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Ayn Rand, Objectivism, and Religion (Part 4 of 4)
by Neil Parille

RELIGION AND ITS ROLE IN HISTORY cont.

Metaphysics

For Objectivism, metaphysics is one of the five branches of philosophy. [Peikoff, OPAR, p. 3.] "Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that studies the nature of the universe as a whole." [Id.] Rand's first axiom "existence exists" is fundamental to her metaphysics. "This axiom means that the universe exists independent of consciousness (of any consciousness)." [Rand, PWNI, p. 24.] Another corollary of the axiom "existence exists" is that "nature, i.e., the universe as a whole, cannot be created or annihilated, that it cannot come into or out of existence." [Rand, PWNI, p. 25.]

To a certain extent, Rand defies "nature" and "matter" giving them the qualities a theologian might ascribe to God. Consider these statements from Rand and Peikoff:

  • "Matter is indestructible, it changes its form, but it cannot cease to exist." [Rand, VOS, p. 16.]
  • "'Creation' does not (and metaphysically cannot) mean the power to bring something into existence out of nothing." [Rand, PWNI, 25.]
  • "Causality . . . is a fact independent of consciousness, whether God's or man's. Order, lawfulness, regularity do not derive from a cosmic consciousness." [Peikoff, OPAR, p. 17.]


The attributes that orthodox theism attributes to God are similar: he is indestructible, eternal, and is responsible for the order in the universe. Indeed Rand goes so far as to ascribe a human attribute to the universe the "benevolent universe premise" although Peikoff adds "it does not mean that the universe cares about man or wishes to help him." [Peikoff, OPAR, p. 342; Robbins, WAP, pp.118-23.]

As the above quotes indicates, Rand's philosophy is thoroughly secular. Every inference is drawn from her axioms in such a way as to render religion invalid and illegitimate. Perhaps what is unique in Objectivism is its attempt to refute all religious belief based on a few fundamental axioms. An Objectivist need not refute the specific claims of any religion. All such claims are illegitimate.

There is no logic that will lead one from the facts of this world to a realm contradicting them; there is no concept formed by observation of nature that will serve to characterize its antithesis. Inference from the natural can only lead to more of the natural, i.e., to limited finite entities . . . [Peikoff, OPAR, p. 32.]

Peikoff's attempt to rule out the supernatural is a bit exaggerated. Most religious thinkers do not contend that that the supernatural realm "contradicts" the natural realm. Rather, they contend that truths of religion supplement the truths that one may obtain through reason.

Rand's secular approach to the question of existence is hardly unique in the history of philosophy. Her philosophy is broadly speaking materialistic and mechanistic. As Hans Kung describes the approach of numerous Enlightenment thinkers:

Atheistic materialism had the immense advantage in their arguments that it seemed continually to be confirmed by the conclusions of mechanistic natural science. The better this science came to understand matter and its unlimited possibilities, the more superfluous God or belief in him became for it. . . . When presenting his first volume to Napoleon, Laplace could rightly answer his questions about the place of God in this creation: "Sire, I had no need of this hypothesis." [Kung, DGE, p. 92.]

Many parallels could be given between Rand's thought and materialistic thinkers through the ages. To take one example, consider this description of von Holbach's materialism:

Nature is the sum of all matter and of its movement. Matter is actually or at least potentially in movement, since energy or power is a property innate in matter. The material universe is simply there. We need not pose the question concerning the creation of matter. There is neither accident nor disorder in nature since everything occurs out of necessity an in an order which is determined through the irreversible chain of cause and effect. [Schwarz, C, p. 9.]

Whether Rand's materialism is as thoroughgoing as von Holbach's, Feuerbach's or Lenin's is a difficult question given her advocacy of free will. However, it is undisputed that philosophers before Rand have seen the advance of natural science as progressively rendering religion irrelevant and, in the final analysis, untrue.

Epistemology

Much of what we have discussed thus far shows Rand's hostility to all purported knowledge that does rest on reason. "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 survival proper to a rational being are: thinking and productive work." [Rand, VOS, p. 25.] Any "knowledge" that is not discovered by man's mind wouldn't qualify as knowledge. It would have nothing to add to man's understanding of himself or his place in the universe. Indeed, it would be "anti-knowledge." It undercuts the use of man's mind. Psychologically, it encourages man to "evade." Any purported source of knowledge not ultimately traceable to the use of reason would not be "worthy" of man. For this reason, Rand is opposed to "innate" knowledge (knowledge that man would have if he were not born tabula rasa at birth) and "revealed" knowledge (or what she at times called knowledge "beyond the grave").

Politics

Rand is perhaps best known today for her advocacy of minimal government and laissez-faire capitalism. Although she rejected the term "libertarian," her politics fit largely within the libertarian and classical liberal tradition. Like everything else in her philosophy, Rand's politics follows from her advocacy of reason. Only capitalism is consistent with an uncompromising defense of man's mind and opposition to mysticism. Man's mind cannot function under compulsion. "Freedom is the fundamental requirement of man's mind." [Rand, CUI, p. 17.] Only capitalism recognizes the value of man's mind, because it permits its free development. Likewise, capitalism is based on an objective standard of value. [Rand, CUI, p. 17.] Mysticism, on the other hand, is based on the intrinsic school of epistemology. [Rand, ITOE, p. 79.]

Because the choice between capitalism and collectivism is a choice between reason and mysticism, capitalism must be defended on moral grounds. Capitalism is the only just political system. As she put it in her essay "The Nature of Government":

If physical force is to be barred from social relationships, men need an institution charged with the task of protecting their rights under an objective code of rules. . . . A government is the means of placing the retaliatory use of physical force under objective control i.e., under objectively defined laws. [Rand, CUI, p. 331.]

Unlike Rand, most defenders of capitalism have defended it on utilitarian or economic grounds. To Rand, such a "defense" is no defense at all.

[Capitalism] is a system based on man's right to exist (and to work) for his own sake not on the altruistic view of man as a sacrificial animal. [Rand, CUI, p. 184.]

Rand heaped scorn on capitalism's conservative "defenders" who gave grudging respect to capitalism while retaining their commitment to altruism and mysticism. [Rand, CUI, p. 197.] A society that is a mixture of statism and capitalism is premised upon altruism and mysticism just as much as a fully statist society. [Rand, CUI, p. 301.]

Unless reason is primary, man has no means of resolving conflicts without recourse to force. To the extent that people renounce reason, tyranny or some lesser form of "pressure group" politics will prevail. Her analysis of racism is paradigmatic. Racism is a form of mysticism which seeks "automatic knowledge" at the expense of an objective evaluation of men's character. It is a quest for "automatic self-esteem" on behalf of its adherents.16 The total state will inevitably espouse racism (or some other irrational system of classification). [Schwartz, ROP, pp 181-82.]

Rand saw the conflict between reason and mysticism played out in the political sphere most clearly in the Middle Ages. Her description of the Middle Ages is similar to what one finds in anti-Catholic protestant polemics. "[T]he supernatural doctrines of the Middle Ages . . kept men huddling on the mud floors in their hovels, in terror that the devil might steal the soup that they had worked eighteen hours to earn . . . ." [Rand, FNI, p. 160.] Rand seemed unaware of the development of capitalism in the late Middle Age in northern Italy and Spain, or the scientific advancements made during that time which have received more attention due to the writings of Pierre Duhem and others.

CONCLUSION

Ayn Rand's philosophy is stridently anti-religious. It may well be the case that few philosophers have been so consistently anti-religious and developed a philosophy that is so self-consciously humanistic in its most basic presuppositions. Nonetheless, her critique of religion is hardly original and falls broadly within the Enlightenment critique of Christianity.

REFERENCES

AR: Tibor R. Machan, Ayn Rand (1999).

ARL: Harry Binswanger, ed., The Ayn Rand Lexicon (1986).

ARC: Jeff Walker, The Ayn Rand Cult (1999).

ARHM: Greg Nyquist, Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature (2001).

ARM: Robert Mayhew, ed., Ayn Rand's Marginalia (1995).

ARRR: Chris M. Sciabarra, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical (1995).

C: Hans Schwarz, Creation (2002).

CS: Alister McGrath, Christian Spirituality (1999).

CT: Alister McGrath, Christian Theology (1994).

CUI: Ayn Rand, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (1967).

DGE: Hans Kung, Does God Exist? (1981).

ESAM: Hans-Herman Hoppe, Economic Science and the Austrian Method (1995).

FNI: Ayn Rand, For the New Intellectual (1960).

GKR: Thomas Molnar, God and the Knowledge of Reality (1973).

IAR: Ronald Merrill, The Ideas of Ayn Rand (1991).

JAR: David Harriman, ed., The Journals of Ayn Rand (1999).

JARS: Journal of Ayn Rand Studies (1999-present).

OPAR: Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (1991).

PAR: Barbara Branden, The Passion of Ayn Rand (1987).

POM: John Passmore, The Perfectibility of Man (3rd Ed.) (2000).

PWNI: Ayn Rand, Philosophy: Who Needs It (1982).

RM: Ayn Rand, The Romantic Manifesto (1971).

ROP: Peter Schwartz, ed., The Return of the Primitive (1999).

ROR: Louis Greenspan & Stefan Andersson, eds., Russell on Religion (1999).

SAF: Robert Nisbet, Sociology as an Art Form (1976).

SP: Mark Silk, Spiritual Politics (1988).

TF: Chris Matthew Sciabarra, Total Freedom (2000).

TT: David Kelley, Truth and Toleration (2nd Ed.) (2000).

VOR: Ayn Rand, The Voice of Reason (1990).

VORE: William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience ([1902] 1936).

WAP: John Robbins, Without a Prayer (1997).


16 This was written in 1963, long before "identity politics" became the vogue.

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