Two weeks ago I posted on the subject of materialism, and what it means to the concept of love. See Love, Materialist Style. It occurs to me that an explanation of that word, “materialism,” is in order. Not just to define it, but to explain its place in the thesis.
“Materialism” in this context is something different than the tendency to see oneself as a consumer, first, as in the usage “materialistic.” Instead, “materialism” refers to the philosophical stance which holds that physical things and the forces acting upon them are all there is of reality. That which is manifestly not physical (like love) is nonetheless thought to be explainable as merely an emergent property of physical things. Materialism excludes from the totality of reality any supernatural presence of any kind. It is necessarily atheistic.
You might wonder: why pick on one obscure set of philosophical principles? Why should I be interested in materialism as a philosophy? Still less, why would I be sufficiently interested in your opinion about it, to want to write any kind of screed against it?
Here’s the answer. My thesis is that the culture we live in evinces a set of philosophical principles, in the everyday assumptions about reality that people manifest in their words and actions. This is not to say that everyone is an atheist materialist, of course. There are all kinds of people, holding all kinds of beliefs about reality. But there is a trend; a spirit of the age; a prevailing zeitgeist; a direction to history. And that direction is both impelled and compelled by underlying philosophical notions. There is a reason that conduct universally deemed perverted in one generation is normalized in the next. No one walks around with a grab bag of disparate opinions untethered to any underlying beliefs about reality. One’s views on any subject are going to be fundamentally informed by what he believes to be true about ultimate reality.
My thesis has been that the dominant underlying beliefs in this culture are those of materialism. I express anguish at the loss of faith in our culture, not only because individuals throw over recognition of God, with all the consequences that entails, but also because it leaves society and individuals intellectually and spiritually impoverished, in this life. Beliefs have consequences.
Of course, we do not and should not adopt beliefs just because they are helpful to us in some way. We adopt beliefs because we hold them to be true.
Or at least, that’s what we should be doing. But something weird is going on. On the God question, people are often quite willing to say what they don’t believe about ultimate reality, but are curiously reticent about what they do believe. It sounds like this: “I’m not very religious;” “I’m agnostic;” “I’m an atheist;” “I don’t believe in God.” These are not affirmative statements about belief. They’re negations. One can make this kind of assertion without ever having to consider what is true in its place.
We could make some kinds of negative statements all day long, and it wouldn’t matter. But the belief propositions I’m talking about here are different in kind. We’re talking about whether something exists or not. That can certainly be consequential, depending on what the thing is. And in this case, the thing concerns the scope of all of reality. Disavowing supernatural reality means that the physical is all there is. Materialism.
If materialism is the truth, then let’s hear the fuller explanation, given its precepts, for what we observe, and experience, and reason. Theists do this all the time. They have developed highly developed doctrines on the subject. Anyone can open up a religious confession of faith and understand exactly what theists affirmatively hold to be true. There is no competing church of materialism, however. There are a few apologists for the faith of materialism, typically those who conflate materialism with science, but their work does not stand against even mild scrutiny. The cultural materialist hegemony does not rely on the work of these new high priests. It relies on unquestioning negation; on dumbed-down discourse; on unthinking acquiescence to the zeitgeist.