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Objectivism

Ayn Rand Among The Religious
by Neil Parille

Introduction

Ayn Rand is best known for her works of fiction and her advocacy of laissez-faire capitalism.  She was, however, more than a novelist and a writer of political tracts.  In the philosophical sections of her novels and the collections of her essays she set forth a comprehensive philosophy, which she called “Objectivism.”  Given that Rand has become something of a cultural icon, it is interesting to note that she was what might be called a “militant atheist” and an outspoken opponent of religion.

Rand first gained widespread attention in 1943 with the publication of The Fountainhead.  In 1957, she published her best-known work, Atlas Shrugged.  It would appear that from at least the publication of Atlas Shrugged, Rand has gained the notice of, if not theologians, writers who are religiously and theologically minded.  Interestingly, most of those who have critiqued Rand from a religious perspective have been conservatives.

From Whittaker Chambers to Alister McGrath

Perhaps one of the most famous book reviews in recent memory was Whittaker Chambers’s review of Atlas Shrugged, published in National Review.  The review -- titled “Big Sister is Watching You” -- was a scathing critique of a work that Chambers (an ex-communist who returned to Christianity) considered “silly” and hardly deserving the name “novel.”  Chambers, while acknowledging that he disliked much that Rand disliked, found one overarching problem with the work: its irreligion and materialism.  As he put it,

The Message is the thing. It is a sum, a forthright philosophic materialism. Upperclassmen might incline to sniff and say that the author has, with vast effort, contrived a simple materialist system, one, intellectually, at about the state of the oxcart, though without mastering the principle of the wheel. Like any consistent materialism, this one begins by rejecting God, religion, original sin, etc. etc. (This book's aggressive atheism and rather unbuttoned "higher morality," which chiefly outrage some readers, are, in fact, secondary ripples, and result inevitably from its underpinning premises.) Thus, Randian Man, like Marxian Man, is made the center of a godless world.

According to Chambers, Atlas Shrugged is the new Bible of the new Godless elite: a largely Nietzschian presentation of an apocalyptic war between the Children of Light (the technocratic elite) and the Children of Darkness (the looters and parasites).  As we shall see, much of the subsequent religious criticism has followed largely in Chambers’ footsteps.

John Robbins, a follower of the Calvinist philosopher Gordon Clark, wrote perhaps the first full-length critique of Objectivism by a religious thinker.  This book, Answer to Ayn Rand, was published in 1974.  Robbins’s critique, although much more detailed than Chambers’s brief review, follows upon similar lines.  Objectivism, for all its professions of originality, is little more than an updated version of materialism and Nietzschian man-worship.  Rand’s advocacy of atheism does not follow from rational argumentation, but is posited in order to establish the new religion of man.  Perhaps the most interesting section of the work is the chapter entitled “Objectivist Theology” in which Robbins finds numerous parallels between Anthem and the Bible.  In addition, Robbins provides many quotes from materialists such as Feuerbach, Lenin and Marx which sound quite like Rand.  Answer to Ayn Rand was updated in 1997 and renamed Without a Prayer: Ayn Rand and the Close of Her System.  In 2000, Michael Yang, an ophthalmologist, published his critique of Rand entitled Reconsidering Ayn Rand, which follows largely in the footsteps of Robbins’s works.

The most recent book-length critique of Objectivism is Scott Ryan’s Objectivism and the Corruption of Rationality (2003).  Ryan, a non-practicing Jew and a pantheist, argues that much of Rand’s philosophy flows from her atheism.  Rand set out to develop a philosophy that would make God unnecessary.  “The basic problem in her epistemology seems to me to lie in Rand’s desire to avoid making the human mind answer to anything else.”  [Emphasis in the original.]  Although Ryan does not share Robbins’s theology, he praises his work and suggests that Leonard Peikoff’s Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand contains oblique references to it.

2003 was something of a breakthrough year in the theological treatment of Objectivism.  Evangelical theologian Alister McGrath published volume 3 of his landmark A Scientific Theology, a complex work that integrates theological method with the physical sciences.  McGrath, while finding Rand’s rejection of religion “disappointingly superficial,” finds much to commend in her distinction between “the metaphysically-given” and the “man made.”  [McGrath, A Scientific Theology: Theory, pp. 244-47.]  This is the first positive presentation of Rand’s philosophy by a theologian that I am aware of.

Interestingly, most of the writing about Rand by secular authors generally ignores religion.  William O’Neill’s With Charity Toward None: An Analysis of Ayn Rand’s Philosophy (1972), is almost completely silent about religion, as is the 1984 collection The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand, edited by Douglas Den Uyl and Douglas Rasmussen.  On the other hand, two works by secular writers have done much to demonstrate the importance of religion in Rand’s thought.  The Ideas of Ayn Rand (1991) by the late Ron Merrill emphasized the Jewish roots of Rand’s thought.  In 1995, Chris Sciabarra published Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical.  Sciabarra situates Rand’s philosophy within both Russian religious and secular thought. 

Why the interest in Ayn Rand by conservative religious thinkers?  A couple of reasons come to mind.

First, Rand is unique among irreligious and “secular humanist” authors.  Most humanists (or at least the best-known ones) are members of the Left.  Bertrand Russell was a socialist.  Perhaps even more telling is John Dewey (a signer of the Secular Humanist Manifesto) who was not only a socialist, but also the founder of progressive education.  Rand is the opposite of the contemporary leftist atheist who preaches multiculturalism, socialism and egalitarianism.  She advocated capitalism, moral absolutes, self-interest and inequality.  Rand not only opposed multiculturalism and progressive education, but opposed them for many of the reasons those on the Right oppose them.  Rand is, in a sense, a reactionary of the Left.  For this reason, Rand is a more interesting topic for those on the Right who see her ideas as something of a false alternative to religious and conservative thought.

Second, Rand, unlike many on the Left, has a comprehensive “world view.”  She does not ignore large sections of philosophy, much less consign philosophy to the realm of feelings and opinion.  Like well-developed religions, Objectivism has something to say about every area of life.  In this respect, Objectivism presents itself as almost a rival religion to Christianity. 

Conclusion

The religious “angle” to Ayn Rand and Objectivism is a fruitful area of study.  Indeed, the most recent issue of the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies (Fall 2004) contains an article discussing the influence of Russian religious thought on Rand.  Hopefully, this will be part of what Chris Sciabarra has called the “Renaissance” in Ayn Rand scholarship.
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