Religious and spiritually-minded people commonly decry the corrosive rise of materialism. The Baha’i writings repeatedly criticize the rise of materialism as a major ill in our society, describing it as:
… rampant and cancerous … undermining the fabric of human society alike in the East and in the West, eating into the vitals of the conflicting peoples and races inhabiting the American, the European and the Asiatic continents. – Shoghi Effendi, to the 1953 African Intercontinental Congress, Messages to the Baha’i World: 1950–1957, p. 136.
Materialism has many faces: we commonly understand it as the over-valuing and over-acquisition of material possessions or wealth over human values like love, kindness and mercy—but from a philosophical point of view materialism represents a reduction of humanity and all things to the chance operation of matter following mindless physical laws:
The materialistic philosophers of the West declare that man belongs to the animal kingdom, whereas the philosophers of the East—such as Plato, Aristotle and the Persians—divide the world of existence or phenomena of life into two general categories or kingdoms: one the animal kingdom, or world of nature, the other the human kingdom, or world of reason. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, pp. 356-357.
The rise of materialism is often linked to and blamed on the growing authority of rational scientific thought. Yet a more careful study shows that such a materialist worldview doesn’t necessarily come as a consequence of that scientific thought. Although science bases its findings on objective and testable material facts, the materialistic view isn’t necessarily a given—idealism, in fact, remains a growing and compelling description of nature. The core premise of idealism: that material existence is ultimately founded upon mind or nonphysical abstractions, runs contrary to the materialistic view. The most popular and clearest expression in the West originates with ancient Greek philosophy, in particular Plato’s Theory of Forms.
Actually, though, the role of religious materialism might rightly carry far more blame for the rise of philosophical and social materialism. Its role in this process rests on the apparent hard split between science and religion which manifested itself most clearly by the end of the 19th Century. During that time, the new theory of evolution and advances in the geological sciences cast profound doubt on the previous, commonly-accepted literal understandings of the scriptural account of creation, particularly the age of the Earth and origin of human beings.
In religious theology, the materialistic premise rests on the insistence of the physicality or materiality of things which properly exist as metaphysical or spiritual realities.
For example: materialistic religion consequently treats conceptual, metaphysical and abstract ideas such as heaven, hell, angels, resurrection and the narration of creation as physical facts, rather than seeing them as obviously metaphysical, symbolic, spiritual or idealistic. Mainstream religions’ insistence on the materialistic understanding of these ideas made belief a completely untenable premise for rational scientific thinkers. Thus, the rejection of idealism in both religious and scientific thought split faith from science and made reconciliation between the two an absolute impossibility.
This literalist, materialistic view of religion now commonly occurs in all the Abrahamic religions. In Christianity it takes the form of the insistence that the heaven which Christ ascended to was the physical heavens; or that angels are living creatures which fly around in the physical world; or that the seeing, hearing, death, life and the grave used as metaphors in scripture in fact represent common physical things. Today we might call this literal approach to religion fundamentalist, because it insists on only the most fundamental physical interpretation of scripture.
In Islam a similar tendency developed, such that paradise and hell, the day of judgment and resurrection came to be understood in gross literal terms. In that way, paradise represented the simple deferment of physical pleasures to the afterlife, where all lusts would be satisfied. Such a view did not pass without criticism. For example, the famous Persian poet and mathematician Omar Khayyam in The Rubaiyat observed the moral bankruptcy of avoiding these lusts to simply indulge them in some imagined afterlife.
Yet it doesn’t take that much depth of perception to understand these metaphors and allegories in scripture. For example, in Christianity, any meaningful reading of the letters from the Apostles or even how these terms were employed in the Gospels makes it abundantly clear that the heaven which Christ spoke of was not the physical heaven above one’s head, and the bodies which would be resurrected are not the material bodies of “flesh and blood” as Paul stated clearly.
In Baha’u’llah’s seminal work The Book of Certitude he delineated and clarified the metaphorical meanings of these misunderstood terms, such as “sun,” “moon,” “clouds,” “heaven” and “stars” in the sacred Abrahamic scriptures. He interpreted and explained many verses, such as this well-known Biblical passage from the Gospels:
Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken … – Mathew 24:29.
Urging everyone to see beyond the literal, the material and the physical, Baha’u’llah wrote:
By the terms “sun” and “moon,” mentioned in the writings of the Prophets of God, is not meant solely the sun and moon of the visible universe. Nay rather, manifold are the meanings they have intended for these terms. In every instance they have attached to them a particular significance. Thus, by the “sun” in one sense is meant those Suns of Truth Who rise from the dayspring of ancient glory, and fill the world with a liberal effusion of grace from on high. These Suns of Truth are the universal Manifestations of God in the worlds of His attributes and names. Even as the visible sun that assisteth, as decreed by God, the true One, the Adored, in the development of all earthly things, such as the trees, the fruits, and colours thereof, the minerals of the earth, and all that may be witnessed in the world of creation, so do the divine Luminaries, by their loving care and educative influence, cause the trees of divine unity, the fruits of His oneness, the leaves of detachment, the blossoms of knowledge and certitude, and the myrtles of wisdom and utterance, to exist and be made manifest. – The Book of Certitude, pp. 33-34.
This religious insistence on the literal and physical understandings of scripture in lieu of the clear idealistic or spiritual one, had the effect of casting religious thought as superstitious nonsense. Ironically, the natural rejection of religious materialism often led to the embrace of philosophical materialism. Religious clergy, scholars and intellectuals who rightly should have championed idealism as the core of religious belief instead insisted on a nonsensical materialistic understanding of their scripture. This death of idealism in religion really meant the death of the old religions themselves. Their rebirth can only be realized when religion rids itself of these materialistic dogmas and returns idealism to its proper place in religious thought.
Abdu’l-Baha, the son and appointed interpreter of Baha’u’llah’s teachings, observed over a century ago:
Put all your beliefs into harmony with science; there can be no opposition, for truth is one. When religion, shorn of its superstitions, traditions, and unintelligent dogmas, shows its conformity with science, then will there be a great unifying, cleansing force in the world which will sweep before it all wars, disagreements, discords and struggles — and then will mankind be united in the power of the Love of God. – The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p.