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Milton and the Psychology of Materialism


My friend and colleague David Klinghoffer asks a great question:

What is it about materialism that drives those under its influence to tell us over and over that the world sucks, we suck, everything sucks, even as they imagine they could do a lot better job of designing the cosmos, or the human body?

It’s an important question, and I think there’s a clear answer to it. It’s an interesting answer, and it’s disconcerting. 

First, David’s observation that materialists are always telling us that mankind sucks, etc., is very true. Their visceral disdain — hate is not too strong a word — for mankind is quite remarkable. 

Materialists insist that men have no spiritual souls, no free will, that we’re meat machines, that we are merely animals who are deluded into thinking we are special, that we have no actual knowledge of reality at all (i.e., our brains “construct” reality for us), that human life begins long after conception and its moral value depends on rationality, that there are too many humans on the earth and we need to depopulate humanity (through contraception, sterilization, and abortion) to save Gaia, that mankind can and should be bred like cattle (eugenics), that disabled children in the womb should be killed before birth because they’re imperfect, that pesticides that (might) kill birds but save millions of human lives should be banned, and that the human mind is entirely material or doesn’t even really exist at all (i.e., eliminative materialism). The list is endless. For materialists, mankind really sucks. 

Step Back and Consider

If you step back and look at atheistic materialism, it is basically the denial of human exceptionalism. That is, it is hatred of man, in practically every way imaginable. 

And of course it’s not only man that they hate. Materialists are nearly always atheists, and much of modern atheism is as much hatred of God as it is denial of God. Richard Dawkins:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.

In addition to hatred of man and God, materialism has, as David Klinghoffer observes, an overweening pride. Materialists insist that they could have designed things better — the New Atheists’ own moniker for themselves (before they were roundly ridiculed for it) was “Brights.”

Ideology as an Afterthought

When you consider the question — why do materialists think humanity sucks? — it seems that the view that humanity sucks is at the core of materialist ideology, and that materialism or atheism or any ‘-ism’ adopted by these folks is an afterthought. The hate comes first.

The most parsimonious view of atheistic materialism is that it begins with hatred of man, hatred of God, and with a brash pride, while the ideological framework comes later. 

Whence this prideful hate? Three explanations come to mind. The materialist explanation (if materialists were prone to self-reflection, which they are not) would be that there’s something in our neurotransmitters, something biochemical, that disposes us to misanthropy. But that’s materialist hand-waving, and nonsense. 

The Freudian explanation would be that materialists have some deep unconscious conflict — daddy issues perhaps — that they project on humanity. Well, maybe. 

The third explanation can be called that of Milton, who wrote Paradise Lost. In Milton’s great poem, drawn from the theology of the Bible and particularly from the books of Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Revelation, the origin of man’s hatred of God and of himself, and his insolent pride, is explained. In this telling, evil is personified, and we humans participate in it. The parallel between Milton’s Satan, a profound psychological portrait if nothing else, and modern atheistic materialism is remarkable, almost eerie. Both entail pompous pride, hate of God, and hate of man.

So as to David’s question, there are various explanations — biochemistry, Freud, Milton. I think Milton got it right.

Image: Detail from “Milton Dictates the Lost Paradise to His Three Daughters,” by Eugène Delacroix, via Wikimedia Commons.