How Ayn Rand Influenced Me, and Reconciling Objectivism with Religion

At Volokh, Ilya Somin writes an interesting post about Ayn Rand, titled “Assessing Ayn Rand: “An Utterly Intolerant and Dogmatic Person Who Did a Great Deal of Good”. Ilya discusses how his libertarianism was never influenced by Rand, despite her prominence to spread the cause of libertarianism in the 20th Century.

I was never much influenced by Rand or impressed by her writings. I became a libertarian in high school primarily as a result of reading Friedman, Hayek, Nozick, and Thomas Sowell – and because being a refugee from communism prevented me from becoming a left-liberal, as would otherwise have been likely. I also read some of Rand’s books at that time. But I wasn’t impressed with her effort to defend free markets based on her theory of the “virtue of selfishness.” or her “Objectivist” philosophy. Many of her ideas seemed poorly developed or superficial. I was also turned off by her intolerance for disagreement and her lack of serious effort to engage with opposing points of view.

Frequent readers of my blog will know that I am a fan of Rand. Just check out all of my John Galt posts.

I had a much different experience than Ilya. My libertarianism was largely informed, if not guided by my experiences with Rand. While in College, I considered myself strictly a conservative. I favored limited government and individual rights, but I didn’t really know why.

My 1L Semester at Mason, in our Law & Economics Seminar, Professor Rustici (one of the best Professors I have ever had) asked us to read Capitalism, the Unknown Ideal. Let’s just say it rocked my world. Rand systematically explained why capitalism is the economic system of government most compatible with individual liberty and freedom.

After reading Capitalism, I ventured to conquer Atlas Shrugged. As I was working 40 hours a week and attending law school as an evening student, I could only manage 20 pages a day. It took me nearly 6 months to read, but I was enraptured by every minute of reading that amazing book. I began seeing parallels between the stories Rand told, and our society sliding towards statism. I subsequently read the Fountainhead, the Virtue of Selfishness, and other Rand works. And I was hooked.

These works helped me understand why I favored limited government, and why individual liberty is essential to a persons being. Every day, I strive to make all my actions rational, and try to do nothing that will hurt another.

More after the jump, and reconciling obejctivism and religion.

One of the most significant points Somin makes centers around Rand’s insistence than anyone who considers themselves an Objectivist must adopt her philosophy in toto. In fact, Rand detested religion, and considered a belief in a higher power as totally antithetical to the principles of Objectivism.

Rand also believed that one could not be a true supporter of free markets and limited government without also endorsing Objectivist views on a wide variety of non-political subjects, such as her atheism, her “Romantic” views on art and literature, and what she considered to be her rationalistic theories of love and romance. Over the years, she cut herself off from nearly all of her friends and admirers, often because they had expressed disagreement with some relatively minor part of her views.

Some commenters and others doubt that Rand actually believed that true support for capitalism and a free society requires endorsement of her views on religion, literature, and other nonpolitical issues. However, Rand repeatedly stated that Objectivism was a unified philosophy that had to be accepted across the board. As Burns shows in her biography, this was one of the reasons why Rand was so intolerant of other libertarian thinkers – and even members of her inner circle – who disagreed with elements of her philosophy even though they agreed with her on most public policy issues. She also claimed that religion was intrinsically “anti-man” and inherently hostile to freedom and capitalism. Rand expressed similar views about the need to adhere to the correct views on literature and other issues, in order to consistently support freedom.

I am fully cognizant that a belief in objectivism requires a rejection of religion. I am also fully cognizant that a belief in Judaism requires not working on the Sabbath. Yet, I follow neither. Does that make me a bad Jew, or a bad Objectivist? Maybe. But does that require that I reject the fundamental premises of both belief systems. I don’t think so.

No one is perfect. We all fail. To reject a belief system because you cannot adhere to 100% of the doctrines would relegate most, if not all people, to a meaningless life.

Life is about a journey, a pursuit (of happiness) if you will. I try as hard as I can to do as much as I can. I like certain aspects of objectivism, much like I like certain aspects of religion. If picking and choosing makes me a hypocrite, so be it.

Perhaps a person who believes in God would not have been welcomed into Rand’s inner circle, but fans of liberty can still read Rand’s work, learn from it, and preach the gospel.

Who is John Galt?

Update: I received a fantastic comment from a friend on facebook. He wrote:

Very interesting post, Josh. As you know I consider myself ethnically and culturally Jewish but do not observe at all. What I have not been able to reconcile with picking-and-choosing what religious commandments to observe is this: if I believe in God and his commandments, then who am *I* to pick and choose which of the 613 to obey? This isn… Read More’t just an issue of blatant hypocrisy like driving to synagogue on Saturday or Yom Kippur, or being “Jewish” for two weeks out of the year, but goes deeper into one’s relationship with the religion.

I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts on this, because this is something I’ve been thinking a lot about myself. Sure, one can choose to follow one part of Rand’s philosophy and not another. But God, if you believe in him, is obviously a higher authority. After all, we don’t pick and choose what parts of the Constitution to follow!

My response:

In large measure, I feel that I am free to “pick and choose” (as you call it) because God created me this way. Hashem gave us all the power to think and reason. If he wanted to, he could have disabled our ability to live outside the dogma of religion.

Now, just because I can “pick and choose,” doesn’t mean I should “pick and choose.” I try, to varying degrees of success, to follow as many tenets of religion as I can. But, I’m still human, and this is how G-d created me. Not as a perfect automaton, but as a rational being attempting to figure out life

Does that make sense? That is how I rationalize things for myself. Works for me, may not work for others.

Advertisements

10 Responses to “How Ayn Rand Influenced Me, and Reconciling Objectivism with Religion”

  1. Ilya Says:

    Fascinating, thanks for sharing. My reaction to Rand was/is probably somewhere between yours and Ilya’s.

    • Josh Blackman Says:

      Just for the record, this comment came from the good-looking D.C. Libertarian Ilya, not the smart D.C. Libertarian Ilya. 🙂 Inside the Cato Beltway joke here.

      • Alison Says:

        Good post! But I take exception to the characterization of my Ilya… 😉

      • Josh Blackman Says:

        Alison, I may need to do a new post asking for suggestions for new nicknames, lol

      • Josh Blackman Says:

        I got it. From this day forward, your Ilya will be known as Ilya Mason. The other Ilya will be known as Ilya Cato. Both named after famous libertarian icons, and it will be easy to remember. 🙂

  2. Kat Says:

    Besides, both objectivism and Judaism are much more about _approach_ — to interpretation, to the ideas of kindness and morality, whatev. But I vehemently disagree that Judaism reflects a failure of pure objectivism, or vice versa.

    • Josh Blackman Says:

      Kat, I tend to agree. While Rand spoke of objectivism being incompatible with religion in general, I think some religions are less compatible than others. Judaism, or at least how I view it, is grounded in thinking and reasoning to develop a proper approach, as you call it, to morality. I am able to use Judaism to obtain selfishness as a virtue. I don’t think my beliefs are incompatible with objectivism. But I was addressing the general attack on religion.

  3. MichaelM Says:

    Josh,

    Rand would say to your scheme, “sorry, but you can’t have your cake and eat it too.”

    Objectivism is Ayn Rand’s personal philosophy. You can pick and choose all you want, but the word “Objectivist” can only mean, in its primary context, one who has adopted that same philosophy in its entirety as their own, and as she counseled, who actually lives it. Since her rise to prominence and popularity, it has obviously taken on a secondary context in which it means one who generally agrees with the philosophy. While her feelings are no longer an important consideration, the actual meanings of words is still very important.

    That said, you need to pay less attention to the name and the count of her ideas you do an do not agree with and more attention to the viability of your own philosophy you are cobbling together out of Randian and Judaic ideas. Right now, your philosophy looks a lot like my garage that hasn’t been cleaned out in over 25 years. Its contents have not been determined and arranged by rational, logical deliberation as much as by impulsive emotional sentiments. Your lingering attachment to God is in reality just a cherished family heirloom, a perpetuation of the comfort derived in dilemmas from a teddy bear. Worst of all, you take it for granted and are evading the job of actually demonstrating the reconciliation you now merely allege.

    That is to say, you have not faced the fact that belief in God, to claim any real value at all for it, must ultimately constitute an assertion of knowledge of a fact. But it isn’t, it can’t be, you know it, and you admit the shakiness of the ground you pretend to stand on here:

    “That is how I rationalize things for myself. Works for me, may not work for others.”

    Rand was not primarily an atheist, rather only incidentally. Her commitment was to reason as our only access to existence and the absolutism of its nature. It was her objective grasp of the identity of the nature of man that left her no choice but to advocate a politics that protected individual autonomy. It was that same grasp of the nature of existence and how we know it that left her no choice but to reject the endless stream of unsubstantiated assertions of ghosts and gods. She recognized mysticism per se as the ultimate enemy of man’s capacity to survive and thrive as what he is by applying reason to action.

    You cannot embrace the free market that depends entirely on knowledge that precludes the embrace of an otherworldly God. You cannot merge reason and mysticism into a personal system of knowledge. You cannot escape the nature of your capacities, and in that realm, those methods are mutually exclusive. If you opt for reason, you must define your God completely and then supply that definition with the evidence supporting it. If you opt for mysticism, you need to refute Rand’s body of evidence against its efficacy. It is time to clean out your garage!

    ——————

    And from an entirely different perspective, I will pass along my update of Pascal’s Wager:

    Now that Ayn Rand has finally demonstrated the efficacy of Reason to man in the 20th century, a new speculation about God has emerged as a revision of Blaise Pascal’s 17th c. thought that it is safer to “wager” that God does exist than that he doesn’t:

    The existence of God cannot be determined through Reason. Though all men are free to “wager” as though God does exist (just to be on the safe side!), they should take into account that Reason would have to be God’s crowning creation and gift to man. It endows man with the capacity to grasp everything that exists in the universe that God wants man to be able to know and the capacity to use that knowledge to perfect the life God gave him. They should consider also the distinct possibility that God would not want to be known by man, but rather would prefer to observe from afar what men can achieve on their own by means of the capacities with which He endowed them.

    After all, God would not have given man Reason if he did not want man to use it in accordance with its designed function. Furthermore, any rejection of Reason, such as the arbitrary replacement of it by the Satanic anti-capacity of Mysticism to fabricate false ideas of God’s universe, or worst of all, false ideas of the nature or will of God Himself, would most certainly constitute the most damnable sin.

    Thus: man should really need only one commandment: I am the Lord thy God, thou shalt falsify neither other gods before Me, nor the nature of Me Myself nor the nature of My creations.

    Thus: there would be only one mortal sin: the rejection of God’s Reason in favor of Satan’s Mysticism.

    Thus: in the end, Heaven would necessarily be occupied by God and around Him all of the rational atheists who ever existed.

    Thus: all who abused the rational minds God gave them and stubbornly clung with nothing more than Faith to religions that worshipped allegedly revealed gods or other speculations would necessarily reside with Satan in the fires of Hell for eternity.

    Thus: it would perhaps be better not to “wager” on the existence of God after all.

    ——————–

    • Josh Blackman Says:

      MichaelM,
      Thank you for your very thorough and impassioned response. I won’t attempt to respond point-by-point to what you wrote, largely because admittedly, you know much more about Rand’s philosophy than I do. Rather, I would just copy 2 sentences from my initial post that show I probably agree with you on more than you comment lets on.

      “If picking and choosing makes me a hypocrite, so be it. Perhaps a person who believes in God would not have been welcomed into Rand’s inner circle, but fans of liberty can still read Rand’s work, learn from it, and preach the gospel.”

      I’ll concede I’m a hypocrite. I don’t consider myself an objectivist. I like certain aspects of the philosophy. Admittedly, Rand would never welcome me into her clique, and would likely tell me I can’t have my cake and eat it too. But I don’t think I would have wanted to belong in Rand’s circle, because dogmatically clinging to her doctrine just doesn’t fit my beliefs. But I think discouraging anyone but pure believers from discussing Rand hampers the philosophy’s ability to promote and spread. Rand’s resurgence right now is largely by people who accept, a best, a modicum of her beliefs. To call these people out as being inconsistent to Objectivism is ideologically consistent, but perhaps counterproductive.

      In the context of religion, I have a hard time understanding ultra-orthodox Jewish rabbis who reject anyone who does not practice the highest levels of religious dogmas. Similarly I have a hard time if orthodox-Objectivists reject anyone who does not adhere to Rand’s teachings 100%.

  4. MichaelM Says:

    “I’ll concede I’m a hypocrite”…

    … and a stellar example of one at that! Intent on degrading Rand you gather internet hearsay from the legions who cannot distinguish between dogma and truth and accepting it blindly as dogma yourself, you accuse Objectivists of the same fatal error. Having not bothered to check your facts beforehand, you don’t realize that the Objectivist ethics holds intellectual independence to be a primary virtue and condemns all inclinations to blind allegiance to authority whether it be Rand or whoever else.

    Rand’s all-or-nothing-at-all criterion to earning the title “Objectivist” is restricted to one’s qualification for being in agreement with her. But that agreement includes consent to the fact that being consistent with the actual nature of reality is more important than being consistent with her, provided that you are able to cough up the evidence that the two differ and your version is more accurate. Consequently, hurling the accusation that Objectivism is a dogma can only be seen as buffoonery in the eyes of honest minds.

    And while admitting by your self-proclaimed hypocrisy that you lie to yourself is an effective repellant against any of those honest minds intent on sharing their knowledge with you, it cannot protect you from the consequences reality will impose on you for sabotaging your primary means of identifying it and coping with it.


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: