Spirituality versus Materialism?

Materialism, contrary to popular usage, is not the opposite of spirituality.


My definition of spirituality is the class of attitudes and activities that values goods other than fame, power over other people, wealth, and material goods. Spirituality includes a concern for improving the individual self and the human condition.


Many Gods

Logically, you are at liberty to suppose that the Laws of Nature were laid down by a cabal of Elder Gods, who have recently been defeated and deposed by the present Lord God Almighty. It would then be reasonable to expect the reigning God at times to suspend the laws of His predecessors, and thus display His power. Zeus and the other gods of Olympus did just that.

One God

But it makes no sense to suppose that the One Eternal God, whose first commands would have defined the eternal laws of His Universe, would decree laws so imperfect that it would ever be necessary or desirable for Him to suspend them.

No God

If there is no God, then the regularities that we call the Laws of Nature are subject to no being's volition and caprice, and we might as well expect them to be permanent, universal and inviolable. In the past three hundred years especially, this assumption has proved quite useful.

Definition of Materialism

In short, materialism is the belief, or rather conviction from experience, that supernatural interference with the natural world does not occur. We will perhaps never know all the laws that govern nature, but we reject the idea that they are subject to actual change, or that there are exceptions for specially favored persons. This principle is equally consistent with the hypotheses of either one god or none.

Is Spirituality a Belief That Materialism is False?

Notwithstanding the argument above, which agrees with the position that the devout Baruch Spinoza adopted in the 17th century, the popular (Spinoza would say vulgar) belief is that
"Spirituality is the belief that there is something beyond the material world that is willing and able to interfere with it."
How does that differ from a belief in magic?
But if spirituality involves belief in God, the popular definition is consistent only with the polytheistic scenario sketched above.

The Popular Usage of 'Materialistic' Is Erroneous

In vulgar usage, the word 'materialistic' means 'devoted to mere bodily comfort and wealth, devoid of nobler interests'. Now food, drink, a warm fire, bed, sexual activity, and even the pleasant glow that is the aftermath of moderate exercise, are certainly material pleasures.

So gluttony, sloth, and lust are vices of the body.
But wrath, pride, envy, and avarice are vices of the spirit!

The love of fame and wealth is not materialism, it is worldliness.

Wealth is not a material entity at all. A dollar bill is a promise to pay whatever nebulous thing a dollar is. It is no longer associated with gross material things, and depends instead upon many abstractions, ultimately dependent upon the agreement that certain numerical records, themselves quite probably electronic phantasms, confer upon their owner the right to be exchanged for other people's labor or possessions, or even the right to their obedience, or their admiration, or envy, or adulation. It is true that the gathering of mere wealth is an ignoble activity, but it has nothing to do with a belief that the material world is all that exists.

I disdain professional sports, because I think that people are better occupied getting their own exercise. But that does not allow me to deny the possibility of a spiritual component in competition. I do, however, insist that the principle of "winning is everything" or its more extreme form "the only thing" makes the likelihood of a good spiritual attitude very small.

Inordinate desire for 'wealth' or 'winning' is a vice of the spirit, not of the 'body'. So are cruelty, the desire for adulation, or any kind of domination of other people for its own sake.

The true antithesis of 'spiritual' is 'worldly'. The world, in this usage, is chiefly composed of the opinion of other people. The truly spiritual person has an inner assurance of whether he or she is doing what is good, and if the world's opinion agrees, so much the better, but if it does not, then the world is wrong.
Galileo lied to the Inquisition in order to avoid torture, because he knew that what he said to them did not matter. The facts were as he had already stated.

Spirituality without Superstition

I shall now dismiss the idea that God is arbitrary, can be bribed or flattered, as superstition. That is how Spinoza's opinion is translated from the Latin. I therefore conclude that spirituality does not include the belief in the supernatural with which it is so often popularly associated.

It is not my intention to claim that those whose conduct and beliefs are guided in part by supernatural hypotheses are without spirituality. That would be absurd, since many such people do in fact meet the definition of caring for things other than fame and fortune. I only assert that their belief in the supernatural is irrelevant to their spiritual inclinations.

The Stoic Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, believed not at all in the afterlife, and went so far as to consider Chistianity a belief dangerous to the Empire. Nevertheless, his writings have more spiritual content than the utterances of most televangelists or religionist Presidents.

I contend that the proper pursuit of the knowledge of nature is a spiritual exercise. It is unfortunate that the funding of such pursuits compels so many of the devotees to seek fame and fortune, but I say nevertheless, as did Thomas Henry Huxley, that the spiritual benefits to humanity are more valuable even than the amply demonstrated material benefits.

The Declaration of American Independence is primarily a spiritual document. It argues that a radical change of form of government, and the separation of peoples formerly united politically, are steps to be taken only with the most serious consideration. It then catalogues the ways in which the rights of the people of the American colonies to "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness" have been grossly infringed by their King, and declares that the world is entitled to know that these are the reasons why the American colonies have chosen to rebel against their overlords. It is about the rights to freedom of spirit.

There is a much earlier document, from the year 1320, wherein the bishops of Scotland inform the ruler of the western Christian church that

It is not for honor and glory, nor for riches and power,
that the Scots drove the English king out, but that they fought
for liberty alone, which no true man loseth, but with his life.
It is called the Declaration of Arbroath. I say that these are spiritual documents, because they assert that liberty is more valuable than any other possessions. Liberty is essential to the free exercise of thought.
Liberty is one of the very highest of spiritual values.

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