The Pagan and Christian Epochs
The predominant worldview in the west before Christianity was paganism, which assumed the existence of something beyond the here-and-now of matter in space and time; gods who must be honored in their prescribed ways and seasons, for orderly human life. We discussed this in The Pagan Epoch.
That “something beyond” was certainly not the personal God of the Jews and then of Christians, however. With the advent of The Christian Epoch, we saw a dynamic change in how people thought of reality. There were no gods to be appeased with prescribed ways of doing things. There was one God who was the creator of all, concerned with our well-being, and with whom we might be in personal relationship.
One thing that did not change, however, was the conviction that there was a super-nature above and transcendent to nature, and that it was in some sense more real than the here-and-now of this life.
Turn to Materialism
Now we turn to the Materialist Epoch. In doing so, let’s consider the signal feature which distinguishes it from the two epochs that went before. Materialism holds that physical reality is all there is. There are no angels, no demons, no gods, no God, no “fairies at the foot of the garden.” Materialism is an ideology in opposition to metaphysics, because it holds that that which is physical is all there is. It holds that there is no “meta-“ to inquire into.
To be clear, we’re talking here about ultimate questions, not personal tendencies to acquisitiveness or avarice or to define oneself in terms of one’s consumer choices—tendencies which we might say make one “materialistic.”
Materialism is sometimes used synonymously with “naturalism,” “physicalism,” or “atheism,” to mean that there is no God nor gods nor immaterial and immortal god-like presence within us. That there is no intelligent, transcending presence of any kind to the universe. It is the belief that what exists within space and time, and is limited thereby, and which presents to our sense impressions, is all that there is.
Philosophers sometimes refer to the phenomenon of materialism’s rise as the “disenchantment” of the world, or loss of “the imaginary.” What they’re attempting is a religiously-neutral way of describing the impact of the turn from religion. These phrases at least begin to describe the loss, but they can also be understood to mean that what was lost was only an illusion. “Disenchantment” correctly grasps the grievous loss of uplifting purpose and meaning, but it also implies that purpose and meaning were imputed to a fiction. The “imaginary” is accurate in that it recognizes that religions hold true that which is unseen, and which therefore must be “imagined” rather than experienced first-hand as we do the material world. But “imaginary” also has the meaning of being fictional, so again we falter at trying to describe the loss without also commenting on the truth or falsity of the thing lost.
The thing lost was not mere explanatory power for natural phenomena, like the bogus “God of the gaps” argument so loved by materialist evangelists. The thing lost includes explanatory power for something internal to us: a deeply-held desire for meaning to life, and for a purpose in how it is lived.
Religion has been so pervasive in human societies that materialists have to explain it while continuing to consider it fictional. So materialists hypothesize that this hunger for meaning and purpose causes religion, rather than the other way around. The idea is that this deep-seated, fundamental human need has caused man to construct an over-arching Presence outside of man, which provides the meaning and purpose. In this way religion is believed explained, and its variety, too, even though it is all a fiction.
This of course leaves unexplained why man would have a deep-seated desire for meaning and purpose in the first place. We’re left to suppose that biological evolution must somehow explain it. There is no basis for this, however, and in fact one has to wonder why evolution would leave us this strange artifact, unhelpful ultimately because illusory.
What thoughtful materialists contend is not that there is no loss resulting from the rise of materialism, but that the loss is offset by a gain. That gain is a steely-eyed acceptance of hard truth: that religion is false, and that we are on our own. Advocates of atheism often speak of it by analogy as renunciation of childish desires, as though the transition from religious belief to atheism is the same as going from childhood to adulthood; leaving behind fantasy, and embracing reality. This is an attractive analogy, inasmuch as parents (ordinarily) provide that “beyond” intelligence to a child’s world, and growing up means becoming that responsible presence oneself. The comparison ultimately fails, however. It still doesn’t get at that gnawing desire for meaning and purpose.
Many who abandon religious belief under the influence of materialist advocacy cite another form of gain: that of a sense of wonder about the natural world. One looks at the results of scientific investigation and finds it awesome: the enormity of the universe, the smallness of particle theory, the complexity of it all, and the rule of law that pins it all together in a comprehensible whole. The discoveries resulting from scientific inquiry are indeed fascinating.
Science and Wonder
But there is an obvious objection to science as supplying the wonder that was formerly supplied by religion: namely, that the wonders of scientific exploration exist whether there is a God or not. The wonders of the natural world are not somehow cloaked from view until religion is done away with. It is always there, and it is no less awesome if there is also a God who created it all.
The religion-like awe that materialists experience is supplied by the discoveries we make as we are engaged in scientific inquiry. The mystery of what we will find next about the physical universe takes the place of the mystery that religion provided. Instead of contemplating the mysteries of God’s interaction with us as the most important part of His creation, we confine our sense of mystery to the unfolding awesomeness of His creation.
What is actually happening is that science is falsely set up as the antipode to religion, so science is in effect worshipped in the place of God. Then, the awesomeness of the natural world (whether created or not) is confusedly thought of as the awesomeness of science. But science is not an entity or even an ideal. It is only a process for discovering truths about the natural universe. The word (“science”) is also used to encapsulate the body of knowledge gained as a result of that process, however, and in that way, the word is allowed to stand in for the natural universe itself. Thus “science” becomes an object of wonder, instead of God.
While some do worship the natural universe, rather than its putative creator, that is not the materialism which is the end result of this process of confusion regarding science. Becoming enamored with the discoveries of science does not so much cause us to worship the natural universe, as to worship ourselves doing the science. Materialism is human-centered. In fact, “humanism” is a reasonable synonym for materialism, in many contexts. God is not a subject of worship, because materialists believe there is no God. The awesomeness attributed to God in ages past is attributed instead to the awesomeness of what we learn about the earth and the universe.
What induces awe? Novelty does. We don’t think about the fact of waking every morning to a universe that is. And yet, if we pause to consider it, the fact of existence of anything is utterly astonishing. We may find amazing the magnitude and distance of supernovas, and the weird life at undersea thermal vents, and the astounding complexity of the cell. But it’s not really new. Only our ability to perceive it is. Only our expanding understanding is. We still truncate the question of where all this came from, when we shift our focus from the wonders of the universe, to ourselves looking out at it. We don’t just find the cosmos amazing. We find ourselves observing the cosmos even more amazing.
Purpose and Meaning
Materialism attempts to provide the desire for mystery in this incomplete way. It also is presented as the answer to our desire for purpose and meaning. “Science,” we are encouraged to believe, is moving us forward in some ill-defined way, to a day when various problems of human existence, such as war and want, will be defeated. This is an existentialist outlook, experienced on a collective plane. It substitutes for the purpose and meaning people desperately desire, but it does so inadequately. A general sense of mankind’s progressing does not satisfy. It does not reach ultimate questions of reality, and of our connection to it.
That does not mean materialism is false, however. If our existence is in fact pointless, then we should not make up fictions to make that pointlessness more bearable. The truth is the truth.
The trouble is, materialism is not true. It cannot explain the most basic things about our existence. How there can be something instead of nothing. How to explain a closed system without reference to an outside originator of that system. How to explain the origin of laws of physics which make all of that material reality comprehensible. How we can hold to ideals that are necessarily timeless and insubstantial; not only mathematical ideals, but moral and humanly aspirational ideals, like truth itself, and moral good, and honesty, and beauty, and the very idea of an ideal. How we can become conscious of anything, without engaging it across the interval of incorporeal and immortal reality.
The Shift to Materialism
If materialism is not true, then why is it in the process of becoming the dominant worldview, in first-world people groups in the west? Nothing happens in a vacuum. Materialism did not arise as a working model of reality on the strength of its own merits. Materialism has arisen as not-religion. People don’t go around saying “I’m a materialist,” typically. Instead, they say “I’m not religious,” as though their belief system were a matter of degree on a religiosity spectrum. A moment’s thought would tell us that this way of thinking is an over-simplification, and a dangerous one. It presupposes a “zero” end of the spectrum, at which one believes in “nothing.”
Riddle: What is better than God; worse than the devil; poor people have it; and rich people need it? Answer: nothing. The word makes for a good riddle because its meaning is a little slippery for us. As some philosophers have remarked, it is a curious feature of modernism that we have such a difficult time with the idea of “nothing.” We tend to fall back on this idea of believing “nothing,” but that is impossible. One cannot believe in nothing, except in the limited sense of understanding the concept that nothing is the complete absence of anything. It is otherwise incoherent to say that one believes in nothing. The proposition itself shows its impossibility. Simply holding the belief is something. It’s like saying out loud “I can’t speak.” The act of saying it proves its falsity.
This false idea of “nothing” drives nonsense statements like “I’m not religious.” Stating something in the negative serves to obscure the truth. If you say you’re not a banana, you’ve said very little about what you are. Instead of recognizing that fact, however, you might instead say you’ve only declared yourself neutral. This is particularly tempting on questions of ultimate reality. (Certainly more so than with bananas). When a person says that they’re not religious, they usually mean that they don’t believe the claims of religion to be true, or that they’re content to give no thought to the matter one way or the other. By stating their belief in the negative, however, they avoid saying what they do believe. They confuse “non-religious” with nothing, and thereby position themselves as being neutral about questions of ultimate reality.
This is how materialism is advanced. It masquerades as neutrality. Religion is allowed to persist in the background, but becoming ever less relevant, until the incurious victim reaches a tipping point, and throws religion over altogether. Even then, there is little inquiry into what belief about ultimate reality has taken its place. We are witnessing that on a society-wide scale among westerners who cheerfully reject theism and seem not to recognize that they are skittering along the edge of the abyss of nihilism, because they are under the spell of belief in “nothing.”
Looking Prospectively at Materialism
In our posts on The Pagan Epoch and The Christian Epoch, we were looking backward at history. Now we are looking forward, because the Materialist Epoch has only been underway, overlapping with the end of the Christian Epoch, for the last 400 years or so. Perhaps what is happening is that God is in the process of filtering out His remnant, and our observations here are only witness to that process. Or perhaps there are centuries ahead of us in which people will be yet further reduced by the imperatives of materialist dogma. God is not dead, however, and that is not the point of describing a Christian Epoch coming to an end. The point is to understand what is happening around us; to have better understanding about the dominant worldviews of the society in which we live.
People are in fact reduced, as they passively (or actively) embrace materialism. First and foremost, there is loss of personal relationship with the God who is. In addition, the effects of the materialist lie will be experienced in the flattening of the higher ideals which exist outside of material reality. Our discernment becomes eroded with regard to ideals such as truth, beauty, honor, and dignity. Most especially, love is increasingly a casualty. If we are but a sophisticated ordering of materials, with inherited, evolved motivations, then our “love” for one another is only a biological response. Eros is a casualty, replaced by animal desire. Love for family, and even friendship, are all forms of love that become reduced to personal expedience. Materialism advances an illusory human freedom. We come to believe that even one’s birth sex is subject to one’s personal will. As with one’s sex, so with his very humanity.
What is ahead in the Materialist Epoch is the outworking of its doctrines, except where it is rejected, and something of the enchantment we experience in this world is allowed to remain.