I’ve started to notice very strong similarities between these two “faiths” over the last couple of years. It really shouldn’t be surprising to me considering that the organized philosophy of Materialism clearly has its origins in the Western Enlightenment, but the two forces work so strongly to distance themselves from one another that their similarities are largely passed over. I guess you can tell they’re related because they deny vehemently that they even know each other. As someone living in the West who stands outside both Christianity and Materialism (but who is, admittedly, strongly influenced by both), it puts me in a good position to observe the behavior of these two philosophies as they develop in the modern world. Materialism of course, is ascendant right now to the extent that most materialists are unaware they have a philosophy at all and consider their views to be the “truth” (the number one defining characteristic of a religion).
Materialism has its roots in “rational” investigation into the physical world during the Enlightenment in Europe. The early scientists such as Newton believed they were peering into the mind of God. Nowadays, Materialists uphold human reason and the scientific method as the best or only path to meaningful knowledge. Scripture and intuition have been cast aside as primitive superstition. This development is not an entirely bad thing, but there is a tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Materialism likes to imagine itself as an ahistorical phenomena discovered rather than developed, a timeless truth discovered by enlightened minds. This of course is essential the the entire project. The creed of Materialism absolutely depends on the “discovery” of “objective” knowledge independent of all human “bias.”
Any historian worth their salt would know that the Scientific Revolution and “Enlightenment” of 16th and 17th Century Europe were based on much older strands of thought in European history. Christianity has always considered itself the religion of the logos, or “reason” (the root of our word “logic”) despite having a rather uneasy relationship with its secular application at times. The tradition of independent reasoning is very old in Europe, and existed in the middle ages. Medieval figures like William of Occam (Of “Occam’s Razor” fame) St. Thomas Aquinas wrote extensively about Aristotelian logic. Christianity itself being baptized in Greek philosopher. There were also substantial (sometimes ignored, or alternatively, exaggerated) Muslim contributions to this history, especially through Averroes (Ibn Rushd) of Muslim Spain. However, the Muslim world did not develop organized materialism, probably due to the theological rejection of independent reasoning as valid in the 10th century. It is telling that Averroes was greatly studied in Europe, but almost completely forgotten by his co-coreligionists. Suffice to say, the reverence of reason in early modern Europe did not just simply fall out of the sky on to Newtons head.
When I mention this history to materialists, I usually get a reaction along the lines of skepticism that logic ever played a roll in the Christian Religion. They view Christianity as completely illogical, and I have a tough time explaining to them that logic is based on experience and cannot create new knowledge. Christianity was entirely logical and consistent for its time period. Materialists usually consider themselves the standard bearers of reason in the modern world, something they inherited from their Christian predecessors (whether they are aware of it or not). As said above, the earliest scientists were convinced they were peering into the mind of God by using reason discover the “laws” by which the universe operated. The attempt to discover these “laws” is still very much with us today without the God component. Such an outlook is more difficult in the Muslim world (because God can change his mind) or in the East (because nature doesn’t have immutable “laws”). I am not saying that Muslim or Eastern philosophy is inferior. On the contrary, I find both fascinating and enlightening in different ways. This piece is more about why reason-worshiping materialism arose out Christianity specifically.
Materialism is basically Christianity without God or any kind of spiritual realm. They both largely share metaphysics, ethics, and even myths. While it remains to be seen what Materialism and Christianity will look like in the future, for the last few centuries they have been joined at the hip. You could even tell both of their creation stories at the same time by being vague. “A long time ago, a material, intelligible, and lawful universe began in a flash of light. Over time, simple life forms appeared. Over time they become more and more sophisticated until humanity appeared. Humanity is unique among the animals for having consciousness, reason, and civilization. Humanity’s goal is to overcome our limited natures through progress towards an end point we can scarcely imagine.”
Granted, one could take nit-pick that narrative from either a Christian or Materialist perspective, but overall their stories have been largely the same. It’s just that the later denies a mind had any part to play in the beginning. Each of them speak about one world and one physical universe where everything takes place. Christianity flinches at the idea of other worlds with life. Materialism flinches at the idea of extra-material dimensions. Materialism’s initial story of “mindless” evolution followed Aristotle’s and the Church’s great chain of being to a T, until it decapitated it. For many years biology thought that animals were mindless automatons and that only humans had higher reasoning. This is simply a re-expression of the idea that only human beings have souls. Darwin himself thought evolution was teleological, and believed that humanity was its apex. Certainly a downgrade from “made in the image of God,” but the same idea is at play. The notion of some kind of progress is central to Materialism as to Christianity. Both share the idea, along with the other Abraham faiths, that the universe is going somewhere. They imply that humanity as a whole is moving towards something greater. Unlike the cyclical Eastern religions, Materialism is a progressive faith, but progressing towards what?
Despite the idea that there is not any transcendent principle to reality, progress towards great ideals (just like Christianity’s “heaven on earth”) has been central to Materialism. The philosophy has promised and continues to promise a future of rational enlightenment, economic well being (the only well-being that matters in its outlook), and even notions of transcendence. It even has doomsday prophets. The snag that Materialism runs into is that if only matter exists, all human knowledge and aspiration is merely the delusional opinions of clumps of matter gone mad. This realization is the origin of Post-Modernism, which involves a deconstruction of all ideas and myths including language itself. Post-Modernism, ironically, boils down to the myth that all knowledge is simply opinion because there is no transcendent myth, just matter. All of these ideas are rooted in the idea that there is only one material universe we all share.
These issues are deeply tied in with Materialism political thought. Materialism, in spite of itself, largely retains a Christian outlook on morality. Most of the materialists I know are staunch liberals. They favor raising up the poor and downtrodden (the “meek” you could say) through charity and government action. They are fierce defenders of “reason,” human rights, and egalitarianism (all concepts deeply rooted in Christian theology). There is a lot of talk about being on the “right” side of history (divine providence for secularists). One must wonder where they get such notions of virtue if virtue itself is nothing but hot air. Charity is a waste of precious resources, and equality can only be a fact by virtue of a shared connection to a transcendent principle (i.e. God). We are about the evils of extremism, violence, tyranny, sexism, racism, classism, homophobia and all manner of nasty things by people who think negative feelings are just a chemical reaction devoid of deeper meaning. This is the meaning of the phrase “God is dead.” If our civilization killed the God that gave us our morality, ideals, and encouraged love for the weak and oppressed, why do we still cling to those things as if he exists and will reward us for doing so? What is the value in altruism if your fellow human beings are just other mangy apes competing for limited resources? If we do indeed live in a materialist cosmos, the highest virtue is selfishness. I am convinced that most talk about morality from leftist atheist philosophers is the attempt to preserve a largely Christian morality from the implications of their own philosophy.
In ancient Rome, Christianity arose in the city and pushed the older “pagan” religions to the countryside (paganus means rural). Now the same story is repeating itself. Materialism arises in the cities of the West and pushes Christianity to the countryside. But, just like its forebear, Materialism has taken a great deal from the previous faith: its metaphysics, its morality, and in some cases even its holidays. If you live in the West, stepping outside Materialism is like walking into foreign land. Suddenly self evident truths become dogmas, and there is an overwhelming feeling of being surrounded by unconscious fundamentalists. Its influence is everywhere, even in people that don’t otherwise identify as materialists. Ken Ham tries to prove Genesis by appealing to an “objective world.” I certainly have materialist beliefs. I think everyone who lives in the West does to an extent. It isn’t an entirely bad worldview, and offers a lot of good ideas. The problem is it considers above all other worldviews, and it propagates a unique brand of fundamentalism whose ramifications on human well being we may not be entirely aware of yet.