Materialism, Man and Morality

Materialism treats the temporal as if it were eternal and the eternal as if it were nonexistent. It is the inevitable consequence of atheism or agnosticism and invariably leads to the elevation of things on the one hand and the depreciation of people on the other. If people are created by a purposeful God, only then do they have purpose and value. If they are merely the product of time, blind chance, and impersonal evolutionary forces, there is no fundamental defense for the intrinsic value of a human being.

The materialist may say people are more important than things, but on what basis can he support such a contention? What makes a person more valuable than a dog, a tree, or even a rock? He is different from them only in degree, not in kind. On the other hand, if man is God’s special creation, made in his own image, created to rule over the world, then he is different not merely in degree, but in kind, distinct from and superior to the material realm. This, in fact, is precisely what Scripture teaches about man (Gen. 1:27-30; Ps. 8:3-8).

But if we accept the prevailing belief, taught almost universally in the Western world, that man is simply one more rung on the endless evolutionary ladder, who is to say one rung is more valuable than the previous? On what basis is a man’s life worth more than an animal’s? Because he is more powerful or has a superior intellect? How does this differ from saying smart and strong people are worth more than retarded and weak people? Or that an intelligent chimpanzee is more valuable than a severely retarded child? Today, the same car is likely to have one bumper sticker saying, “Save the Whales,” and another, “Abortion: A Woman’s Right.” Save the whales; kill the children!

In evolutionary terms, it is a very short step from believing the fit will survive over the unfit, to believing that they deserve to survive. The world has seen numerous examples of the outworking of this philosophy in our own century, most notably Hitler’s Third Reich.

If there is no eternal, there is no soul. Our minds are not really minds, but the illusory product of the brain, that pulsating piece of matter that is nothing more than a sophisticated thing. When our brains cease to function, it is not simply our body that dies; we die. In this framework, man’s fate is no different than the animal’s or the tree’s or the rock’s—so why should he be treated differently?

Materialism is an attempt to find meaning in a universe that has been stripped of meaning through the denial of its Creator. This is the heart and soul of materialism—it is not a random form of behavior but the logical conclusion of an incorrect theology. Materialism does not begin with a wrong view of things; it ends there. It begins with a wrong view of God, which produces a wrong view of man and a wrong view of things.

Only man is arrogant enough to suppose he can put God out of business by denying him. Once God is “dethroned,” there is no line of defense for the value of every human being, therefore no line of defense for any values at all. If we think about it, it is totally predictable that a materialist culture will sanction abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, and every other form of God-playing imaginable. We should never be shocked at what a materialist does. He will do whatever he can do to serve his twisted philosophy of life. This is why technology is so dangerous in the hands of the materialist.

Increasingly we hear the issue of money raised in moral discussions. “Consider the expense to the taxpayer of unwanted children.” “Do you realize what it does to everyone’s health insurance premiums to provide care for hopelessly deformed infants and human vegetables?” “The Social Security system simply cannot sustain the numbers of elderly and infirm there will be by the end of the century.”

No matter how they are phrased, such statements pave the way for the elimination of human life for financial reasons. This is already widely true of abortion, somewhat true of infanticide, and will increasingly be true of euthanasia of the elderly and helpless, the so-called noncontributors to the economy, the leeches of society. Many Americans were shocked some years ago when a congressman was quoted as saying the elderly and infirm had an obligation to unburden society by means of their voluntary euthanasia. Yet, given the premises of materialism, his comment was but a natural conclusion. The most blatant forms of immorality, the most hideous violations of human dignity will inevitably become commonplace in a materialistic society, provided only that they are cost-effective. After you cut through all the noble-sounding rhetoric, money, not God and not human worth, is the only bottom line consideration of materialism. Materialism will inevitably produce the kind of society increasingly evident in America—a society of individualism, where people live parallel lives, not meaningfully intersecting with others. A society where independence is the only absolute, where self-interest is the only creed, where convenience and expediency and profitability are the only values. A society where people know the price of everything, but the value of nothing—where people have a great deal to live on, but very little to live for.

Loving Things, Using People All this may sound like philosophy and sociology and ethics, but it is also extremely practical. The problem of materialism boils down to this: While God created us to love people and use things, the materialist loves things and uses people. He may deny this, but his philosophy of life insures that it will be true. Note the tendency to treat and target people as objects rather than subjects. For instance, the prevalent term “consumer” speaks not of a person, but an economic unit, of value to a company only as an object than can potentially contribute to its profits.

We have every reason to be alarmed about our country’s materialism, but no reason whatsoever to be surprised by it. For our outer materialism is nothing more nor less than the logical and inescapable extension of our inner capitulation to the philosophy of materialism.

This is believed not only by the “bad apples” of society, not the abandoned street kids or reform school grads. They are “the best,” the product of the best homes and best schools in this country. They have believed and are living out what the educational system of our homes, schools, media, and peers—sometimes, sadly, even our churches—has taught them. They are the product of a worldview without God and therefore without spiritual values. Since every person must value something, what other values could we expect from a generation of materialists than materialistic values? As a society, we are reaping exactly what we have sown.

Materialism can never be corrected by high-sounding courses in ethics or the campaign speeches of politicians calling on us to restore the moral fiber of our nation. Moral fiber must come from somewhere. It must be cultivated in our education institutions, beginning with the home. Moral fiber cannot simply be grabbed out of the sky in the midst of a moral vacuum. Materialism can only be corrected by a different view of God. This in turn can only come from a belief in and study of the Scriptures, which tell us about God, and which alone give us the context to truly understand the critical God-related subjects of man, money, and possessions.

(For related subject matter, see Randy Alcorn’s book Money, Possessions and Eternity, Revised, 2003.)

Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries