Buddhism in the West is becoming a magnet for atheists and so-called agnostics who are basically not religious (even anti-religious). For the most part, they lean towards philosophical materialism which sprang up in Greece and India before the time of the Buddha. As far as admitting to being philosophical materialists, they prefer to stay in the closet except when subjects like reincarnation and consciousness come up and other like subjects which imply immateriality and a soul (atman). Of these philosophical materialists who step out of the closet, they usually commence their attack under the banner of either science or skepticism; who will never say, “I am a materialist,” when in fact they are.
Because materialism, under the banner of skepticism and science, so dominates Western culture, I meet very few Western Buddhists, these days, who are serious about Buddhism in its own right which did not teach a doctrine of materialism; nor was it at any time anti-religious, “religious” in the sense of relating to ultimate reality.
I should mention that during the time of the Buddha, one school of materialism taught that the “atman is of the form of the body and is composed of the four great elements” ( D. i. 34). Another school taught the real existence of this world and denial of an afterlife. One school even taught the denial of this world including the next! One of the defining characteristics of Indian materialism during the time of the Buddha was disbelief in an afterlife. In other words, when you’re dead that’s it—there’s no more. For anyone who has been around the block a few times with Western Buddhists, they are uncomfortable with the idea of an afterlife which puts them near the camp of materialism.
A notable materialist argument found in India during the time of the Buddha is: one cannot speak of atman unless it is verifiable by sensory experience. Lacking such an experience, the notion of atman is meaningless. Said another way, the atman for the materialist must have size, shape, color, smell, hardness or softness, etc. Without such, atman has no verifiable content—at least nothing for the senses. This would also include consciousness which also doesn’t appear to be something for the senses.
The Buddha’s own notion of atman which is found more in the notion of anatman (lit., not the atman) is the via negativa (setting aside what is not that atman, for example, the five skandhas). The atman, in this regard, is transcendent (in Mahayana Buddhism the atman is the Buddha-nature). This atman has no physical shape, feeling, perception, volitional formations (i.e., karmic impressions) or consciousness. The Buddha goes on to tell his followers that the atman is an island and a refuge.
The Buddha’s contemporaries even accused him of espousing materialism (M. i. 140) since his attitude towards the atman seemed all too vague and confusing. Yet, in clearest words the Buddha taught his followers to abandon desire for whatever is not atman (S. iii. 77). This, naturally, leaves us with the atman as the proper end state of Buddhism!
Turning back to our closet Western materialists who frequent the sacred temples of Buddhism, they are just as confused about the teachings of Gautama the Buddha as were his contemporary critics. Today, many Western Buddhists believe the Buddha’s teaching denies atman and did not teach rebirth/reincarnation. They see the Buddha as espousing materialism! But what gets in their way is the Buddha's teaching of rebirth in addition to nirvana which he says is immortal and is realized by the very atman.