Matter matters: Why we should all be materialists

HSV Public Lecture by Ian Robinson, Central Victorian Atheists and Freethinkers, at Balwyn Library on 28 August 2014

The origin of the ideas for this talk was a publication by Barney Zwartz (former religion writer for the Age, Melbourne) who claimed that the spiritual was a hunger for something beyond the material world, such as a longing for the spiritual experience. Zwartz had interviewed a number of people who had expressed a hunger for something beyond the material world. In his article, he discussed matter as opposed to the transcendental.

What annoyed Robinson was the way such dichotomies as ‘transcendent’ or ‘spiritual’ versus material amounted to just another stick from the dominant culture with which to beat materialists. This was expressed in comments to the effect that if we neglected the transcendent and the spiritual we were lacking. Words like ‘transcendent’ had such a wide-spread, deeply-rooted use in our culture, free-thinkers could feel guilty about rejecting those terms.

Robinson pointed out that the word ‘transcend’ originated in Latin as meaning ‘to surpass or go beyond’. It became a term to distinguish between a transcendent God who was distinct from the material world and an immanent one who was part or all of it. The Medieval Scholastics used the term to refer to concepts such as being, unity and truth which could not be part of Aristotle’s ten famous categories, and finally during the Enlightenment Kant used ‘transcendent’ to refer to concepts beyond our experience. By the twentieth century, ‘transcendent’ had been transformed into a noun ‘the transcendent’ – meaning something supernatural.

Robinson also referred to the word ‘spiritus’, meaning breath; later called spirit, which became ‘soul’, meaning the essence of something. Thus ‘team spirit’ and ‘spirits’ distilled down to their essence. None implied anything supernatural. Plato described reality as both material and non-material. The material realm, which we can see and touch, and a non-material realm inhabited by ‘spiritual beings’ or ‘spirits’, which include various ghosts, fairies, angels and, of course, God or gods. Since then, religion has monopolised spirituality until the late part of this century when its grip loosened. More recently, spirituality has been associated with the ‘New Age’ adherents, while the mainstream religions with their rigid hierarchies, inflexible creeds and habitual observances have become the antithesis of spirituality. Zwartz and his fellow travellers hope to avoid the re-evaluation of the concept and return it to its special place as the discredited supernatural in disguise.

Every effort to find convincing scientific evidence for any supernatural force has failed; every initially promising experience of the spiritual realm found to be illusory. In fact, even in Zwartz’s world people live as if there were no supernatural realm or God.

However, despite the force of reason, yearning for ‘something more’ may be a legitimate human response to the world. Many of us want to be part of something bigger than ourselves. Atheists and freethinkers need to present people with an attractive alternative – the narrative of Matter. We need to convey the fact that everybody is part of the story more awe-inspiring and more sublime than anything in the canons of the world’s religions.

It is the story of our planet Earth. The first chapter of which began 13.8 billion years ago, when matter came into being and after a time began to organize itself into a staggering variety of complex configurations. As the universe expanded, matter came together and eventually stars began to form. In time some of these stars exploded as supernovas, and for this we must be grateful to the universe, because virtually every atom in our bodies came from a star that exploded.

The second chapter of our story began 3.5 billion years ago on Earth, as matter began to develop into living organisms, configurations of atoms and molecules that were able to transform energy, to process information and, importantly, to reproduce. Over millions of years, life has evolved to produce humans, or Homo sapiens. The evolution of conscious thought, the third chapter, led in time to the evolution of human culture and civilization and its scientific, social and artistic achievements, including this – the greatest story ever told.

To be a genuine materialist is to love and cherish the earth beneath our feet, the air that surrounds us, the waters that nourish us, the forests and oceans that are there for our survival, the entire planet on which we live. As the philosopher Loyal Rue said, this story is ‘everybody’s story’. It is full of potential for uniting our species around a common apprehension of how things are and what things matter. We are now called together to one place, to a shared history and to a common vision.


Solomon, Robert C., Spirituality for the Skeptic: The Thoughtful Love of Life, 2002
Compt-Sponville, Andre, The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality, 2007.
Rue, Loyal, Everybody’s Story: Wising Up to the Epic of Evolution, 2000.
Krauss, Lawrence, A Universe from Nothing, 2009.
Shermer, Michael, The Believing Brain, 2011.
Camus, Albert, L’envers et l’endroit, 1937.
Watts, Alan, Does It Matter? Essays on Man’s Relation to Materiality, 1969.

Report by Howard Hodgens

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