Materialism: Moral and Social ConsequencesJanuary 29, 2019 — 5 mins
Reviewed for The Journal of Bahá’í Studies by Erik Carlson.
This engaging examination of materialism and reflection on its consequences aims, in the author’s words, “to examine the moral and psychosocial implications of a materialistic view of life in the context of attachment to worldly things and extrinsic values” (4). Drawing on the Western philosophical tradition and academic research in the field of psychology and sociology, this timely book sets out to define materialism as a set of concepts, values, and behaviors, and to trace the historical development of materialism in the West, especially America; it then engages Bahá’í Writings to identify materialistic epistemologies and habits as the cause of many of the evils that plague the modern world, including mental illness, disregard for human life, gross differences in wealth, abusive social systems and criminal enterprises, and environmental catastrophes. These social consequences, Ghadirian explains, stem from the personal, moral consequences of materialism, most importantly the neglect of spiritual development in favor of material priorities. Ghadirian finds support for this derivation as well as an antidote to materialism in the teachings of the authoritative writings of the Bahá’í faith. The centrality of Bahá’í teachings to both the book's argument and its conclusions means that this work of apologetics will be most interesting to the Bahá’í faithful, even though the discussion of materialism in the early chapters rests on a foundation of academic research and takes a thoughtful approach that could be interesting to a general readership.
Apologetics and scholarship are most carefully balanced in the third and fourth chapters of the book, where empirical findings and sacred writings are synthesized to provide a moral analysis of material problems; this analysis provides an alternative to Freud’s materialistic and reductive pleasure principle, introduced in the first chapter and recalled in the title of Chapter 3, “Materialism and Discontent.” In this chapter the author assembles the findings of academic psychologists like Mahily Csikszentimihalyi and learned popular press authors like Gregg Easterbrook with a moral framework derived from Bahá’í Writings to yield moral judgments about the consequences of materialism. In a representative passage, the author explains that “the kindling of desire to have more, often fueled by a sense of jealousy and comparison with others, is one of the insidious by-products of the accumulation of wealth. It becomes an obsession in a life which is joyless, despite its apparent glamour, wealth, and comfort” (35). Readers of many religions and philosophies will recognize their moral values here, and it is in these chapters that the Bahá’í commitment to the common foundation of all religions seems most evident.
The familiar division between materialism and spirituality is a problematic one that Ghadirian returns to throughout the book. In early chapters, he takes care to qualify this dichotomy, reminding the reader that the two domains “are not to be perceived as two mutually exclusive phenomena . . . extremes of attachment either to spirituality or to material interests are best avoided . . . Neither the reclusive lifestyle of a hermit nor excessive indulgence in pleasure is ideal” (37). Later, he develops the argument that the gravest consequence of materialism is that it can lead people to view others as material, and not spiritual, beings. His most compelling evidence that materialist epistemology dehumanizes people is a philosophical rationalization of infanticide published in the Journal of Medical Ethics and discussed on pages 79–80. Ghadirian observes that the authors’ logic “may lead to the dehumanization of individuals,” and this reviewer agrees but believes stronger language is called for.
While Ghadirian uses philosophy and psychology to identify and explain human problems, he finds their solutions and their definitions of happiness inadequate, and, in sympathy with many of the scholars he cites, finds their fields incapable of explaining the purpose of life apart from materiality. As a result, the latter half of the book turns increasingly to the Bahá’í Writings that answer the author’s questions about joy and purpose; a majority of references from the fifth chapter on are to sacred texts, as are all but a few of the citations in the final three chapters and conclusion.
While the emphasis on Bahá’í teachings suits the apologetic bent of the argument, the tendency to cast Western religion and philosophy as a foil to Bahá’í teachings limits the book’s perspective and leads to some weaknesses in the research. Ghadirian takes the book’s definition of “detachment” from Wikipedia rather than a philosopher, a psychologist, or a standard dictionary (170), and then assigns a false view of the concept to the West and the truth to Bahá’í: "In the western world, detachment is often perceived as a form of deprivation, and is often confused with renunciation of the world, a reclusive life in monasteries or the practice of self-mortification. But its true meaning is much more profound. In the Bahá’í Writings detachment is considered as one of the greatest achievements of human beings, enabling them to scale the loftiest heights of virtue and spirituality" (170).
While the author clearly states that “a philosophical analysis of historical or dialectic materialism is not the purpose of this book” (4), the simplified opposition he provides here, with its stereotypical view of monasticism and lack of interest in, for example, historical Stoicism or modern secular critiques of consumerism, misses an opportunity to seek common ground where others may hold part of the truth. Elsewhere, the author gleans a partially inaccurate representation of the seven deadly sins, which are a specifically Catholic doctrine and not a generally held tenet of Christianity as the author suggests, from an article about consumer psychology by R.W. Belk. Gleaning a representation of another faith from an article in a marketing journal misses the opportunity to draw from a source that deals with the faith and the doctrine more authoritatively. Superficially, these missteps may alienate readers outside the Bahá’í community; ultimately, they weigh down the book’s argument as they appear to look past rather than for the common foundation of all religion.
Ghadirian uses a lively and lucid style to present difficult ideas clearly, and the book is thoroughly indexed and divided into thematically unified chapters with brief, distinct subdivisions, all of which are listed in the table of contents. This combination of thoughtful expression and sound construction makes the book both pleasant and efficient to read, as well as easy to return to for reflection.
Ghadirian’s conclusion turns from materialism to its alternatives; his “purpose is to promote moderation, modesty, and contentment in a world heavily engaged in hedonism and self-indulgence—to advocate for a sensible balance between the spiritual and material aspects of life as two pillars of an equitable civilization (206). Although the volume offers little fresh analysis of secular philosophy or psychology, it goes to great lengths to apply relevant passages from Bahá’í Writings to the problems those fields identify. As a work of apologetics and moral reflection, it will provide Bahá’í readers with ample opportunities to reflect on their own beliefs and practices, and to question and refine their relationships with themselves, God, and the world.
Erik Carlson is an associate professor of English at the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith, specializing in Old English and Germanic philology, medieval literature, the history of emotions, and the spirituality of early Medieval Europe.