A Reflection on a Sermon of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Refuting Atheistic Materialism
Jan. 20, 2019
Community in Mission
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday we commemorate on Monday, is best known as a civil rights leader who worked to end racial injustice, but he had other things to say as he preached each Sunday, first in his own assembly and later as he spoke around the country.
Among his recorded sermons is one in which Dr. King addressed the problem of unbelief, of materialism and atheism. His reflections are well worth pondering today because the problem is even more widespread now than it was when he made these remarks in 1957. A complete transcript of the sermon is available here: The Man Who Was a Fool.
In this sermon, Dr. King commented on Jesus’ parable of the wealthy man who had a huge harvest and, instead of sharing it, just built bigger barns to hold the excess. The Lord called him a fool for thinking that his material wealth could provide security.
Following are excerpts from this sermon, with Dr. King’s words shown in bold, black italics and my comments displayed in plain red text. After discussing several reason why the man was a fool, Dr. King said,
Jesus [also] called the rich man a fool because he failed to realize his dependence on God. He talked as though he unfolded the seasons and provided the fertility of the soil, controlled the rising and the setting of the sun, and regulated the natural processes that produce the rain and the dew. He had an unconscious feeling that he was the Creator, not a creature.
Having discovered the inner realities of many processes, the materialistic atheist fails to ask more fundamental questions such as “Where does the cosmos ultimately come from?” and “What is the ultimate destiny of all things?” Having found some answers, he mistakes them for the ultimate answers; they are not.
There is no problem with a scientist saying that these sorts of questions lie beyond science, that science is only focused on material and efficient causality. Each discipline does have its area of focus. The error of scientism is in its claims that science alone explains all reality; it does not.
The usual response of those who ascribe to scientism (not all scientists do) to questions that science cannot answer is to dismiss them or to say that one day science will find an answer. When we, who are obviously creatures and contingent beings, dismiss our Creator, we are displaying either hardness of heart or a form of madness. Such a dismissal is neither rational nor reasonable.
This man-centered foolishness has had a long and oftentimes disastrous reign in the history of mankind. Sometimes it is theoretically expressed in the doctrine of materialism, which contends that reality may be explained in terms of matter in motion, that life is “a physiological process with a physiological meaning,” that man is a transient accident of protons and electrons traveling blind, that thought is a temporary product of gray matter, and that the events of history are an interaction of matter and motion operating by the principle of necessity.
Dr. King describes here the problem of reductionism, in which things are reduced to matter alone and attributed entirely to material causes. This view holds that even concepts such as justice, meaning, and beauty must somehow be explained materially in terms of their cause. The human soul that knows immaterial things does mediate its thoughts through the brain and the central nervous system, but it does not follow that the medium is the cause. It does not pertain to matter to be the cause of what is spiritual.
Having no place for God or for eternal ideas, materialism is opposed to both theism and idealism. This materialistic philosophy leads inevitably into a dead-end street in an intellectually senseless world. To believe that human personality is the result of the fortuitous interplay of atoms and electrons is as absurd as to believe that a monkey by hitting typewriter keys at random will eventually produce a Shakespearean play. Sheer magic!
Many atheists think they have solved this conundrum, but I think that they “solve” it with a set of assumptions so outlandish and unproven that it requires far more “faith” to accept them than to believe in an intelligent designer and creator.
The statistical possibility that things could come together “by chance” to form complex life—let alone intelligent life—and not just once but at least twice (for reproduction’s sake) is minuscule! (As Dr. King says, “Sheer magic!”) Those who demand we accept this explanation are far more credulous than are believers, who observe the intricate design of creation and conclude (reasonably) that there is an intelligent creator.
It is much more sensible to say with Sir James Jeans, the physicist, that “the universe seems to be nearer to a great thought than to a great machine,” or with Arthur Balfour, the philosopher, that “we now know too much about matter to be materialists.” Materialism is a weak flame that is blown out by the breath of mature thinking. Exactly! The universe shouts its design and intelligence.
Another attempt to make God irrelevant is found in non-theistic humanism, a philosophy that deifies man by affirming that humanity is God. Man is the measure of all things. Many modern men who have embraced this philosophy contend, as did Rousseau, that human nature is essentially good. Evil is to be found only in institutions, and if poverty and ignorance were to be removed everything would be all right. The twentieth century opened with such a glowing optimism. Men believed that civilization was evolving toward an earthly paradise.
The Catholic faith defines this error as utopianism and pseudo-messianism.
Before Christ’s second coming the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers. The persecution that accompanies her pilgrimage on earth will unveil the “mystery of iniquity” in the form of a religious deception offering men an apparent solution to their problems at the price of apostasy from the truth. The supreme religious deception is that of the Antichrist, a pseudo-messianism by which man glorifies himself in place of God and of his Messiah come in the flesh. The Antichrist’s deception already begins to take shape in the world every time the claim is made to realize within history that messianic hope which can only be realized beyond history through the eschatological judgment. The Church has rejected even modified forms of this falsification of the kingdom to come under the name of millenarianism, especially the “intrinsically perverse” political form of a secular messianism (Catechism of the Catholic Church #675-676).
We all know what a bloodbath the 20th century became—so much for man being his own measure!
Herbert Spencer skillfully molded the Darwinian theory of evolution into the heady idea of automatic progress. Men became convinced that there is a sociological law of progress which is as valid as the physical law of gravitation. Possessed of this spirit of optimism, modern man broke into the storehouse of nature and emerged with many scientific insights and technological developments that completely revolutionized the earth. The achievements of science have been marvelous, tangible and concrete. …
[But] Man’s aspirations no longer turned Godward and heavenward. Rather, man’s thoughts were confined to man and earth. And man offered a strange parody on the Lord’s Prayer:
“Our brethren which art upon the earth, Hallowed be our name. Our kingdom come. Our will be done on earth, for there is no heaven.”
Those who formerly turned to God to find solutions for their problems turned to science and technology, convinced that they now possessed the instruments needed to usher in the new society.
Scripture says, Claiming to be wise they became fools and their senseless minds were darkened (Rom 1:22).
Then came the explosion of this myth. It climaxed in the horrors of Nagasaki and Hiroshima and in the fierce fury of fifty-megaton bombs. Now we have come to see that science can give us only physical power, which, if not controlled by spiritual power, will lead inevitably to cosmic doom.
Atheists are forever pointing out how many lives were lost in the name of religion. However, those numbers are not even close to those claimed in the bloodbath ushered in by atheistic materialists.
The words of Alfred the Great are still true: “Power is never a good unless he be good that has it.” We need something more spiritually sustaining and morally controlling than science. It is an instrument that, under the power of God’s spirit, may lead man to greater heights of physical security, but apart from God’s spirit, science is a deadly weapon that will lead only to deeper chaos. Make it plain, Dr. King!
Why fool ourselves about automatic progress and the ability of man to save himself? We must lift up our minds and eyes unto the hills from whence comes our true help. Then, and only then, will the advances of modern science be a blessing rather than a curse. Without dependence on God our efforts turn to ashes and our sunrises into darkest night. Unless his spirit pervades our lives, we find only what G.K. Chesterton called “cures that don’t cure, blessings that don’t bless, and solutions that don’t solve.” “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”
Notice that Dr. King called upon two Catholic intellectuals (St. Alfred the Great and G.K. Chesterton) to be his witnesses.
Unfortunately, the rich man [in the parable] did not realize this. He, like many men of the twentieth century, became so involved in big affairs and small trivialities that he forgot God. He gave the finite infinite significance and elevated a preliminary concern to ultimate standing. After the rich man had accumulated his vast resources of wealth—at the moment when his stocks were accruing the greatest interest and his palatial home was the talk of the town—he came to that experience which is the irreducible common denominator of all men, death.
At every funeral I say to the mourners, “You are going to die.” Then I tell them that we must get ready, not with more things but with more God.
The fact that he died at this particular time adds verve and drama to the story, but the essential truth of the parable would have remained the same had he lived to be as old as Methuselah. Even if he had not died physically, he was already dead spiritually. The cessation of breathing was a belated announcement of an earlier death. He died when he failed to keep a line of distinction between the means by which he lived and the ends for which he lived and when he failed to recognize his dependence on others and on God.
May it not be that the “certain rich man” is Western civilization? Rich in goods and material resources, our standards of success are almost inextricably bound to the lust for acquisition.
The means by which we live are marvelous indeed. And yet something is missing. We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers. Our abundance has brought us neither peace of mind nor serenity of spirit.
An Oriental writer has portrayed our dilemma in candid terms:
“You call your thousand material devices ‘labor-saving machinery,’ yet you are forever ‘busy.’ With the multiplying of your machinery you grow increasingly fatigued, anxious, nervous, dissatisfied. Whatever you have, you want more; and wherever you are you want to go somewhere else. You have a machine to dig the raw material for you, a machine to manufacture [it], a machine to transport [it], a machine to sweep and dust, one to carry messages, one to write, one to talk, one to sing, one to play at the theater, one to vote, one to sew, and a hundred others to do a hundred other things for you, and still you are the most nervously busy man in the world. Your devices are neither time-saving nor soul-saving machinery. They are so many sharp spurs which urge you on to invent more machinery and to do more business.” So true!
…The means by which we live have outdistanced the ends for which we live. Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided man. Like the rich man of old, we have foolishly minimized the internal of our lives and maximized the external. We have absorbed life in livelihood.
Yes, we have maximized the minimum and minimized the maximum.
We will not find peace in our generation until we learn anew that “a man’s life consists not in the abundance of the things which he possesses,” but in those inner treasuries of the spirit which “no thief approaches, neither moth corrupts.” Our hope for creative living lies in our ability to re-establish the spiritual ends of our lives in personal character and social justice. Without this spiritual and moral reawakening we shall destroy ourselves in the misuse of our own instruments. Our generation cannot escape the question of our Lord: What shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world of externals—airplanes, electric lights, automobiles, and color television—and lose the internal—his own soul? Amen!