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Myth: Atheists Are Materialistic & Worship Money, Material Goods, Comforts

Atheists are Despised, Distrusted for Rampant Materialism

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Myth:
Without god, atheists are only interested in money, material goods, and being selfish. Atheists are more likely to be materialistic and uninterested in the common good.

Response:
The belief that atheists are more materialistic than theists isn't one that is founded on any evidence, but it is a popular one. A survey done by researchers in the University of Minnesota’s department of sociology found that atheists are the most despised and distrusted minority in America. The most popular reasons cited were "moral indiscretions" like criminal behavior, rampant materialism, and cultural elitism. Evidently being theistic and religious prevents such problems, but since when?

In some cases, people might be confused between two senses of materialism: first the philosophical materialism which argues that everything that exists is matter and energy with no place for the supernatural, and second the preoccupation with material objects, comforts, etc. If atheists proclaim the first materialism, perhaps some people imagine that they also mean the second — or at the very least, that the first implies the second.

Materialism, as a preoccupation with material objects and comforts, is normally contrasted with spiritual or religious values. If atheists lack religion or spiritual beliefs, then perhaps all that's left are material comforts. In reality, such materialism can also be contrasted with intellectual and cultural values. There is thus plenty of room for an atheist to have interests that are not material without also needing religion or theism. There is also the fact that some atheists are themselves religious, providing further options outside the material realm.

This condemnation of atheism on the basis of atheists' supposed materialism is strange, though. When was the last time you saw a major conservative evangelical Christian leader condemn materialism? Indeed, when was the last time you saw any Christian leaders in America condemn materialism? Conservative evangelical Christians who invest the most time and effort in attacking secularism, atheism, and godless liberalism also invest a lot of time condemning abortion, homosexuality, contraception, and other behavior. They don't condemn the way American Christians spend so much on material goods and comforts.

Which party is most associated with greed, selfishness, or materialism: Republicans or Democrats?

Which party is most associated with atheists: Republicans or Democrats?

If atheists really were materialistic and greedy, that would show through in their political affiliations — they would vote in ways that serve this attitude. The truth, however, is that most people don't associate atheists with the political party that is itself most closely associated with greed, materialism, and money. When was the last time you saw a major conservative Christian leader criticizing any of this in the Republican Party?

Now, tell me again why atheists are associated with materialism? I’m not claiming that atheists can’t be materialistic, but being materialistic is a product of American culture — a culture that Christians are every bit as influenced by as atheists are. Atheists can't be plausibly regarded as any more materialistic than Christians, but we at least don’t think that any gods are telling us not to be.

We can make the same point with the claim that atheists aren’t interested in the “common good” by looking at all sorts of social programs that helps support the common good: welfare, health insurance, benefits for veterans, and so forth. Which political party in America is most associated with cutting such programs? Which political party is most associated with atheists? When was the last time you saw any major conservative Christian leaders condemning corporate greed and arguing for providing greater resources to the poor?

Finally, it's important to point out that materialism shouldn’t be dismissed without a second thought. It's not hard to argue against a preoccupation with material goods and comforts which shuts out cultural and intellectual values, but we should not allow ourselves to be led into completely devaluing or dismissing material comforts entirely. We are physical and material beings, after all, and this means that physical and material comforts are part of our lives. If we completely dismiss them, we dismiss part of what's good about being alive. What we need is to reach some sort of reasonable balance between material goods and more intellectual or cultural values. We do not, however, need any gods or religions to help us do that.

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