Material fallacy

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish?
T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land.

Marxism is back in fashion. To be more precise, historical materialism is. This is largely anecdotal, but it seems to have become a widely held theory among religious critics of modernity. Like many widely held theories, it is easier to know in one’s gut that it is wrong than to identify precisely where the fallacy lies. Nonetheless, it is fallacious, and this essay will try to explain why.

Historical materialism holds that social conditions are the result of material forces, meaning basically economic interests, though in some versions including the pursuit of political and social power too. Historical change is therefore driven by changes in those forces, with social, religious, or ideological causation playing only a minor role.

Simplistic arguments that this is an “atheistic” doctrine are no good. It is not incompatible with the existence of God and of Revelation. God just has be outside the normal process of history. Normally, humans seek overwhelmingly to pursue their material interests, but every so often God intervenes to provide guidance, which humans either accept, reject, or progressively corrupt (on the basis of their material interests). So far, so good.

The problem is with the anthropology this involves. The religious worldview holds that man is a spiritual animal. He has a faculty which naturally responds to transcendent forces. We might call it a religious faculty, but it is usually taken to include all promptings to disinterested pursuit of values, be they moral, aesthetic, or narrowly “religious”. This faculty does not rely entirely on the provision of external revelation, though without it he may not be able to acquire any certain knowledge. Man’s behaviour is essentially a result of the struggle between the prompting of this faculty and the desires of his lower, animal self.

In the Islamic tradition we call the spiritual faculty the ruh and the lower self the nafs. Christians believe that man is made in God’s image, but tempted by degenerate urges that entered the world with the Fall. In the Dharmic religions, man must escape the cycle of samsara by limiting his physical desires, which trap him in illusion. Plato, too, in his allegory of the charioteer, believed the human drama stemmed from a conflict between spiritual drive and a physical one (these being the two chariot’s two horses).

All societies until the modern age believed in transcendent values. Modernity has bastardised transcendence but the religious faculty cannot be entirely suppressed. People who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” acknowledge this fact, and modernity still believes in moral values, which can only be explained as transcendent forces. A secular human rights activist still experiences tension between her moral ideals and her personal inclinations, and how she resolves this tension determines much of her behaviour.

Historical materialism is based on a completely different anthropology. It has to hold that human behaviour, on average, is mainly the result of the animal faculty alone, because it is this that desires material comfort. The religious worldview implies a different account of history. Material forces are important, but the disinterested pursuit of values can also bring about change.

Defenders of materialism can say that God, acting outside the normal rules of history, provides guidance, which humans than interpret in light of their material interests. However, if the defender believes there is an extant religion whose interpretations of revelation are true, this creates a larger anomaly. It requires him to say that God specially intervenes in this one tradition (in contrast to the non-materialist, who can parsimoniously explain its preservation through the normal cause-and-effect relationships God has established).

Moreover, the receipt of revelation is also problematic for the materialist. Why do some humans accept it and some reject it? If this is the result of their material circumstances, can we really condemn the unbelievers, for simply–in a manner of speaking–being in the wrong place at the wrong time? Again, the non-materialist explanation is simpler: the believers believed because they had better character, leading to a choice that merits Divine reward.

Through explaining issues such as these, the religious materialist has to make more and more ad hoc exceptions to their materialism. Spiritual practises are also difficult to make sense of. Surely, the behaviour of saints and mystics is the paradigmatic example of disinterested action, and to explain it materially is silly, insulting, and possibly impious. A worldview supposed to simplify history ends up requiring more and more miracles.

Finally, what can the materialist say of other religions? Their corruption may have been the result of material causes, fine, but don’t they still contain many good and sincere people among their adherents? People can act disinterestedly in pursuit of honest error as well as truth. It seems the materialist has to either deny that significant numbers of them do, or invoke further ad hoc interventions.

Of course, I am speaking in generalities. Historical materialism does not exactly contradict the religious worldview. Rather, it requires belief in a huge number of special interventions to explain the accumulating anomalies. A theory that prides itself as being scientific should surely suspect that it might be falsified. The world of historical materialism is an arid waste land that is metaphysically hostile to Prophecy, religion, and genuine spirituality.

I would also point out that is unproductive. The world is desperately in need of spiritual renewal, but materialism would imply it is not possible. The spectre of Capital (strangely reified) stalks the land, making the triumph of secularism a foregone conclusion. We know from Prophecy that deep decline will take place before the end of times, but we do not know that this age of darkness has to be here and now.

The traditional, pre-Marxist view of history is infinitely more hopeful and inspiring. True ideas, persuasively expressed, have the power to inspire multitudes. Sound arguments really can prick the consciences of those in power and make them do the right thing. We do not need to borrow ideas from a failed revolutionary project completely hostile to our values in order to explain the modern predicament. If we do, we gain only the comfort of the defeatist, and risk condemning he who would escape the waste land before he has even tried.