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materialismFrom American Atheistic Materialism…Good Lord Deliver Us.

And the plea is appropriate because prayers for deliverance are a kind of exorcism, and if any society needs exorcism it is the American Atheistic Materialistic society.

Pope St. John Paul II said there were two atheistic materialistic societies: Communist Russia and the Unrestrained Capitalism of America. The philosopher pope asserted this not because he hated America or was against capitalism per se, but because he was against the kind of unrestrained capitalism which is a form of atheistic materialism.

“Materialism” is a popular nickname for greedy consumerism. We say a woman is “materialistic” if she does nothing but go to the mall and shop until she drops. We call a man “materialistic” if all he cares about is his financial success, his career and the prosperity, power and pleasure his success will buy him. These forms of materialism are symptoms not the disease. The disease is far deeper and more incurable for it is a disease of not only the mind but also the heart.

At depth, materialism is that philosophy that assumes and asserts that there is nothing more than the material world. “What you see is what you get.” The true materialist does not believe in life after death, heaven, hell, demons, angels, miracles and “all that medieval stuff.” Instead he wants “all that modern stuff”, and by that he means the goodies, the treats, the treasures, not just the house, but the lake house, the mountain house, the beach house and the rental house. He wants more and more and more material stuff because that is the only stuff he believes is real.

This tragedy is that this American materialistic atheism is lauded as not only the right way, but the only way. We worship the Almighty Dollar, not the Almighty Deity, and our materialism is as much a socially accepted—yea mandated—form of atheism as communistic atheism was accepted and expected in Soviet Russia.

Most astoundingly, this materialistic, atheistic philosophy has taken over most of the Christian churches. Mainstream Protestants, a majority of Catholics and an increasing proportion of Evangelical Protestants have endorsed and embraced a religious form of materialistic atheism.

Embarrassed by the supernatural, the Christian teachers and preachers have gradually and gently de-mythologized religion so that it no longer deals with man’s interaction with the supernatural realm, but instead aims to simply save the natural realm. American Christianity is no longer about the salvation of souls, but self help and social justice. The preachers are increasingly silent about the other world, settling for the chance to improve this world.

Some critics have called this new religion “Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism.” In other words, “God (if he exists) is up there minding his own business while we try to be good and work hard to overcome our problems.” This is not a religion. It is a set of table manners, and one of the main reasons people are leaving the Christian churches in America is not because the churches are too religious, but because they are not religious at all.

People are not stupid. They have come to realize that you don’t need God to work on your problems and try to be good. This is why Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism will not be Deist for long. It must disintegrate further into Moralistic, Therapeutic Atheism, and from there into Moralistic, Therapeutic Atheistic Ideology and from there into Moralistic, Therapeutic Atheistic Tyranny.

The irony is that it is only a fully Christian cosmology which recognizes the true value of the material world. If there is nothing but the material world, then because all material things will eventually die and decay into dust, materialism is ultimately a creed of despair. However, by virtue of the doctrine of creation and the incarnation, Christians believe that matter matters. Unlike the Eastern religions that teach the ultimate vanity of the material world, Christians believe in the ultimate validity of the material world.

The materialist has nothing but the material world. The Christian has the spiritual world and the material world. For him the two are interfused, for the whole world is charged with the grandeur of God. The Christian poets and prophets see clearly. With William Blake, they hold “the world in a grain of sand, and heaven in a wild flower…infinity in the palm of his hand and eternity in an hour.”

So the Christian has heaven and “all this too” whereas the materialistic atheist has nothing but the grain of sand which soon sifts through his fingers and the flower that wilts and fades.

CAC_Coffee-Bar-01This is why the surest bet for a return to religion in our materialistic atheistic age is not more relevant social programs, hip hop sermons and groovy music. The answer is not more coffee bars in church or more self help breakout sessions.

The answer is a return to mysticism and monasticism, contemplation, prophecy, poetry and prayer. Only then will the metaphysical well up within the physical, and only then will we turn from materialistic atheism—not by force of argument, but by the irresistible experience of beauty.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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19 replies to this post
  1. “The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard…”

    From “The Joy of the Gospel”. Pope Francis

  2. I find your argument unconvincing. It simply isn’t true that atheist equals consumerist in the way that you have tried to describe. Many Catholics and followers of other Christian persuasions want ‘the stuff’ and many atheists are quite focused on valuing people generally and interpersonal relationships particularly. If you want to decry materialism and to extol Catholic religiosity, go ahead, you seem to have something interesting to say, but you’ve set the problem up in a way to make the whole argument gobbledegook. Really – how do you make the leap from Atheism to Atheistic Ideology to Atheistic Tyranny? You could say the same thing about any sort of creed, no? From Catholic to Catholic Ideology to Catholic Tyranny? Reflecting further, I think that you were trying to tie the atheism to the materialism in order to include JPII’s comments but would have been better to leave atheism out of the argument and stick to combatting materialism itself, wherever it arises.

    • I think you missed the arc of his argument. He is not arguing that atheism inevitably leads to materialism, but rather than materialism will pull people towards atheism, specifically a specific type of atheism that is rooted in materialism. From there he is observing that societies built on atheistic materialism have tended to move very quickly towards tyranny despite whatever ideals might have inspired them in the first place. Yes, Christianity and other religions can tend to move towards that direction as well, but it appears the notion of God might put a break on that drift towards tyranny. If we compare the Reign of terror during the French Revolution to the Spanish Inquisition, we find that the death toll of the former was about ten times the latter’s despite the fact that the Spanish Inquisition lasted 350 years and the Terror only a year or two.

  3. So, you would definitely advise Catholics and conservatives never ever to vote Republican, on the grounds that free-market dogmatism, idolization of “job creators” and the equation of income with moral worth among these Americans for prosperity with their clubs for growth are disastrously materialist?

    • Well, as a Catholic (ordinary, neither Traddie or Trendie), a conservative (of the Kirk/Burke nexus), and a registered Independent, that would be a “Yes”.

      Similar reasoning forbids the other major political party in the US.

      To the one who claims there are only two “viable” alternatives, and ONE of them must be chosen, I respond, “That business of holding your nose while pulling the voting lever has certainly worked out well, hasn’t it?

      Maybe it is time for Principle to become the Principal factor, rather than despairing cynicism in our national — and State and local –politics”

      But — I think all this was your point also?

    • I still vote Republican as a Christian/Catholic only because it has the last bastion of Social Conservatism within it. The independent candidates are largely Socially liberal. So I still think the Republicans are still somewhat conservative. But the solid conservative candidates are few and far between.

  4. Thank you Dan for clarifying this. There are many many examples of men and women in the Bible who had abundant “riches” and they were great men and women of God and they did not reject their “power” their “riches” their “authority”… why not, when “riches” are considered “evil” and anyone who has material possessions is “materialistic”. Simply it is because their riches were not their God, they knew what they had was GIVEN TO THEM BY GOD, they knew the source of ALL THINGS WERE FROM GOD. Job is a very good example of someone who was blessed with many “things”, “children”, “wealth”, etc. from God. Job knew the source of everything and when all was gone he cried out to God. In great pain and anguish he cried out to God, he did not “curse God and die” as his evil wife told him to do but he knew the source of ALL was from HIS God, the ONE TRUE GOD!! Yes, material things can be a god if you make them a god just like another person can be a god if you love them more than your GOD in Heaven Who is the one True GOD! Our cats and dogs can be our god, our car, our job, our spouse, our house…. but when we make Jesus Christ our God (as in the Trinity we have remembered in Sunday’s Mass) we will NEVER make anything or anyone a god because it seems so ridiculous, it really does, when you know GOD it seems almost silly!! And they made gods of little carved out pieces of wood and golden calves…. no wonder that stirred GOD to anger!!

  5. While I agree that consumerism is something that poses a problem in modern society, it is wrong to treat consumerism as being the same as, or an inevitable consequence of, materialism. Simply because a person only recognizes the material world as existing does not mean he or she wants to own it all. You can’t just assume every materialist is also insatiably greedy.

    Yes, materialism does not recognize concepts such as an afterlife but that doesn’t mean it is a doctrine of despair. Nobody likes the idea of permanent death but if you are going to die, all the more reason to be thankful that you have been given a chance to live and live as fully as possible. ‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all as Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote. Besides, whether or not something is nice or ugly does not make it any more true or false. Just because we like the idea of eternal life and are mortally afraid of dying has no impact on the objective truth.

    Mysticism and spirituality are not necessary to combat consumerism although contemplation and reevaluation of our societal values are. Buying nice things has come to serve as a temporary, expensive means of finding fulfillment and happiness. This is not doubt linked to the glorification of wealth (both individually and at a state level). At some point we seem to have stopped treating wealth as a means of gaining fulfillment and now treat it as an end in and of itself.

    Materialism can co-exist with a society focused on happiness and fulfillment rather than chasing wealth provided the values emphasized individually and communally reflect such ideals. If religion also achieves this it is only because its own value are as such, not because it has some spiritual panacea not found in materialism.

  6. Great essay! But, I have a few quibbles. First, it is true that all materialists are, indeed, atheists. However, not all atheists (or perhaps I should say “non-theists”) are materialists. Connected to this, I think it is a misrepresentation of “Eastern religion” to cast the non-theistic traditions in a gnostic/manichean mold- there is a profound difference between dualism and nondualism.

    “The answer is a return to mysticism and monasticism…” I basically agree. And yet, so many serious Christians, and theists in general, are antagonistic to gnosis and the sapiential dimension of religion- regarding contemporary “mystic mongering” as just the final stage of the cult of man. I think it is unfortunate that the “spiritual Left”, all too often these days, sides with the atheo-materialist rather than with (who should be) his theistic super-naturalist ally. Such is the confusion of our times.

  7. Over the years, I have noticed that there is the happy atheo-materialist and the sad atheo-materialist. Ecolegality presents the happy atheo-materialist position. The perspective that he advances is perfectly reasonable and is true of a multitude of individuals. However, I am terribly doubtful that an atheo-materialist civilization can avoid, before very long, falling into nihilism/hedonism/despotism.

    I am not a reactionary, but I think it unwise to not consider the reactionary’s point of view. Yes, conservatives in every age have cried that the sky is falling and “this time” is different. But, let’s face it, this time is actually different- the first atheistic-physicalist civilization in history is unfolding. I recognize that modernity, in many ways, has represented a great dignity, but it has also been a great disaster. Whether one embraces reductionism or emergentism, the materialist paradigm is frought with peril.

  8. The last paragraph is particularly powerful, unfortunately though the skeptics and the cynical for the most part have already found, and have had for a long time, a new god, the god of government.
    I am reminded of a book of some years past, The God That Failed. The experiences of six different men who turned to atheistic communism and in time realized their error. Even those who retained their atheism at least realized the futility of belief in the engine of political power.

  9. Unrestrained capitalism in America? Really? The unrestrained welfare state is closer to reality. It take a massive push towards unrestrained capitalism just to strike a balance between the two extremes.

  10. I can applaud any writing that takes on rampant consumerism, but to confuse consumerism–and much less avarice–with the philosophy that the natural world is all that exists is just flat wrong. How richly appointed is the Vatican? How much do TV preachers make, and what do they tell their flocks about giving to receive material blessings? But I know atheists who are librarians, who get their riches from the love of books; and a pharmacist who counts his treasure as helping people remain healthy; and me, a crusty infidel who considers his greatest wealth the ability to walk in the woods with a camera. I live in a poor neighborhood and drive the least expensive model of an inexpensive make. I donate a substantial portion of my income to charity and time to service. And I say this not because I want to be considered a saint. I am not and I do not; I am happy to be anonymous and would be mortified to be found out as a do-gooder, But I must say respond to this because it is false and it is bigoted, and wherever else I might disagree with the Gospels, I do agree that truth and freedom are related.

  11. The reference to “unrestrained capitalism” — here, and, sadly, by John Paul II and many in the church, is a problem. “Unrestrained capitalism” causes materialism? If only we regulated capitalism, we would be more spiritual and less materialistic? Nonsense. We don’t even have any recent experience with “unrestrained capitalism” to evaluate. In fact, I’m not sure what “unrestrained capitalism” is; this terminology falsely suggests that “capitalism” is an entity with its own existence that can be restrained or allowed to run free.

    Without question the modern market order — one can say “capitalism” — contributes to materialism, in a variety of ways. But the term “unrestrained capitalism” is vague, confusing, and problematic, and amounts to a misdiagnosis of the problem. If we are going to bemoan materialism, we should think things through and try to be precise about its causes.

    • What we need to do is despose of Capitalism and Socialism and build a Distributist economy which will give us a free economic society as well as a moral one.

  12. Both Bill and Greg Mockerdige are quite correct. There is no unrestrained capitalism, either in America or anywhere. There never has been. And the difference between the American economy and European economies is insignificant.

  13. Thank you, Father L. I have been unchurched for eons for the very issue you mention. I’m not certain that is the correct answer for me, but contemplation and prayer feel good, and so for now, that is what I have chosen. The sadness lies in the fact that my children, although churched, live in SoCal and the pull is strong. Time is against them.

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