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Skeptical Sunday: Refuting “Materialism”(?)

September 5, 2010

Here’s another SS post that I began back at the beginning of the year and which subsequently lay fallow until now. A young man named Ethan posted this comment on my post about the YouTube apologist murder-suicide:

Hello, Mr. Dorkman. I recently happened upon the RvD videos on Youtube and they are very nicely done. Through a chain of events, I found your blog.

I am a Christian, and as such disagree with this. I think you might be interested in my blog post on Materialism. Feel free to check it out and any other parts of the blog if you so desire. Nice to have met you. The link is below:

Take care,
Ethan Stech

As you’ll see, I commented on his post at the time and intended to post a response here…and then didn’t. I started writing one but never got the chance to finish.

So here’s me finishing. We have to grant that the original post is over seven months old at this point, and written by quite a young man. It may no longer represent his level of rhetorical skill or, in fact, his actual opinions. But I promised a response and here it is.

I’ve seen too many talented, intelligent, and graced individuals who deny the existence of God to pass up the opportunity to write a refutation to their materialistic viewpoints in hopes of helping them come to the knowledge of God.

Okay then. Let’s hear it.

If Materialism (or any other set of beliefs that claims the nonexistence of the supernatural) is correct and fully able to be proven, then there is no true Right or Wrong in this world, there is no meaning to life, and the entire human race is worthless. How can this be true?

Whoo, that’s a hell of an opener. It’s also complete nonsense. Let’s take it piece by piece.

So first, the issue of right and wrong. Tell me something: hypothetically speaking, if you found out for a fact that God did not exist, would you really abandon your entire sense of right and wrong? Is the belief in a supernatural carrot/stick really the only thing keeping you from raping babies and murdering random strangers?

If you genuinely need to believe that there’s a God to keep you from going on a psychotic rampage, then you go right on believing. In fact, I want you to believe twice as much, just so the people around you are safe. But you should know that you’re not actually a good or moral person. A good and moral person does what’s right because it’s right, not because he’s afraid of what will happen if he does wrong.

Also, tell me this: do you really think you get your sense of right and wrong from the Bible? Do you believe that genocide is acceptable? Plagues and famine? Do you condone the enslavement of human beings? Because the Bible says all of those things are hunky-dory with God.

I know that you don’t think these things are okay. In another blog post about the Haiti earthquake, which was happening at the same time that you wrote this initial post, you wrote:

It is worth mentioning that God did not do this. God is not the God of destruction or confusion of any kind.

As you self-identify as a Christian, I can only assume that you believe in the Bible, and this statement flatly contradicts many, many occasions in the Bible, including but not limited to:

  • The destruction of the entire world by the Flood
  • The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah
  • The twelve plagues of Egypt
  • The destruction of Jericho
  • Confusing the languages of the builders of the Tower of Babel

I could go on (I’m not even out of the Pentateuch, here) but I think you get the point. Even within your own mythology, the argument you’re making doesn’t hold up.

And yet you made it, because the idea that your God should be a God of destruction or confusion makes you uncomfortable. The idea that God should be responsible for death and suffering is unacceptable to you, even though it’s acceptable to God. This means that you do not derive your sense of right and wrong from the decrees of a deity, but from another source: yourself. You are far more moral than the god you claim to follow.

Right and wrong are moving targets — the Aztecs thought human sacrifice was right, even though we know today it is wrong. Hitler thought what he was doing was right but there’s no argument that it was wrong. Right and wrong are subjective and they change over time, but maintain themselves generally within the notion of reciprocity, sometimes called the Golden Rule — I won’t do anything to someone else I wouldn’t want to happen to me.

If there are no gods, then there have never been any gods, and yet we know for a fact that humans do have a sense of right and wrong. In the absence of gods, the only explanation is that we must have come upon it ourselves. The non-existence of Yahweh would not make human morality disappear any more than the non-existence of Zeus made lightning disappear. All that changed was our perception of where it came from.

Just for fun, I’ll also point out that God is not the source of right and wrong even within the Bible. Adam and Eve had to steal the knowledge of right and wrong, and were punished for it. God didn’t give us the knowledge and he got pissed when we attained it.

So that’s right and wrong. I’ll actually address your other two points together — “life is meaningless and the human race is worthless.”

What “meaning” and “worth” is conferred upon life and/or the human race by the existence of a deity? It seems to me that the notion that there’s another, better, longer life after this one only serves to demean this one, causing people to sacrifice their happiness and precious time trying to make sure they’ve reserved their seat.

The notion of an all-powerful being who creates everyone as part of an intricate and incomprehensible “plan” resembles nothing so much as a big game of chess. I notice that you play chess yourself — how much meaning and worth do you give the pieces on the board, outside of their part in the game? Do you “love” the chess pieces? Do you desire a “relationship with” your chess pieces?

It seems to me that life is more meaningful and worth more when we can make our own decisions of what we value, rather than being told what to think, say, and do (“or else!”).

That’s just in general, theism vs. atheism. Let’s talk about Christianity in particular. Christianity devalues human life by saying that no one is worthy of God’s grace. The entire point of Christianity is that human beings are worthless and sinful creatures who God has kindly deigned to love anyway. All the notions of hell and salvation and all of that are predicated on demeaning and devaluing humanity and leaching out all its inherent worth. We are better off without it.

Last point: even if we grant for the sake of argument that these three assertions are correct — there is no right and wrong, life is meaningless and humanity is worthless — that doesn’t make them untrue. “Fact” is not defined as “whatever makes you happiest.” You could just as easily say “If I have not won the lottery, then I am not a millionaire, and I will have to get a job to support myself. How can this be true?”

The truth can be and often is unpleasant. So the notion that the nonexistence of god would be unpleasant — aside from being untrue, as I’ve pointed out here — is not in itself an argument for the existence of god.

Theories that claim that the universe was an accidental occurrence are false, because there would have had to be something there in the beginning of time for the earth to be created, and there would have further had to be something there to create it. Furthermore, there is no scientific occurence that can create a mind or a conscience, much less a living, self-sufficient being.

I’m not sure I understand what these two thoughts have to do with each other, but I’ll address them one at a time as before.

You’re confusing your apologetics in the first sentence, mixing up an “accidental” universe with one that “comes from nothing.” Aside from the fact that the universe could have come from nothing (“nothing” as physicists use it being markedly different from the colloquial sense, however), just because our universe had a beginning doesn’t mean that there was “nothing” before that. It just would have been “something” that wasn’t our universe as we know it.

Also, there has very recently (like, last month) arisen at least one theory of cosmology which would indicate that the universe did not have a beginning and will not have an end. If this theory explains our observations of the universe better than Big Bang cosmology, the Big Bang could be discarded.

What evidence do you have that such ideas are false, other than a simple argument from incredulity?

To your second point, I first want to point out that you’re using “scientific” incorrectly. Science is a process by which we examine and understand the world in front of us. You probably mean a natural process, and evolution is a natural process that produces living, self-sufficient beings. So you are incorrect in your assertion that no such process exists.

But how did God begin, you ask? God did not begin-He is an eternal, forever existing entity that “was and is and is to come”.

If God is allowed to exist eternally, why not the universe? And what evidence do you have to support your claim? This is special pleading. You haven’t even demonstrated that your God exists, and now you’re making excuses for how he exists in a way that nothing else is allowed to exist. This is just special pleading.

That, of course, is scientifically illogical, but neither God nor anything supernatural or spiritual is scientific to begin with.

This is pretty much the only sentence in your entire post that is both completely accurate and completely coherent.

The ideals involved in Materialism, however, are scientific, and thus they, being scientifically illogical, are impossible.

Followed by your least accurate and least coherent sentence. I really don’t know what you’re trying to say here. It’s scientific and therefore unscientific? Huh? And what do you mean “ideals”?

I have heard other claims that the mass murders of thousands of innocent people at the hands of individuals such as Hitler or Stalin proves the either nonexistence or unjustness of God. This is entirely untrue.

Well, to be fair, it’s only a valid argument against a god who is said to be all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving. A being lacking one or more of these attributes is perfectly compatible with the existence of evil. But a being who has all three attributes would not be.

The Destroyer is the one working through the willing vessels to do evil. God gave everyone a free will, and a person can choose to give in to evil thoughts and temptations and be used of the Devil. Thus it is not God causing such destruction-only the enemy comes to steal, kill, and destroy.

But God could stop him, right?

Why doesn’t he? The chess set again?

God violates human free will all the time in the Bible, and people die every day without anyone seeming to consider that a violation of free will. God couldn’t just give Hitler a heart attack before he worked his Holocaust? Whenever someone dies you hear people saying it was “their time.” God taking a life does not in any way seem to clash with the notion of free will. Why would he let genocidal dictators live and his chosen people die?

And again, what of natural disasters? What did free will have to do with the Haiti earthquake?

So, in light of all this, it is foolish to hold to the claim that God does not exist.

You haven’t demonstrated that there is any reason to think that any god does exist. You’ve listed off supposed attributes and behaviors of said deity, but that doesn’t make it real. I can talk about attributes of Zeus or Thor or Harry Potter or Luke Skywalker or the dark lord Sauron all day long, but that doesn’t mean that they exist. You have to demonstrate that the entity exists, and then we can talk about its attributes. It doesn’t work the other way. Without evidence of existence, we’re just arguing over mythology.

Also, atheism is not a claim that God does not exist. It is only a rejection of the claim that a god does exist, due to lack of evidence. “I don’t believe you” is not a claim, it’s an invitation to prove your point. Which I’m sorry to inform you, you haven’t done.

It is quite obvious that Materialism of any kind is impossible.

Not only is this sentence unrelated to the previous one, it’s nonsense. Are you honestly saying you don’t believe in the existence of the material, physical world? That all of this exists only in your mind? That’s called solipsism, and if you consider yourself a solipsist then that’s your prerogative, but take note that solipsism is incompatible with theism. If everything exists solely in your mind, that necessarily includes God. So unless “Materialism” of some kind is true, then it’s theism of any kind that is logically impossible.

And again, you haven’t demonstrated that Materialism is impossible, or even unlikely. You haven’t even managed to properly define or address it. All you’ve done is make a series of claims about an undemonstrated being which is not only compatible with a material universe, but contingent on a material universe. As a “refutation,” it fails completely.

I commend you for your willingness to engage in these conversations and take an interest in discussing fairly complicated ideas. I encourage you to do a bit more research on the topics, particularly outside of your preferred theological viewpoint. You may not agree with the alternative viewpoint, but if you can at least come to a better understanding of it, you will be better equipped to articulate why you believe it is insufficient.

One Comment
  1. Ethan Stech permalink

    Hello, and thanks for responding.

    I agree that I had a lot of flaws in my argument, but I tried to state it a tad bit better in these newer posts. Here are the links:

    Take care,

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