianity, he should think critically about, and come to an understanding of, the beliefs he has adopted in its place. It’s not nothing.
12 thoughts on “It’s not “nothing.””
I completely disagree.. I represent those that have give up religion, and I have personally never claimed to believe in “nothing”, on the contrary I feel more enlightened now about the universe, in fact I believe in something even more “magical” and more mysterious then religion on this planet.. why must it be supernatural.. does this author believe in ghosts? I feel as though I have gained more then I’ve given up when it comes to religion.. I was able to look beyond the bible, for instance, and I found answers.. I found actual answers.. I’ve discovered that the mysteries of the universe and how we came to be are so much more “impressive” then what you find in religion..
So how does a person that was “raised” in a religions atmosphere come to a place like this? He starts questioning and no longer walks blindly with the crowd and he starts looking for real answers and that’s very easy these days with information literally at your finger tips.. Belief in nothing.. nope not at all.. I believe in so much more now..
Thanks for commenting.
Many atheists insist that they don’t have to prove the validity of their materialist viewpoint, arguing that it is because “atheism” is the absence of belief, not a belief system unto itself. This has a few rhetorical advantages for them. They thereby dodge having to demonstrate the coherency of materialism. They are thereby able to keep the debate focused on religion’s truth or falsity, rather than the truth or falsity of materialism. That lets them play offense always; never defense. And finally, it enables them to say that theists have the “burden of proof,” because, they say, they don’t have to prove anything, precisely because they believe “nothing.” They don’t want to admit that materialism is a point of view about metaphysics, too: the point of view that there is no metaphysical.
So the post is intended to demonstrate that this is a debating tactic used by many advocates of atheism. It is not intended to say that atheists actually believe in nothing. In fact, it is a clarification of principles so that we can move on to the question of what it actually is that atheists do believe. The whole point is that it’s not true that atheists believe in nothing. They only say they do. Not you, perhaps, but this is a key tactic of nearly all of the atheist polemicists who publish books and articles and debates trying to establish that religion is dead because there really is no God to which religion is legitimately directed.
So to your case. You’re saying you’ve never said you believe in “nothing.” You believe in something. What is that something? This is not just a call for a restatement of the position that “material reality is all there is.” It would be interesting to know how you explain materialism as a philosophy unto itself; how it hangs together coherently.
For example, how did matter and time (which you say is all there is) originate?
Actually, let’s be more specific than that. It’s possible for a materialist to say “I don’t have to explain everything in order to say I don’t believe in God.” Both sides have to admit to mystery. But materialists have to be saying that both time and matter came from nothing. Or that they were always there. But there’s no “always” before time. That material follows the dictates of the laws of physics does not explain the existence of the laws of physics. The mere existence of stuff and the arrow of time demands an explanation that is something other than more stuff and infinite time. Doesn’t it?
It would be interesting to know also just how rejection of religious dogma makes one feel “more enlightened.” After all, the wonders of science are still wonders even if there is an even greater wonder behind them.
Well, I guess I improperly used the term enlightened.. I simply meant that as I investigated the origins of the earth and people etc., I became fascinated with the vastness of it…for instance, instead of just taking the word of a book that a god put us here and made a human bloody sacrifice to account for your “wrong” doings, I looked further back in time and space and discovered some amazing things that make the mind boggle.. these things are what fascinates me and makes me feel the wonder and mystery that abounds in the universe..I’m intrigued and moved by the natural science of it. Sometimes I think the arguments get muddled from the terms we use, like what our definition of “is” is..
About burden of proof, isn’t it the responsibility of the person arguing the affirmative to provide the burden of proof? ie.. “I believe that there IS not a god”, now I have to prove it.. or “I believe that there IS a god”, now I have to prove it. To say, “I do not believe a god exists” does not require proof. It’s like saying, “I don’t believe Santa clause exists”.. do I have to show proof that he doesn’t? Or should one have to show proof that he does.. ? this is just common sense isn’t it?
If I’m on a lily pad and surrounded by ideas that are not jiving in my brain, or not making sense and I see a lily pad with what I perceive to be reasonable and natural, I’m going to jump to that lily pad… so my “something” is just that. I am more moved by the natural something, the something that my mind sees as truth.. is there “something” out there other than what is seen in the natural universe? possibly, maybe… show it to me.. let me see it.. prove it.
Is it reasonable to believe in a “something” without proof?
Investigating the vastness of the universe and the complexity of people and things within it would certainly lead to the sense of “wonder” and “mystery” you describe. It is indeed intriguing and moving. Coming to a greater level of understanding of the natural science behind it is certainly “enlightening.”
Why would you suppose that these wonders revealed by science are deemed inconsistent with there being a God behind it all? The “word of a book” (the Bible) that you refer to isn’t contrary to the complexity and wonder that science reveals. When we read for example of God that it was He “who made the Pleiades and Orion, and turns deep darkness into the morning and darkens the day into night,” we’re not to understand that gravity or the movement of planets and stars or the big bang had nothing to do with it.
So glad you commented about burden of proof. Atheists challenge Christianity because they say that as an entire belief system, it does not make sense. Instead of proving that it doesn’t make sense, however, they demand from Christians that they prove that it does. Christian apologists attempt to oblige.
What we’re saying here is that atheists don’t start from a position of neutrality themselves. The materialism of atheists does not begin and end with the assertion that there is no God. It must be a coherent belief system, to be believable. They should be called upon to prove that materialism does make sense. Materialism is not just no-God-ism.
The word “atheist” of course means one who does not believe in God. It is tempting to stop there and not consider the implications. But we should. “Atheism” is not merely the absence of belief in something. It is necessarily the adoption of an entire alternative belief system to that of theists. “Atheist,” as the word is used by every contemporary writer out there, means materialism: the belief that the physical is all of reality.
That’s why it’s not like saying Santa Claus doesn’t exist. It’s like saying that Christmas doesn’t exist; that the exuberance of Christmas morning is an illusion; that the joy of giving gifts to others and seeing their delight is delusional; that markers for new beginnings, like Christmas, are merely biology-driven constructs affecting our emotions; that, most relevant to the present discussion: all the toys and toy-givers going back to the beginning of everything blinked into existence from nothing.
So the “Nothing” in these posts refers to two mistakes in materialist thinking. One, that something could come from nothing. Two, that if one doesn’t believe in God, one believes in “nothing.” As to the second, if one does not believe in God, then he’s not left with a vacuum in his set of beliefs. He necessarily believes the natural world and cosmos is all there is. He should have a reason for believing that, every bit as much as the Christian should have a reason for believing what he believes.
Thanks for the reference to lily pads, presumably you got that from the introduction to False Neutrality, one of the books mentioned on this site. The point of the lily pad analogy is that when you’re looking at alternative belief systems (the array of lily pads on the pond) you should not be blind to the one you currently hold (the lily pad you’re already resting on).
I mostly agree with all that.. so is this just a discussion or a “collision” of semantics? I did get the lily pad reference from your book.. BTW..
Is it just a question of which side you fall in your belief system..? If I were in a discussion about the natural world and I had to “prove” my case., I suspect I would say something like, “I believe this table exists because I can touch it and feel it, but isn’t the question really “is there more” ? not just one or the other? (I hope that made sense, it did in my head) Like aren’t we all materialists anyway and some of us believe that there is stuff you can’t touch or see? I’m fine with that. Is The evidence of a god because one feels this way at Christmas time, or maybe you found exactly what you were looking for one day and credited a deity for the discovery, calling it providence..what about the trucker that was in a 15 car pile up killing a bunch of people but sparing his life.. and this guy thanks God for intervening on his behalf… what about the dead ones.. this is preposterous but that’s where people hang their hat and it’s just craziness.
I loved your Christmas analogy, and growing up, I had wonderful magical Christmas’s and Easters, and all that but I think the magic is from within not from a guy in the sky.
A little more than a collision of semantics. A materialist isn’t just someone who believes in tables. That would include all of us who aren’t insane. A materialist is one who believes that material things like the table define ALL of reality.
A materialist doesn’t just need to prove the table exists. There’s no dispute about that. The materialist has to prove that ONLY the table (and other material things like it) exist. He has to prove there is nothing beyond, by explaining the many things we experience that tell us there is.
The reason that seems impossible is that the materialist belief does not explain the fact of physical existence. Nor does it account for the laws of physics that shape the features of that tangible existence. Nor does it explain the existence of transcendent values in man (love, truth, justice, beauty, others). Nor does it explain the commonality of those transcendent values. Or morality, or human consciousness.
This is more than saying that materialism is implausible. It is saying that materialism is not reconcilable with those features of reality that we do experience. It’s why on this site one of the common threads is that materialism does not hold together as a coherent belief system.
The one thing that seems to be the most persuasive to people who become atheists is the problem of evil in the world. You call it “preposterous” and “craziness” that someone would be thankful that they’re spared some calamity, especially when others weren’t. You’re saying that there isn’t a God because bad things happen, and you’re saying that the good and bad that happen to us are entirely random, with no intervention (good or bad) by God.
It seems puzzling that the issue of painful circumstances would be such a problem for people. Why would we rush to point out the fact of evil in the world, when we are literally dying? Every one of us. And yet, we don’t seem to think that’s an issue. That’s “natural.”
We’re looking at things entirely upside down. The problem of evil and pain and death is actually a lot worse than you think it is. We are all dying, and many, many of us will die painfully, slowly, in agony, and with a sense of futility and hopelessness and despair. Children starve and disease decimates families. People live in grinding poverty and ignorance and perpetual want. This is going on all around us, all the time, and has been since man was created and made himself out to be a god. We’re fools to point to pain and death as being some sort of problem for our understanding about God. We should instead point to the instances of grace and peace and beauty and Christmas morning with a sense of gratitude for the unearned grace.
We are prone to say that bad happens, therefore there is no God. We should instead say that good happens, therefore there IS a God.