Materialism is the spirit of the age, and we must understand its implications.
First, though, we should understand the word. It’s important not to blow past the meanings of words, as if we’re all on the same page because we speak the same language. It turns out that too often, we think we speak the same language, but we don’t, actually. One way to propagate untruth is to sneak bogus concepts into innocuous-sounding words.
“Materialism” is sometimes used to mean crass and shallow seeking after things, rather than relationships and personal integrity. But here we mean the belief that physical reality is all there is. Sometimes near-synonyms are used for this same idea: “physicalism,” or “naturalism.” One who holds this point of view would be a “materialist,” or a “naturalist,” the latter meaning not one who studies or appreciates nature, but one who believes that nature is all there is. Materialism asserts that there is no supernatural; no eternal life; nothing beyond this finite earthly existence; no God.
In American culture at this moment there is ongoing debate about whether there is a God, and whether one’s belief about God even matters. We should pause and consider how this debate is undertaken.
Materialists typically attack the theist’s claims, and the theists undertake to defend them. It’s seldom the other way around. Theists seldom attack the incoherency of the materialist point of view. Why is that?
One reason is that materialists state their position in the negative. The materialist point of view concerning God is a-theism, a self-reference stated in the negative. They don’t say what they are—they say what they aren’t. Materialists say there is no God, and then set out to prove His absence. If this were football, we would say they play their game on the other side’s half of the field. It’s an effective way of maximizing converts to atheism, and minimizing having to defend their own point of view.
We can imagine a conversation or a formal debate that proceeds along these lines, but that’s not the only way this tactic is employed. It’s actually implicit in the very structure of our society. We’re told that for the sake of politics or politeness, we’re to stay away from matters of religion. Public matters should be “neutral,” though that turns out to mean conducive to materialism and hostile to religion. Religion should be “private,” though that turns out to mean that materialism is exclusively to be the common currency; the lingua franca, the spirit of the age.
Peter Hitchens (a Christian and the brother of the late professional atheist Christopher Hitchens) described this phenomenon well, as it applied to education, but we see its relevance to our secularized society more generally:
Christianity was not implied in every action and statement of my teachers, whereas materialist, naturalistic faith was.
Science, understood as the belief that anything beyond materialism was not worth talking about, simply appropriated the larger question of how things should happen, into the smaller observation that they do in fact happen.
(His book The Rage Against God is reviewed here).
Now let’s proceed, with understanding, to engage on this most important question.