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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Problem With Ayn Rand

Recently, conservatives have rediscovered author Ayn Rand’s works “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugs”. Ayn is one of the few respected intellectuals that conservatives can quote who believes in total laissez-faire capitalism. I think I've discovered the reason why she, a rabid capitalist, was so respected by the media and the academic community.

She thinks Christians are evil.

For those of us who are Christian’s, Ayn presents a problem. Ayn Rand firmly believed religion to be, not only misguided, but evil. True, she was an equal opportunity critic of religion, including Islam, Judaism and Eastern religions in her club of anti-rational systems of thought, but she particularly disliked Christianity.

At the same time, she embraces capitalism as the only economic system that makes sense in a society that is free. She shares that opinion with the practitioners of most of the religions that share the protection of the American constitution. She even admits that she believes you have the right to believe whatever you want, no matter how irrational it is to do so. Strange bedfellows, the Christian Right and Ayn Rand!

Ayn Rand argued that religion was the antithesis of what she called “objectivism”, or the pursuit of pure reason. She embraced capitalism because as an economic system it best fit with her philosophy of enlightened self-interest.

She blamed the Christian ethic and all forms of altruism that emphasized man’s duty to be of service to his fellow man as a species of self-imposed slavery. Ayn Rand found the self-sacrifice practiced by Christians to be a kind of madness that, eliminated from society, would vastly improve things. Oh, she respected our right to be insane in the matter of religion, but she never respected Christians for believing as we do.

The progressives would actually agree with Ayn’s reasoninge on this one. If we believe in pure free market capitalism, they would argue, then, we should all be greedy and self-interested (and that's bad).  If we were to be intellectually honest, and if we truly believe in Christ’s “golden rule”, they would claim, then we would logically have to come down on the side of the socialist/collectivists' idea of legislated "goodness" in order to remain true to our beliefs.

Okay, here’s where I attempt to create a “harmony of the gospels” so to speak. Wish me luck:

  • I disagree with Ayn’s contention that the concept of God must be proved and that not being able to disprove his existence does not, therefore, allow for even the possibility of His existence. Well, I cannot disprove the existence of my great, great, great grandfather.  All records of him are gone. There are no documents, birth certificates, photographs, military records, etc. that any of us can find. Biologically, Great Great Great Gramps should exist, but I can't prove absolutely that he did.  I believe, based on my experience of human reproduction, that he did exist. But I cannot say, unequivocally that this is what happened.  I mean there were all those unexplained cattle mutilations and crop circles in Ohio around that time. Alien DNA might just look exactly like human DNA.  Who knows?  I cannot prove there wasn't some alternate way that my great great grandmother came about. Cloning? Alien probes?
  •  By Anyn's standard, like God, my great great great grandpa should not be believed in.  I can't prove he exists and even though I can't disprove grandpa's existent, I must by objectivist rules disbelieve in the existence of my great great great grandpa since I cannot prove he did.  Remember, Ayn Rand claims you must not be called on to disprove a thing in order to prove that thing doesn't exist.  Simply put, if you can't provide proof positive that is enought to disprove the idea.
  • Scientifically, she is all wet. To discount the experience of literally millions of people who have claimed both in print and in public to have witnessed direct evidence of God, is not objective.  It presupposes an idea - "God does not exist."  Okay, prove the theory that God does not exist!  You cannot do so conclusively. Neither can you disprove it, but by Rand's standard that doesn't matter.  You don't have to disprove a thing. You only have to prove it. 
  • If a preponderance of evidence from apparently otherwise reliable witnesses supports a theory that can be formed into a structured reasoned philosophical framework that is internally coherent, then that framework must have at least equal footing with any other rational philosophy that is supported by witnesses and evidence. You don’t have to like it, you just have to allow for it.
  • I disagree with Ms. Rand that religion is evil. While it is true that much in the way of evil has, in fact, been done in the name of religion, much more has been conducted under the flag of atheism. The death toll of all the Crusades and pogroms ever conducted by the coopted Christian Church fall far short of the death toll left behind by one solid atheist - Joe Stalin. The French Revolution saw the brutal murders of thousands presided over by a prostitute dressed as the Goddess of Reason. Evil is done by individuals who wish to have absolute power over others and will use any handy belief system, religion or policy or philosopy to obtain that power.  Evil cannot be successfully practice by true practitioners of the golden rule.
  • I disagree with Rand that capitalism and self-interest are the end-all, be-all of human life. While I agree that capitalism is the economic system that best supports liberty, I do not subscribe to unbridled selfishness as a very good way to live. I believe we pass through this world so that God can prepare us for eternity. I serve God and my fellow man. God, in return, provides me with a life experience that fits me to live forever without mucking up the universe again. I believe there is something about the experience of life on Earth that changes one forever and that it is essential if the safety of the universe from evil is truly to be guaranteed. In other words, “all things work together for good.”
  • I also disagree that the moral selfless life is a species of self-induced slavery. Rather, the principles that God gives us to guide our lives (the 10 commandments, the golden rule) are far and away the best way to insure the freedom of all in a universe where we are all immortal.  It works pretty well in a mortal world so long as everyone subscribes. If all are giving, all will be receiving as well in a kind of niceness competition.  It is the 100/100 rule of relationships.  In a marriage, of the "business" model Rand proposes, partners give 50/50 by contract.  In the Christian marriage contract, both partners pledge to give 100% to the relationship.  Allowing for human fallability, this insures that the business of the marriage gets done and both partners find themselves with some free time from time to time - more so than if they were trying to insure everybody in the relationship gave their fair share.  That's why socialists spend so much on secret police. You need them to insure nobody is doing less than their fair share.  In the Christian model, nobody worries about that because we don't expect others to always do their share. It's why, when disaster strikes and charity is called for, it's usually the Christians that are the first on the scene.  It's what we do.

To conclude, while I applaud Ms. Rand’s defense of capitalism, I also realize it’s limitation. Government’s job is, as Ms. Rand correctly points out, to protect our rights, not to diddle in our lives. A Christian recognizes that there are those who cannot defend themselves, take care of themselves or help themselves. We believe that to expect these folks (children, the aged, people with disabilities, physical and emotional disorders) to pull themselves up by their bootstraps is like asking someone to stand up and introduce himself when he’s been sitting in a wheelchair for 20 years.

It is not contradictory to believe in self-imposed charity (or God-imposed charity for that matter) and at the same time to believe you also have the duty to respect others rights to do as they wish, work where they will and sell what they want for whatever the market will bear. It is respecting the individual freedom of all, including yourself. It also recognices that although a society based on selflessness behavior is more likely to survive than one based on selfish behavior, you cannot have a free society without allowing for selfish behavior.  If you try to institutionalize selflessness, you must inevitably use fear and terror as an enforcement tool in a world where sin and greed exist naturally.  Christians, because of our long association with God, value free choice above all.  We are willing to pay the inevitable price for allowing evil to exist so that freedom can be nurtured and grown and taught by observation.  When all this is over, no surviving follower of Christ will ever be remotely tempted to sin again, not because we fear the fires of hell or some hideous punishment, but because we will have seen the consequences of sin and selfishness and we choose not to go down that path.

Ayn Rand has some good things to say, but at the same time, her Russian upbringing and experiences certainly gave her such a bad experience of religion and political ideology that I think she became emotionally unable to accept the existence of God. It’s the old, “If God exists, how could he let such bad things happen?” argument.

The truth is the bad things that happen to us may be like the titration of chemicals in a lab. It’s what you need to do in order to produce what it is you’re trying to produce. I don’t think Ayn could see beyond this life to anything else. If she could have, she might not have been so quick to dismiss religion. That notwithstanding, I do think her recognition that capitalism as a sure-fire economic system for a sinful selfish world is dead on. On religion, we'll just have to agree to disagree.

Just one man’s opinion

Tom King

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