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Freedom & virtue: coping mechanisms for atheists

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4 minutes to read Are atheists two-faced for criticizing religious belief as a “crutch”, when they themselves believe in a purely physical universe that includes freedom and virtue?

A common comment from atheists is that since religion helps people cope with adversity, faith is obviously just a crutch for weak-minded people. We can’t handle reality as it is, so we make up our own.

There are a number of possible responses I’d tend to make to that sort of comment—here’s one:

Assuming that religion is a crutch to cope with the harsh reality of the world, why do atheists themselves hold on to so many religious ideas? Atheists seem to want to be intellectually more rigorous; to be people with the fortitude to face reality as it is, rather than as they’d like it to be. That seems to be the implied rebuke behind the “crutch” comment—“you should be more like me; intellectually strong, rather than weak”.

But the atheist doesn’t seem to live up very well to his own standard. Reality under atheism is a pretty bleak place. It has no room for at least two things which atheists, as a rule, place a high value on:


If human beings are nothing but particles in motion, and there is no immaterial spirit, then every fact about us is entirely determined by physical laws. But of course, every fact about us includes facts about the things we believe and the decisions we make. If every belief and decision is actually just determined by physical laws rather than rational agency, we obviously have no free will in any recognizable sense of that word. Nor is it sensible to hold us responsible for our actions.

Yet atheists typically say we are responsible for our actions. They want to reward people for good, and punish them for evil. And they certainly act as if they have the ability to weigh choices and make decisions of their own. This seems to me very much like a crutch—a way to cope with the difficult fact that whatever we believe or do is entirely decided by non-rational physical processes.


In the same vein, a universe comprised purely of particles in motion has no room for virtue. It is simply nonsense to talk about a collection of particles being virtuous. There is no meaningful sense in which a beaker of acid “should” do anything, or the particles in a thundercloud “ought not” to collectively act in one way rather than another. A tree is not “praiseworthy” in the event that its particles hold together in the usual way; neither is a surge of electrical current between the tree and the aforementioned thundercloud “blameworthy” if it separates some of the particles from others and causes the tree to die.

But since we are nothing but particles in motion, it also follows that William Wilberforce’s fighting to abolish slavery was not virtuous, and Hitler’s slaughtering six million or so Jews was not vile. If their respective actions were entirely determined by physical laws—if they were just particles in motion—then there is simply no way in which one was “better” than the other. They simply were. So for atheists to act as if abolition was virtuous while the Holocaust was not reflects their inability to deal with reality as it really is: a place in which such concepts don’t mean anything at all because they don’t exist in the final analysis.

Useful fictions?

Some atheists are willing to bite the bullet on these issues and accept the sort of nihilism that a purely physical world inexorably leads to. Most don’t—which is good, because building a community of people who don’t believe in moral freedom or virtue would probably end badly. But some do, and even those who don’t often go halfway and agree with those who do, by saying that things like freedom and virtue are “useful fictions” (atheist philosopher Richard Joyce, for example, makes this claim).

This is a view known as fictionalism. In other words, things like freedom and virtue aren’t real, and shouldn’t be thought of as actually describing reality as it is—but they are useful beliefs that contribute to our survival.

But this seems to simply admit that they are crutches—coping mechanisms that help us live and perpetuate our genes. Yet if atheists are allowed to believe in nonsense like freedom and virtue because they have survival utility, why criticize us for believing in nonsense like God for the same reason? (After all, the research is in—strongly religious people have better mental health than irreligious ones.) What is the difference between belief in God, and belief in freedom and virtue, that makes one respectable and the other not?

I doubt there is a good answer to this question, but if you’re an atheist and you disagree, feel free to stick your oar in below.

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