The Objective Standard just published my article, “Contra Time Writer’s Claim, Ayn Rand Did Not Advocate Mooching Coffee (or Anything Else).” Basically, Bijan Stephen claims that Rand endorses mooching any time there’s an “honor system” for payments. But his claims about Rand are ridiculous—and directly contradicted by countless, explicit comments by Rand. This “smear Rand” phenomenon is interesting, at least: Which other public intellectual born over a century ago is as routinely subjected to regular smears today?
Recently I wrote a blog post for TOS Blog about Dave Brat’s views (specifically, I compared and contrasted his views and those of Ayn Rand).
In that post, I quote from a summary of a 2010 paper coauthored by Brat about Rand. That four-page summary is available through Southwest Informs, under “2010 Proceedings,” “Papers Listed by Track.” (The summary was not available there until June 11, when I contacted the organization and its representatives made it available.) Unfortunately, I have not been able to locate the full paper.
Lynn Stuart Parramore also went looking for the paper:
We tried to find that paper, which was “presented and published in the proceedings of Southeast Informs, Myrtle Beach, SC, October 6, 2010,” but that publishing venue evidently doesn’t quite make the cut for Google scholar and JSTOR, so we can only guess at its contents.
But Parramore’s remarks are imprecise. Whereas Brat’s college page claims the 2010 paper was “published in the proceedings of Southeast Informs,” the paper was not actually made publicly available. When I asked Ali Nazemi of Southeast Informs if the organization has the full paper, he replied (in a June 11 email), “That [the summary] is all we have. The authors may have the full paper and may have tried to get it published in a journal.”
I have contacted Brat via email, both through his campaign and his college email address, but as of yet I have had no reply. Obviously I’m interested in reading the paper, and when and if I get my hands on it I’ll write about its contents.
As Diana Hsieh turns the primary leadership of Front Range Objectivism (a group devoted to studying and applying the ideas of Ayn Rand) over to the capable hands of Santiago Valenzuela, it is a great time to pause to appreciate all the great things Diana has accomplished in recent years.
• After undergoing the rigors of graduate school at the University of Colorado, Boulder, Diana completed her dissertation on the problem of “moral luck.” Essentially, she demonstrated that people are responsible for their own choices, luck notwithstanding.
• Diana has become an accomplished public speaker, and she has helped others in the area (including me) improve their speaking skills. As an example of her efforts, earlier this month Diana spoke to over 50 people at Liberty On the Rocks in Denver. Drawing from her dissertation, she argued that people deserve what they earn, contrary to John Rawls’s claims that people get what they have through luck. And last month Diana gave a “Think!” talk at CU about Rand’s conception of moral perfection.
• Diana helped create several Atlas Shrugged reading groups in the Denver area, groups that have have developed into regular monthly reading groups.
• Diana developed the “Explore Atlas Shrugged” podcast series, an excellent companion to the novel.
• In other ways, Diana has helped to expand Front Range Objectivism, as by developing its web page and running the “Snowcon” conference for the past two years.
• Diana formulated the most rigorous case for abortion rights ever written from an Objectivist perspective. She also put substantial effort into defeating the so-called “personhood” anti-abortion ballot measures in Colorado. Diana and I coauthored papers on the subject for the Coalition for Secular Government and for The Objective Standard.
• Diana created the “OLists” to promote Objectivist activism and community.
• Amidst all this other work, Diana developed her “Philosophy In Action” weekly webcast, which focuses on applying philosophy to the challenges of daily living. She plans to focus her efforts on expanding this.
Diana has done far more than most to promote important ideas over the past few years, and she deserves our gratitude and appreciation.
Last night at Denver Liberty On the Rocks, Stephen Bailey and Anders Ingemarson delivered talks on two of Ayn Rand’s novels, Anthem and Atlas Shrugged.
These talks were part of a series I agreed to help organize in connection with a Fall fundraiser for the Ayn Rand Institute’s books for teachers program. Here I embed not only last night’s talks, but previous talks by Hannah Krening and Kirk Barbera on Rand’s other two novels.
Historian John David Lewis passed away early Tuesday morning after fighting cancer. Lewis, who specialized in classical Greece, delivered several lectures in Colorado over the last few years for Front Range Objectivism, a group that shares Lewis’s appreciation for the philosophy of Ayn Rand.
Rand once said, “Those who fight for the future live in it today.” Lewis, a man who studied the past, applied the lessons of his scholarship to the matter of creating a better future. To me, he was a profoundly insightful scholar, a modern champion of liberty, and a friend.
Lewis wrote three books: Early Greek Lawgivers, Nothing Less than Victory: Decisive Wars and the Lessons of History, and Salon the Thinker.
Following is the material by or about Lewis that I have published:
Take War to the Enemy, Lewis Urges
Lewis discussed foreign policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder (as reviewed here).
In 2007, Lewis gave three talks in Colorado. The topics were individualism, early Greek law, and individual rights in medicine. My article summarizes those talks.
Lewis Illuminates Solon’s Political Thought
I further review one of Lewis’s 2007 talks, then discuss his book about Solon.
John Lewis Reflects on Tea Parties
While in town for a lecture on the Athenian Constitution, Lewis reflected on the Tea Party movement.
John Lewis on Constitutions, Athens and Now
Lewis briefly summarized the basic conflict, in ancient Greece and in modern America, between democracy (mob rule) and constitutional government.
Photos of John
Following are several photos from John’s various trips to Colorado. Two of these photos show John talking with his former student, Joe Collins, now a teacher in Fort Collins. The photo of John and his wife Casey was taken by Kelly Valenzuela at the couple’s Fifteenth Anniversary celebration in Las Vegas. I’ve put these photos in a Picasa folder.
The John David Lewis Memorial Fund
The Ayn Rand Institute relates: “It was Dr. Lewis’s wish that in lieu of customary gestures of condolence, those wishing to honor his memory should send contributions to the John David Lewis Memorial Fund at theAnthem Foundation for Objectivist Scholarship and/or the John David Lewis Memorial Fund at the Ayn Rand Institute.”
In Remembrance of John
John will be deeply missed by friends and associates from around the country. (I’ll post updates.)
Remembering John Lewis – Alex Epstein
John David Lewis: A Man Who Lived – Craig Biddle
John Lewis, Hero and Friend – Diana Hsieh
In Memoriam: John David Lewis, 1955-2012 – Ayn Rand Institute
John Lewis – Leonard Peikoff
Colorado Tributes to John
Following are some memories of John from his friends in Colorado. (Others in Colorado who knew John are welcome to send me their comments as well.)
Kelly and Santiago Valenzuala:
John was one of the people in this world that we admired most and his loss is a great one to mankind. Fortunately, he left many of us with wonderful ideas to not only live by, but share and pass along in our efforts to improve the culture. On a personal level, John and Casey, their love and the way they lived their lives together, during good times and bad, was an inspiration to us. I will never forget their 15th wedding anniversary in Las Vegas and the wonderful pictures I took of them that week. Santiago and I have decided that should our baby be a boy (which is what we’re hoping for), his middle name will be Lewis, in honor of John.
I remember many things about John Lewis.
I remember his excellent lectures on ancient Greece at the OCON summer conferences. I remember a wonderful impromptu jazz piano performance he gave one evening at the Seaport Hotel in Boston. I remember when he was our house guest in Colorado raking horse manure, while telling fascinating tales about the battle tactics of the mounted Mongol archers.
But what I remember most about John was how he helped me regain my will to fight for my values back in 2009. At that time, the battle over ObamaCare health legislation was in full swing and I had become deeply discouraged. It seemed that despite all my blogging and letter writing, I wasn’t getting anywhere. My efforts seemed futile and pointless, like someone trying to fight a raging forest fire armed only with a tiny squirt gun. I was on the verge of quitting health care activism altogether.
But then one of John’s articles on ObamaCare got picked up by Rush Limbaugh.
Rush quoted extensively from John’s piece on his radio show, sending John’s words to millions of Americans. John’s example showed me that a single man, armed with the right ideas — and willing to articulate them with clarity and conviction — can indeed make a difference.
Fans of Ayn Rand’s book “The Fountainhead” may remember the scene when a young man is struggling to find his purpose in life after graduating from college. He finally finds his inspiration after seeing the recently completed Monadnock resort built by architect Howard Roark. For that young man, seeing another man’s achievement gave him “the courage to face a lifetime”.
John did the same for me. Seeing John’s ideas reach millions of eager Americans helped rekindle my enthusiasm to continue my own personal activism. His success gave me a spiritually vital “shot in the arm” at a time I needed it the most. John helped me understand that one is most alive when one is working to make one’s values real. In other words, John helped me understand what Ayn Rand meant when she said, “Anyone who fights for the future, lives in it today.”
Thank you, John, for helping me find my courage for my lifetime.
The world will be a less vibrant and exciting place without John Lewis. I was very privileged to know John and be the recipient of his knowledge and friendship. He was the best teacher that I ever had. I attended most of his lectures at Objectivist Conferences and had the pleasure to hear him in Denver and facilitate some of his Denver talks. I have always been envious of students who got to spend a whole semester with him, what a treat to spend that much time with him and learn so much. John had a true love of life and joy that was infectious. John was a fearless person who would tackle any battle and accept ‘Nothing Less than Victory.’ Unfortunately his last battle ended too quickly. I thank John for his knowledge, friendship and courage. He will be missed by me and many, many others but will be remembered often.
It’s inspiring to see what a human being can be capable of. John was a high achiever. He used his mind and his time very well. He was honest, sincere, diligent, courageous.
I don’t think John set any limit on how hard he would try. I think his first consideration was how important a thing was, not how much effort it would take. I think within the limits of whatever he had to work with, including however much energy he could generate, John considered only the value of one option vs. another.
He was also a friend of humanity, in the real way. He worked to make a better world, for himself and for Man. He did everything possible to him, toward this end, in large ways and in small. And he was quite generous. Though very busy, when asked for information or advice he would take a moment to help others to understand an issue or a needed course of action, the best he could. I think he did this for anyone he thought might have an honest, decent interest in trying to understand, as his time and priorities allowed.
John had an ability to get to the bottom of things, to identify what is important, to sweep aside the garbage and clutter, and to really understand the basic issues and their consequences. And then he would work to help others to understand too. I would not understand Objectivism nor political issues as well as I do, without John’s words.
Along with John’s great ability to understand, he had a great capacity to value. He loved good ideas, human achievement and good people.
John Lewis was just awesome.
I remember John Lewis as I first knew him. He was a brilliant lecturer whose passion for history was wickedly contagious. I remember the first lecture I attended; it became obvious during the question and answer session that this was a man who had all of the history of western civilization integrated in his mind and accessible in an instant.
I remember John Lewis as I came to know him. He was a friend whose love of life was almost tangible. I remember his love of music. I remember his love for his dear wife. I remember his love of his two puppies. I remember his concern for me as I dealt with what turned out to be minor health issues.
I remember John Lewis in his battle with cancer. He was a warrior who would accept “Nothing Less Than Victory”. I will always remember the lesson he taught us in that battle; that it is possible to live life fully and flourish by relentlessly pursuing ones values, even in the face of death. He could not control the cards that he was dealt, but I remember the inspiration with which he played them.
I remember John Lewis victorious.
John Lewis shall be widely remembered, to each for his own reason. Scholarship and the field of history is at a loss, for Dr. Lewis’ reading and teaching history on principle was the oasis in an academic desert. Humanity too mourns at its loss, for Dr. Lewis, unlike so many intellectuals, never turned down an opportunity to discuss ideas and history with the up and coming. He treated his fellow students with dignity and made them feel visible.
What is generally unknown was that Dr. Lewis was a steadfast patron of our schools and education reform. He dedicated with tireless effort his time teaching summer institutes on classical history. His speeches and writings are and will be among education’s great sources for the classics. In fact, among those jewels in his works was a speech which I hope is out there somewhere, an address to a group of high school seniors on Martianus Capella’s The Seven Liberal Arts. His best? And to high school students? Whether walking with kings or with crowds, that was John Lewis.
On my first meeting Dr. Lewis, he invited me to walk with him, of all places, to the Post Office. It was our first walk of many, as he became my Socrates. On another of our walks he suddently broke into a shout and tossed me a sword, he taking another, and commenced to show me how a hoplite would thrust and slash. Onlookers were bewildered, a man in sandals swordfighting on campus.
I am deeply honored to have known this man, and am particularly indebted to C. Bradley Thompson for insisting over a decade ago that I go down the hall and meet a genuinely beautiful human being. And that was my friend. Teachers and intellectuals carry with them the DNA so to speak of the giants on whose shoulders they stand. For my own I shall carry his love for life, of ideas, of education, and of liberty into the field. In this way, as the Greeks said, Lewis has reached immortality. Reputation sufficeth. It’s all we have. Continue, he would say to us. Be brave. He would ask us to continue to contemplate, write, advocate, and fellowship. And we shall.
Joseph E. Collins
James Madison Fellow
Ridgeview Classical Schools
Fort Collins, Colorado
I thought I’d add a few additional notes of a more personal nature. I wish to recount two stories.
In 2007, John Lewis was in town, and Lin Zinser organized a breakfast at a Denver restaurant to discuss health policy. A surprising number of people showed up for this event, something like 25 or 30. This was when Lin and Paul Hsieh were beginning their work in health policy in Colorado. One idea was to start a new group dedicated to promoting the ideas of liberty, free markets, and individual rights in medicine. We had tossed around a few possible ideas for a name for this group, but nothing seemed to work. At one point John blurted out (paraphrasing), “How about Freedom and Individual Rights in Medicine, or FIRM? As in ‘We stand FIRM for freedom.'” And that’s the name that stuck.
More recently, when John was pretty sick and his energy was sometimes low, he joined several us again at a Denver restaurant. Though, due to his surgeries, his voice was not as strong as it had once been, he spoke passionately about living. He said that, better than ever before, he understood the concrete meaning of the abstract fact that “life is the process of self-generated and self-sustaining action.” He was self-consciously living even in dealing with his illness. I was awe-inspired by his courageous fight against the cancer that eventually overtook his body, but never his spirit. Most men never live as fully when they are healthy, as he lived when he was ill.
On a broader note, I cannot help but wonder whether, if the United States had gone in the direction of greater economic freedom over the past century and a half rather than in the direction of more stifling political controls, medical technology would have already advanced to such a state that John’s cancer might have been curable or at least manageable for much longer. We cannot change the past, but we can still change the future. And John has emboldened me to fight for a future of Freedom and Individual Rights, not just in medicine, but in every area of life.
Like so many who knew John, I will never forget his intensity, joy, and passion for everything he engaged in, and his brilliant mastery of all he took on.
But what I want to convey here is that John David Lewis was genuine to the core, and lived his last two years heroically. Though I knew him for years, I had a friendship with him that began in 2009 when he was first diagnosed with cancer. He knew I was a cancer survivor, and so he called me early one morning to share the news that “it is big and it is bad, but it is treatable.” I listened in shock. But it was immediately apparent that he was going to address this with the vigor he addressed everything else. And he did.
In our wide ranging conversations his focus was, to the last conversation, laser sharp. It is a huge accomplishment that he lived beyond all expectations, both in time and in productiveness. Despite the best medicine available, he lived with profound, life altering consequences of the treatment, and eventually the disease. It had an effect on his spirit; the reality of this disease is ugly. But a life force and commitment to reason that he had cultivated long before I knew him made him victorious over it until the very end.
John would sparkle when he spoke of Casey, and for good reasons. It was a delight for Doug and me to get to know them as a couple. We loved the time we spent with them and we treasure Casey’s friendship.
Hannah Krening reviewed the anti-totalitarian theme of Ayn Rand’s novelWe the Living, as well as its literary qualities. This was a December 17 talk for Liberty Toastmasters.
In a November 14 talk, Kirk Barbera discussed Ayn Rand’s concept of the “benevolent universe premise” in the context of Rand’s novel The Fountainhead and Barbera’s own life.
I am independently promoting funding for the Ayn Rand Institute’s “Books for Teachers” program for Colorado.
If you are a teacher, I encourage you to check out the program.
If you are interested in Rand’s works, I encourage you to donate funds to ARI specially marked to support Colorado’s “Books for Teachers” program.
If you donate to ARI for this purpose, please let me know as well. The total target for the campaign is $19,000. Coloradans have already contributed $1,100 to the campaign, and an anonymous donor has pledged $5,000 in matching funds for new donations. Please let me know whether you want me to use your name or remain anonymous. I’ll keep a running tally going below. Note that you can DOUBLE your donations with the matching funds.
Previous donations: $1,100 (includes $500 from Mike and Jennifer Rivers)
Matching funds from an anonymous donor: $5,000
“Galt’s Gulch” auction leader: David Weatherell for $3,100
The following contributions all qualify for matching funds:
Ari and Jennifer: $80
Doug and Hannah Krening: $500
Martin L. Buchanan: $100
Mike Williams and Cara: $35
Brian S.: $35
Howard and Susan: $160
Betty Evans: $500
Donovan Schafer: $320
Linn and Sharon Armstrong: $50
David Weatherell: $900
Patricia Tolleson: $100
Mike Spalding: $20
Bill Faulkner: $400
JL: $2,000 (fulfills matching funds)
Richard Watts: $1,000
The Kempes: $160
TOTAL RAISED: $16,870
Recently a local reading group I attend reviewed Ayn Rand’s dystopian novelette Anthem. That book served as my introduction to Rand many years ago, and rereading it proved rewarding.
In our discussion, we explored a variety of topics:
* The romance between the two lead characters, Equality and Liberty, develops as Equality becomes an independent thinker and scientist. This anticipates Howard Roark’s comment in Fountainhead, “To say ‘I love you’ one must first know how to say the ‘I’.”
* The way Equality values his scientific work anticipates the relationship between the heroes and their work in Atlas Shrugged. It illustrates Rand’s view that material objects are not valuable in themselves, but only in relation to individual values and consciousness.
* For Rand, totalitarianism necessarily results, ultimately, in total economic collapse. The central reason for this is that political controls prevent individuals from acting on their own reasoned judgment, ultimately chilling reasoned thought as such. In the long run capitalism and technological progress cannot survive totalitarian controls. Contrast the primitive society of Anthem with the (in some ways) highly technical societies of other dystopias, such as Brave New World and, more recently,Hunger Games.
Below are the review questions used for our group (and others are free to reproduce these for purposes of discussion).
1. What is the ego? (Peikoff’s 1994 introduction)
2. How do the conditions surrounding the writing and publication of Anthem relate to the book’s theme? (Peikoff’s 1994 introduction, Rand’s 1946 foreword)
3. What are the principles and laws of the story’s society, and what are the emotional consequences of Equality 7-2521 breaking them? (Chapter I)
4. What is the connection between the collectivism and the technological regression of the story? (Chapter I)
5. Why does Rand place the budding romance between the discovery of the tunnel and the Unspeakable Word? (Chapter II)
6. What is the relationship between the advancing scientific discoveries and the building romance? (Chapter III, Chapter IV)
7. Why does Equality say “our new power defies all laws?” Is he right? (Chapter IV)
8. Why does Equality think “this wire is as a part of our body?” (Chapter V)
9. Why does Equality believe the Council of Scholars will accept his gift? Why is he wrong? (Chapter V, Chapter VII)
10. What is the significance of the observation that the electric light “would bring ruin to the Department of Candles?” (Chapter VII)
11. How does Equality’s self-discovery connect to his love of the Golden One? (Chapter VIII, Chapter IX)
12. How does Equality’s independence mesh with the Golden One’s deference toward him? (Chapter X)
13. What is the “world ready to be born?” (Chapter X)
14. What does Equality mean when he writes, “I am the warrant and the sanction?” (Chapter XI)
15. What does Equality mean when he writes, “I ask none to live for me, nor do I live for any others?” (Chapter XI)
16. How does Prometheus retain his independence while learning so much from others? (Chapter XII)
17. How can one man stoke “the spirit of man?” (Chapter XII)
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