Monday, January 24, 2022

Objectivism on Christianity and Religion

[Here is another article  by Neil Parille:]

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..

“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.” 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 ago discovered 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.

Immanuel Kant Wanted to Save Religion

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is frequently discussed in the Objectivist world. Ayn Rand is famous for her statement that Kant was the most evil man in history. Objectivists typically argue that Kant wanted to save religion from the advances of enlightenment thought.

Objectivists often quote Kant’s statement that “I have therefore found it necessary to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith.” This may have been the only statement of Kant that Rand actually quoted. Fred Seddon argues that taking “faith” here in the Randian sense doesn’t do justice to Kant’s position. He points out that Nicholas Rescher suggests a better translation might be “rationally justified belief.” [Seddon, “Kant on Faith,” JARS, Vol. 7., No. 1.] In any event, it seems unwise to base one’s understanding of a thinker on one line in his voluminous work. Kant is an interesting character. Although not a completely irreligious man, his religion was not of the traditional kind. Raised in a pietist Lutheran home, he did not pray or attend church. He also advocated a secular government and ran into trouble with the Prussian Lutheran Church because many considered his writings irreligious. His most famous writing on religion was a book entitled Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone. Traditional Christians are generally not supportive of Kant’s work. Kant has been variously labeled an atheist, agnostic or (interestingly enough) a Deist.

The American Founding Fathers Were Deists

This is a common view which I heard long before I first encountered Objectivism. Its prevalence in Objectivist circles again seems to come from Peikoff’s "Religion Versus America." This claim is made most recently in the 2018 Ayn Rand Institute collection, A New Textbook of Americanism. The religious beliefs of the Founding Fathers is a complicated issue and books seem to come out yearly on the topic. Some of the Founders were not traditionally religious, such as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams and perhaps George Washington. On the other hand, some such as Patrick Henry, Charles Carroll and Roger Sherman were orthodox Christians. I’m not an expert on the history of Deism; however, Mark David Hall in his recent Did America Have a Christian Founding, says that if the traditional view of Deism is used (God created the universe and then left it to run on its own) then at most only one of the Founders (Ethan Allen) was a Deist. Washington, for example, made frequent references to “providence” in his writings.

Christians Chose December 25 as Jesus’s Birthday To Co-Opt A Pagan Holiday

This is also a (likely) urban legend and not new with Objectivism. However, it does seem a common talking point when Christmas comes around, in part because Rand celebrated Christmas. Objectivists often cite Peikoff’s Why Christmas Should be More Commercial. There Peikoff makes the claim that the December 25 date was chosen to coincide with the Roman festival of Saturnalia (a harvest festival) celebrated December 17-23 and an alleged sun God holiday on December 25 (which is the Winter solstice). No one know for sure why Christians (in fact not all of them) settled on the December 25 date. One theory is that Jews believed the world was created on March 25. If Jesus was conceived on that date then nine months later would be December 25. This would perhaps have the happy coincidence of also being the Winter solstice. (It was widely believed in the ancient world that important people would be born and die on significant days.) In any event, it appears that Christians settled on the December 25 date during the AD 200’s. The first known December 25 Sun God celebration dates from the late 300’s. There was a long-observed Sun God holiday in October, so if the Christians wanted to co-opt a holiday they would most likely have chosen that date or Saturnalia (which as noted, ended on the 23rd).

Christianity Is Anti-Science

Objectivist often repeat common claims that there were churchmen who refused to look into Galileo’s telescope, Giordano Bruno was executed for being a heliocentric, Medievals thought the world was flat, Christians unanimously opposed evolution, the destruction of the library (or what was left of it) at Alexandria was the end of classical learning, etc. A good discussion of these myths and exaggerations is found in the anthology Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion. The relationship between Christianity and science is a complicated issue, but when the West was more religious many (or perhaps most) scientists were religious (for example Isaac Newton, Johannes Kepler, Gregor Mendel, etc.) and now in the more secular West, most scientists are not religious.

The United States Constitution Created a Separation of Church and State

This isn’t so much a myth as an overgeneralization. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution says that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . .” By its own terms, the First Amendment applies only to the federal government. At the time the Amendment was ratified, many states had established or semi-established churches and provided support to religious bodies. Connecticut and Massachusetts ended their establishment of Congregationalism in the 1830’s. If anything the First Amendment was a separation between the federal government and states over religion. It wasn’t until the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified in 1868 that the provisions of the Bill of Rights become binding on states (and even then it was disputed and didn’t become official Supreme Court doctrine until decades later). Objectivists often cited the polemical book The Godless Constitution which ignores this point. For a critique of the book see historian Daniel Dreisbach’s review.

The Roman Emperors Created Christianity

This isn’t exactly an urban legend, but it’s the thesis of a ARI supporters James Valliant and Casey Fahy in their book, Creating Christ: How the Roman Emperors Invented Christianity. As readers of the Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature blog might recall, Valliant was the author of the bizarre The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics (2005) which argued that Ayn Rand Rand had no flaws with the exception of her occasional temper. Creating Christ is, to put it mildly, a crackpot thesis which has unfortunately gained some traction in Objectivist circles. For those interested in the book, I’ve critiqued it here.


Anonymous said...

Not five minutes after I posted this, an interview of ARI philosopher Robert Mayhew by Gloria Alvarez showed up in my You Tube feed. Alvarez repeated the claim about the library of Alexandria and Mayhew the Tertullian misquote.


Ed said...

I'm pretty sure Benjamin Franklin was a Deist according to the definition you provided above.

gregnyquist said...

The problem with Kant's statement “I have therefore found it necessary to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith” is that it is taken out of context. No Objectivist who ever quotes it cares about the context in which it was written. It appears in the preface to the second edition of the Critique. Kant's Critique of Pure Reason is primarily a polemic against the speculative philosophy of Leibnitz and other German philosophers. Under the influence of Hume, Kant wanted to criticize speculative metaphysics for not being empirical enough. This, however, was rather controversial, because part of Kant's criticism was essayed against rationalistic arguments for God, such as the cosmological and ontological proofs for a deity, which Kant argued were "impossible." Now in the eighteenth century, criticism of religion was almost universally frowned upon. Even religious scoffers such as Voltaire believed that religious morality is what held society together. So Kant's attack of rationalistic arguments for religion were considered "dangerous." Kant's second edition of the critique sought to address these religious criticisms. Essentially Kant argued that his attack on "reason" (i.e., rationalism) shouldn't be regarded as an attack on religion because it was only an attack on false rationalistic arguments against religion, not on religious belief based on faith. The point of Kant saying he denied knowledge to make room for faith is to just get his critics off his back. "I've taken away your rationalistic arguments for God, but if you leave me alone I'll let you have your faith" --- that's what he's trying to say.

Anonymous said...

I'd point out that "credibile est, quia ineptum est" is subject to a variety of translations. There are scholars such as Avery Dulles (History of Apologetics) who do consider Tertullian a kind of irrationalist.


Anonymous said...

I heard a new one the other day from an Objectivist -- there was a pope who opposed street lights in Rome. (Not true, in case you are wondering.)

Michael Prescott said...

"The Greeks and the Irrational," by E.R. Dodds, is a classic work that Peikoff should have consulted if he actually wanted to understand Ancient Greece.

Or he could have just read a little history. The Spartans sent only 300 warriors to Thermopylae because they were in the midst of a religious festival, during which it was illegal to wage war. Though they knew the Persians had made landfall and time was of the essence, they dared not violate their own religious precepts by mounting an all-out defense until the sacred period had expired.

Peikoff would probably dismiss the Spartans as outliers, but why are the Athenians privileged to be representative of the whole diverse culture of Greece? And why is Aristotle the preeminent example of that culture? Aristotle probably had less influence in his own day than Plato or the Cynics.

More important, culture in Athens was defined primarily not by philosophy but art: the revered Homeric sagas and the dramatic works of Sophocles and Aeschylus (less so, Euripides, who was considered dangerously anti-establishment in his day). These writings were steeped in religious ideas — Homer saw the gods as directing every important phase of earthly life (a god compels Achilles to clash with his superiors, precipitating the entire plot of The Iliad), while Sophocles was obsessed with the role of implacable Fate, as in the tragedy of Oedipus.

History is so much more complex, interesting, and nuanced than propagandists like Peikoff (or Rand) imagine.

Unknown said...

Yaron Brook said recently that the Roman Empire fell because it adopted Christianity. I guess he doesn't know that the eastern half (which was more Christian) survived until 1453.


max said...

R.J. Rushdoon:
Our scripture this morning is Matthew 7:1-6.
The tendency has been to take the first verse and apply that as a general principle without reference to verses two through six.

verse six requires us to make some apparently drastic judgments.

“6 Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.”

That’s a sharp and a harsh statement. It means that we are going to have to assess some people as dogs and others as swine.

Now our Lord does not forbid judgment , all we have to do is to look at John 7:24, the clearest statement:

“24 Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment.”

So our Lord tells us we are not to judge according to appearance but we are to judge righteous judgment.

“2 For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.”

In other words, what is the measure, the standard, the yardstick of your judgment?

Nothing can be measured without a standard of measurement. If the standard is wrong, everything else is then out of line. This means that the principle of measure must be absolutely trustworthy or else nothing valid can follow.
The only absolutely trustworthy principle of measurement, the yardstick of man and society, is God’s Word. Man, church, state, school, and all society must be judged in terms of it.

max said...

The Degradation of Academic Dogma by Robert A. Nisbet

All major institutions are built around dogmas. So, for that matter, is social life generally. We could not live without dogma, which is no more than a system of principles or ideals widely believed to be not merely true or right but also beyond the necessity of the more or less constant
veri­fication we feel obliged to give so many other aspects of our lives.

The word "dogma" comes from the Greek dokein which may be translated as "seem good."

To describe a belief as dogmatic does not necessarily imply that it cannot be "proved" through logic, reason, or evidence.

The essential point is that irrespective of the possibility of their rational or empirical verification the beliefs are widely re­garded as good or right without necessity of constant scru­tiny. And, as Tocqueville wrote, adding to the words quoted above, no society can even exist, much less prosper, without such common belief. Nor can any individual. For if each individual was compelled to demonstrate and redemonstrate to his own satisfaction each of the propositions he lives by, his obligation would never end. As Tocqueville notes, man would exhaust his strength in preparatory demonstrations without ever advancing beyond them.

No community, no organization, no institution, then, can exist for long without dogma; without a belief or set of be­liefs so deeply and widely held that it is more or less exempt from ordinary demands that its goodness or rightness be demonstrable at any given moment.