Friday, July 04, 2008

Objectivism & Religion, Part 15

Christian morality versus Objectivist Morality. For the rational critic of religion, it is not belief in God and the afterlife that create the chief problems. It is, rather, the conviction of many religious people that God demands that people behave a certain way. Indeed, I would go farther: I would say that the main, vital point of disagreement between religious and anti-religious is over morality. Dislike of traditional religious morality is the primary motivation of most that passes for uncompromising or militant atheism.

Most attacks against religion are motivated by a kind hedonistic antinomianism. The main target is religious sex morality. Objectivism, in this respect, represents an improvement over most secular critiques. Rand was neither antinomian nor an apologist for hedonism. Her criticism of traditional Christian sex morality is, consequently, fairly reasonable—despite her tendency to over-generalize and draw inferences from Christian doctrines that only a handful of fanatics would ever embrace. Indeed, if there is besetting weakness in the Objectivist critique of religious morality, it is the tendency to assume that Christians routinely follow the letter of Christian precept. But that is not the way Christian precepts work. Christian morality tries to counteract potentially destructive traits in human nature by presenting the opposite extreme as the ideal. Men, particularly pre-modern men, tend to be over-obsessed with status and “face,” predisposed towards violence, and short in empathy for strangers. So Christianity tells them the last will be first, the meek shall inherit the earth, that one should turn the other cheek and love one’s neighbors as oneself. Most of these precepts would be dangerous if taken literally. But, aside from a few fanatics, they are never taken literally. So the extent that they have any affect at all, it will generally be a positive one. Violent and status obsessed people will tend to be less violent, less obsessed with status, and kinder to strangers.

The most problematical element of Christian morality have to do with questions regarding sex. To our modern sensibility, the obsession by many conservative Christians with sexual behavior is pathological. Why should the militant fundamentalist be obsessed with the sexual lives of other people? Why should he care one way or another? Here we confront one of the most unedifying aspects of modern conservative Christianity. Too much weight is given to questions of personal sexual conduct. The inflexibility, the misapplied absolutism, the moralism, the intolerance with which some Christian traditionalists approach these problems represents a black mark against religion.

However, as unappetizing as sexual puritanism, in its religious guise, may be to the contemporary mind, it would be a mistake to regard it as a complete tissue of irrationality and fanaticism. Liberated attitudes regarding sex mores are made possible, not by the greater moral wisdom of contemporary man, but merely by the wealth and improved technology of modern society. In poor societies lacking sophisticated birth control techniques and effective medicines for sexually transmitted diseases, sexual puritanism becomes a necessary evil. Sexual appetites have to be reigned in when the consequences of unbridled sexual activity are so dire. This is little appreciated in the age of penicillin, planned parenthood, and the pill.

So the real problem with Christian morals is not that they were irrational from the start, but that they have outlived their usefulness. However, even here, there may exist a possible exception to this general assessment. If we examine the underclass, we find an astonishing range of blatantly irrational and dysfunctional sex behavior. It is precisely when we begin examining those individuals who dwell on the left side of the intelligence bell curve that we discover problems for which Rand and her Objectivist apologists have no realistic answers. This issue, and its possible relation with religion, will be the subject of my next post.


Mark Plus said...

Men, particularly pre-modern men, tend to be over-obsessed with status and “face,” predisposed towards violence, and short in empathy for strangers.

The history of duelling shows the trend away from this touchiness about "honor." In premodern European and colonial American societies, men from the ruling classes fought duels to the death to resolve insults to status. (Consider the duelling rich boys from Verona's competing elite families in Romeo and Juliet, for example.) Today, in a kind of reverse "prole creep," that kind of behavior has disappeared in the European & American upper classes but shows up frequently in the lower classes, like in some ethnic street gangs who settle their grievances with firearms.

Dusty Rose said...

Hello, Greg,

You know, I have agreed with you on many issues in the past. Ayn Rand indeed made tons of mistakes, and these mistakes need to be pointed out. You did just that - congratulations.

However, on the issue of the criticism of Christian sexual morality I am firmly with Ayn Rand. I'm convinced that Christian sexual morality is unnatural, anti-human and anti-life.

And, while Atlas Shrugged is rather tedious, it is not without good parts. My favorite is the morning after Rearden and Dagny spend the night together. After a passionate night of pleasure, he delivers a lecture. How dirty they both are, what a shame, he lost respect to her, he lost respect to himself, blah blah blah...

And Dagny just laughs - which is the best answer that can be given to such BS.

It might be that Christians do not take "turn the other cheek" literally, but the do take "thou shell not fornicate" quite literally. Which does not stop them from fornicating in most cases, but makes them feel dirty, guilty and miserable afterwards.

And what better way to control people than to make them feel guilty all the time? Guilty people are obedient people...

As to people not knowing how to prevent pregnancy in the past - this is simply not true. There is a wonderful book by John M. Riddle, "Eve's Herbs", which tells the story how women in the past knew how control their fertility with the use of herbs. It was Christianity that wiped out that knowledge by burning witches. It is thanks to Christianity that, instead of controlling our fertility naturally, we are stuck with the Pill, which has tons of side effect. And we are supposed to be grateful to this religion?

No. I refuse to be chaste and I refuse to feel guilty about it. Like Dagny, I just laugh at those who want to control my sexuality.


Dusty Rose

Damien said...


I find this very interesting, I can't wait for your next post.

Anonymous said...

Short answer.
Objectivist morality fails because there is no such thing. It's really just the whims of Ayn Rand or Leonard Piekoff.

Christian morality fails because there are two way of looking at it. Either God decides what is moral and what is not, or God knows what is moral and then tells us to do that. If the first is true then the word morality doesn't really mean anything but "do what I say or you're going to hell." If the second is true then it God is the great middleman in the sky, and in anything you can always cut out the middleman.

Not to say that the imitation of the life of Ayn Rand or Jesus Christ or heaven forbid Leonard Piekoff may be the basis of someone's understanding of morality. But doing that really isn't what is being described above by any of the choices.

Anonymous said...

I suspect to the degree we have compassion is the degree we have morality.

Anonymous said...

Long Answer

Morality is stuff that you should be doing no matter what. Regardless of whether it is ideologically correct or of what rewards and punishments await you for doing it. What this means is that any morality that is connected to the belief of punishment or to a particular ideological stance cannot be the truth, since it is possible that there are moral actions that would trigger said punishments or be contrary to some ideology.

So what is going on with respect to certain ideological systems?
Well, there are two things that are often conflated
(A) Actions that you should be taking
(B) Actions that other people think you should be taking
These things are only tangentially related to each other, and should not be confused with each other.
What this means is that the doctrines of other people or institutions are not a reliable source for moral instruction. Other people are attempting to convince you to take actions that are in their interest, not necessarily in your interest.

Not that this is a real problem. Your sense of right and wrong is probably better than that of some random preacher or philosopher. So you are probably well equipped to do good automatically.
Just in case, a person can also watch the actions of someone they think is good. A good person does good actions, and in acting, rather than simply speaking, they are demonstrating that both they and you should be doing their actions.
It might also be helpful to read what other people wrote concerning morality, but take what they are saying with a grain of salt. I'd go so far as to prefer dead philosophers to living philosophers, since dead people don't get anything from you doing what they say.
Regardless of what anyone else says or does though, the only system of morality a person should follow is their own.

Anonymous said...


Greg Nyquest uses the adjectives 'uncompromising' and 'militant' after the nouns 'atheist' and 'atheism' alot. Why?

I've never met anyone who was both an atheist and particularly militant. I'm an atheist and I'm not particularly militant.

I've got this sneaking suspicion that it's really just hifalutin intellectualese for calling someone a 'meanie' or a 'doodyhead'.

gregnyquist said...


While I agree that Rand's position on the morality of sex is fairly reasonable, as I stated in the post (her "metaphysics of sex," on the other hand, veers off into the absurd), I find your position a bit lacking in nuance and objectivity. When looking at an issue like this, that can trigger such explosive emotions, I believe in being as impersonal as possible—that is, in not letting one's preferences distort one's judgment. If sex is regarded in this way, from a purely scientific point of view, then I believe one has to admit that sex has a dark side, and that this dark side would exist whether Christianity existed or not. In the first and second centuries, Christianity vied for adherents with other religions that were equally uptight about sex. Uptightness about sex was part of the mores, and no self-respecting religion vying for adherents would be without it. Nor does this uptightness ultimately have religious roots. It has roots in human nature and social conditions. As Steven Pinker has noted, "Sex has high stakes, including exploitation, disease, illegitimacy, incest, jealousy, spousal abuse, cuckoldry, desertion, feuding, child abuse, and rape. These hazards have been around for a long time and have left their mark on our customs and our emotions." If you are able to avoid these high stakes in your personal life, it is because (a) you are rational in your pursuit of sexual satisfaction, and (b) because you have sophisticated birth control techniques at your disposal. (And no, I don't regard the use of herbs as a sophisticated form of birth control.) Rather than insisting that sex can always be good any under circumstances or among every sort of people, we should thankful that in our age, at least a fulfilling sex life is possible for people who are intelligent and rational about it. But if we want to be entirely honest with ourselves, we have to admit that sex still has deleterious social effects when it is pursued unintelligently by irrational people and that in pre-modern societies social taboos on sex conduct become a necessary evil. Moreover, these social taboos, although supported by religion, would exist whether sanctioned by religion or not. Such taboos arise out of the social mores, which are a product of a crude sort of social evolution operating on principles analogous to darwinian evolution.

gregnyquist said...

Wells: "Morality is stuff that you should be doing no matter what. Regardless of whether it is ideologically correct or of what rewards and punishments await you for doing it."

That suggests a non-consequentialist morality—which is extremely problematical. Some moralists (Kant for instance) advocated non-consequentialist moralities because they argued any time a person had an incentive to do something, no moral value could be attached to that act. After all, the person had an incentive to do it, so why should he be morally congratulated on doing what he wanted to do anyways? Morality, under this view, only comes into being when a person needs to do something he doesn't want to do. This view, however, is not supportable, as it leads to just the sort of absurdities Kant stumbled into in his ethical philosophy.

gregnyquist said...

Wells: "Greg Nyquest uses the adjectives 'uncompromising' and 'militant' after the nouns 'atheist' and 'atheism' alot. Why?"

These terms are used merely to describe those atheists whose commitment to asserting the non-existence of God is so passionate as to warp their judgment dealing with issues related to religion, including one's assessment of individual religious believers and any political alliances that can be made with religious individuals or religious groups. Rand, despite denying that she was militant in her atheism, nevertheless wound up breaking with the conservative movement over the issue of religion. (I know Objectivists like to believe that it is all Whitaker Chambers fault, that he was the great villian. But what did Rand expect? She went out of her way to insult Christians in Atlas Shrugged. Then she gets upset when she is taken to task for it and kicked out of the conservative movement?)

Rand, it is true, may not seem very militant when compared with some of her orthodox followers—but that's because her followers go to such extremes. Consider Binswanger's recent column gloating over Bill Buckley's passing, entitled "The Witch-Doctor is Dead," where Binswanger writes "The world is well rid of him." I doubt Binswanger's could've written so pathological an article if his atheism wasn't so militant. It's so militant it's unhinged his mind.

Is militant atheism meant as a term of abuse? I realize some atheists (usually of the militant sort) think it is. But really, it's not more abusive than to the term "militant theist." For of course, there are militant theists as well. Many such, in fact. Like the militant atheist, the militant theist may be a decent enough fellow. It's just on issues relating to the question of God's existence that he loses his intellectual bearings. He holds unfounded prejudices against unbelievers. He tends to regard atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers as immoral people, capable of all sorts of dreadful things.

Now I tend to think that if one really is going to become non-religious, one should be non-religious all the way: that is, one should be non-religious about one's lack of religion, and not turn it into a kind of religion of unbelief which includes some of the more disagreeable trappings of theistic religion, such as dogmatism, intolerance, moralism, and prejudice against the "unbeliever" (i.e., against the unbeliever in atheism). In short, as long as an individual remains uptight about the whole God business (whether for or against), their judgment is going to be affected for the worse. A scientific understanding of religion will not be possible to them.

Damien said...


Oddly enough I linked to that column, commenting on what John donohue said about the post after this one. I do agree Binswanger sounds unhinged.

Damien said...

Dusty Rose,

I am sorry I forgot to comment on what you said on Christianity's view of sex. I intended to but kept forgetting.

Actually I think the best way to control someone is fear, not guilt. A totalitarian society like North Korea could not exist without fear. In the long run, Kim Jun Il's only hope of maintaining his despotic rule lies in secret police and a concentration camp.

Many individuals will not speak out about the dangers of Islam-o-Fascism or the violence and intolerance inherent in the Koran because of fear. Fear of being seen as a racist, fear of lawsuit, fear of being murdered by Jihadists.

Also I agree with Greg on this and will elaborate on one of his points. What about sexually transmitted disease? Back before we had knowledge of sexually transmitted disease, the best way to keep from getting an STD (if you had sex at all) would be to only have sex with one or two people at most. If you didn't know about how to test for sexually transmitted disease, the fewer people you had sex with the better for your long term survival. So in some cases man and women might have benefited from things like strictly adhering to abstinence until marriage by getting to live a little longer. The only better way to prevent sexually transmitted disease back than, would have been to not have sex at all, and if that were wide spread enough to prevent everyone getting an STD, it would have lead to the extinction of the human race. Being a virgin until you find the right person actually still has some advantage even today. What if someone you are about to have sex with has HIV, but didn't tell you, or forget to get tested?

Dusty Rose said...

Hello again, Greg,

Let me answer some of your points here.

First – you said “If you are able to avoid these high stakes in your personal life, it is because (a) you are rational in your pursuit of sexual satisfaction…” – well, at least here is one point that we are in total agreement about! 

Second: “(b) because you have sophisticated birth control techniques at your disposal. (And no, I don't regard the use of herbs as a sophisticated form of birth control.)”

I regret you dismissed the idea that herbs could possibly be effective (even though not necessarily “sophisticated” form of birth control without giving it the slightest consideration. And no, I do not use herbs. I wish I could – but the knowledge about which ones to use, and how, had been stolen from me centuries before I was born. The Christian Church is the culprit her. Again, I politely refer you the book by John M. Riddle, "Eve's Herbs". It presents a well documented proof that 1) birth control methods were known to women in the past, and 2) the Church was systematically exterminating the knowledge about them, by physically destroying those who possessed that knowledge – the so-called “witches”.

So, first the Church made sure that women didn’t know how not to get pregnant, and then it justified its restrictive sexual mores by saying “But they can get pregnant!!!” How nice…

Not only herbs were used to prevent pregnancy in the past – condoms and barrier methods were also known. And some “primitive” people even today know how to recognize fertile days – there is nothing new in “natural family planning”, the only birth control method that Catholic Church allows (because it involves periodic ABSTINENCE – and boy, do these guys love the word abstinence!)

Even today Catholic Church continues its fight against birth-control – and then weeps about the souls of unborn babies! Speak about hypocrisy…

Third: “Nor does this uptightness [about sex] ultimately have religious roots. It has roots in human nature and social conditions.” Social conditions – agree. Human nature – strongly disagree. To explain why, I would have to write a book, but, fortunately, many good books on the subject have already been written. May I refer you to Saharasia by Dr. James DeMeo – it paints a horrifying picture of unimaginable cruelty used through the ages in suppression of human sexuality. And yes, not only Christianity was guilty of that, but almost every religion on Earth, with some exception of animalist religions practiced by “primitive” people. I don’t think this fact exonerates Christianity.

My last point: what you list as “hazards of sex” (exploitation, disease, illegitimacy, incest, jealousy, spousal abuse, cuckoldry, desertion, feuding, child abuse, and rape) are actually a “package deal”. Some of them (exploitation, incest, spousal abuse, child abuse and rape) are hazards of irrationality, not sex, and the way to deal with them is to raise our children in such a way that they become rational human beings, not to repress their sexuality (and ours). So-called “illegitimacy” and “cuckoldry” are artificial social constructs. Feuding and jealousy could occur independently from sex – and again, being rational would help to deal with them. As to “desertion” – I have the right to desert my lover, and he has the right to desert me. He who fears desertion should abstain from sex (and marriage, too) – but it should not be the norm for the rest of us.

What I agree with Ayn Rand on (while recognizing that she is indeed veered into absurd at times) is that the solution to humankind problems is making sure that people behave rationally. Any morality that presupposes that humans are dumb by nature and need to be scared with hell in order to behave is an insult to human dignity.


Dusty Rose

Dusty Rose said...

My answer to Damien:

I agree with you on fear, and on the examples given. I cannot imagine anything worse than being born a woman into Islamic society. But this does not wash away the sins of Christianity, which are plenty.

In fact, fear and guilt go hand in hand on the issue we are talking about: fear of Hell, guilt for not complying with God’s will. But the Church knows it is not enough - so it throws in the fear of pregnancy and disease, while simultaneously working to restrict people’s access to contraception and to discourage them from using condoms. If the Church indeed were concerned about people getting sick and unwanted babies being born, it would encourage scientific research on finding effective methods of cure (diseases) and prevention (of both pregnancy and diseases). Instead, it is doing just the opposite.

It might indeed be prudent to limit the number of your sexual partners (which, by the way, is a far cry from being a virgin until marriage and then being stuck to your husband for life, whether you are happy or not), but it is and should not be the issue of morality – just like using safety belts is not a moral issue. If a woman refused to wear a seatbelt while driving, it might be unwise, but I’m sure she would not be called “slut” for that!

As I said in my answer to Greg, the whole Christian morality is based on the assumption that people are not capable of rationality – which I consider an insult to human dignity.


Dusty Rose

Damien said...

Dusty Rose,

I never said it washed away any of the sins committed by Christians in the name of their religion, but fear is a far better force for making people except injustice than guilt. In fact, sometimes many of the people who seem to be acting out of something else may really be acting out of fear.

People in North Korea for example praise Kim Jun Ill, but how many of them do it out of genuine love, and not out of fear of what the state will do to them? Are all of them really as brainwashed as they appear, or are at least a small number of them just scared out of their minds, so they act like a bunch of mindless drones?

Dusty Rose said...


I certainly would not argue with you about how powerful a tool of control fear is. Yes, it is very powerful, and dictators around the world (not just in North Korea) use it to control and subjugate the people.

But fear has limits. You cannot put a policemen at every corner, nor can you watch what people are doing all the time. That's why those who want to control people (Church and State) need additional weapons: guilt and shame.

From guilt and shame, there is no escape. Because it is you who is punishing yourself. In matters of imposing sexual morality, guilt and shame are indispensable. Once guilt and shame are inculcated into people's minds, there is no need to watch over them. To paraphrase Ayn Rand, they'll conveniently take the whip and whip themselves!

"Oh, I'm so ashamed of myself... I shouldn't have slept with this man (or woman)... I do not deserve respect now..." - these are the thoughts that the Church wants us to have.

But you can liberate yourself and get rid of these thoughts. That's exactly what Rearden has done in Atlas Shrugged - he started out by despising Dagny and himself, but ended up by realizing that the morality imposed on him was false, vicious and anti-human. He became a free man once he understood that.

And this, in spite of all tedious parts and grave mistakes in understanding of human nature (which are plentiful), is what makes Atlas Shrugged still worth reading.

Like Rearden, I used to feel guilty and ashamed, but I liberated myself, and my life is so much better now.


Dusty Rose

Michael Prescott said...

Men, particularly pre-modern men, tend to be over-obsessed with status and “face,” predisposed towards violence, and short in empathy for strangers. So Christianity tells them the last will be first, the meek shall inherit the earth, that one should turn the other cheek and love one’s neighbors as oneself. Most of these precepts would be dangerous if taken literally. But, aside from a few fanatics, they are never taken literally. So the extent that they have any affect at all, it will generally be a positive one.

That's a fascinating analysis. I'd never thought of it quite that way before. Thanks!