As a long-time atheist, I’ve made my peace with my eventual death. More or less. I mean, I want to delay death as long as feasible, given a reasonable quality of life, but it isn’t something that preoccupies my thoughts. Still, I found myself suppressing a strange sense of dread, at times, while reading Michael Shermer’s new book, Heavens on Earth (Henry Holt, 2018). Death sucks—there’s no getting around that. Continue reading “Michael Shermer Stares Down the Grim Reaper in Latest Book”
If I say that two plus two equals four, and someone else insists that two plus two equals five, am I closed-minded if I do not find that person’s mathematical arguments persuasive? Am I closed-minded if I reject the idea that two plus two can at the same time equal four and five? A recent study implies that the answer is yes. And that study, along with various media accounts of it, conclude that, by comparable standards, atheists on the whole are more closed-minded in certain ways than are theists. Clearly something has gone wrong. Continue reading “What the Study on “Closed-Minded Atheists” Really Proves”
So-called “jihadi-tourists” have traveled from European nations to help Islamic State pursue its brutal totalitarian agenda. “At least 320 Germans and more than 2,000 other Europeans are thought to have made the trip” to Turkey and then to Syria or Iraq to join the Islamic cause, Matthew Schofield reported for McClatchy a couple months ago. Many of these people are children of immigrants from Muslim countries who “end up finding a sense of community online and in the radical splinters of Islam set up to prey upon the lost,” Schofield writes. Michael Brendan Dougherty recently picked up Schofield’s story for the Week.
And Madeline Grant and Damien Sharkov report for Newsweek: “Khalid Mahmood, the MP for Perry Barr in Birmingham, estimates that at least 1,500 young British Muslims have been recruited by extremists fighting in Iraq and Syria in the last three years.”
One thing this illustrates is that jihadists are not made because they live in impoverished regions; they are made because of the ideology they embrace.
Muslims commit atrocities against women, against gays, against “infidels” in many regions around the world. Yes, violent Muslims are the minority. But how many more Muslims openly endorse such violence or tolerate it by failing to condemn it? That, to my mind, is an open question. Consider some recent articles on the subject.
Mehdi Hasan writes for the New Republic that violent jihadists tend to be youths who are largely ignorant of their own religion. Hasan claims that “religious fervour isn’t what motivates most” jihadists; rather, Hasan points to such factors as “moral outrage” (about what?) and “peer pressure” as motivators. True, as Hasan points out, many serious Muslims do not practice and to not advocate violent jihad. But does Hasan doubt that many serious Muslims do advocate violent jihad and (especially in Saudi Arabia and Iran) actively finance it?
Patrick Goodenough reports for CNSNews.com that a Cairo-based Suni leader, Shawki Ibrahim Allam, has actively condemned Islamic State and called “for people to post messages or video clips opposing ISIS terrorism.” And, Goodenough reports, Saudi grand mufti Abdulaziz al-Sheikh said that “extremist and militant ideas and terrorism which spread decay on earth, destroying human civilization, are not in any way part of Islam, but are enemy number one of Islam.” I don’t know anything else about those two figures, but on their face such statements appear to be a move in the right direction, and hopefully one other Muslims will follow.
In Arizona, M. Zuhdi Jasser has been berated by his fellow Muslims for daring to criticize Hamas. He writes for AZCentral, “I had criticized the radicals of Hamas on national television for their supremacist Islamist doctrine hatched from the Muslim Brotherhood that daily and viciously oppresses the people of Gaza.” Jasser discusses the widespread Muslim “silence on the terror tactics of Hamas [that] speaks volumes to terror apologia.” Jasser’s own perspective is encouraging, but the opposition he apparently faces is frightening.
The Islamic militants active with Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria and Iraq believe they are doing God’s work on Earth. General Martin Dempsey, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently said of the group: “This is an organization that has an apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision and which will eventually have to be defeated. . . . ISIS will only truly be defeated when it’s rejected by the 20 million disenfranchised Sunni that happen to reside between Damascus and Baghdad.” This is as reported by the Associated Press.
The open question (to my mind) is to what degree Islamic State and its state sponsors pose a threat to the United States and to Americans. I have no confidence that America’s current leaders will sensibly answer that question or that, if they do answer it, they will act appropriately. They might look to John Lewis for guidance; see his articles at the Objective Standard, “‘No Substitute for Victory’: The Defeat of Islamic Totalitarianism,” and “‘Gifts from Heaven’: The Meaning of the American Victory over Japan, 1945.”
Ed Husain is an “adjunct senior fellow” with the Council on Foreign Relations. In a recent op-ed for the New York Times, he explains how Saudi Arabia actively supports Islamic State and other Islamic terrorist organizations: “Al Qaeda, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Boko Haram, the Shabab and others are all violent Sunni Salafi groupings. For five decades, Saudi Arabia has been the official sponsor of Sunni Salafism across the globe.” Husain, himself a Muslim, believes the “rigid interpretation of Shariah” practiced by these violent Muslims is “un-Islamic.” Of course, they would claim that Husain’s moderation is “un-Islamic.” Regardless, hopefully Husain’s brand of partly Westernized Islam will win out over more barbaric variants.
Only the willfully blind can continue ignore the nature of the widespread Islamic totalitarian movement. Members of Islamic State (aka ISIS) recently slaughtered scores of Yazidi men in northern Iraq and “kidnapped ‘dozens’ of women and children,” Fox News reports. For now we can only imagine what will happen to these women and children. Islamic State has murdered “at least 500” Yazidis, Fox reports. Why did Muslims butcher these men? A Reuters report (mentioned by Fox) quotes senior Kurdish official Hoshiyar Zebari: “We believe it’s because of their creed: convert or be killed.” This was cold-blooded mass murder in the name of Allah.
Rick Santorum’s EchoLight Studies seeks to produce “high-quality movies for families of faith” that Santorum hopes to screen in churches, the Heritage Institute reports. At a Heritage event, Santorum said, “We want this company to be a tool to get people into the church and make the church the center of culture again.” Meanwhile, “Atheists in the US are rallying together, launching a new TV programme and providing support for those who go public with their beliefs,” reports the BBC.
I delivered a twenty-minute talk August 27 at Skepticamp in Colorado Springs titled, “Ayn Rand As Atheist.” I open with the American Values Network attack on Ayn Rand for her atheism, then I describe what her atheism actually entails.
Somebody pointed out that I may not set up an early quote about duty well enough; it comes from Rand’s Red Pawn (in Early Ayn Rand) and it comes from a character whose views Rand criticizes as typically Communist.
September 12 Update: Following is a write-up based on the same material.
That the left attacks Ayn Rand for her capitalist politics comes as no surprise. Today’s left, though, attacks Rand not only for her political conclusions, but specifically for her atheism. Decades ago, usually only the religious right employed that line of attack (and did so with a vengeance). Today’s left, far from consistently defending secular values and the separation of church and state, increasingly joins the religious right in bringing religion into politics.
Rand, on the other hand, consistently defended the separation of church and state. While she eloquently defended freedom of religion and freedom of conscience more broadly, she rejected religion throughout her career and defended reason based on the evidence of the natural world and objective values based on the life and happiness of the individual.
The leftist organization American Values Network prominently attacks Rand’s atheism in a web page and related video, touting residual media ranging from Time to USA Today to Fox News. The organization argues:
GOP leaders and conservative pundits have brought upon themselves a crisis of values. Many who for years have been the loudest voices invoking the language of faith and moral values are now praising the atheist philosopher Ayn Rand whose teachings stand in direct contradiction to the Bible. Rand advocates a law of selfishness over love and commands her followers to think only of themselves, not others. She said her followers had to choose between Jesus and her teachings.
GOP leaders want to argue that they are defending Christian principles. …As conservative evangelical icon Chuck Colson recently stated, Christians can not support Rand’s philosophy and Christ’s teachings. The choice is simple: Ayn Rand or Jesus Christ. We must choose one and forsake the other.
In fact American Values Network grossly distorts Rand’s views — she advocated appropriate loving relationships and thoughtfulness of others — but the organization’s deeper error lies in attacking Rand’s atheism while explicitly advocating a religious basis for politics (specifically a Christian basis rooted in Biblical texts). Note the enormous difference between logically or factually questioning Rand’s conclusions in politics and ethics (controversies beyond the scope of this article), and rejecting Rand’s ideas because she does not ground them in religion. The latter sort of attack should concern everyone who values the separation of church and state.
As a silver lining, the American Values Network campaign raises awareness of Rand’s criticisms of religion and faith-based politics, provoking thoughtful observers to discover the nature of Rand’s actual views. Thankfully, Rand eloquently explained and defended her views on religion. Considered on their merits, rather than filtered and stripped out of context by partisan character assassins, Rand’s positions constitute an important alternative to religion and a powerful defense of the separation of church and state. Those positions richly deserve a deeper look.
To set the context for Rand’s atheism, consider that she was born in pre-Soviet Russia in 1905 into a Jewish family. Thus, she never grew up with strong Christian (or even religiously Jewish) beliefs. (See Objectively Speaking, edited by Marlene Podritske and Peter Schwartz, page 226.) Marxism dominated many intellectual circles in Russia, with its emphasis on collectivism and antagonism toward religion. Rand moved to the United States in 1926 where, understandably, her antipathy toward Communism dominated much of her early thinking. Not until many decades later, in the mid-1970s as Rand approached the end of her life, did the religious right make serious attempts to ground politics on religious beliefs.
Yet, as Rand developed her philosophy over time and emphasized different aspects of it as the culture around her changed, she constantly advocated the same worldview of using reason to achieve life-based values in the natural world. This was true of her first professional writing in 1932 until her final public appearances in the early 1980s. By any sensible measure, Rand must be counted among the greatest atheist intellectuals of the 20th Century.
Many of the basic elements of Rand’s atheism appear in the first writing she sold, a 1932 screen treatment called Red Pawn. As the name suggests, the treatment largely deals with the evils of Soviet dictatorship, yet it also criticizes religion.
Rand criticizes the notion of duty that contradicts or stands beyond reason. The Communist character Commandant Karayev describes the duty-based view: “When it’s duty, you don’t ask why and to whom. You don’t ask any questions. When you come up against a thing about which you can’t ask any questions — then you know you’re facing your duty.” (The Early Ayn Rand, edited by Leonard Peikoff, page 120.) Rand rejected any attempt to act outside of reason, whether from a religious or collectivist motivation.
Rand’s description of Karayev reveals much about her views of religion as well as Communism:
He stood at the door. At one side of him was a painting of a saint burning at the stake…renouncing the pleasures and tortures of the flesh for the glory of his heaven; at the other side — a poster of a huge machine with little ant-sized men, sweating at its gigantic levers, and the inscription: “Our duty is our sacrifice to the red collective of the Communistic State!” (The Early Ayn Rand page 136.)
For Rand, Communism does not fundamentally stand opposed to religion; instead, the Communists substituted the authority of the state (with its Commisars) for the authority of a religion (with its priests and sacred texts). While the religious authorities demand individual sacrifices for God or his works, the collectivist authorities demand sacrifices for the state or some collective end. As Leonard Peikoff summarizes in his introduction to the work, “Ayn Rand saw clearly that Communism, contrary to its propaganda, is not the alternative to religion, but only a secularized version of it, with the state assuming the prerogatives once reserved to the supernatural” (The Early Ayn Rand page 108).
For Rand, then, atheism is not enough. Atheism merely states a negative, an absence or rejection of theism and its supernatural realm. People can reject God and yet advocate irrational and even evil ideas. What matters is one’s positive philosophy, and Rand’s philosophy of reason grounded in natural evidence and earthly values consequently precludes theism. While American Christians reacted strongly against the atheism of Communism, particularly during the Cold War, Rand saw the similarities between the two camps as more substantial than the differences.
Rand’s 1936 novel We the Living, again set in Soviet Russia, addresses (at its periphery) the ethics and psychology of religion. Consider a telling exchange between two of the characters, Kira and Andrei:
“Do you believe in God, Andrei?”
“Neither do I. But that’s a favorite question of mine. An upside-down question, you know.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, if I asked people whether they believed in life, they’d never understand what I meant. It’s a bad question. It can mean so much that it really means nothing. So I ask them if they believe in God. And if they say they do — then, I know they don’t believe in life.”
“Because, you see, God — whatever anyone chooses to call God — is one’s highest conception of the highest possible. And whoever places his highest conception above his own possibility thinks very little of himself and his life. It’s a rare gift, you know, to feel reverence for your own life and to want the best, the greatest, the highest possible, here, now, for your very own. To imagine a heaven and then not to dream of it, but to demand it.” (We the Living, by Ayn Rand, page 97-98 in the 1959 Random House edition.)
Here Rand suggests that religion tends to stand in the way of worldly values by encouraging people to place their hopes of achieving values in some afterlife. One chooses this life and the values of this life, or one neglects or denigrates this life in favor of an imagined world beyond death. (That many people in fact act on contradictory ideas and commitments would not surprise Rand.) Rand presents a highly idealistic vision of values in the sense that they are achievable in this life.
Religion drops even further to the background in Rand’s 1940 novel The Fountainhead, but that book too makes some criticisms of religion. Consider an exchange between the main character Howard Roark and his early mentor:
“Why did you decide to be an architect?”
“I didn’t know it then. But it’s because I’ve never believed in God.”
“Come on, talk sense.”
“Because I love this earth. That’s all I love. I don’t like the shape of things on this earth. I want to change them.” (The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand, page 39 in the 1994 Plume edition.)
The dialogue again emphasizes Rand’s focus on this-worldly values, as opposed to the supernatural realm.
In his famous courtroom speech, Roark adds:
That man [the creator] the unsubmissive and first, stands in the opening chapter of every legend mankind has recorded about its beginning. Prometheus was chained to a rock and torn by vultures — because he had stolen the fire of the gods. Adam was condemned to suffer — because he had eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge. (The Fountainheadpage 710.)
Here Rand presents religion as backwards mysticism that stands in the way of this-wordly values.
Rand’s criticisms of religion become more pronounced and developed withAtlas Shrugged in 1957.
John Galt makes a number of pointed criticisms of religion (and collectivism) in his detailed radio address, including the following:
The good, say the mystics of spirit, is God, a being whose only definition is that he is beyond man’s power to conceive — a definition that invalidates man’s consciousness and nullifies his concepts of existence. The good, say the mystics of muscle, is Society — a thing which they define as an organism that possesses no physical form, a superbeing embodied in no one in particular and everyone in general except yourself. (Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand, page 1027 in the 1992 Dutton edition.)
The mystics of both schools… are germs that attack you through a single sore: your fear of relying on your mind. They tell you that they possess a means of knowledge higher than the mind, a mode of consciousness superior to reason… (Atlas Shrugged page 1034.)
Here Rand emphasizes the irrationality of supernatural religious presumptions or their collectivist counterparts. Whereas, in Red Pawn, Rand revealed the psychology of turning to religion in rejection of worldly values, in Atlas Shrugged she sees as a source of mysticism the fear of relying on one’s reasoning mind as the sole means of knowledge.
Following the publication of Atlas Shrugged, Rand turned more to nonfiction writing and speaking, when she continued to attack the mysticism and self-sacrifice of religion and its subversion of reason in politics.
In 1960, Rand delivered an address at Yale titled, “Faith and Force: Destroyers of the Modern World.” In this talk, she again explicitly defends reason against the mysticism of religion: “Reason is the faculty which perceives, identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses.Mysticism is the claim to a non-sensory means of knowledge.” (Philosophy: Who Needs It, by Ayn Rand, page 63 in the 1984 Signet edition.) Moreover, Rand argues that rejecting reason in favor of religious faith in politics leads inexorably to conflict, violence, and rule by brute force:
[F]aith and force are corellaries, and… mysticism will always lead to the rule of brutality. The cause of it is contained in the very nature of mysticism. Reason is the onlyobjective means of communication and of understanding among men… But when men claim to possess supernatural means of knowledge, no persuasion, communication or understanding [is possible]. (Philosophy: Who Needs It page 70. Note that a typographical error appears in some printings of this book, corrected here with the bracketed text.)
In another talk later in 1960, Rand blasted conservatives for attempting to ground their politics in religious faith: “Politically, such a claim contradicts the fundamental principles of the United States: in America, religion is a private matter which cannot and must not be brought into political issues” (Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, by Ayn Rand, page 197 of the 1967 Signet edition).
Rand’s warning about the inevitable strife of faith-based politics, and her resounding endorsement of the separation of church and state, should serve to jolt the rising Religious Left to its senses. Those who believe they can defeat Rand’s political positions using logic and reason are free to try it. But rejecting Rand’s ideas specifically because they are atheistic, and calling instead on a politics grounded on religious faith and sacred texts, invites long-term disaster in America, logically tending toward theocracy.
Over the course of her career, Rand fought for naturalism, a focus on this world, as opposed to supernaturalism. She advocated reason grounded in the evidence of the senses, not faith or mystical intuition. She advocated a morality based on the lives and well-being of real individuals, rather than some allegedly transcendent realm. She fought for a politics grounded in reason and individual rights. Rand presented these ideas in riveting novels that continue to sell hundreds of thousands of copies every year to readers hungry for Rand’s idealized, value-based, story-driven “Romantic realism.” Through essays, lectures, and public appearances throughout the rest of her life, Rand continued to advocate her positive philosophy as well as the rightful separation of church and state.
Despite Rand’s decades of intellectual achievements, today more than any other literary figure she becomes the target of nasty and fact-challenged smears by both the left and the right. The left hates her for her capitalism, while the right hates her for her atheism — though the left increasingly joins the right in this, as the American Values Network illustrates.
Those who reject Rand’s moral and political theories would do well to take a second look at what she actually advocated and why, as her views suffer continual distortions in the popular media. Yet even those who disagree with Rand’s specific conclusions should recognize her achievements and her status as a preeminent 20th Century atheist intellectual and, more fundamentally, a champion of reason and liberty.
“Anonymous” left the following comment on September 11, 2011: Ari, not sure if this was the session where you talked about the left incorporating in more overt ways the religious (principally Christian) creed of self-sacrifice or not. But it got me thinking about an interview between the American play-write Arthur Miller and Jonathan Miller. In it, Arthur Miller touches on this idea, but levels an even greater warning: the combination of Christianity, Judaism, and nationalism – literally lethal in his view. It is a great interview, and is part of a collection of interviews with several atheists entitled The Atheism Tapes (BBC). Cheers! B Danielson
Are the Harry Potter novels essentially Christian works? In my new essay,“Religion In Harry Potter Revisited,” I argue that, while the novels feature some religious symbolism and themes, those do not fundamentally drive the stories or motivate the heroes.
I recorded a talk based on an abbreviated version of the same material.