One of the more disturbing aspects of our current world is the revival of religious fundamentalism. I was brought up during that period of optimism following WWII in which people briefly believed we were heading towards a more rational, humanistic and secular world, as epitomised by the founding of the United Nations. This turned out to be another illusion. I call myself a materialist, because I believe that the universe contains only matter and energy, though in more forms than we have yet discovered (as hinted by Dark Matter and Dark Energy). That's to say I don't believe in supernatural forces or a divine maker. I find it a sufficient source of wonder that life could arise from matter/energy, and even more wonderful that some living things have acquired consciousness. For me this wonder occupies the place that faith in God serves for many other people. I wouldn't be too offended to accused of pantheism, in Spinoza's sense (but that really amounts to calling matter/energy "God" as a sop to supernaturalists).
My materialism is quite clear about the distinction between those things that actually exist in the world of matter/energy and those things that are products of our collective imagination. God as conceived in almost all religions belongs in the latter category. Even so the current debates between so-called "New Atheists" and those with religious convictions leave me quite cold (and somewhat despairing) because of the mutual incomprehension and dogmatism of both sides, and the lack of any conclusion or progress in the argument. It seems to me that very few atheists really understand the need to believe in a God, while still fewer religious believers can accept that he is redundant.
There are various degrees of superstition among religious believers: the least bad sorts of religion deploy ancient myths as metaphorical explanations for the actual forces of nature and the contingencies of life. And before you object to myth, it's as well to remember that science too only works through metaphor: the "electron" is also just a name for an entity we cannot see or touch, whose ultimate nature is still beyond us. The difference is that science constantly submits its metaphors to improvement in the light of evidence, so that we continually learn more about the nature of the electron. The worst sorts of religion - precisely those now on the increase - invest a superstitious faith in the literal and unchangeable truth of certain ancient texts. Even worsel, the term "materialism" has been hijacked by the religious and by New Agey "spiritual" types as a term of abuse for crass, shallow, consumerism, and this travesty of its meaning has passed into popular usage.
The political Left has little reason for complacency in this respect, because the tragic experiences of Soviet and Chinese communism and their attempts to impose a vulgar materialism as a state philosophy made matters (pun intended) very much worse. As a result, ever since the 1960s theoreticians of the Left have lapsed into various forms of frank idealism, disguised behind sophisticated arguments that claim descent from Marx and Freud. The Deconstructionist school which now so dominates academic criticism in almost every discipline believes that it's uncovering the historical and economic roots that shape our ideas, but in truth it has lost contact with matter almost entirely in favour of "knowledge", which it inadvertently elevates to the status of a substance.
That this vanishing trick is not more apparent is due to the obscurantist language these thinkers employ, a cacophonous jargon which, to quote the late Tony Judt, is the product of badly translating the terminology of German Idealism into French, then badly translating the result back into English.
Anyone who longs for a truly progressive politics must have a unshakeable interest in understanding how the world of matter -which emphatically includes the human mind - actually works. Only people who are happy for things to stay just as they are have an interest in obscuring it. That certainly doesn't mean we should worship science, but it does mean keeping abreast of science's latest findings in a critical spirit, rather than dismissing science (sometimes even the possibility of truth) as so much socially-constructed ideology.
What we need is an invigorated and expanded materialism that understands that we only have access to the world of matter through our senses and consciousness, so that much of our experience of it is manufactured or distorted by imagination. What's more imagined objects, like "God", once passed into other minds may exert as much force on the world as material objects. This means completely re-building the philosophical basis of the old, dogmatic materialism and resolving the centuries-old clash between realism and idealism.
That is now possible, by incorporating all the new knowledge that the 20th century bequeathed to us about the workings of the human brain, the human mind and the human emotional system, and most of all about the nature of information. Information is the separate ontological category missing from the old materialism. It's the stuff that perception and mind operate on. It doesn't "exist" in the way a table or chair exists, but is present in all tables and chairs. It is the missing layer, for want of which idealists and materialists endlessly argue to no avail. A new synthesis of information theory and neuroscience is what I mean by a New Materialism, and it is only possible with a new ontology.
I've been thinking about what such a synthesis might look like, and plan to publish my thoughts in a two-part book. The first part is called "Sampling Reality" - a reference to the fact that we don't live directly in contact with the world of matter but rather in a vast sea of information about that world from which our brains sample only those parts that have relevance to us.
It offers a brief introduction to Information Theory, an explanation of the novel ontology invented by the philosopher George Santayana, and very condensed summary of some recent developments in neuroscience, including the mechanism of perception and affective neuroscience (the study of the physiological basis of emotions). One consequence of this new approach is to accept the central role that emotions, understood in the physiological sense, have to play in reasoning and decision making which requires transcending older divisions between the rational and the irrational.
"Sampling Reality" is now published as a Kindle book here: