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Ayn Rand, Objectivism, and Religion (Part 1 of 4)
PREFACEThis essay attempts to summarize Ayn Rand's view of religion. It highlights some aspects of Rand's thought and details certain weaknesses and superficiality in her discussion of religion.
It should be noted that I have made minimal references to Rand's fiction, with the exception of occasionally quoting "Galt Speaks" from Atlas Shrugged. I have made generous use of the extremely helpful Ayn Rand Lexicon, edited by Harry Binswanger. Apart from Rand's works, I have utilized Leonard Peikoff's Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, which is based on a lecture course given by Peikoff in 1976. According to Peikoff's preface, Rand helped him prepare the lectures, and it can be assumed that they are faithful to Rand's thought. [Peikoff, OPAR, p. xiv.]1
INTRODUCTIONAmong authors and philosophers, Ayn Rand is noteworthy for her atheism and uncompromising opposition to religion. Unlike many non-believers who see utilitarian value to religion, Rand is somewhat unique in seeing (with minor exceptions) virtually no value to religion.
As Chris Sciabarra notes, Rand developed a secular philosophy. [Sciabarra, ARRR, p. 147.] She called this philosophy "Objectivism." She considered writing a book on Objectivism subtitled "a philosophy for living on earth." [Rand, PWNI, p. 12.] She concisely set forth the humanistic basis of Objectivism: "Since everything man needs has to be discovered by his own mind and produced by his own effort, the two essentials of the method of the method of survival proper to rational beings are: thinking and productive work."2 [Rand, VOS, p. 25.]
ATHEISM, RELIGION, AND MYSTICISM
Biographical NoteAyn Rand was born in Russia in 1905 to secular Jewish parents. Although Russia was an officially Orthodox country, her non-fiction makes hardly a mention of Russian Orthodoxy. Likewise, there is virtually no explicit mention of Judaism in her works. Since Judaism heavily influenced Christianity and Islam, one might expect greater mention of the Jewish faith. Considering that Rand taught that "mysticism" is man's chief enemy, one might expect a passing reference to the Jewish mystical tradition. Yet there is none.3
In 1926, Rand moved to the United States (a predominantly Protestant country), yet she makes few references to Protestantism in her work.
Curiously, Rand's principal interest in religion appears to be Roman Catholicism. She devotes two essays to papal encyclicals. In "Of Living Death," she critiques Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae (which opposed artificial contraception) and in "Requiem for Man" she critiques his Populorum Progressio (a discussion of economics). While non-Catholic religions generally don't have equivalents to papal encyclicals, this attention given the Roman Catholic Church is noteworthy. Rand went so far as to blame the existence of American laws against abortion (which she opposed) on the Roman Catholic Church, even though such laws predated the arrival of large number of Catholic immigrants by decades. [Rand, VOR, p. 59; Robbins, WAP, p. 208.]
Rand's focus on Catholicism likely stems from a belief that Catholicism is the principal opponent of reason and capitalism. Because she had a certain respect for Catholicism's leading philosopher, Thomas Aquinas (who attempts to integrate faith and reason) Catholicism constituted the greatest threat. In "Requiem for Man" she sees Catholicism as the principal rival to communism:
Today, Catholicism and communism may well cooperate, on the premise that they will fight each other for power later, but must first destroy their common enemy, the individual, by forcing mankind to unite to form one neck-ready for one leash. [Rand, CUI, p. 316.]A few other reasons for Rand's preoccupation with Catholicism (as opposed to Protestantism) come to mind. First, Protestantism is a more variegated system of belief, making it harder to analyze than Catholicism. Second, Protestantism is often represented as friendlier toward Capitalism and individualism than Catholicism (the so-called "Weber thesis," for example). Third, Catholicism is associated with a period of time – the Middle Ages – which plays a substantial role in Rand's philosophy of history.
It would be interesting to know to what extent Rand was acquainted with religious thought in general and apologetics (that is the defense of religious belief) in particular. As will be seen below, Rand claimed to have rejected the "proofs" for the existence of God at age thirteen. However, her published writings do not indicate the extent of her familiarity with the "proofs" for God's existence (at age thirteen or later).4 Based on her posthumously published "marginalia," it is clear that Rand read at least parts of Etienne Gilson's The Unity of Philosophical Experience and C. S. Lewis's The Abolition of Man. Gilson was one of the premier Roman Catholic philosophers of the twentieth century. Lewis, an Anglican, was a professor of literature at Oxford and Cambridge and an author of a number of works of apologetics. He was not a philosopher and his apologetic works are written on a more popular level.5
Rand's Opposition to ReligionRand's opposition to religion is of course a central theme of this paper. It is important to keep in mind that Rand opposed religion at its most basic level. That is to say, she believed that it was untrue in all its manifestations and that its consequences were disastrous. The religious view of existence teaches "the damnation of life and the worship of death." [Rand, FNI, p. 18.] She has been accused of "totalism," [Sciabarra, TF, p. 165] due to her penchant for seeing systems of thought as "organic wholes." There are no minor mistakes for Rand, because she searches out the "logical import of all the truths that support" an idea with which she disagrees. [Id. quoting Lester Hunt.] As we shall see, her view of religion is to a large extent a creation of what a person should logically believe if he drew all the conclusions from the (alleged) premises of his belief. Most religious believers do not in fact "worship death." However, if they took their premises seriously, that is the logical conclusion they would draw.
Rand's AtheismAyn Rand was an atheist. According to her one-time associate Barbara Branden, Rand became an atheist at age thirteen. Branden records Rand writing in her diary at that age: "Today I decided to be an atheist." Branden then reports her as later explaining, "I had decided that the concept of God is degrading to men. Since they say that God is perfect, man can never be that perfect, then man is low and imperfect and there is something above him – which is wrong." [Branden, PAR, p. 35.] Branden continues that Rand's "second reason" is that "no proof of the existence of God exists."
Rand therefore proposes two objections to the existence of God. First, belief in God degrades man, by positing something "higher" or more "perfect." Belief in God is anti-man. Second, there is no proof for the existence of God. While Rand would later emphasize the irrationality of belief in God, the impression from her writings is that her principal objection to belief in God was a moral or psychological one. [Ryan, OCR, p. 270.]
AgnosticismThe term agnosticism was coined by Aldous Huxley at a meeting of the Metaphysical Society in 1876. Agnosticism is typically taken to mean the position that one cannot be certain about the existence (or non-existence) of God. The entry in for "agnosticism" in The Ayn Rand Lexicon contains only one entry: that of Leonard Peikoff from his 1976 course on Objectivism, which constitutes the basis for OPAR. We will quote from OPAR, which is similar to the entry in the Lexicon:
Agnosticism is not simply the pleading of ignorance. It is the enshrinement of ignorance. . . . A passion for the arbitrary does not derive from concern for logic. Its root is a feeling that has been given precedence over logic. In some agnostics, the feeling is cowardice, the simple fear that a stand on contentious issues will antagonize people. In other agnostics, the feeling is more convoluted. It is akin to glee, the malicious glee of subverting all ideas and thus of baiting the men who have integrity required to hold convictions. This is the glee of the destroyer, the mind-hater, the nihilist. [Peikoff, OPAR, pp. 169-70.]This no doubt accurately represents Rand's view. Rand had nothing but contempt for the "middle or the road" position, which claims to be sophisticated but is in fact the avoidance of a position.
Note: references will be at the end of part 4
1 The author wishes to thank Chris Matthew Sciabarra for his helpful comments on a previous draft of this paper. The usual caveats apply.
2 Broadly speaking, Objectivism is a version of secular humanism. Rand no doubt would have rejected this label given the various degrees of statism found in advocates of secular humanism, as well as the non-Objectivist roots of the movement. For example, philosophers as diverse as John Dewey and Brand Blanshard were signers of secular humanistic "manifestos." For Peikoff's rejection of the term "Secular Humanism," see VOR, pp. 80-81.
3 Interestingly, Ronald Merrill sees parallels in Rand's fiction to the Jewish Talmud. [Merrill, IAR, pp. 61-62.] Jeff Walker argues for a broad Jewish background to the Objectivist movement. [Walker, ARC, pp. 277-87.]
4 She does state in her 1973 essay "The Metaphysical Versus the Man-Made" that:
And although few people today believe that the singing of mystic incantations will bring rain, most people still regard as valid an argument such as: 'If there is no God, who created the universe?' [Rand, PWNI, p. 26.]5 In the course of her marginal notes, she refers to Lewis as a "monstrosity," "lousy bastard" and a "cheap, drivelling non-entity." Curiously, she writes that Lewis (an Anglican) wants a "science subservient to the Pope." [Mayhew, ARM, pp. 90-94.]
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