Thursday, January 31, 2008

Rand's Style of Argument 3: Religion

Part 3 of Neil Parille's discussion of Rand's style of argument:

Ayn Rand was one of the best known atheists of the twentieth century. Unlike many non-believers who find much to commend about religion, Rand’s evaluation was almost entirely negative. In this respect she was ahead of her time and has more in common with today’s “new atheists” such as Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins.

Rand’s typical shortcomings in argument are magnified when it comes to the philosophy of religion. Unlike her writings on ethics and epistemology (where she showed at least a moderate acquaintance with its subject matter and familiarity with some representative thinkers), it doesn’t appear that Rand had even a superficial knowledge of religion or even a passing familiarity with thinkers such as Augustine, Luther and Calvin. The one religious thinker she admired, Thomas Aquinas, is never quoted. Her interest appears more in critiquing its ethical teachings and psychological implications than in the arguments theologians put forward for its metaphysics and epistemology. Even here, her interest was quite narrow, being generally limited to contemporary and medieval Catholicism. She devoted two essays to recent papal encyclicals. In "Of Living Death," she critiques Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae (which opposed artificial contraception) and in "Requiem for Man" she critiques his Populorum Progressio (a discussion of economics). When she discusses religious ethics, she seems to think they are universally synonymous with the worst excesses of medieval asceticism.

Rand’s bugbear is what she called “mysticism,” and defined it as follows:
“What is mysticism? Mysticism is the acceptance of acceptance of allegations without evidence or proof, either apart from or against, the evidence of one's senses and one's reason. Mysticism is the claim to some non-sensory, non-rational, non-definable, non-identifiable means of knowledge, such as ‘instinct,’ ‘intuition,’ ‘revelation,’ or any form of ‘just knowing.’ (Rand, Philosophy: Who Needs It, pp. 62-63.)
Rand's definition of mysticism is non-traditional. Anglican theologian Alister McGrath defines mysticism as follows: "A multifaceted term, which can bear a variety of meanings. In its most important sense, the terms refer to the union with God which is seen as the ultimate goal of the Christian life. This union is not to be thought of in rational terms, but more in terms of a direct consciousness or experience of God." (McGrath, Christian Spirituality, p. 187.)

Not only does Rand use the term mysticism to describe all religions, but uses it to encompass theories that almost never fall within the common definition of religion. For example, she considers Marxism and racism to constitute forms of mysticism. Avowedly secular thinkers such as pragmatists and logical positivists are "neo-mystics." (Rand, Philosophy: Who Needs It, p. 64.) It might be hard to find a non-Objectivist system of thought that Rand did not consider mysticism or at least "neo-mysticism." Even Ludwig von Mises was a "neo-mystic" who engaged in "whim-worship." (Mayhew, Ayn Rand’s Marginalia, p. 147.) Rand is entitled to reject the arguments for religion or logical positivism, but she isn’t entitled to rule them out of court by a type of philosophical guilt by association.

As is often the case, the “pseudo-psychological trappings” (as ARCHNblog's Daniel Barnes puts it) of Rand’s argument know no limit. In “Galt Speaks” from Atlas Shrugged, she provides the following psychological diagnosis of mystics:
“A mystic is a man who surrendered his mind at its first encounter with the minds of others. Somewhere in the distant reaches of his childhood, when his own understanding of reality clashed with the assertions of others, with their arbitrary orders and contradictory demands, he gave in to so craven a fear that he renounced his rational faculty. . . . From then on, afraid to think, he is left at the mercy of unidentified feelings. His feelings become his only guide, his only remnant of personal identity, he clings to them with ferocious possessiveness-and whatever thinking he does is devoted to the struggle of hiding from himself that the nature of his feelings is terror.” (Rand, For the New Intellectual, pp. 160-61.)

Nowhere in Rand’s corpus do we find any attempt to support this diagnosis with evidence. I doubt that Thomas Aquinas, Ludwig von Mises and Karl Marx experienced such a psychological crisis point in their childhood, but as can be seen from Rand’s diaries published in James Valliant’s The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics, Rand put great stock in her psychoanalytic abilities.

In fact, Rand’s own psychological needs appear to be the driving force for her embrace of atheism. According to her one-time associate Barbara Branden, Rand became an atheist at age thirteen. Branden records Rand writing in her diary at that age: "Today I decided to be an atheist." Branden reports her as later explaining, "I had decided that the concept of God is degrading to men. Since they say that God is perfect, man can never be that perfect, then man is low and imperfect and there is something above him – which is wrong." (Branden, The Passion of Ayn Rand, p. 35.)

Of the various arguments against God’s existence, this is particularly weak. My feelings about a thing’s existence generally don’t have much to do with its actual existence. I could just as well argue that geniuses don’t exist because that posits someone who is above me. (Interestingly, Rand once said that a person could raise his IQ from 110, moderately above average, to 150, borderline genius*)

When Rand actually gets around to critiquing the metaphysics and epistemology of religion, her results aren’t impressive and more often than not rest on poorly thought out arguments and misunderstandings. For example, in Atlas Shrugged, she claims that theism is contradictory: “God is that which no human mind can know, they say—and proceed to demand that you consider it knowledge.” (Rand, For the New Intellectual, p. 149.) Rand’s description may describe Gnostics and some types of mystics, but certainly doesn’t represent mainstream theists, most of whom believe that God may be known (albeit not exhaustively).

For those who are interested in Rand’s (and Leonard Peikoff’s) abilities as critics of theism, I recommend the essays by Stephen Parrish and Patrick Toner in the Spring 2007 Journal of Ayn Rand Studies.

- Neil Parille

*Mayhew, Ayn Rand Answers, p. 179


JayCross said...

, it doesn’t appear that Rand had even a superficial knowledge of religion or even a passing familiarity with thinkers such as Augustine, Luther and Calvin.

I guess this is why there were no religious villains in Atlas Shrugged. Which is a shame, because it probably would've made the conflict more gripping than Rearden, Galt, et al vs. ineffectual nihilists.

On a side note, I heard that Christopher Hitchens wanted to include "Requiem For Man" in a book of athiest essays and Peikoff said no. Pretty dumb move IMO. Why pass up the chance to get Rand's work in front of millions of athiests or agnostics?

Anonymous said...

Ayn Rand said
God is that which no human mind can know, they say—and proceed to demand that you consider it knowledge.

What's being said here is actually spot on.
Preachers tell you that God is unknowable, that you cannot reason about God, that God is beyond your comprehension. However these same preachers also tell you that God wants you to give them money, to vote for their candidates, and to live your lives in ways that please these preachers.
If God is beyond human comprehension, how do these preachers know what God wants? Maybe preachers are simply using the word God, to get what they want.

Anonymous said...


That's an excellent point, and probably what Rand was saying. Her only problem was making arguments like that her primary rebuke of religion.

She would've been more effective (in my opinion) if she started with the sheer absurdity of claiming that an invisible being created everything we see. Unfortunately, it seems like she wasn't 100% convinced of evolution.

Moony said...

Wells & Jay

"Preachers tell you that God is unknowable, that you cannot reason about God, that God is beyond your comprehension."

Well, some do and some don't, but in general the Jewish-Christian-Islamic tradition has maintained that God is knowable, at least in a negative sense. Moreover he communicates with us through those he directly inspires, and so we know what he wants of us through the writings (the Bible, the Koran, and all the rest) that they have left us.

"She would've been more effective (in my opinion) if she started with the sheer absurdity of claiming that an invisible being created everything we see."

Except that that position doesn't even address all of the possibilities concerning the nature of God, and his relationship to the universe, suggested by those who have speculated within the JCI tradition, let alone meeting the claims of - for example - Buddhism or Taoism.

Unknown said...

I wouldn't put Rand in the same class of atheist as Dawkins. True, Dawkins is a "strong" atheist, but his argument is simply that religion makes certain claims. So far, the scientific evidence either fails to support or outright refutes each one of those claims.

Going one step further he argues that given the objective horrors perpetrated by religion and the lack of evidence to support the claims that justify or rationalize those horrors, we should abandon religion as an institution.

Now, his focus is on the Abrahamic religions, so his specific arguments are focused on things like Biblical inerrancy, Young Earth Creationism, Old Earth Creationism (Intelligent Design), crusade/jihad, etc. I don't know what his views of the various non-Abrahamic religions are, tho' I'm sured he'd reject neo-paganism, shamanism, and other faiths that make specific claims of a supernatural nature.

On the other hand, Rand's "refutation" takes a more emotional approach. She didn't evaluate the existence of God as a hypothesis to be tested. She just didn't like a certain idea of God (an idea not shared universally by all religions) or what she thought it implied about man's perfectibility and so rejected it. Concept-God was in conflict with Romantic Man, so for reasons that can only be described as emotional or intuitive, she rejects Concept-God. Neither claim (Concept-God nor Romantic Man) is subjected to an empirical test.

Dawkins' approach seems more reasonable to me.

gregnyquist said...

Jay: "On a side note, I heard that Christopher Hitchens wanted to include 'Requiem For Man' in a book of athiest essays and Peikoff said no. Pretty dumb move IMO."

Generally speaking, this is usual ARI policy. Apparently, there is great concern about a kind of "guilt by association." Keep in mind, ARI doesn't approve of talking to Libertarian groups, for instance. Why? Because if you talk to somebody, there's a kind of sanction that you're giving them. You're giving them a credibility they don't deserve. Rand can't appear in an anthology edited by Hitchens, because that would give Hitchens (and the other authors in the anthology, some of whom may be critics of Rand) a creditibility or sanction they don't deserve. After all, Hitchens has made no secret of his low opinion of Rand.

Of course, this is all very irrational; but it testifies to the paranoia of ARI, a paranoia they inherited from Rand herself. But it is worse than that: it testifies to the low opinion which Rand and her orthodox followers hold of human beings and the intelligence of human beings. Despite all the fine words they utter about abstract man and abstract reason, when it comes actual men and the actual process of human thinking, they have a very low opinion. If Rand's work appears in an anthology of writers who are non-objectivists, people are so stupid that they'll think she approves of those writers. Her reputation will be injured.

Daniel Barnes said...

Further to what Greg said, recall the moment in "Mozart Was A Red" where the young student says The Brow of Zeus is one of the finest books he's ever read - and everyone jumps on him for an implied insult! Any faint tinge of association with any unapproved writer or thinker, any hint that Rand might not be entirely sufficient - why, it's just the same as mixing a little poison into your food.

What you're looking at here, Jay, is typical of what happens when you mix the highest possible concentrations of egoism and absolutism - exactly according to Rand's original formula.

JayCross said...


It's a shame if that's truly the case. "Requiem For Man" doesn't just reject religion, it goes a step further and dissects the whole notion of altruist ethics. The exposure of those ideas to millions of atheists would've done far more good than any harm to Rand's rep.

Neil Parille said...

Peikoff has also refused to allow Rand's writings to appear in anthologies of libertarianism.

Perhaps nothing has done more to harm Objectivism than the exaggerated claims for Rand's originality.

Meg's Marginalia said...

This is awesome. Actually I think other philosophers have more to worry about regarding the guilt by association. Thanks for the tip, now I know what book NOT to read, because the compilers of the anthology thought highly enough of Peikoff's insane ramblings to want to include it. Then again, such a book about the evils of religion and altruism and praising atheism isn't my cup of tea anyway. This just shows how hostile, bitter and misanthropic the atheist movement has become, if they resonate with Peikoff and the ARI

JayCross said...


The essay Hitchens wanted to include wasn't Peikoff's. It was Rand's, and Peikoff denied him permission to use it.

Moony said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Moony said...


I really don't think that there is any such thing as an 'atheist movement' and atheists are of every philosophical leaning and embrace the whole spectrum of political opinion.

Richard Dawkins has been mentioned in this blog several times as an example of a prominent atheist, and he certainly wouldn't be found within bargepole distance of Rand, Peikoff or Objectivism. Insofar as it can be ascertained from his published political comments he's definitely left-wing enough to win my approval, and I'd guess him to be some kind of socialist.

Dawkins appears to be pretty altruistic personally, and some of his most interesting work has been concerned with the biological utility of altruism.

gregnyquist said...

Moony: "I really don't think that there is any such thing as an 'atheist movement' and atheists are of every philosophical leaning and embrace the whole spectrum of political opinion."

I don't believe that the phrase atheist movement was meant to describe any kind of political or even social movement. It's merely a catch phrase for those whose atheism stems from a sort of ill-bred resentiment against religion and who believe that the world would be a much better place if no one believed in God. From that perspective, Dawkins and Rand are merely two peas in a pod, there political differences notwithstanding.

Dawkins, of course, has more breadth of mind and is better informed than Rand. But that's not really saying much. Underneath all the brilliance and sophistication Dawkins still tends to lean toward positivism, scientism, and a constructivist rationalism.

gregnyquist said...

Neil: "Peikoff has also refused to allow Rand's writings to appear in anthologies of libertarianism."

I was not aware of that. If so, it very much goes against the grain of usual ARI policy, especially given Peikoff's conviction that libertarians are "worse than communists." But perhaps these anthologies were not so much libertarians as they were Austrian economists. Or perhaps they were academic anthologies meant for students. ARI is much more liberal about tolerating inclusion of Rand in academic textbooks.

Neil Parille said...


Edward Stringham has said that Peikoff refused to allow Rand to be excerpted for his book Anarchy and the Law, an anthology about anarcho-capitalism (pro and con, it appears).

I remember hearing this with respect to other libertarian anthologies, although I could be wrong.

JayCross said...


Do you not think the world would be a better place if no one believed in God? Think of all the problems that would be solved if people relied on actual knowledge and thinking for their decisions and not dogma.

(I know not everyone would magically start becoming rational overnight in a Godless world but I think it would certainly pave the way.)

Meg's Marginalia said...

I disagree that having everyone not believing in God would necessarily make the world a better place. Although religion has been responsible for much harm in the world, it has also been used to bring about many positive effects. I don't think religion is the problem per se. I think it is far more important to be a good person than to follow any particular religious or philosophical or political creed, Objectivism included. Believing in God, or being Atheist or Objectivist, or Communist, or whatever doesn't make you a good or bad person. What you do with yourself and towards others does.

Anonymous said...


I agree. I don't think believing in God makes you a bad person. However many religious people make decisions with mythological stories and ethical doctrines in mind that have no bearing on the actual world. I see nothing good about the fact that 90% of Americans believe in and even pray to an imaginary being.

Meg's Marginalia said...

If by "imaginary" you mean a construct that exists solely in men's minds, Reason is imaginary too.

JayCross said...

Reason is a method of thinking and analysis. God, as imagined by most, is an all-powerful, omniscient being who created everything we see.