What’s the Fuss About Materialism?
Tibor R. Machan
You may recall that Osama bin Laden’s big complaint about the West and Americans in particular—resting in large part on his Islamic faith—is just how materialistic they all are. What’s that, this materialism, of which so many people are supposedly guilty and for which they may be killed with impunity? (Yes, Virginia, the animosity by Muslims toward infidels and such isn't based on US support of Israel or any such recent particulars--just check out Efraim Karsh's account, in his recent book, Islamic Imperialism [Yale, 2006].)
Before getting to the charge of materialism, it should be noted that whatever this doctrine is, assuming there are billions of us in the West who are materialists, that by no stretch of the imagination justifies terrorist attacks upon us. Nor does our supposed infidelity, whatever that is supposed to be—atheism, Christianity, refusal to convert to Islam, whatever. None of that authorizes anyone to attack us, not for a second. Sure, it may provide Muslims with a motive for trying to convert us—every religion, indeed, every point of view, inclines those who believe it to try to spread the thing but it does not entitle them to use force in the process. There is absolutely no merit in believing something because one has been forced to do so even if it is God’s greatest truth. Belief must come from free ascent, not fear, not, certainly, from mindless compliance. So, even if Islam is indeed God’s truth, the only proper way to spread it, to get nonbelievers to adhere to it, is peacefully. Anything else makes "conversion" entirely phony, artificial, and thus totally worthless even in terms of the faith itself even if the faithful and their holy book would have it otherwise.
OK, but what is this materialism of which so many millions are accused and which is given as a strong reason for unleashing brutal, merciless violence upon them?
Actually, materialism is many things. First, it is a metaphysical position that claims that everything that exists is made of nothing but matter. This is a very obscure idea, of course, since just what matter is supposed to be has always been in question. One idea is that anything that has mass is matter, or material.
A second prominent understanding of materialism is that it consists of liking and desiring stuff, of wanting more and more stuff, and stuff is whatever is made of matter.
The two senses of “materialism” are related. If the first is true and everything that exists is indeed matter, than one cannot escape being a materialist except by being terribly mistaken about what the world is like. Suppose you believe in ghosts. Now ghosts are supposed to be disembodied living things, so if everything is made of matter, there can be no ghosts and those who believe in them are flat out wrong. And wanting stuff is thought to follow from believing there is nothing but stuff in the world.
Since, however, the nature of matter is obscure, no one can be a materialist in any meaningful sense; no one can make it out what it is to be one. As to the other sense of materialism, namely, that one who is a materialist prefers to have a lot of stuff—likes to shop and accumulate various goodies and so forth—it has its own problems. That’s because there simply is no stuff people want that is, well, just stuff. Perhaps if someone simply collected a lot of raw dirt or sand or other shapeless mass, it would qualify as being interested in having stuff but there aren’t folks like that, not in the West, not in the East, nowhere.
What most of us do want is this and that—cars, houses, vases, CDs, home videos, books, chairs, paintings, gardens and the flowers and vegetables in them, and so on and so forth. If one is a collector of classic cars or of fancy watches or ancient artifacts—you name it, whatever it is that is being collected—none of this is simply stuff. What people tend to want, more or less of, is various kinds of things, most of them shaped by the human imagination, most of them created with ingenuity, most of them useful for this or that purpose. No one wants just stuff, although some may want more of something than makes sense.
In fact, there is no mere stuff lying about to want—it is all this or that, something or other. Even if one wants fancy rocks or gold or silver or petrified wood or sea shells, these are all desired mainly because of the beauty people see in them, not because they are simply stuff.
So, then, what is all this hostility toward materialism when either it doesn’t mean much or what it means is very, very benign indeed. (Consider, if one wants church artifacts, or merely admires them, even uses them for worship, these too are some kind of stuff but never just stuff, anymore than furniture or dishes or clothing amount to just stuff.)
I submit that the hatred of materialism is really something quite different from what it sounds like. It is the hatred of those who want to enjoy life by taking an active part in it, by trying to relate to all the different things that make up the world and to whatever can give people joy. This kind of anti-materialism is, indeed, hatred of life itself.
So, when people identify bin Laden and his followers as lovers of death, they are right and it is shown clearly by all their ranting against materialism, which is pretty much nothing other than the cherishing of this life we all live here on earth.