The very title of this essay will no doubt provoke much hostility within the atheist community, owing to the fact that most freethinkers tend to be liberals and vote democratic. Since Ayn Rand’s political views lean somewhat toward the right, most tend to view her with hostility. Because of this, few have bothered to read her and dismiss her philosophy of Objectivism without even knowing anything about it. This is a classic case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater for Rand’s philosophy provides atheists and other freethinkers with an arsenal of information that can be used to devastating effect against believers. It is also a blueprint for using reason to change society. In this article, I will examine her views on religion, and how they fit in with her overall philosophy. I will not delve into her political and artistic views; interested readers are encouraged to look to her voluminous works for more detailed information on these matters.
Rand (1905-1982) was an atheist. That much is clear from even the most cursory examination of her work. She was born in Russia during the reign of the last czar and saw how miserable the country was, due to its collectivism and merging of church and state. Russia was one of the most heavily mystical countries in the world and also one of the poorest and most backward. One did not need to be a child prodigy as Rand was to see the connection between religion and the oppression of the downtrodden.
Moving to the United States in 1926, she soon began her writing career. Best known for her novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, Rand was an outspoken advocate of reason and an opponent of force in any form other than in self-defense. She also detested statism, whether manifested in fascism or communism. The basis of her philosophy was the use of reason in all matters. One should never, according to Rand, accept any idea on faith. Her works go into considerable detail on how reason is a virtue while faith constitutes the gravest of vices.
Among her close coterie of friends in the early days of her success was Nathaniel Branden, known as the father of the self-esteem movement. Regarding self-esteem, a quote from Branden is appropriate here: “There is overwhelming evidence that the higher the level of self-esteem, the more likely one will be to treat others with respect, kindness, and generosity.” Branden (1930-2014) produced a series of records in the late 1960s called “Nathaniel Branden Lectures on the Basic Principles of Objectivism.” He begins by introducing two basic words, something and nothing. Anything that exists is something and can be perceived by the senses; the brain then interprets the information given by the senses. This is the basic concept of existence, one which believers will never accept; they want to posit the existence of another realm “beyond” the senses. But this is a contradiction in terms; if a believer thinks that something exists beyond the senses, they are making an extraordinary claim, and extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.
Rand rightly notes that there is a fundamental difference in how believers and non-believers view the universe. She refers to the “malevolent universe premise” by which she means that believers think we humans, by our very nature, view ourselves as helpless and depraved, and that disaster and death await us all and that the only way out of this abyss is to believe in a supernatural power that will “save” us from the misery of our existence. They posit the existence of a supernatural realm governed by a deity who will give us eternal life and eternal happiness. Rand is diametrically opposed to this, noting that life is to be enjoyed in the here and now and that the idea of self-abasement, degrading oneself in prayer and throwing one’s life away in imagined subservience to God and Jesus is to throw away all the values that make life worth living.
Rand elaborates on the malevolent universe premise by noting that every age in which mysticism dominated, such as the Christian Dark Ages, was a period of stagnation, starvation, poverty, paranoia, and general misery. This is not surprising; when one views life as inconsequential and of value only as a stepping stone to an alleged higher reality, one will not be inclined to view anything in this life as of value. When one surrenders his/her intellect to any form of authority, be it a bible, a priest, or a dictator, a miserable existence is the inevitable result. If history has taught us anything, it is this.
An extension of this idea is the fact that any deviation from the view that reality is a firm and fixed absolute will invariably undercut one’s confidence in being able to deal with the existential world. The person of faith is a person who wants to trade reality for a false sense of security in a world they are not comfortable living in. Rand notes that we humans are obviously not omniscient, but that surrendering our error-prone intelligence to others is not only an act of intellectual suicide and treason to our consciousness, but the first step in becoming a totally fanatical follower for any dictator or irrational cause. People who recognize their own self worth are generally not those who fill our prisons.
But what of god? Rand first points out that contradictions cannot exist in reality, and then proceeds to discuss the contradictions (and immorality) of belief in a god. The first is that believers will invariably insist that god is unknowable, and then insist that they “know” he exists. But by what means? Certainly not by logic; the definitions and alleged proofs for a god’s existence are contradictory and nonsensical. Instead, believers will insist that there is some other “higher” reality, unobtainable through reason, that they have somehow gained access to. They then insist that people accept this as an act of faith. But faith is nothing more than a strong desire to believe in something that cannot be objectively proven. However, subjective wishes and whims do not prove existential reality. When pressed to give a definition/description of their deity, or to define their faith, mystics and their followers become conveniently evasive and resort to negative theology: god is not like humans, he is not physical, a soul is not part of our body, heaven and hell cannot be physically located, and so on. However, if a god can only be described by negation, how is that any different from not existing at all? Believers can only shrug their shoulders and retreat back into their imagination—and insist that we “just believe.”
With regard to a god’s existence Rand refers to Aristotle’s famous Law of Identity which states that A is A; a thing is what it is and cannot be anything else at the same time and in the same way. For example, a table cannot be a cloud formation. To accept belief in a god, one must reject the law of Identity. But to reject the law of Identity is to reject one’s grasp of reality.
Going back to the concepts of something/nothing, or of existence/non-existence, Rand totally destroys the god idea by noting that if nothing existed, there could be no consciousness, and that the idea of a consciousness (god) existing without there being something to be conscious of (the universe) is contradictory. The existence of a consciousness (god) only conscious of itself is also self-contradictory, because before it could identify itself, it first had to be aware, and to be aware means to be aware of something. So god cannot be said to have existed “prior” to the creation of the universe.
At the heart of all religious systems is mysticism. A mystic is a dictator-in-wait. Mystics offer statements that cannot be rationally proved, but must be accepted on faith. A mystic claims to possess some kind of sixth “sense” denied to everyone else, but this extra sense consists of denying the validity of the other five. Since our five real senses only give us evidence of the material world, materialism becomes the enemy, as does reason, intelligence, and productivity. The mystic demands self-sacrifice, and the surrender of our reason and consciousness to his. The mystic’s world is the world of non-existence, perversely portrayed as a “higher” existence; it is the claim that something is true not by logical means or empirical demonstration, but rather by anti-rational, non-definable, subjective means. The world of the mystic is a world where subjective wishes and desires, intuition, interpretations, and revelations constitute reality. A mystic wants others to accept his notions of reality and to follow him and believe everything he says, thus elevating him to a position of importance in society. Mystics promote their false views of reality as being absolute and not to be questioned. The desire to control others is of paramount importance: it gives the mystic/dictator a false sense of self-esteem and, as his influence and power spreads, allows him to build his own little world in which his word becomes THE WORD. Rand beautifully states this as follows: “power-lust is a weed that grows only in the vacant lot of an abandoned mind.”
In addition, there is always a perceived enemy that must be vanquished in order for the mystic/dictator’s imaginary world to come into being. For Christianity, the enemy is the devil. For Nazis, it was the Jews, and for Communists, it was the kulaks. For today’s Christian fundamentalists, it is the liberals, Humanists and atheists. In all cases, the conflict is always portrayed in terms of war. The perceived “enemy” is always portrayed in the blackest terms, and his utter destruction is necessary in order for the mystic’s version of “righteousness” to be victorious.
What this boils down to is a recognition of the difference between good and evil. Rand notes that the fundamental standard of value, the one standard from which all our other values derive, is life. Without life, there can be no other values.
Humans are different from other life forms in that our survival depends on the correct use of our reason. Therefore, to abandon our reason and to accept something on faith is a profoundly immoral and evil act. So when a mystic insists that we not question him and “just believe,” he is asking that we commit an evil act. The death camps of the Second World War and all its concomitant moral abominations came about when people abandoned their reason (their morality) and accepted a dictator’s word on faith. No good can come of a compromise with evil; the appeasement of the allied nations prior to the outbreak of that war are proof of that. Rand notes that deliberately evil men are few and powerless; it is the appeasers who invite them to take over. This point seems to be lost on present day politicians of both parties who bend over backwards to appease the fanatics of the Radical Religious Right; not a single politician in present-day America would dare to call the RRR immoral and evil. Rand, toward the end of her life, recognized this alarming trend toward religious and economic statism and as a consequence refused to be affiliated with either political party. She noted that the trend is moving toward a fascist government that utilizes communistic-style slogans. This is even more true today than during her life, although many spokespersons for the RRR are making statements that sound more and more fascistic. When people are rational, freedom rules. When they are irrational or anti-rational, dictatorships result. Rand was prescient in her recognition of the fact that America is turning away, step by step, from the ideas promulgated by the founding fathers of this country. She noted that “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” depended on individual freedom, and freedom is something that every autonomous individual possesses, independent of government intervention. That is why today’s Republican theocrats are such a danger to our civil liberties. Rand would be appalled by what passes for conservatism today: increasingly, our civil liberties are being attacked and destroyed as the Religious Right enjoys more and more success in enacting legislation that favors their medieval mindset.
Rand traces much of this to the immoral injunctions of the Bible. “Judge not lest ye be judged” stands as one of the most supremely immoral ideas ever advanced. This idea tells us that we should not judge anyone by their actions; it is thus carte blanche for any dictator that comes along. It goes without saying that a dictator will never hesitate to judge anyone he perceives to be an enemy. Rand offers much better moral advice: Judge and be prepared to be judged by others.
One of the best examples of how the Bible perverts human values is seen in Rand’s interpretation of the Garden of Eden myth. To believers, Adam and Eve lived in a perfect world until Eve ate from the tree of knowledge—in other words, humans acquired reason. As a consequence, humans discovered the difference between good and evil—they became moral beings. They had to learn how to survive on their own—they became productive beings. All the real values of human beings: reason, morality, and productivity, are condemned in this one myth. Rand concludes by noting that whatever they were in that previous world, a world without these virtues, they were not human. So biblical morality condemns humans—for being human. In her discussion of this myth, Rand proves unequivocally that human’s basic virtue is not faith, but reason.
Rand also noted, and her followers have elaborated on, how an actual proof of the existence of god would be fatal to religion: it is not proof that believers want; it is the freedom to indulge in fantasy—and to control others. Proof of a god’s existence would mean that god is finite and perceptible. Believers would soon reject this god and re-invent another invisible, non-sensory, and non-rational deity. It isn’t reason that drives religion, it is faith, and faith entails the undercutting of our minds and our reasoning faculty.
It is unfortunate that so many atheists are unfamiliar with Rand’s work and dismiss her and her philosophy as being “right-wing.” By doing so, they are putting themselves in the same category as the religious person who refuses to read anything that contradicts his faith. Sadly, these atheists are the real losers, for they have unwittingly divorced themselves from one of the real heroes of free thought. Whatever one chooses to think of Rand’s political and economic ideas, rejecting her in toto is incomprehensible to people who proclaim themselves to be freethinkers. More than any other philosopher, Rand distinguishes the moral differences between faith and reason. Atheists cannot afford to ignore her. Neither can society in general.
- The Ayn Rand Lexicon. Published 1998 by the Penguin Group.
- For the New Intellectual. Copyright 1961 by Ayn Rand. Published by the Penguin Group.
- Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. By Leonard Peikoff. Published 1993 by the Penguin Group.