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