Materialism is the belief that all phenomena in the universe, in particular the human mind, are explainable in terms of matter. In other words, such concepts and experiences as beauty, love, spirituality, pleasure and pain are reducible to nothing but physical and chemical interactions. According to the materialist view, the mind does not actually exist, but is an emergent property or epiphenomenon of matter.
Although there are not many people who enthusiastically promote the materialist worldview, it has become the default belief of many scientifically educated people that all phenomena are reducible to the activities of matter.
The Malaise of Materialism
Materialism leads to a rejection of spirituality, both in terms of declining religious belief, and also in the arts where the cult of ugliness, with its obsessions with the sordid and brutalistic, functions to reduce humans to biological automata.
Of course all religions reject materialism as an article of faith, but none apart from Buddhism attempts to offer any rational philosophical refutation of the materialist worldview.
The Christian Churches seem to be completely unable to rise to the challenge of materialism. Christians either return to fundamentalism and assert the literal truth of the Bible with virulent anti-intellectualism, or reject spirituality and 'demythologise' - turning themselves into purveyors of the social gospel.
Of course there's nothing wrong with the social gospel, but the churches are trying to occupy a niche already filled by left-of-centre political parties. The end result is dumbed-down, happy-clappiness . The spiritual dimension of life has been forgotten, pews are empty and congregations have gone elsewhere.
[The Religion of Peace™ is also incapable of refuting materialism, but this is hardly surprising since it rejected philosophy and reason long ago, and concentrated on spreading and maintaining itself by violence, intimidation and deception, rather than by any appeals to rationality or ethics]
Buddhism offers the only coherent critique of materialism
Whitehead said "Christianity ... has always been a religion seeking a metaphysic, in contrast to Buddhism which is a metaphysic generating a religion." In other words, Christianity does not have the metaphysical foundation needed to withstand materialism.
So nowadays it's left to Buddhism to defend the spiritual aspect of humanity from mechanistic materialism, and show that not everything about the human mind can be explained in mechanistic terms.
The Buddhist argument against all forms of materialism can be summarized thus:
(i) Computers can simulate all physical processes.
(ii) There are some mental processes that computers cannot simulate.
(iii) Therefore, some aspects of the mind are non-physical.
For a full discussion of this argument, see Refuting the computational theory of mind - and why it matters to Buddhists.
- Sean Robsville