Which is true: materialism or idealism?

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Joseph and Tammy Tkach
Joseph and Tammy Tkach

A good friend recently told me about his new diet based on portion control and healthy food choices (like tofu). I asked how it was going and he replied, “I don’t mean to brag, but I finished my 14-day allocation of diet food in three hours and twenty minutes!” I then asked how he prepares his tofu and he replied, “First, I throw it in the trash, then I grill some meat.” He noted that he also tried exercise: “I did a week’s worth of cardio after walking into a spider’s web!” I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that his understanding of diet and exercise is just a bit lacking!

There are, of course, other areas where understanding seems in short supply. We see this in the realm of philosophy where one of the big questions is this: Which is true: materialism or idealism? Though there are commonalities between these ideas, and various forms of each one, these two perspectives are largely polar opposites, resulting in debates between atheists (who typically embrace materialism) and theists (who can be said to embrace a form of idealism). Materialists generally believe everything can be explained in relation to matter, which then is lumped together in various ways. Idealists generally believe that ideas (which, by definition, are non-material) make up fundamental reality, and thus the only “thing” that is knowable is consciousness, which includes a person’s thoughts, ideals, principles and values.


Believing that mind is merely the byproduct of what happens in the brain, materialists view consciousness as an illusion. Various experiments have supposedly lent credence to this notion, but none are convincing, especially when the key “proof” offered is that our brains work by lying to ourselves. As atheist-philosopher Daniel Dennett put it, “Half the time our brains are actively fooling us!” (click here for his talk). With my tongue deeply buried within my cheek, I offer this response: “Officer, my brain was fooling me again, I thought I had a green light and all those other drivers’ brains told them they had a red light!” Well, I doubt the “my brain is fooling me” defense would hold up in court.

It may interest you to know that Dennett’s close associate, Richard Dawkins, lost badly when debating three notable theists: click here for Dawkins’ debate with John Lennox, here for his debate with Keith Ward, and here for his debate with Alister McGrath. For critiques of Dawkin’s positions set out in these debates and presented in more detail in The God Delusion, see Alister and Joanna McGrath’s book, The Dawkin’s Delusion and the article “The Dawkins Confusion” by theist-philosopher Alvin Plantinga.

Commenting on the origin of our humanity, professor of philosophy Quentin Smith wrote that “the most reasonable belief is that we came from nothing, by nothing and for nothing.” [1] Though you don’t likely agree with that assessment, you might be interested in what Smith wrote recently concerning a major renaissance in the field of philosophy where an increasing number of philosophers are embracing a theistic/idealist worldview. Why? According to Smith it’s because theists/idealists have been winning debates with atheists/materialists. According to Smith, “Contrary to popular opinion, God is not ‘dead’ in academia—he returned to life in the late 1960s and is now alive and well in his last academic stronghold, philosophy departments.” [2] Of course God wasn’t dead before the 60s either, though many refused then (as now) to open their eyes to see him, and for a number of decades, the topic of God was ignored by most philosophers. Things have certainly changed in academic philosophy!

Materialistic and atheistic philosophical arguments don’t seem to faze God, nor do they get in the way of what he is doing to make himself known to humankind. Peter Berger, a leading proponent of what is known as the “secularization theory,” which states that the more modern and technological our world becomes, the more secular it becomes, recently abandoned that theory, saying he and almost everyone in the field has changed their minds because the evidence demands it. He elaborates:

The real situation is that most of the world is as religious as it ever was. You have enormous explosions of religion in the world… In fact, you can say every major religious tradition has been going through a period of resurgence in the last 30, 40 years or so… anything but secularization. [3]

Though we are not materialists, we do acknowledge that we are made from matter. We believe God created matter out of nothing (ex nihilo) and then, as the Master Potter (Isaiah 45:9-12), formed us from “the dust [clay] of the ground” (Genesis 2:7). But Genesis also says that, in part, we are non-material beings. God breathed into us the “breath of life.” If there was no one (God) who is spirit to breathe that immaterial, life-giving “breath” into us, and then sustain it, we would either not exist, or fall back into non-existence. But we do exist because God, the non-material, living, dynamic and personal source of all being and existence, gave us material existence along with non-material mind (consciousness)—the ability to think and reason, and thus have a relationship with him.

This idealist, theistic perspective seems to be growing in acceptance among philosophers who formerly were radical materialists. Isn’t that just like God! Just when it seems that bankrupt intellectualism and materialism have gained the upper hand, he shows up with his idealist revelation. Paul put it this way: “[God’s] invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (Romans 1:20 ESV). I’m delighted (but not surprised) that God is revealing himself to materialists who, in the past, attempted to deny God’s existence (or relevance).

It’s my prayer that those leaning away from materialism toward idealism (theism in particular) will continue that journey in response to the Word and Spirit of God, finding faith in God’s personal self-revelation and self-giving in Jesus Christ. In doing so they will be following in the footsteps of Oxford scholar and former atheist, C.S. Lewis.

Forever in awe of God’s incomparable goodness, knowledge and power,
Joseph Tkach


[1] Quentin Smith, The Uncaused Beginning of the Universe, quoted in William Lane Craig and Quentin Smith, Theism, Atheism, and Big Bang Cosmology (1993), 135.

[2] Quentin Smith, “The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism,” Philo. 4.2 (2001), 197.

[3] Peter Berger, “Six Decades as a Worldwide Religion Watcher: Observations & Lessons Learned.” Ethics & Public Policy Center, accessed online on July 22, 2014 at http://eppc.org/publications/berger/.

One thought on “Which is true: materialism or idealism?”

  1. Very good essay. I find John Lennox very convincing. Lennox has pointed out that Dr. Thomas Nagel (a respected philosopher and an atheist) recently published a book entitled “Mind and Cosmos” in which he reasoned that materialist-reductionism cannot explain the phenomenon of the human mind. Another way of saying this is that evolution (through natural selection operating on materialism) did not produce the human mind – something I think many of us understand almost intuitively. This is sometimes referred to as Darwin’s Doubt because Darwin was troubled by this unaddressed issue. It means that evolution is incomplete as a theory – it cannot account for everything. I tried to read Nagel’s book and it is tough going – almost as opaque as Barth.

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