Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Is Orthodox Objectivism a Religion?

As the ARCHNblog runs its lengthy series on Objectivism and religion, regular contributor Neil Parille asks the obvious question:

The claim that Objectivism is a religion goes back to Albert Ellis’s 1968 book Is Objectivism a Religion? Calling Objectivism a religion seems upon first glance quite odd, given its atheism and anti-supernaturalism. At the same time, many critics of Objectivism have noted quite a few “ominous parallels” between Rand’s writings and religion, and between the Objectivist movement and established religious bodies. I’ll review a few here, more in this spirit of provoking conversation than in coming to any definite conclusions. (My reference to Objectivism is limited to those Objectivists associated with Leonard Peikoff’s Ayn Rand Institute.)

1. Rand saw herself as something of a secular prophet. In the first edition of Anthem, published in 1936, she wrote, “I have broken the tables of my brothers, and my own tables do I now write with my own spirit.” Rand’s writing is frequently apocalyptic as well. She begins John Galt’s sermon in Atlas Shrugged with an Old Testament-like rebuke of a sinful world facing judgment. “I am the man who loves his life. I am the man who does not sacrifice his love or his values. I am the man who has deprived you of victims and thus has destroyed your world, and if you wish to know why you are perishing—you who dread knowledge—I am the one who will now tell you . . . .”

2. Orthodox Objectivism has its official canon of scripture. As Harry Binswanger says to those who consider joining his email list:
"It is understood that Objectivism is limited to the philosophic principles expounded by Ayn Rand in the writings published during her lifetime plus those articles by other authors that she published in her own periodicals (e.g., The Objectivist) or included in her anthologies."
Pride of place goes to Atlas Shrugged, which Rand had the unfortunate tendency of quoting as if it were the Bible. Like a pastor using characters from the Bible, Rand and her followers constantly refer to characters in Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead to draw moral lessons.

3. Like religions, Orthodox Objectivism has the tendency to turn disagreements about doctrine into moral issues. For example, Leonard Peikoff once said to Rand,
"You are suffering the fate of a genius trapped in a rotten culture," I would begin. 'My distinctive attribute," she would retort, "is not genius, but intellectual honesty." "That is part of it," I would concede, "but after all I am intellectually honest, too, and it doesn't make me the kind of epochal mind who can write Atlas Shrugged or discover Objectivism." "One can't look at oneself that way," she would answer me. "No one can say: 'Ah me! the genius of the ages.' My perspective as a creator has to be not 'How great I am' but 'How true this idea is and how clear, if only men were honest enough to face the truth.'" So, for understandable reasons, we reached an impasse. She kept hoping to meet an equal; I knew that she never would. For once, I felt, I had the broad historical perspective, the perspective on her, that in the nature of the case she could not have. (Peikoff, "My Thirty Years with Ayn Rand: An Intellectual Memoir," The Objectivist Forum, 1987, pg. 12-13.)
4. As can be seen from the above quote, adulation of the group’s founder is paramount in Orthodox Objectivist circles. In particular, Rand’s sacred name is given great reverence by her followers. Rarely is she referred to as just “Rand.” She may be called “Ayn Rand,” “Miss Rand,” or “AR.” Leonard Peikoff is now commonly called “Leonard Peikoff” and “LP.”

5. Also, like many religious people, Orthodox Objectivists abhor the “backslider,” the person who appears to give assent to the truth but is working behind the scenes to circumvent it. Leonard Peikoff mentions the type of people Rand attracted in the above article:
"They absorbed the surface features of Ayn Rand's intellectual style and viewpoint as though by osmosis and then mimicked them. Often, because she was so open, they knew what she wanted them to say and they said it convincingly. Though uninterested in philosophy and even contemptuous of fundamentals, they could put on an expert act to the contrary, most often an act for themselves first of all. Ayn Rand was not the only person to be taken in by it. I knew most of these people well and, to be fair here, I must admit that I was even more deluded about them than she was."
6. Orthodox Objectivism has its official villains and heretics of the type described by Peikoff. The two most evil figures in this pantheon are, of course, Nathaniel and Barbara Branden. There are lesser fallen angels, such as David Kelley.

7. Orthodox Objectivism has its official church, the Ayn Rand Institute, which proselytizes on behalf of Objectivism. Leonard Peikoff and his small college of cardinals (Harry Binswanger and Peter Schwartz) supervise the movement. Peikoff occasionally speaks ex cathedra, as he did at the time of the Kelley break.
"Now I wish to make a request to any unadmitted anti-Objectivists reading this piece, a request that I make as Ayn Rand's intellectual and legal heir. If you reject the concept of "objectivity" and the necessity of moral judgment, if you sunder fact and value, mind and body, concepts and percepts, if you agree with the Branden or Kelley viewpoint or anything resembling it — please drop out of our movement: drop Ayn Rand, leave Objectivism alone."
Unlike many religions, however, Objectivists are intent on charging high prices for their material, which would seem to run counter to their movement’s aim. Objectivist retreats, called "Objectivist Conferences,” are quite expensive to attend.

8. Those who are associated with the ARI must take care that they do not demonstrate their “worldliness” by fraternizing with Kelleyites and other deviationists.

No member of the Objectivist movement may associate with Kelley’s Atlas Center, for example. While an Objectivist might be permitted to publish in a mainstream philosophical journal (notwithstanding the fact that such journals routinely publish articles devoted to the destruction of man’s mind), no Objectivist may publish in Chris Sciabarra’s Journal of Ayn Rand Studies. No word yet on whether the lapsed may be restored to a state of grace.

9. It is unclear whether Orthodox Objectivism will develop an iconography of its departed saints, but at least one Objectivist artist has done so.

20 comments:

Michael H said...

This post addresses what may have been Rand's fundamental mistake, and one her followers don't seem to recognize.

She was quite right in recognizing the horrors that had been visited on mankind through the corruption of philosophical and religious thought over the centuries. There still appears to be a plethora of people out there who accept what they're told to believe without question, which continues to lead to often tragic consequences.

Rand failed in not looking deeply enough. She clearly saw that the source of man's inhumanity to man was rooted in blind acceptance of terrible ideas. Yet she firmly believed that because she could see that, the natural extension was to accept all of her own ideas as absolute; and she had no trouble adopting some of the worst aspects of the collective mentality she fought against: intolerance, dogmatism, hubris.

In a very real sense she did see herself as a prophet; as the sole arbiter of "truth" for mankind. And as with all prophets, lemmings like Peikoff and her other minions were standing by ready to play the role of disciple. She even had her very own versions of Judas.

It's all kind of tragic, really. I'm sure many others have recognized that while she was tirelessly demanding the rights of the individual be protected, she was also demanding that her followers accept her philosophy as absolute. Is there any individual right more inviolable than the right to think for oneself?

Ayn Rand looked around and said to herself, “Damn. The whole planet’s thinking inside of a bunch of boxes that are totally screwed up.”

Her mistake was in believing that the solution was to provide a new box.

john said...

So which are you pulling for, Neil? That Objectivism is Orthodox Religion or not? On the one hand, this blog has definitely revealed itself as an apologist for theism, or religion, or something, and one would think you'd be delighted to having proved Objectivism is such. On the other, this blog continues to attempt to slam "radical atheist" Ayn Rand.

What do you believe in?

John Donohue

john said...

michael,

Ayn Rand is dead. She has been dead for over 25 years. Do you think she is bullying and coercing people, like Hitler, into loving her books from the grave?

Further, the case you and Neil are positing here is so minute, so insignificant, so wrong a picture of the reality of those who agree with Objectivism on personal radical conviction, that you both look foolish.

One hundred years from now, when Rand is far more famous and important than today (and the authors of this blog KNOW that will be the case, and fear it) it will not because of this miserable trumped up imaginary cultism or quasi-religious orthodoxy.

It will be because her thought is indeed consonant with human nature.

John Donohue

Dragonfly said...

You could call Objectivism a secular religion. This might seem an oxymoron, but Rand herself uses the term religious in this sense ("'You’re a profoundly religious man, Mr. Roark--in your own way") and from her writings it's clear that her world view was in every aspect religious, except one: instead of a supernatural God she chose "man" as her god. One of her arguments for being an atheist was that the concept of God is insulting and degrading to man, it implies that the highest possible is not to be reached by man, that he is an inferior being who can only worship an ideal he will never achieve.

Therefore she replaced the traditional God with her own god, Man. Like the traditional religious view this god was not te be questioned, it was a metaphysical given. This is also consistent with her equivocal stance on evolution. She no doubt abhorred the creationist arguments, but evolution was probably not an alternative she liked, it made man a little less god-like. So while Objectivism may not be a religion in the strict sense, it could be called a religion in a wider sense that Rand herself indicated by her own use of the term "religious".

Damien said...

Daniel Barnes,

Many have wondered including myself what would happen to religion if we ever made contact with intelligent technologically advanced alien life form. One group some skeptic seem particularly curious about are Christian Fundamentalists.

However, I wonder what effect it would have on objectivists or objectivism if the extraterrestrials had any fundamental disagreement with their way of thinking. What if the alien creatures turned out to be altruists or mystics or something else that would contradict objectivism? I wonder how your average orthodox objectivist would deal with that, especially if the space faring aliens species turned out to be peaceful and civilized.

Michael H said...

It will be because her thought is indeed consonant with human nature.

Some of her thoughts were consonant with human nature, while some of her thoughts were in direct conflict with human nature.

I'm of the opinion that everyone has the right to entertain whatever thoughts they have about reality - until such time they conclude that their ideas give them the right to violate someone else's right to do the same. This is the lesson the Western religions are yet to learn.

Those who find some satisfaction in adopting the box Rand provided for them are free to do so, as they are also free to await the Randian utopian vision of "Galt's Gulch" becoming manifest on earth.

I'd suggest that her utopia will never arrive, nor will the Christian's vision of the "Kingdom of God", nor will the Islamic vision of an earth ruled by Sharia Law.

Nor will any other, until humanity understands that it is belief itself, in all its various forms, that keeps utopia at bay. And if and when that understanding arrives, the ideas that Rand advocated that are consonant with human nature will be commonly accepted - not becuase she advocated them, but because they will be obvious to everyone.

Finally, and speaking solely for myself, if anyone interprets anything I may write as apologetic for theism or religion, they haven't understood a single thing I'm attempting to communicate.

One area that I happen to agree quite strongly with Rand is that one of the worst things an individual can do is sign over their own minds to someone else's interpretation of truth. What she wouldn't understand is that the statement applies to Objectivism as well.

Dusty Rose said...

I believe a clear distinction has to be made between Ayn Rand and her self-appointed intellectual heirs. I don't care much about the later, but I am still a critical admirer of Ayn Rand.

Yes, both CRITICAL and an ADMIRER. I believe that anyone who undertakes to explore the world of Ayn Rand ideas has to do the fine job of separating wheat from chaff. There is a lot of chaff in it, it's true, and this blog does a superb job of pointing it out. But please, don't overlook that there is plenty of wheat in Ayn Rand's books as well...

Jay said...

"It appears that Objectivism has quite a bit in common with a religious movement. Rand saw herself as "giving people a new faith -- a positive, clear, consistent system of belief" (Rand 1995, 54). Some people believe Objectivism. Some people feel themselves converted to Objectivism, which is why new Objectivist acquaintances always ask each other "How did you find out about Ayn Rand?" The reason for this fascination is that "conversion day" is your true birthday: the day you become an Objectivist. Nothing that came before truly matters. Once you are converted, you feel compelled to remake yourself in "the image of your values" (i.e., your newly-acquired philosophy) and cast off all that you were before.

Yet what you need is not to be handed a new faith, but to seek and find wisdom and to integrate your ideas with your experiences and your inherent nature, both on your own and in cooperation with valued others. And by integration I do not mean that everything you are shall be subsumed under the rubric of Objectivism."

"Objectivism - Who Needs it?"

Jay said...

As an aside, I don't really consider myself an Objectivist anymore. There was no one day or event when I realized it. In fact, I couldn't really sum up why until I read this quote from another former Objectivist:

"Any philosophy is just such a ladder. Once you are able to see the world aright and with your own eyes, it is time to let go of the ladder. I myself have let go of Rand's ladder, and no longer consider myself an Objectivist. At the same time, I recognize that Objectivism (properly understood) is a powerful tool for living a full human life; for understanding, choosing, achieving, and feeling; for attaining objectivity, self-direction, creative achievement, and deep enjoyment. It is a powerful tool, but a tool nonetheless.

The true meaning of individualism is not to identify yourself with the label of Objectivist, or with any other label. It is not to perceive yourself as fighting any cultural or philosophical wars. It is to live your own life. Labels are important if you need to keep track of which batallion you're in: you need a banner to march under, colors to fly, a distinctive phrase on the battle horn to inspire you.

But I'm not fighting wars, running races, or supporting movements. I am living my own life -- and I find it eminently more worth my precious time to live and create than to argue and fight."


Much in that same spirit, I find myself more eager about going to parties, traveling, and reading books on new subjects than constantly asking whether I've been a good Objectivist today. That's what religious people do, not what I want to do.

gregnyquist said...

John: "On the one hand, this blog has definitely revealed itself as an apologist for theism, or religion, or something, and one would think you'd be delighted to having proved Objectivism is such."

In issues like this, it is always important to make distinctions. The term religion is a very wide abstraction, particularly when applied to a secular belief system like Objectivism. Under this concept there are both good and bad elements, good and bad religions, just like under the concept men there are both good and bad men. The only point I have been trying to make is that some forms of religion, if given a cost-benefit analysis, have more benefits than costs when practiced by specific types of people. This does not mean that the religion in question would have more positive than negative effects with all people in all circumstances, but only with some people in some circumstances. In short, it's a far more nuanced position than Objectivism presents; for while Objectivism recognizes that religions may have positive effects, it insists that the negative effects always outweigh the positive for all people in all circumstances.

Now since not all religions are created equal, it therefore does not follow that, were Objectivism a religion, this would be a good thing. It would depend whether Objectivism was a good or bad religion. Now generally speaking, secular religions don't make good religions. If a person must be religious, it's preferable that they adopt a long-standing traditional religion within their culture and society, because at least those religions with a long track record have proven some measure of usefulness throughout history within one's social order and culture. A religion that is entirely pernicious would likely have been selected out through social evolution. Secular religions, however, are all fairly new and have therefore not been subjected either to societal selection or to interior evolutionary development. They are, consequently, much less useful, and often even harmful, in their overall affect on individuals and society.

gregnyquist said...

John: "One hundred years from now, when Rand is far more famous and important than today (and the authors of this blog KNOW that will be the case, and fear it) it will not because of this miserable trumped up imaginary cultism or quasi-religious orthodoxy."

I'm always amazed when apologists for some religion or ideology presume to be able to read other people's minds. The authors of this blog know that Rand will be far more famous and important 100 years from now! I always assumed, no naive I am, that in order to know something, one had to, at the very least, be aware one knew it. If I really do know that Rand will be more important in a hundred years, I'm not aware I know it. Indeed, I am aware of knowing many profound reasons why Rand is not going to be more important 100 years from now. Our industrial civilization is facing numerous threats, from peak-oil to over-population, from the rise in power of the Eastern axis (Russia and China) to the mass proliferation of WMDs. Some day terrorists are going to get their hands on WMDs, and that's going to change all the rules. The day that happens, the extreme form of individualism preached by Rand will appeal to far fewer people than it does even today. Rand has no answers to the issues and problems that are going to face us in the next 100 years. Her works will likely be seen as entirely irrelevant.

Personally, I don't look forward to these disturbing developments; indeed, nothing would please me more than to be wrong about them. As for Rand and her reputation, If it were up to me, I'd like to see Rand maintain at least some sembelance of a reputation, so that criticism of her philosophy can remain relevant. Do I fear that her importance and reputation will increase? Not in the least. It strikes me as so grossly implausible that it would be foolish to concern myself with it. But if (per impossible) she was more important 100 years from now, so what? I suspect that many people 100 years from now will believe in imaginary and fatuous ideals. If some of those imaginary and fatuous ideals happen to be inspired by Rand, rather than by some other ideology or religion, what of it? There is always going to be people believing in the non-rational. One merely hopes that they can get some utility out of it and they won't be worse off for their lack of discernment.

Damien said...

Greg,

I have to agree with you. Its hard to predict where a belief system like Objectivism will be a hundred years from now. Even if, some how it became more popular and wide spread over the next hundred years, a hundred year after that, it could be in decline.

Michael Prescott said...

One hundred years from now, when Rand is far more famous and important than today

One way to assess this prediction is to ask whether Rand is more popular today than she was in the past. In other words, is her popularity increasing? I would argue that it is not. Her peak of popularity and influence seems to have been the late 1960s, when NBI was attracting many eager young students and Rand herself was a prominent cultural critic, making appearances on the Tonight Show and on college campuses.

Her influence seems to have begun its decline in the 1970s, after the breakup of NBI, as ill health forced her into relative seclusion. Other than her annual forays to the Ford Hall Forum and a couple of appearances on Donahue, she became largely invisible to the public eye.

There was a brief resurgence of interest in Objectivism during the 1980s, partly because of the pro-business atmosphere of that era, and partly because a few members of the Reagan administration looked to her as a mentor or an inspiration. But since 1989 Objectivism has not figured prominently in the news or in cultural affairs, and does not appear to have gained ground. If anything, it has lost some ground, although it does reportedly have a following among some business executives, especially in the high-tech field, and it certainly occupies a niche on the Internet.

Overall, if I were to ask my Magic Eight-Ball whether Objectivism will continue to decline in popularity in years to come, I think it would answer: "All signs point to Yes!"

Michael Sutcliffe said...

Is Orthodox Objectivism a Religion.

If this is taken in the context of 'closed-system' objectivism, then yes it is. Unlike most religions though, at least it started from a solid rational and empirical basis before it was corrupted!

Damien said...

Michael Sutcliffe,

How was Objectivism corrupted? In what way did it change that made it worse than it used to be? Saying such a thing implies that you think Objectivism was pure, or at least purer at one time than today.

Michael Sutcliffe said...

Damien: How was Objectivism corrupted? In what way did it change that made it worse than it used to be? Saying such a thing implies that you think Objectivism was pure, or at least purer at one time than today.

I was referring to the conflict between open-system objectivists and closed-system objectivists. I don't claim to be aware of all the particulars of this argument, but I am firmly in the open-system camp. I believe objectivism is simply knowledge, and as we progress our understanding we will further explain and develop this knowledge. This is in no way undermines what has previously been proven to be correct, as the old chestnut goes, quantum mechanics does not undermine the relevance of Newtonian mechanics.

The strength of objectivism is that it invites criticism. It's right partially because it will stand any test you throw at it. I think that sometimes closed-system objectivists forget this, claiming objectivism is beyond reproach. Well, it essentially is, but we don't know that unless we test the hell out of it - or at least if we have proven it by logic then we should be willing to test the hell out of it if we are being honest with ourselves that we have proven it beyond all doubt. It's this lack of willingness by some objectivists to throw objectivism into the bloody arena to fight for its life that I think is corrupt and makes objectivism an act of faith like religion. We should be willing to do this and throw our reputations in there with it!

Anonymous said...

You blame the ARI of running out of ideas. This blog actually writing a blog post about Objectivism being any kind of religion shows you are very VERY much out of things to slander Ayn Rand and Objectivist. Which i may add you are doing a horrible job. None of your post actually prove anything. Its all slander and spite. Nothing more...jealouse are we? Furthermore...really? you actually dedicated this much time to slander Ayn Rand? Also the ratings for the book on Amazon are not doing well. :) just thought i would inform you. Most books slandering Ayn Rand fail miserably.

Daniel Barnes said...

Hi Yet Another Anonymous Objectivist,

Glad you're enjoying the site, keep those intelligent and informed comments coming.

Anon69 said...

Michael Sutcliffe said...

>>The strength of objectivism is that it invites criticism. It's right partially because it will stand any test you throw at it. I think that sometimes closed-system objectivists forget this, claiming objectivism is beyond reproach. Well, it essentially is, but we don't know that unless we test the hell out of it - or at least if we have proven it by logic then we should be willing to test the hell out of it if we are being honest with ourselves that we have proven it beyond all doubt. It's this lack of willingness by some objectivists to throw objectivism into the bloody arena to fight for its life that I think is corrupt and makes objectivism an act of faith like religion. We should be willing to do this and throw our reputations in there with it!
<<



Since the ARCHN book was mentioned, I'll put in a plug, because it is hands-down the best refutation of Objectivism I've seen. The idea that Objectivism should be subjected to rigorous criticism is correct; rather than showing that Objectivism "stands any test" however, ARCHN levels it thoroughly and systematically. Ayn Rand was not only wrong about human nature, she deplored real human nature in favor of her "ideal man", and began a philosophy suitable to how human life "might be and ought to be" but isn't and is unlikely ever to be. The summary statement says it all: Objectivism was a mistake. ARCHN should be required reading for Objectivists. The Kindle version is a special bargain. I enjoyed it much -- thank you.

Daniel Barnes said...

Anon69, my sentiments exactly. Greg, once again: well done.