Monday, December 01, 2008

Objectivism & Religion: Three Common Fallacies

Guest commenter Neil Parille finds that some of the classic Objectivist talking points on religion are in fact simple misunderstandings:

Ayn Rand and her followers have a bee in their bonnet when it comes to religion. In particular, contemporary Objectivists often fret about the influence on the Religious Right on politics. It doesn’t appear, however, that they have spent much time studying the topic of religion because the same old chestnuts keep popping up again and again. Here I’ll discuss a couple quotes that appear frequently in Objectivist literature and an additional claim made by Leonard Peikoff.

“Judge Not, That You Be Not Judged”

This is from Matthew 7:1 and is part of Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount. It first entered the Objectivist lexicon with Rand herself:

“The precept: ‘Judge not, that ye be not judged’ . . . is an abdication of moral responsibility: it is a moral blank check one gives to others in exchange for a moral blank check one expects for oneself.”

It is mentioned most recently in Andrew Bernstein’s just published Objectivism in One Lesson.

The full quote (KJV) is:
“(1) Judge not, that ye be not judged. (2) For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.”
Objectivists, proud of Rand’s moralism, see in Christianity a precursor to the non-judgmentalism present in the post-modern world. (Objectivism must be one of the few philosophies in history which finds Christianity insufficiently judgmental.)

But does Jesus prohibit judging? This appears unlikely, if for no other reason than that Jesus was quite judgmental and judging is a part of life. A couple standard commentaries might help. According to Craig Keener (A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, pp. 240-41):

“As noted above, the issue is not failure to discern, but hypocrisy in judging others for one’s own faults. Later rabbis declared that one should ‘remove [one’s] own blemish first,’ giving the example of a rabbi who deferred a case to correct his own behavior before he ruled that another must do the same. Greek and Roman sages offered similar wisdom: for example, one must solve one’s own problems, and only then in turn to criticize others accurately; we see others’ faults more quickly than our own. Likewise, ‘Practice nothing in your deeds for which you condemn other in your words’ which seems to have become part of the common moral wisdom.” (Citations omitted.)

Donald Hagner (Matthew 1-13, p. 169) agrees: “[T]he way one judges others will be the way one is judged by God . . . .”

Rand says that, in judging, one must “possess an unimpeachable character,” so perhaps Rand is saying something similar to Jesus and the ancients.

“I Believe It Because It is Absurd”

This is another chestnut appearing in, among other places, Leonard Peikoff’s Religion Versus America.

“What if a dogma cannot be clarified? So much the better, answered an earlier Church father, Tertullian. The truly religious man, he said, delights in thwarting his reason; that shows his commitment to faith. Thus, Tertullian's famous answer, when asked about the dogma of God's self-sacrifice on the cross: ‘Credo quia absurdum’ (‘I believe it because it is absurd’).”

Tertullian didn’t say “credo quia absurdum.” (Peikoff is not the most accurate of intellectual historians.) As one writer puts it:

“Credo quia absurdum is, of course, a misquote. Tertullian's words are credibile est, quia ineptum est (De carne Christi 5.4). The difference between the imputed and actual words is striking and important. James Moffatt in a sadly neglected article of a half-century agodiscovered the clue to the interpretation of the words in observing that here Tertullian ‘follows in the footsteps of that cool philosopher Aristotle.’ In Rhetoric 2.23.22 Aristotle shows that an argument from probability can be drawn from the sheer improbability of a story: some stories are so improbable that it is reasonable to believe them. On this view, the words presuppose a tidy correlation between faith and reason, and a consideration of Tertullian's aims in the treatise in which they are found supports this interpretation.”
“Tertullian recognizes, however, that in spite of its distortions, pagan philosophy has often enjoyed glimpses of the truth. In recalling his quotable strictures against philosophy, we must not forget his equally quotable Seneca saepe noster (De anima 20.1). In the Ad nationes, an early work, Socrates becomes a forerunner of the Christian martyrs, because he suffered, as they suffer, on behalf of the truth at the hands of those ignorant of it (1.4.6-7). If there is a change of tone in the more artful Apologeticum, Tertullian still grants that Socrates aliquid de veritate sapiebat deos negans (46.5). “

Those Secular Greeks

Leonard Peikoff, again in Religion Versus America, makes the following claim:

“Ancient Greece was not a religious civilization, not on any of the counts I mentioned. The Gods of Mount Olympus were like a race of elder brothers to man, mischievous brothers with rather limited powers; they were closer to Steven Spielberg's extra-terrestrial visitor than to anything we would call ‘God.’ They did not create the universe or shape its laws or leave any message of revelations or demand a life of sacrifice. Nor were they taken very seriously by the leading voices of culture, such as Plato and Aristotle. From start to finish, the Greek thinkers recognized no sacred texts, no infallible priesthood and no intellectual authority beyond the human mind; they allowed no room for faith. Epistemologically, most were staunch individualists who expected each man to grasp the truth by his own powers of sensory observation and logical thought. For detail, I refer you to Aristotle, the preeminent representative of the Greek spirit.”

Even though Peikoff qualifies his statement somewhat, it is still more than a little misleading. As a leading scholar of ancient Greek religion put it:

“The paradox is that, although Greek religion seems to lack so many of the things which characterize modern religions and which require degrees of personal commitment and faith from their followers, Greeks were involved with religion to a degree which is very hard nowadays to understand. . . . The Greek household had its shrine to Hestia or to Zeus Ktesios . . . . At a meal a libation or drink-offering to the gods was an automatic custom . . . . The great landmarks of human life – birth, coming of age, marriage and death – were all marked by rituals with religious significance. . . . it is against this background of a way of life interpenetrated by an enormous variety of religious ritual, practice and belief . . . that the questioning of religion was seen as a dangerous threat.” (J.V. Muir, “Religion and the New Education” in P.E. Easterling and J.V. Muir, Greek Religion and Society, pp. 194-95.)

Even the supposedly enlightened Athenians consulted the oracle at the shrine dedicated to Apollo at Delphi and made military decisions based on what they were told.

14 comments:

Red Grant said...

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“Judge Not, That You Be Not Judged”

This is from Matthew 7:1 and is part of Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount. It first entered the Objectivist lexicon with Rand herself:

“The precept: ‘Judge not, that ye be not judged’ . . . is an abdication of moral responsibility: it is a moral blank check one gives to others in exchange for a moral blank check one expects for oneself.”

It is mentioned most recently in Andrew Bernstein’s just published Objectivism in One Lesson.

The full quote (KJV) is:
“(1) Judge not, that ye be not judged. (2) For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.”
Objectivists, proud of Rand’s moralism, see in Christianity a precursor to the non-judgmentalism present in the post-modern world. (Objectivism must be one of the few philosophies in history which finds Christianity insufficiently judgmental.)

But does Jesus prohibit judging? This appears unlikely, if for no other reason than that Jesus was quite judgmental and judging is a part of life. A couple standard commentaries might help. According to Craig Keener (A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, pp. 240-41):

“As noted above, the issue is not failure to discern, but

hypocrisy in judging others

for one’s own faults. Later rabbis declared that one should ‘remove [one’s] own blemish first,’ giving the example of a rabbi who deferred a case to correct his own behavior before he ruled that another must do the same. Greek and Roman sages offered similar wisdom: for example, one must solve one’s own problems, and only then in turn to criticize others accurately; we see others’ faults more quickly than our own. Likewise, ‘Practice nothing in your deeds for which you condemn other in your words’ which seems to have become part of the common moral wisdom.” (Citations omitted.)

Donald Hagner (Matthew 1-13, p. 169) agrees: “[T]he way one judges others will be the way one is judged by God . . . .”
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Indeed.

Do you think above point should apply to those so-called "Christian fundamentalist" preachers and their minions as well?


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(Peikoff is not the most accurate of intellectual historians.) - Daniel
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Perhaps a charlatan is the more appropriate description of Peikoff just like those "Christian fundamentalist" preachers and their minions?

Michael Prescott said...

Excellent post, Neil.

E.R. Dodds' classic text The Greeks and the Irrational provides additional evidence that ancient Greek society was highly religious and (gasp) mystical.

I wonder why Peikoff regards Plato and Aristotle as leaders of ancient Greek culture. Plato was a student of Socrates, who was put to death by Athens. Aristotle flourished after the heyday of Greek democracy, when Macedonia had conquered Greece. Neither was especially influential in his own day. The mystery religions (notably the Eleusinian Mysteries)were of far greater significance, and Peikoff would presumably regard them as dangerous mumbo-jumbo.

Peikoff also makes an elementary mistake when he assumes that because Plato did not take the Greek pantheon too seriously, he therefore "allowed no room for faith." It would be more correct to say that Plato, as a mystic, believed that the gods were simplistic attempts at anthropomorphizing the ineffable. He did not dismiss the pantheon because he lacked "faith," but because his faith was more in line with the "perennial philosophy" - which, possibly, he may have imbibed while visiting Egypt. (Strabo says that while visiting that country he was told of Plato's lengthy sojourn there.)

Tenure said...

Where did Ayn Rand or Peikoff say that Greek culture was only rational, or that Aristotle and Plato were /leaders/ of Greek culture?

Michael Prescott said...

Where did Ayn Rand or Peikoff say that Greek culture was only rational, or that Aristotle and Plato were /leaders/ of Greek culture?

It helps to read the original post. Quoting Peikoff:

"Nor were they taken very seriously by the leading voices of culture, such as Plato and Aristotle. From start to finish, the Greek thinkers recognized no sacred texts, no infallible priesthood and no intellectual authority beyond the human mind; they allowed no room for faith."

Damien said...

Michael Prescott,

When Peikoff said that, he was either incredibly ignorant, or guilty of wishful thinking or both. Objectivism as a philosophy looks down on religion so much, that to admit that one of cultures it admires was religious, would make it hard for them to look up to them. Because, It means that it wasn't the "Utopia of reason," they would have liked it to be.

Neil Parille said...

Michael,

You make good points.

BTW, isn't this interesting from LP: "For detail, I refer you to Aristotle, the preeminent representative of the Greek spirit."

Even if Aristotle were a secularist or even an Objectivist, how would that make his point? Why does that make him the "representative of Greek spirit" when you have "religionists" such as Homer, Herodotus, Aescyhlus, Plato, etc.?

Jason Sieckmann said...

Someone give me a list of their top ten fave philosophy books. There are smarties here and I need to make an x-mas list.

I'm serious, btw.

Red Grant said...

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When Peikoff said that, he was either incredibly ignorant, or guilty of wishful thinking or both. - Damien
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Indeed.




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Jason Sieckmann said...

I find it ironic that, looking back, Peikoff or even Rand could have admiration for an entire civilization; as opposed to merely using individuals as examples.

To admire one society over another is one thing; but they never seem to directly state that (though on occasion, the USSR versus the USA.)

Aren't the ancient Greeks a collective? Isn't Objectivism counter-collectivist? What made the Greeks successful for their days seems to lie in their practices of constant warfare and innovation THROUGH warfare; and their use of religious imperialism to take in conquered enemies.

That is...of course until they ceased to perpetuate themselves; and the Romans did it for them. If anything, Rome did more perpetuating of Greek philosophy and culture than the Greeks ever did.

Red Grant said...

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Aren't the ancient Greeks a collective? Isn't Objectivism counter-collectivist? What made the Greeks successful for their days seems to lie in their practices of constant warfare and innovation THROUGH warfare; and their use of religious imperialism to take in conquered enemies.

That is...of course until they ceased to perpetuate themselves; and the Romans did it for them. If anything, Rome did more perpetuating of Greek philosophy and culture than the Greeks ever did. - Jason
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Indeed.

Damien said...

Jason Sieckmann,
Red Grant,

But in defense of Rand's view of the Greeks, couldn't it be argued that in someways the Greeks were a rather individualistic in way (other than Sparta)? According to my old collage history text, "Western Civilizations, volume1" by Perry, Chase, et tal,

"unlike the Spartans, they valued political freedom and sought the full development and enrichment of the human personality. Thus while authoritarian Sparta become culturally sterile, Athens, with its relatively free and open society, emerged as the cultural leader of Hellenic civilization." (page 57)

The book also talks about an Athenian man named Solon, who helped created a more just society. Solon lived from about 640 to 559 BC.

"Solon aimed at restoring a sick Athenian society to health by restraining the nobles and improving the lot of the poor. To achieve this goal, he canceled debts, freed Athenians enslaved for debt, and brought back to Athens those who had been sold abroad; however, he refused to confiscate and redistribute the nobles' land as the extremists demanded." (Objectivists, hate any type of state sponsored wealth redistribution, and I generally don't support it either.) "He permitted all classes of free men, even the poorest to sit in the Assembly, which elected magistrates and accepted or rejected legislation proposed by a new Council of Four Hundred. He also opened the highest offices in the state to wealthy commoners, who had previously been excluded from these positions because they lacked noble birth. Thus Solon undermined the traditional rights of the hereditary aristocracy and initiated the transformation of Athens from an aristocratic oligarchy into a democracy. Solon also instituted ingenious economic reforms. Recognizing that the poor soil of Attica was not conducive to growing grain, her urged the cultivation of grapes for wine and the growing of olives, whose oil could be exported. To encourage industrial expansion, he ordered tha ll fathers teach their sons a trade and granted citizenship to foreign craftsmen who were willing to migrate to Athens. These measures and the fine quality of the native reddish-brown clay allowed Athens to become the leading producer and exporter of pottery. Solon's economic policies transformed Athens into a great commercial center. However, Solon's reforms did not eliminate factional disputes among the aristocratic clans or relieve much of the discontent of the poor." (page 57 to 58)

Sure the ancient Greeks were flawed as are all people. Some of their flaws are mentioned in the quote above, and they also never got rid of slavery, or gave women equal rights. (Ironic given the fact that Rand, one of their biggest admirers was a woman, and all the Ancient Greek philosophers would rightfully be seen as sexist today) But based on the same source, couldn't it be argued that there is something about the ancient Greeks that is to be admired, or at least the Athenian Greeks?

(All quotations in written bold text)

Damien said...

I meant to say that "All quotations are written in bold text" in the parenthesis. Sorry about the mistake.

Red Grant said...

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But in defense of Rand's view of the Greeks, couldn't it be argued that in someways the Greeks were a rather individualistic in way (other than Sparta)? - Damien
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You can find individualists in every culture, not just the ancient Greeks.


You can find inclusive (by the standard of the day) reformer like Solons in other cultures as well.

HerbSewell said...

You know, as good as these points are, it really baffles me into the late stage of seeing how far you will go to bash Rand that you would actually defend abhorrent negatives such a religion, just to show that Rand was some how less than perfect somehow intellectually.