Tom Gilson

The Materialist As “A Kind of Childishly Complacent Fundamentalist”

I’m reading David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies. I’ll post a review of it before long, but I suggest you not waste time waiting for me to do that. This is one of the best books I’ve read in years.

Here’s a taste of it, and a topic for discussion as well:

There is, after all, nothing inherently reasonable in the conviction that all of reality is simply an accidental confluence of physical causes, without any transcendent source or end. Materialism is not a fact of experience or a deduction of logic; it is a metaphysical prejudice, nothing more, and one that is arguably more irrational than almost any other. In general, the unalterably convinced materialist is a kind of childishly complacent fundamentalist, so fervently, unreflectively, and rapturously committed to the materialist vision of reality that if he or she should encounter any problem—logical or experiential—that might call its premises into question, or even merely encounter a limit beyond which those premises lose their explanatory power, he or she is simply unable to recognize it.

Hart does not mean to pick on one person, and neither do I, for there are many representatives of this fundamentalism. Still the example by which he illustrates it is worth passing along:

Richard Dawkins is a perfect example: he does not hesitate, for instance, to claim that “natural selection is the ultimate explanation for our existence.” But this is a silly assertion and merely reveals that Dawkins does not understand the words he is using. The question of existence does not concern how it is that the present arrangement of the world came about, from causes already internal to the world, but how it is that anything (including any cause) can exist at all. This question Darwin and Wallace never addressed, nor were ever to hopelessly confused as to think they had.

And a little later…

One can, I imagine, consider the nature of reality with genuine probity and conclude that the material order is all there is. One can also, however, and perhaps with better logic, conclude that materialism is a grossly incoherent superstition; that the strict materialist is something of a benighted and pitiable savage, blinded by an irrational commitment to a logically impossible position; and that every “primitive” who looks at the world about him and wonders what god made it is a profounder thinker than the convinced atheist who would dismiss such a question as infantile. One might even conclude, in fact, that one of the real differences between what convention calls the Age of Faith and the Age of Reason is actually the difference between a cogent intellectual and moral culture, capable of considering the mystery of being with some rigor, and a confined and vapid dogmatism without genuine logical foundation. Reason is a fickle thing.

All of this, however, is really only of secondary importance…

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2 thoughts on “The Materialist As “A Kind of Childishly Complacent Fundamentalist”

  1. @Tom Gilson:

    I have read the book a few months ago and it is indeed an outstanding book. David Bentley Hart has two qualities that the barbarian new atheists, or as Eric Reitan following Schleiermacher, called them, “Religion’s cultured despisers”, sorely miss: an acute historical awareness and a deep literary culture and sensibility.

  2. I came back a little later and added the section headed, “and a little later…” I thought it was fitting.

    G. Rodrigues, I want to echo especially what you said about “literary culture and sensibility.” For one thing, he’s sensible in the manner of “he makes sense,” but I don’t think that’s quite what you meant by it. He is sensitive both to a literary kind of thinking and also to language. The man can write.

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