Materialism is a belief in material possessions as the primary—even only—key to happiness, and even to spiritual growth. Materialism is typically not explicit or conscious (thanks to barely-enduring stigmas), but it most often manifests in our deep psyches as we think about how to pursue this kind of spiritual progress.
Or you might simply say materialism is the preoccupation with material things versus intellectual or spiritual things as the highest and best use of our energies, even in regard to achieving spiritual progress.
Material goods are, of course, necessary to survive. Even the Bible itself is rife with allusions to material goods as something to be enjoyed. It uses material abundance as an analogy for the wealth we’re to find in Christ.
“In my Father’s house are many mansions.”John 14:2
But materialism (as I defined above) is most definitely bad, so I think materialism in practice is typically very subtle. To move from enjoying material goods to believing in material goods is hard to catch, and it’s something to which we all fall prey from time to time—perhaps more now in America than ever before.
Even gift-giving can be a subtle form of materialism. I do think most people have good intentions when buying things for others—that most don’t believe so much that a gift itself brings happiness, but that the act of giving is what makes the recipient—or the giver—happy. But even this is a subtle form of materialism.
What does materialism replace? If we believe in material goods as the key to happiness now, what did we believe before? Or what else could we possibly believe?
I don’t think materialism is an idol. I just think it powerfully weakens our psyches—especially our ability to be robust and resilient.
Like any vice, materialism happens on two extremes – on either side of a healthy and balanced view of material possessions. On one end is the view that material goods are all important. On the other is the view that material goods don’t matter. Both lead to an unhealthy excess, the latter in an ironic way — no regard for the needs of others, no realization of your excess.
(In other words, minimalism is a form of materialism, because it implies that the solution lies in some optimal arrangement of the material.)