Ayn Rand/Objectivism Sightings
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A Spiritual Journey
From Conservative Christianity To Enlightened Objectivity: A Spiritual Journey
Looking back just weeks after the turning of another year, I find it amazing to think that just four or so years ago I had likely never even heard the name Ayn Rand, let alone read any of the remarkable philosophy that she developed, and which I now hold in such high esteem. Back in those days, I was a social and political conservative, a church-attending Christian (of the Anglican denomination), and a rather troubled sixth form student.
It was there, through the combination of a National Review Online article and discussions with a member of staff with whom I had become friends, that I first discovered the wonderful world of libertarianism. Initially I began browsing Reason Magazine at reason.com and the Cato Institute site at cato.org on a regular basis, as well as discovering the superb British organisation, the Libertarian Alliance at libertarian.co.uk. I eventually found my way to free-market.net, where a wealth of libertarian material awaited me. Because of my religious beliefs at this time, I was drawn in particular to LewRockwell.com (which I still browseótheir articles are almost always thought-provoking, if nothing else!). My impressions at this point were somewhat conflicted: whilst libertarians had much to say concerning certain issues (such as drug prohibition) that I found convincing, it also seemed to me that libertarians agreed with each other on remarkably little, arguing over everything from policy proposals such as school vouchers, to the most appropriate philosophical basis for libertarian theory (I suppose that this is in many ways fitting, given that libertarianism is a movement of individualists, though I do sometimes wonder why we spend so much time arguing with each other rather than against statists!). Of course the name Ayn Rand was cropping up quite a bit at this stage.
However, I gradually became increasingly comfortable with muchóthough not alló of the Rothbard-influenced "paleo-libertarianism" of the LewRockwell.com gang and started delving into Aristotelian and Thomistic philosophy. It would have been around this time that I first checked out ARI and TOC on the web, my interest having been piqued by the various references I was coming across (strangely I donít remember exactly when or why I decided to go ahead and look Rand up on the web). Predictably, my initial reaction was that Rand appeared to be fantastic on everything other than religion.
Fast-forward a couple of months, and I finally decided to check Rand out in more detail, ordering The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged from the local bookstore. The Fountainhead made a big impression on me, and quickly became my favourite novel (to this day I still think it is in many ways a better novel than Atlas Shrugged). It did, however, leave me feeling rather conflicted: Although I sympathised strongly with the character of Roark, I was disturbed by the novelís atheistic implications. I did struggle with this for a few days, and I eventually managed to rationalise it away, convincing myself that, terrific author though she was, Rand was simply wrong on this issue (quite how I convinced myself that Roarkís moral code was compatible with Christianity, I do not recall!!). I had also read a lot of Biblical criticism around this time, mainly centred on the fact that a great deal of the mystical elements in the Gospel accounts bear a strong similarity to earlier Pagan "mystery cults," and theorising that therefore the Gospel stories were themselves Judaic adaptations of these earlier myths. Of course I managed to more or less convince myself that all of that could be rationalised away too. I have long since come to recognise this for what it was: evasion, on a massive scale.
Soon after this, I started at university, unsurprisingly becoming involved with the Conservative studentsí group and a couple of other student societies centred on Christianity, though I quickly began finding the religion increasingly dissatisfying (at this stage perhaps owing more to the above-mentioned works of Biblical criticism than to Rand). I had also begun reading Atlas Shrugged at this time, and reached the chapter on Galtís broadcast mid-November in my first semester. I finished that chapter on a Sunday afternoon and as it happens, that weekend I had also come across a quotation of Thomas Jeffersonís spiritual advice to his nephew on the Internet:
[S]hake off all the fears and servile prejudices under which weak minds are servilely crouched. Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.
This seemed to me to jell pretty brilliantly with the content of Galtís speech. Along with that quote I had discovered the so-called Jefferson Bible (Thomas Jeffersonís marvellous cut-and-paste job on the gospel story, which leaves out all mystical references). This time, deeply touched by both Galtís speech and Jeffersonís advice quoted above, there was no effort at rationalisation. I did attend a church service as usual that evening, but I did not pray or attempt to sing (I doubt I was ever much good at this anyway!), and I felt entirely hollow the whole time.
The following weeks were a difficult time for me. Faith and freedom had been two of my greatest passions, and encountering a convincing argument (dare I say proof) that the two are by necessity in conflict was a tremendous jolt, to put it mildly. In honesty, for a short time afterwards there were brief periods when I felt close to tears (there did follow a brief and ultimately rather pointless flirtation with Unitarianism, though I attended at most about 3 or 4 services). I finished Atlas, and proceeded to explore Randís non-fiction, obtaining The Virtue Of Selfishness and Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal from Laissez-Faire Bookstore, along with some other libertarian books. With the exception of a funeral, Iíve not attended a church service for some considerable time, though I remain on close terms with a number of Christian friends, including the university chaplains!
Looking back I sometimes think that in many ways Iíd held on to Christianity so long just because I needed something to hold on to, something to believe in, and some sort of "roadmap" for living (i.e. a moral code). I had from time to time looked into other forms of mysticism, for example Buddhism and even some strands of neo-paganism, though Iíd always stuck with Christianity, until this time. Why was this time different? I think ultimately itís because Objectivism actually provides answers, rather than simply saying there are a whole load of things we can never really know. Of course Objectivism also provides moral guidance, but without the mystical claptrap.
Iíve changed a fair bit as a person, having spent four months in 2002 on student exchange in Texas, during which time I skydived, spent time with the College Republicans (and argued with them over god and abortion) and also began regularly reading SOLOHQ. More recently, I have started up a libertarian student group here at the university. Both the semester abroad and the libertarian group here have served to introduce me to other Objectivists and others influenced by Rand to some degree. I no longer consider sex to be something dirty and sinful, nor do I now feel guilty about my own sexual desires. Iíve also felt far more able to identify and try to deal with faults and failings of a personal natureósomething that can be difficult to do if psychologically, you regard yourself as "sinful" by nature and think that God is probably going to forgive you anyway! Without going into detail here, Iíll admit however that Iíve not (so-far) succeeded in overcoming every fault, though in these instances I can of course but redouble my efforts.
The biggest change is that I no longer live my life on the basis that, as long as I keep the faith, there is some mystical paradise waiting for me beyond the grave. This is the only life we can be sure of and so of course we ought to make the most of it. I no longer pray, having far greater confidence in my own abilities to resolve problems. On the other hand, if it does turn out that there is some sort of afterlife, then that will be icing on the cake. As for God, Iím inclined to agree with Tibor Machanís argument that Ö
After all, it is supposed to have been GodÖwho had equipped human beings with a rational mind, the faculty they need most to make a success out of their incredibly complicated and varied lives.Ü Such a being would not command us if we abdicated and invoked faith instead of reason in reaching such a momentous conclusion as that God exists.
Through Objectivism Iíve discovered so many other wonderful thinkers, such as George Reisman, George H Smith, Tibor Machan and of course Chris Sciabarra and Linz, as well as the many other contributors to The Free Radical and SOLO (which I discovered through the Objectivist Center links webpage!), and others in the wider Objectivist and libertarian traditions. Of course I donít endorse everything said by all on that list. For example, I usually agree with Linzís comments on classical music, though I find his apparent rejection of all contemporary music somewhat over the top (if particular musicians embrace our values it seems to me that should be celebrated, regardless of whether one personally enjoys that genre); on the other hand, Iím fascinated by Chrisí dialectical theories, but Iím not sure Iíd agree with him on Eminem (or not entirely at least).
Iím pleased to say that I feel far more "at home" browsing solohq.com than either the ARI or TOC websites, in large part due to the open forums, and the discussions on music. I've always had quite a broad taste in music, though my current favourites include Beethoven, Puccini and Rush, all of whom I began listening to because of articles on SOLOHQ or comments made in the forum! I still listen to "Christian" music such as Handel's Messiah, though I now appreciate such material for somewhat different reasons. SOLO has also led me to rediscover a childhood enthusiasm for Mario Lanza.
All in all, I have certainly changed a lot, and certainly for the better Iíd say. And Iíve only just begun reading the Objectivist corpus of literature, so there is still much to learn and perhaps further enlightenment to come! Ultimately, having grasped Randís proof of the conflict between faith and freedom, I was faced with a choice, and I chose freedom.
A very special thank you to Tibor Machan for his kind assistance regarding the citation of his forthcoming work.
Thanks also to my friend CEP, who managed to influence this article despite not being either an Objectivist or a libertarian! I am, of course, working on this matterÖ
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