Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Materialism is Fideism.

When I talk with Materialists (that is, people who claim that there natural or material causes and are therefore Atheists) they usually justify their unbelief in spiritual realities (primarily God) by stating that "you don't have to prove a negative."  In other words, they are saying, they are merely denying the existence of God.  It's like denying the existence of Trolls.  I am justified in outright denying the existence of Trolls unless some radical piece of data comes to light that contradicts that belief.  So, they are claiming, the burden of proof is on Theists to show that God exists.

The difficulty with this claim is the simple fact the none of our beliefs are held in isolation from one another.  For example, if I do deny the existence of Trolls then I am positively saying something about our sources of knowledge within the created world.  Since many peasants have a folk belief in Trolls (in a variety of different cultures), then I am making the claim that a proper basis of belief is not traditional folk belief, but rather is something else.  That is a positive assertion, rather than a negative one.  Moving to the question of God's existence; saying that God does not exist presupposes a Materialist metaphysic (i.e., only material entities and causes exist) and therefore actually isn't a negative at all, but a positive assertion that there is nothing beyond the material world.

Most Atheist/Materialist types don't get this because of how they think about their belief system and the nature of knowledge.  What they assume is that a world of purely material causes is somehow obvious and that belief in anything beyond it is irrational.  Hence, they think that Theists simply randomly and irrationally assert the existence of something beyond the world when they have no justifiable way of making said assertion.  It is a pure act of "faith" (as they understand the term), which means for them, irrational belief in something one cannot prove.

There are several difficulties with this view of things, not least is that the Materialist worldview is actually one possible in a post-Christian culture (the Japanese are still Animists, even though they have developed high technology).  Genesis 1 empties the universe of gods and goddesses in the way that other ancient cosmologies don't.  If you reject YHWH, then all you have left are material causes and laws.  Hence Atheism and Materialism presupposes "faith" in a particular worldview that has historically not been "obvious" to no one outside of our post-Christian culture.

Now comes the second problem: namely Atheism/Materialism have no ability to give an epistemic account of themselves.  In other words, as Alister McIntyre has pointed out, worldviews only work insofar as they are able to give an account of themselves as believable.  Theists are able to give an account of themselves.  Theists claim that they can know that God exists because he 1. accounts for the existence of the laws of nature and of morality (which are easy to explain with a God, but not without one).  2. That God has revealed himself to humans.  Humans who know of God's existence do not randomly assert that there's something beyond the world of material causes, but rather explain their knowledge of God by stating that he has in a sense broken through the veil of material causes and made himself known.  Something beyond our immediate experience is knowable because he has entered into our experience.

Therefore the difficulty of Atheism/Materialism lies in the fact that it has no way of giving an account of itself epistemically the way that Theism can.  First, it asserts the laws of nature and morality hold good without a law giver.  Whereas in all other cases where we can visibly discern the structure of the casual order, design and order presupposes a law-giver and designer, according to Atheists, we are to believe that when it comes to the created order as a whole, there is one a huge exception.  Secondly, it cannot give an account of how it knows that there are only material causes.  Whereas Theists have the mechanism of supernatural revelation that makes the unknowable knowable, Atheist have no such mechanism.  For Materialists to know that there are only material entities and causes, they would, (so to speak) have to climb into heaven and find it empty.  This is something that they clearly cannot do and therefore they cannot account for their lack of belief in the supernatural.  Their argument is circular: Material entities and causes alone exist, because we can only know material causes and entities.

This being said, the structure of belief in Materialism and Atheism is actually identical with the fideism that they accuse Theists of.  Without actually being able to give any account of the basis of their belief, Atheists and Materialists randomly assert that there is no God and that there are only material causes, when they have absolutely no ability to give an account of how they know this.  For this reason it is Materialism which is actually fideism, and not Theism.


  1. Jack,

    I love it. Thanks for this.

    "For example, if I do deny the existence of Trolls then I am positively saying something about our sources of knowledge within the created world."

    Its amazing how so many "enlightened" people miss this... our sources of other knowledge are always other persons/beings...



  2. Their argument is circular: Material entities and causes alone exist, because we can only know material causes and entities.

    Much in the way Theists' arguments are similarly circular -- "God exists because He says He does."

    So the only logical path, given both viewpoints, is agnosticism -- no?

  3. No, Nathan, your missing the argument. The argument is that worldviews are coherent to the extent to which they can give an account of themselves. The point is that Materialism cannot give an account of it because it has no internal mechanism that makes it cable of explaining why it could be true. Evidence is another issue entirely. The point is that no evidence short of being able to "climb into heaven and find it empty" could prove the truth of Atheism/Materialism was true. It therefore stays a the level of a cultural attitude or mere assertion and is not really a coherent belief. Theism is different insofar as it can give a rational account of under what conditions and what sort of evidenc would validate it as being true. It then uses argument from the natural order, and divine revelation to argue that it is true. Those sources of evidence could of course validate Theism (I believe that they validate Theism, but that's another post). The point is ultimately that Theism can give a coherent account of what those sources would be and asserts that valid Theistic belief rests of the trustworthiness of those sources of evidence.

  4. One of my resolutions in 2012 is to continue to read your blog and, by year's end, begin to understand what I read.

  5. So it's kind of frustum - car without Driver and machin without mechanic. And Atheists definetly believing, that is possible in material world, if this car and machin can work without Owner.

  6. Dr. Kilcrease,

    Laborious definitions of words like ‘materialists’, ‘atheists’, ‘epistemic’ and ‘fideism’ go a long ways towards creating the appearance of an imposing edifice of theology. That’s why I like it when you start talking about trolls.

    My definition of ‘trolls’ is derived from a special genre of literature that includes a story (perhaps parable) of three Billy goats. The story, presumably, is knowable through a series of material causes (synapses firing in a hominid brain, the writing of words on paper, the sharing of stories through oral and written language). My source informs me that trolls live under bridges, have a fondness for goat meat, but surprisingly, may easily be outsmarted by three goats in particular (the Gruff trinity!)

    Despite having a description of a troll (…great ugly, eyes as big as saucers and a nose as long as a poker) I have so far never seen one under a bridge or been threatened by one as I’ve attempted to cross bridges. I have also never encountered talking goats. I think it is premature for me to believe in trolls… or talking goats for that matter (even though my source is very old and Norwegian), but I wouldn’t go so far as to say conclusively that there aren’t any. Being a material being - equipped to respond to material causes - I can’t know for sure that there isn’t a realm beyond the material…it’s just that I don’t have any way to know (even though my special genre of literature actually quotes the words of the most powerful goat)

    Given the limits of the ‘story’s’ ‘revelation’, I am not inclined to pray to or worship trolls …or goats. I am however able to learn true lessons, like:
    If I am troll-like, then don’t be greedy. Take the small goat.
    If I am a small goat, then take pains to travel with other larger goats.
    If I am a big goat, then aim for the big saucer-like eyes when battling trolls.

    I suppose the true lessons gleaned from this epic battle between good and evil could eventually be a basis for some form of morality.
    Thou shalt not cross a bridge by yourself.
    But it may take theologians hundreds of years to deal with all the complexities. Perhaps they could hammer it out in a giant council when it is politically expedient.

    In the mean time, it seems to me these stories are based on the material/natural experiences and observations of material/natural authors who survive when they cooperate and die when they don’t.

  7. Dear Dr. Kilcrease,

    It kind of looks like you dismissed my earlier comment regarding trolls.
    I suppose if I had a dumbass writing to me, I’d do the same thing.
    I apologize in advance, but I’m going to give it one more try.

    In what I interpret as your effort to show Theism superior to Materialism, you wrote,

    “Whereas Theists have the mechanism of supernatural revelation that makes the unknowable knowable, Atheist have no such mechanism.”

    Theists have a mechanism of supernatural revelation?
    The unknowable can be knowable?
    That’s some mechanism!
    Can you elaborate?

    Because the cognitive dissonance I feel, comes from this:

    While Theists and materialists alike have been able to make the unknown knowable – they’ve examined evidence for the Big Bang, released energy from atoms, discovered the mechanisms of evolution, built tools that extend and augment our senses - they haven’t, so far as I know, been able to access any supernatural (unknowable) realm (though quantum entanglement or recent suggestions of faster than light particles may be a step in an interesting direction).

    Genesis doesn’t seem to be a supernatural revelation to me. I don’t even think is good anecdotal evidence. It’s a story. It may even be a plagiarized story with a political/religious agenda. Maybe you know better than I, but wasn’t it written/edited at a time when Israel was or had been captive in Babylon and the Hebrew conception of God had to evolve - to somehow explain how these were still God’s chosen people?

    I don’t think I am, or at least I don’t want to be an atheist. But I’m honestly having a hard time with the popular Christian propensity to encourage belief in imaginary (supernatural) entities, i.e. angels, demons, and everybody’s personal friend, imaginary Jesus. When I was enrolled at the Baptist Bible College, we students were encouraged/socially required to develop a ‘personal relationship’ with Jesus. We were told we could speak to God in prayer, and that he would answer through his word, through our parents, and through our pastors and other spiritual leaders. And of course, some went beyond that. Some had visions; some dreamed dreams and some received miracles, though somewhat dubious and not very impressive ones.

    If you want a reason to explain why today’s youth are dropping out of the mainstream protestant church experience, I’d suggest that it may be because promulgating the idea that you can have a personal relationship with an invisible supernatural being is something of an overstatement. When the only answers you get are the ones that spring from human imagination, then evangelical churches come off looking like big fat liars.

    I know materialism isn’t the be-all end-all answer to everything. Science can’t yet tell how life first began, or look beyond the Big Bang. Materialism can’t even really explain what matter is (so I’ve been told). But for me, trying to know what can be known is complicated enough.

    When I look at the Bible I see a record of inspired authors recording their evolving religious sensibilities as best they can. It makes it look like God evolves from a tribal war god to a God of infinite grace. But maybe that’s just the human race growing up?

    Love. Grace. Kindness. Patience. Joy. These are inspired attributes…and so far as I know, natural… and probably practicing them would be the best way I can think of to demonstrate the reality of God’s spirit.

  8. Scott,

    First, I apologize if you feel like insulted you or something. I didn't mean to do that. My response was predicated on the fact that I pretty much didn't understand your point.

    Secondly, regarding your description of the Bible as an evolution of people's perception of their tribal war god, I would refer you to this book: http://www.amazon.com/Reliability-Old-Testament-K-Kitchen/dp/0802803962/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1326048743&sr=1-1

    Kitchen notes that the "evolutionary model" doesn't really fit the facts and was invented by Germans in the 19th century who knew virtually nothing about the ANE. Hence it's really weird that Bible scholars still follow it.

    Thirdly, I think you, like Nathan are sort of missing my point. As I pointed out to Nathan, I'm not addressing the issue of evidence here. When I use the term "mechanism" I mean essentially an explanatory model. The whole point of the post is the question of the coherence of Theistic vs. Atheistic belief. The point is that Atheistic belief is incoherent because it cannot explain why Materialism is true. Moreover, it serves as a poor explanatory model in regard to a lot of different phenomenon (i.e., human religious experience, the laws of nature, the laws of morality, etc.). Revelation is an explanatory model that works as a way of explaining why Theists can coherently claim Theistic beliefs. I am not addressing whether or not those revelations are true. Many, I think obviously lack evidence.

    If we want to play the evidence game, I'm willing to do that. Regarding natural theology, I think Aquinas' 5 proofs are pretty good and I think that Reformed epistemology has a lot strength. Regarding supernatural revelation, here's a couple of old post where I make a systematic argument for the truth of the Christian religion:



    Regarding your last bit about your own religious experience I have two comments.

    1. I have a very hard time believing that people being encouraged to believe in supernatural entities has a lot to do with the decline of the Christian Church among the young. New Age gurus do this all the time, and they seem to be doing pretty well. A better explanation would be in my mind two pills: the birth control pill and antibiotics. The latter means that the problem that Christianity solves is not going to be a problem for another 50 0r 60 years- so who cares? The former is the carrot for not believing. By believing in Christianity then, young people believe that you are trying to solve a problem which they do not have, whose ultimate outcome will be their missing out on the sexual buffet that their 20s could be. Hence there's noting appealing about it.

    2. I am deeply sorry that your spiritual life appears to be at such a low point. My suggestion to you would be that those who encouraged you to make an effort to contact God with prayer or something other form of spiritual experience are snake-oils salesmen (as sincere as they might have been) and that it's important for you to ignore them. Real Christianity is about find God in the tangible means wherein God has promise to be present "for you," not trying to work your way to him on the wings of religious experience. So my advice to you is to hightail it to a Lutheran Church, read the catechism and receive God's gifts and presence for you in Word and sacrament. Only where God has made himself tangible can you find the God of grace that it appears that you are looking for.

  9. Thanks for those links, Jack. They were excellent especially the second one on the Resurrection.