Materialism – the belief that nothing exists beyond this physical world – usually goes along with atheism (the belief there is no God, or other supernatural beings) and often with reductionism (the belief that everything, ultimately, can and will be explained by fundamental physics).
1. The need of the group
This is a group that desperately needs the gospel. Why? Because, while materialists pride themselves on accepting reality, and believing in only what can be proven, they are in fact living in a fantasy. They live in a made-up world where there is no judgement and no sin against God. This is a delusion, and when it crumbles as they face the true and living God, they will have no salvation.
The fact that such a moment will come for all is the biggest problem. However there are many ways in which having a materialist outlook on life leaves people vulnerable in this life. For instance, there is no comfort when facing pain and death. Materialists will often claim that Christians have a ‘problem of pain’ – how can you believe in a sovereign and loving God when pain exists in the world? However, it is the atheist who has the greatest problem of pain. When pain comes, how can you explain it, when you know nothing of the fall? How can you cope with it, when you have no comfort in Christ and no hope for a new world where there will be no pain? Indeed, how can you deal with the fact that pain is bad, or that it matters, when you believe that everything is an accident with no meaning?
Materialists are often hostile to all kinds of religion, but nonetheless there may still be opportunities for discussion. Materialists will often be people willing to engage in conversation. People who are materialists by conviction have probably thought about what they believe and why. They will probably have read books that talk about issues of existence, reality, and religion. There will likely be good opportunities to raise these topics and explore them.
2. Understanding the group
Materialists generally accept nothing beyond this physical universe. It came from nothing and will go to nothing. Life, therefore, has no ‘meaning’, in the sense of being part of some bigger, eternal reality. Most materialists, however, will believe that they can give their own meaning to life, and that is good enough. They may ‘profoundly believe that you can wring more meaning and beauty from the world accepting it as it is, rather than concocting deities’ as Zoe Williams wrote in The guardian weekly recently (24-30 January 2014, p. 48).
Some people will slip into depression and negativity as the result of holding these kinds of beliefs, but many will not. On the contrary, you will find many materialists are positive about life and what they can accomplish. After all, they believe that this is the only existence they will have, and they want to make the most of it.
For some it may be purely self-centred – the accumulation of wealth, or power. However many materialists are vocal in their concern for humankind – they are humanists, believing that human beings are the ultimate judges of right and wrong, advocating human rights and tolerance. Materialists are often highly ethical. You will find many materialists in the ‘left-wing’ side of politics, promoting political freedom and democracy, human self-determination, social justice and other causes such as care for the environment. These are all good things. There is much that most Christians could agree with and applaud.
Most materialists will agree on the value of science for understanding everything that matters, and on the need for secular ethics based on reason rather than any kind of God.
3. Challenges of the group
Materialists can be very daunting to talk to, as you will often find them amongst highly educated and intelligent groups in society. They will likely be well-informed about a range of world issues, as well as possibly well-read in philosophy and science. They can seem confident and powerful; indeed, a lot of politics and policy in the Western world is very influenced by a materialist philosophy.
As well, many materialists simply cannot believe why any rational person could accept ‘fairy tales’ such as Christianity. The materialist you are talking to might well believe that you are mentally deficient, or utterly deluded, and that there is nothing rational whatsoever in your belief. He or she may still be polite, but it is very daunting to talk to someone who knows so much and who thinks that you are, basically, stupid. You may well feel like you want to avoid these conversations altogether.
Never forget, however, that these are people who desperately need Christ.
4. Engaging with the group
Never forget, also, that these are people created in the image of God, whether they know it or not. They have rational minds that are capable of being persuaded by evidence. They are created with a yearning for meaning and worship that God can use to bring them to him. His Spirit can break through the most hardened hearts and closed minds. You may feel intimidated when talking to an articulate, well-educated materialist; but God’s Spirit is not.
It is good to emphasise that you believe in rationality and evidence, too. You believe the Bible is true not as a matter of ‘blind faith’, but because you have good reasons to believe it. Challenge people to look at that evidence with you. Ask them to come and study the Bible with you. Challenge them that if they refuse, then they are not prepared to follow the evidence where it takes them. These are likely to be people who are very modernist when it comes to the world (that is, trusting in evidence and rationality).
Another fruitful topic might be the relationship between faith and reason. A materialist will typically think that these are opposites. They are not; I have faith in God because I have good reasons for that faith. (These are reasons such as: he is reliable and has always kept his promises, and there is good evidence that he has). Ask, why do you think the two must be opposed? Be genuine – listen to the answers and think about them.
It can also be useful to challenge people about the basis for their own beliefs. How can you have ethics without absolute standards? Where does justice come from? Why should I care for the environment?
Ultimately, you want to be able to engage with materialists as genuine conversation partners; change their expectation that you will simply rant at them and refuse to listen. Make sure you do listen. The aim is not for you to win an argument; it is to establish a relationship as someone who is genuinely interested in this person.
5. Sharing Christ with the group
At some point, you will want to move away from philosophical conversations – that will potentially go on forever and can just be a smokescreen. This is a group who may well be open to challenges to look at the evidence first hand. It can even be possible to make this challenge quite early on in the conversation – these are often people with the confidence to attend a talk or go to a meeting even without much of a relationship established already. Don’t be afraid to ask.
It is good to emphasise the reality of Jesus, and to point out the textual and historical evidence available (Dawkins, for instance, seems to be unaware of a lot of this). Jesus is not a matter of fantasy – he is part of real, documented history.
It is also useful to highlight the way in which the gospel gives reality and meaning to pain. The gospel says that it matters when people hurt, and God is doing something about it. This is a difficult topic – not intellectually difficult, but potentially sensitive as you never know what pain people might have in their lives. Be prepared to change gear if the need is suddenly for sympathy, not argument.
6. Ideas for mission to the group
As pointed out above, this is a group that might not feel intimidated coming to a talk, even in an unfamiliar venue. They may well even relish the chance for discussion and debate. Be bold with advertising and inviting. Give talks on science and the Bible, or the evidence for Jesus, with challenging titles – ‘Jesus, the myth?’ or suchlike. Demonstrate that Christians are willing to debate important topics and take on questions. Take up the challenge of the problem of pain. These are scary topics to tackle, but materialists are likely to use them to dismiss Christianity, so let us take up the challenge.
At the same time, make sure that your event always includes a chance to hear the gospel, which is the power of God for salvation. Dealing with difficult questions is often necessary to get people to the point where they will listen to the gospel – once they are there, make sure they have the chance to know what it is.
7. Helpful resources
- The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins
- The Dawkins Delusion?: Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine, Alister McGrath
- Dawkins' God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life, Alister E. McGrath Paperback
- If I were God I’d stop all the pain, John Dixon
- Gunning for God: a critique of the New Atheism, John Lennox
- Unnatural Enemies, Kirsten Birkett
- www.thegospelcoalition.org – American in outlook, but useful articles under their ‘Worldview and culture’ heading in the ‘Resources’ section.
- Richard Dawkins vs John Lennox debate on YouTube