It truly amazes me when I encounter strict materialists in the comment boxes of a blog I often visit. I really can't fathom their beliefs: that everything in the world can be demonstrated by science or discovered empirically, that all supposed spiritual realities exist only as malfunctioning brain chemicals or psychological manifestations, that man has no real past outside of one connected with primordial ooze, and no future beyond one day providing some creatures of the lower order with a little nourishment.
Of course, the irony of their position is that they take it on faith, something they get rather irritated about if someone unkindly mentions it. It's simply not possible to prove a negative. You can't prove that God, the immortal soul, the spirit world, angels, demons, etc. do not have any existence; in fact, you can't prove that material existence is of primary importance, of any importance, or even real in itself. What we perceive as "reality" depends upon our acceptance of the existence of things like time, for instance, which doesn't have a constant reality, as Einstein showed. Their proofs of the material world depend on a system of mathematics which could be radically altered by some new understanding of mathematics at any time; their scientific theories are subject to complete overhaul, given a new discovery which changes the prevailing consensus or provides a whole new perspective. Everything the materialist sees as "proven" or "determined" hangs, in truth, by threads as tenuous and impermanent as the strands of a garden spider's web; a sudden rain, a swift gust of wind, and their view of reality is torn to gossamer shreds.
When this happens, with the plodding determination of those orb-web weavers the materialist will patiently begin weaving the new knowledge into his old understandings, but he will defend his two articles of faith as radically as a fanatic or a Scientologist; those two articles are: 1. There is nothing other than the material universe, and 2. Man will one day understand all there is to understand. He believes in these two dogmas as firmly and fiercely as any religious believer, though it's hard to imagine him being willing to die for them.
Because, for the materialist, death is The End. There is no existence anymore, when the mortal life of the body ceases to be. As gladly and willingly as the materialist will insist that others should die (the unborn, the aged, the handicapped) he will cling to his own life with a desperation that will surprise even him, when the time comes. For, as he believes there is no life beyond the grave, he also believes that when he draws his last breath, he will simply cease to be.
And in his most private moments, the materialist is quite likely to be horrified by this thought. He is likely to be aware how much some force within him rejects it, turns in fear from it, weeps unseen tears over it. As tragic as he finds the deaths of those he loves, his own death looms like the greatest tragedy, clouding every bright horizon, drawing gray lines of terror over every future aspect. It is almost the death of a god, to him; for as he worships only man, incarnate in his own self, he realizes perhaps that his death really is deicide, at least as far as he is concerned.
In those moments, the materialist is closer to the truth than he can know. For that force within him that rejects death, refuses to accept it, runs in fear from it, is the very immortal soul that he refuses to believe he has.
We know, on some instinctive level that stretches back to Eden, that we are not destined for eternal death, for a state of un-being. Even those who die in opposition to God, who lose their souls forever, do not cease to be. The phrase "eternal death" for a Christian refers to the state of permanent exclusion from God's presence, a state almost too awful to contemplate, a reality that moves us to prayer and to a true seeking of God. The materialist's notion of "eternal death" is, possibly, even more horrible than Hell, because it believes that who and what he is, the essence of his own self, will one day not be at all. But even as he contemplates that, his soul stubbornly refuses to believe it, causing the emotions of fear and terror which he may deny, or which he may rationalize as mere brain chemistry, or which he may blame on cultural conditioning.
As Christians we know that the soul is immortal; and it makes sense to us, because there is something about our souls that rejects so strongly the notion not only of our own "loss of being," but also that of those we love who have left us behind on this earth. The mother who weeps for her lost child finds comfort in speaking to him or her in Heaven, and knowing the child can hear her in some mysterious way; the brother who has lost a sister can pray for her soul, and have Masses said to speed her to Heaven; the many who have buried parents or grandparents can do this too, and ask these members of the Church Suffering for their aid and intercession even as they intercede for them and beg God to welcome them into His Presence; the husband who has buried a wife, or the wife who has buried her husband, can pray much and offer sacrifices for these dearly loved ones, and they can also find that their own human fear of the moment of death has largely vanished, since they can hope in Christ to see this one whom they love when they themselves cross the valley of the shadow.
This day, All Souls' Day, and indeed the whole month of November, reminds us that we, too, will know death. But as we befriend the souls in Purgatory, offering prayers, sacrifices, suffering, and good works on their behalf, we gain for ourselves friends in Heaven who will befriend us in our hour of need, along with Mary, who in each "Hail Mary" we address to her hears our plea that she will pray for us at the hour of our death.
The world of the materialist is small, narrow, and depressingly short. It begins with his birth, ends with his death, and is circumscribed by his refusal to entertain the possibility of spiritual reality. But our world is wider, more generous, and eternal. We retain a strong connection with all of those who have lived before us, those who are members of the heavenly court, whose feast we celebrated yesterday, and those who await our prayers in Purgatory, who we remember today and for the rest of the month. They, our beloved dead, have not ceased to be--they are still very much with us, and, God willing, will be among the first to welcome us to Paradise. As we pray for and with them, let us ask them, as soon as they have reached Heaven, to offer their prayers not only for us, but also for those who don't know God at all, particularly the materialists, who need our prayers more than they can possibly imagine.