Dictionary Atheism and Morality

I’m quite late to the party, I see. Hopefully I can make up for it with a slightly different angle.

There are no shortage of atheists that fetishize the dictionary. “It’s just a lack of belief, nothing more!” they cry, “there’s no moral code attached to it!”

Bullshit. If there is no moral system, why then are dictionary atheists so insistent on being atheist?

Moral codes are proscriptive, while assertions and bare facts are descriptive. One tells us how the world ought to behave, the others how the world is or might be. This can get confusing, I’ll admit. Science is supposed to be in the “descriptive” bin, yet scientists make predictions about how the world ought to behave. It sounds very proscriptive, but what happens when reality and your statement conflict? Say I calculate the trajectory of an asteroid via Newtonian Mechanics, but observe it wanders off my predicted path. Which of these two must change to resolve the contradiction, reality or Newtonian Mechanics? Surely the latter, and that reveals it and similar scientific laws as a descriptive item: if the description is wrong, or in conflict with reality, it gets tossed.

But this division is further tested by things like evolution. If we ever did find find something that broke that theory, like a fossil rabbit in the Precambrian era, we are not justified in tossing evolution. The weight of all other evidence in favor of evolution makes it more likely we got something wrong then that evolution should be dust-binned. We again seem to be proscriptive.

That pile of evidence is our ticket back to descriptiveness, though. One bit of counter-evidence may fall flat, but a giant enough heap would not. There is only a finite amount of it favoring evolution, so in theory I can still pile up more counter-evidence and be forced to give that theory up in favor of reality, even if that’s impossible in practice.

No amount of evidential persuasion can force me to give up on a moral, in contrast. This too may seem strange; it may not be moral to kill a person, but wouldn’t it be moral to kill Hitler? The information we have about a scenario can dramatically shift the moral action.

But, importantly, it doesn’t shift the moral code. No sane moral system will hold you accountable for honest ignorance, and even the non-sane ones provide an “out” via (for instance) penitence or another loop on the karmic wheel. Instead, you apply the moral code to the knowledge you do have, a code that does not change over time. Slavery was just as bad in the past as it is now, what’s changed instead is us. We as moral agents have progressed, through education, reason, and the occasional violent rebellion. The moral code hasn’t changed, we have adjusted our reality to better match it. Again, we find morality is proscriptive.

So what are we to make of atheists that argue they can only follow the evidence? “Do not hold false beliefs” is proscriptive, because it tells us what to do, yet it’s a necessary assumption behind “I cannot believe in the gods, because there is insufficient evidence to warrant belief.” Having a moral code is an essential prerequisite for every atheist who isn’t that way out of ignorance, and that ignorance dissipates within seconds of hearing someone attempt to describe what a god is.

But… is it true that black people deserve to be paid less than whites? Is it true that women who dress provocatively deserved to be raped? Is it true that the poor are lazy and shiftless? All it takes to believe in any form of social justice is the moral “do not hold false beliefs” and evidence to support “claim X is false.” The minimal moral system for a hardline dictionary atheist is no different then the minimal moral system of a feminist!

Of course, there’s no reason you can’t toss extra morals into the mix. Social justice types would quickly add “allowing false beliefs to persist in others is wrong,” but so too would the dictionary atheist. How else could they justify trying to persuade others away from religion? No doubt those atheists would disavow any additional morals, but so too could a feminist. That one extra premise is enough to justify actively changing the culture we live in.

There might be other differences in the moral code between dictionary atheists and those promoting social justice, but it amounts to little more than window dressing; not only does being an atheist require a moral code, even the “dictionary” brand, the smallest possible code also supports feminists and others engaging in social justice.

So knock off the “atheism has no moral code” crap. It just ain’t true.