What Does a Spiritual Materialist Believe?

Materialism is a philosophical world-view that all that exists consists of matter and energy and the forces between them. There is no ‘other’ world or dimension, nothing supernatural or extra-material. Materialism is also the largest paradigm in science; the entirety of this venture, and other evidence based disciplines, operate under it. (If there is anything that could be seen as other-worldly, such as some of the theories of physics, superstrings and quantum foam, they are predictable by mathematic model, require confirmation and certainly are not expected to include beings with intention.)

Materialism is often seen as dangerous, immoral, reductionist and destitute, that ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy’ (Hamlet). I believe that this is not the case, but that I understand why many feel these criticisms are valid. This is because materialists do not give enough weight to subjective experience. By this I do not mean belief, opinion or interpretation of experience, but subjective experience that is observable by the tools of neuroscience, statistical predictable and universal or generalisable to the whole of humankind, i.e. match the criteria for any good science.

Acceptance of materialism entails that all phenomena associated with religious and supernatural beliefs can be accounted for physically.

Ultimately, no argument made based on evidence about the material world will prove or disprove the existence of god(s) or a non-material realm. I will not use this blog to argue about their existence. As the famous historian of science Thomas Kuhn argued out there is no point arguing about competing paradigms as there is no common ground from which to pit two paradigms against each other. However, I wish to demonstrate that subjective experiences reported, and highly esteemed, by believers, often touted as evidence for their beliefs, have a material explanation and are not limited solely to themselves. In the same way that the weather, other astronomical bodies and the diversity of species are no longer lauded as proof of divine causation, so I expect this to become the case for human mental life. I simply want to present the philosophy I’ve developed based on evidence and empathy. The consequences of accepting it are for each to decide for themselves.

Explanations for the subjective experience of religion – the psychology of belief – usually centre on the negatives, from the point of view of non-believers things we would be better off without. These may be explanations using the old, questionable ideas of Freud and folk psychology, such as the fulfilment of needs for father figures, safety or the meaning of events and the meaning of life or by evolutionary psychology’s implication that they result from the corruption of mental drives and modules such as hyperactive agency detection.

In this blog I will argue that any materialist argument needs to explain the other side of religion, the positive subjective experiences. That is how it co-opts cognitive functions for self-improvement rather than self-delusion. I will aim to show that recent findings in the human sciences, as well as writings religious and secular throughout history, demonstrate the objective truth of these experiences from a materialist point of view. The awareness that these positives can be grounded in science is lacking from current materialist discourse, even leading to the denial of these subjective experiences, there is a gap in the explanation. And the gaps are where God gets placed.

Michael Shermer’s The Believing Brain is one of the best overviews of the cognitive functions that make us prone to unjustified belief, including:

  • Patternicity. Research shows believers in the paranormal are more likely to perceive patterns in random noise and attribute meaning to them. These conclusions are more likely to be drawn when dopamine is increased, and base dopamine levels may be higher in believers than in sceptics, pp. 140-2.
  •  Locus of control. Those who score high on measures for external locus of control feel their life is not in their control and so are more likely to be believers in external control sources, such as divine beings or earthly conspirators. Skeptics tend to have a higher locus of control leading to greater confidence in personal judgement, more scepticism of outside authorities and sources of information and have a lower tendency to conform, p. 90.
  • Agenticity, sensed-presence and theory of mind means we ascribe consciousness to inanimate objects and processes and produce beliefs on their intentions.
  • Dualism, the tendency to believe our mind/consciousness inhabits our body, but is separate from it and can exist without it. Out-of-body experiences seem to confirm this, but have rational, materialist explanations such as the self/body schema. We have parts of our brains which give us the subjective impression of where our minds ‘reside’ and the feeling of where the limits of our bodies are, if these parts of the brain malfunction then we mistakenly can feel that are minds and/or bodies are elsewhere, p. 125 & 168.
  • Our left-hemisphere interpreter constructs a constant narrative for our actions, regardless of whether it matches our conscious or unconscious intentions or reactions to external events. If we cannot find a narrative explanation we experience the discomfort of cognitive dissonance when we hold two conflicting views, p. 127 & 168.
  • De-centering; the ability to vividly imagine oneself elsewhere, means we can all too easily deny the obvious, that we will be no more when our bodies no longer function, p. 169.
  • Confirmation bias and motivated reasoning, beliefs come before justification, we form beliefs and the search for reasons we made them and confirmation to why we should keep them, ignoring or explaining away conflicting evidence. The feeling that we reason our way to our beliefs first is part of the cognitive dissonance evader of our left-brain narrator, which tries to reconcile opposing beliefs.
  • Genetic predisposition for things such as personality traits and moral foundations including respect for authority, traditionalism and sanctity. This accounts for 40-55% of the propensity to have religious beliefs and the variations in religious attitudes. Despite the common accusation that people only have a faith because their parents believe; only about 3% is due to cultural transmission from parents. The remainder of the variation comes from other environmental factors, such as cultural background of peers/society, p. 199.

Therefore, critiques argue that humankind needs to get over these cognitive pitfalls, to grow out of them, or to be aware of them and re-direct in useful ways, in order to rid ourselves of dogma based on unfounded beliefs and create a better world. As a member of the Skeptics movement, which promotes understanding of the human mind to encourage people to ‘know thyself’, I agree that humankind needs this knowledge of when it is liable to make mistakes.

However, religion also has positives unrelated to the objective truth of their beliefs. These experiences are not something that humankind should get rid of; in fact their education and development may be important in creating a world of happy, well-functioning people who live in peace with those they may not have any reason to get along with. So I may not be any less naively utopian, nor do I deny many critiques of religion, I just hope to convince that there is something missing from the picture. Religion may not need to be got rid of, it just needs to be redefined and streamlined, jettisoning un-provable beliefs for knowledge of mental needs, perhaps making religion’s focus the discovery of oneself, rather than the discovery of God. I don’t mean discovery of oneself in some fanciful ‘getting in touch with oneself’, ‘creating a new you’ or whatever, but simply a better understanding of human psychology and how it shapes our own thoughts and feelings, beliefs and actions. This is broadly what the Skeptic movement champions.

This blog will take for granted that materialism is correct, that nothing else can in fact be proven (or rather other claims cannot be disproven). The question of the supernatural can never be answered, if honest we are all agnostic, trying to prove either way has taken up thousands of books by greater minds than mine, and I do not believe I could add anything to it. Instead I will argue that materialism is the best way of seeing the world, not only for use in scientific understanding of the objective world, but for personal inspiration and understanding of the subjective world of ourselves and others. This means that this blog will also promote and defend materialism as a positive trait that does not exclude value in life or values in people and as compatible with the some of the practices and emotions of spirituality, and the idea that materialism is as fulfilling as any other philosophy.

Mine is not a unique position, it is inspired by the thinking of many others, who I hope I give just credit to, but I want to try to provide a foundation and platform for a group in the middle of the science-religion dichotomy which is often seen as fringe by both sides. If you disagree that’s fine, I very much welcome alternate perspectives and discussion, please let me know in the comments. Bearing in mind that I’m not telling you what to believe please do not tell me, but try to convince me based on the same principles I try to convince you (evidence and empathy). If you do agree I hope this blog caters for a type of atheist which is mostly overlooked.


 – The Spiritual Materialist


5 thoughts on “What Does a Spiritual Materialist Believe?

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