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Ayn Rand and Christianity

While browsing some threads on a popular forum recently, I was introduced to an interesting critique of Ayn Rand's ethics, by John Piper. I already knew the critique was going to be from a Christian perspective, but was pleasantly surprised by it, nevertheless. This is what I wrote to the poster who provided the link to the article:

"I'm a long time student of Rand, since the 50's, and have read almost everything I could find related to Rand and her philosophy, and of course everything she has written, including her journals and correspondence. I have never read John Piper's critique before, and very much appreciated it.

"Most critics of Rand do not really understand her at all. I found Piper's comments refreshingly astute. In fact, his exposition of Rand's ethics is one of the most succinct and correct explanations I've ever read. He has totally captured the essence of her ethical philosophy, and for that I would highly recommend this paper to anyone who wants to understand Rand's ethics and does not have the patience to read her, The Virtue of Selfishness, and Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal."

I promised a longer discussion of that critique, and this is it.

I am not a theist, but I know this is written to Christians, and I do not intend to criticize any specific points representing the Christian viewpoint. I'm only interested in some few things said about Rand that I think are not clear or possibly mistaken.

The article begins with a brief biographical history of Ayn Rand, which is good enough. That is followed by a section discussing the influence of Ayn Rand, including much of the criticism she has garnered. The criticism, of course, is just other people's opinions and says little about Rand herself, but in general it is a balanced presentation, I think. The only criticism I have is the inclusion of anything by or about the Branden's who hate Rand and are both liars and flaming hedonists. They are, perhaps, the biggest mistake Rand every made. The statement that Rand named Nathaniel her intellectual heir should never have been included. That honor fell to Leonard Peikoff, unfortunately. Branden was totally repudiated by Rand in October, 1968, as the charlatan he is.

The next two sections, which are a restatement of her ethical philosophy, and a summary of those aspects of her philosophy with which the writer agrees, are excellent. It is those two sections I was particularly referring to as a reliable summary of Rand's philosophy of ethics.

A Strange Statement

I know that writers and speakers, sometimes like to use terms and phrases in a unique or ironical sense. That rhetorical device can sometimes be effective, but only if the unique sense in which the term is being used is made clear to the listener or reader.

In this case it is not clear at all when Mr. Piper writes:

"I am a Christian Hedonist. This is partly why her work is alluring to me. She had her own brand of hedonism. It was not traditional hedonism that says whatever gives you pleasure is right."

Ayn Rand despised hedonism of any kind, traditional, Christian, or any other. To accuse her of that is neither merciful or just, but since most of what Rand wrote about hedonism is not in her published works (though much is) Mr Piper might not be aware of it. I think, perhaps, it is unjust for John Piper to call himself a hedonist, as well, because I do not think he really understands why it is so wrong. Rand did:

"Man exists for his own happiness, and the definition of happiness proper to a human being is: a man's happiness must be based on his moral values. It must be the highest expression of his moral values possible to him.

"This is the difference between my morality and hedonism. The standard is not: 'that is good which gives me pleasure, just because it gives me pleasure' (which is the standard of the dipsomaniac or the sex-chaser), but 'that is good which is the expression of my moral values, and that gives me pleasure.' Since the proper moral code is based on man's nature and his survival, and since joy is the expression of his survival, this form of happiness can have no contradiction in it, it is both 'short range' and 'long range' (as all of man's life has to be), and it leads to the furtherance of his life, not to his destruction." [The Journals of Ayn Rand, "13 - Notes While Writing: 1947-1952."]

"This classification assumes hedonism as its basic premise, that is: happiness as the standard of the good—then divides ethical theories according to the recipients of the happiness: oneself, others or all. But hedonism is not a valid ethical premise; 'happiness' is not an irreducible primary; it is the result, effect and consequence of a complex chain of causes. To say: 'The good is that which will make me happy or that which will serve my interests,' does not indicate what will make me happy or what will serve my interests. Hedonism, of course, assumes that the standard is emotional, subjective and arbitrary: anything that makes you feel happy is the good. But a feeling is not a standard of anything." [The Letters of Ayn Rand, "Letters To A Philosopher, to Professor Hospers, April 17, 1960."]

"This is the fallacy inherent in hedonism—in any variant of ethical hedonism, personal or social, individual or collective. "Happiness" can properly be the purpose of ethics, but not the standard. The task of ethics is to define man's proper code of values and thus to give him the means of achieving happiness. To declare, as the ethical hedonists do, that 'the proper value is whatever gives you pleasure' is to declare that 'the proper value is whatever you happen to value'—which is an act of intellectual and philosophical abdication, an act which merely proclaims the futility of ethics and invites all men to play it deuces wild." [The Virtue of Selfishness, "1. The Objectivist Ethics."]

Mr. Piper does say that Rand opposed traditional hedonism, in fact, however, Rand never embraced and totally repudiated all versions of hedonism.

A Common Misrepresentation

When the same lie is told over and over, and repeated by those one can usually trust and respect, it soon becomes "accepted" as unquestionable truth. I don't blame Mr. Piper for this, and am sorry he repeated the following:

"Ayn Rand was an atheist and outspokenly anti-Christian."

Ayn Rand was no more anti-Christian or anti-religion than protestants are anti-Catholic or Catholics are anti-protestant. Just as they disagree with each other, she disagreed with them both. She wrote a little in opposition to those specific teachings of religion she found rationally untenable, but as far as I know, she never wrote a work or made a speech strictly against religion. It just was not important enough to her to oppose everything she did not agree with, of which religion was only one.

Instead of listening to popular opinion, or the spoutings of those who call themselves "Objectivists" today, many of whom, unlike Rand, really are disgusting Christian haters, listen to Rand herself.

"I am not suggesting that you should take a stand against religion. I am saying that Capitalism and religion are two separate issues, which should not be united into one "package deal" or one common cause. This does not mean the religious persons cannot crusade for Capitalism; but it does mean the nonreligious persons, like myself, cannot crusade for religion." [The Letters of Ayn Rand, "The Later Years (1960-1981), to Senator Goldwater, June 4, 1960."]

"In accordance with the principles of America and of capitalism, I recognize your right to hold any beliefs you choose—and, on the same grounds, you have to recognize my right to hold any convictions I choose. I am an intransigent atheist, though not a militant one. This means that I am not fighting against religion, I am fighting for reason. When faith and reason clash, it is up to the religious people to decide how they choose to reconcile the conflict. As far as I am concerned, I have no terms of communication and no means to deal with people, except through reason. [The Letters of Ayn Rand, "The Later Years (1960-1981), to Bruce Alger, US congressman from Texas, February 4, 1963.]

Stating the Obvious

I am glad Mr. Piper included some of the criticisms that have always surrounded Rand. I always enjoy it when someone thinks they have discovered some flaw in Rand, like being, "indubitably, irrevocably, intransigently individual."

That's not exactly a revelation for anyone who truly knows Rand, and she would have considered it the highest possible compliment. In case anyone does not understand why, this is what Rand wrote to Marjorie Williams in 1936:

"That one word—individualism—is to be the theme song, the goal, the only aim of all my writing. If I have any real mission in life—this is it."

Unintentionally Misleading

This may seem like a quibble, but I think it is more important than it might appear. I also do not think Mr. Piper meant for this to be misunderstood.

He wrote, "She was right that the rational man should be dedicated to 'the goal of reshaping the earth in the image of his values.'" Quoting this out of context, however, can be quite misleading. By the "world," Rand did not mean "society" or the "political" world, she was referring to the reshaping of the material world to serve the requirements of human life, by discovery and invention, for example. Rand was very much opposed to schemes or movements for "saving the world," or "transforming society."

An Unusual Understanding

I do not mean this as a criticism of Christians, but there is something they frequently say which is patently untrue; which is, that religion is necessary because without it, there could be no moral values.

What Mr Piper has gloriously demonstrated is that moral or ethical values are absolutes based on the nature of reality itself, and are as discoverable and as inviolable as the laws of physics. For that I cannot praise his article enough.

So, I somewhat reluctantly move on to his final section which he calls a critique of Rand's ethical philosophy.

Perhaps an Unintentional Straw Man

I have no criticism of Mr. Piper invoking his beliefs in his criticism of Rand. It's what he believes. My criticism, here, will only concern a possible misunderstand of Rand and her philosophy, which I suspect is as much semantic as it is substantive.

Piper blames his differences with Rand on her atheism, but her atheism had nothing to do with her ethical philosophy. Even in stating his differences he does not quite get Rand's views correct. He wrote:

"Men must deal with each other as traders not as looters and parasites. The Christian, on the other hand, is instructed: "bless those who curse you" (Luke 6:28). In short, Ayn Rand has no place for mercy, whereas Christianity has mercy at its heart.

"Why was there this conflict here? I think it was due to Rand's thoroughgoing immanentalism: the complete rejection of a divine or supernatural dimension to reality. If she was right in her atheism and naturalism, then I think her system was consistent at the point of demanding only justice."

I am not sure if there is such a word as "immanentalism," which I could not find in any dictionary. There is a word, "immanentism" which means the opposite of what Mr. Piper seems to be suggesting—it means "Any of various religious theories postulating that a deity, mind, or spirit is immanent in the world and in the individual." I think he meant to say, "Rand's thoroughgoing rejection of immanentism," but that would not be quite correct. She was not a "naturalist" in the sense he uses it, (the term has largely been replaced by the term "physicalist," today). Rand used the terms "physical" and "material" somewhat interchangeably, and explicitly believed matter (everything we can be conscious of by means of perception) and consciousness (that which perceives matter) were distinct and different things.

She certainly did not believe in a "supernatural" existence, that is, some reality different and distinct from the one we are conscious of, and certainly did not believe the soul (consciousness) could exist separately form the body, or vice-versa. She was not a "dualist," however, and certainly not a physicalist, and regarded consciousness (or mind) as non-material or non-physical. She wrote:

"Man is an entity of mind and body, an indivisible union of two elements: of consciousness and matter. Matter is that which one perceives, consciousness is that which perceives it; your fundamental act of perception is an indivisible whole consisting of both; to deny, to [separate] or to equate them is to contradict the nature of your perception, to contradict the axiom of existence, to contradict your basic definitions and to invalidate whatever concepts you might attempt to hold thereafter.

"Your consciousness is that which you know—and are alone to know—by direct perception. It is that indivisible unit where knowledge and being are one, it is your 'I,' it is the self which distinguishes you from all else in the universe. No consciousness can perceive another consciousness, only the results of its actions in material form, since only matter is an object of perception, and consciousness is the subject, perceivable by its nature only to itself. To perceive the consciousness, the 'I,' of another would mean to become that other 'I'—a contradiction in terms; to speak of souls perceiving one another is a denial of your 'I,' of perception, of consciousness, of matter. The 'I' is the irreducible unit of life." [The Journals of Ayn Rand "14 - Notes While Writing Galt's Speech, Mind and Body"]

Leonard Peikoff further explains Rand's position. (This is from the Rand-approved work.)

"The monist insistence that, despite the observed facts, reality (or man) can have only one constituent, is groundless; it is an example of rewriting reality. The materialist equation of physics with science is equally groundless. Science is systematic knowledge gained by the use of reason based on observation. In using reason, however, one must study each specific subject matter by the methods and techniques suited to its nature. One cannot study history by the methods of chemistry, biology by the methods of economics, or psychology by the methods of physics. At the dawn of philosophy, the ancient Pythagoreans in an excess of enthusiasm attempted, senselessly, to equate mathematics with cognition and to construe the universe as "numbers." The modern behaviorists, with far less excuse, commit the same error in regard to physics.

"'I want,' the behaviorist says in effect, 'to deal with entities I can weigh and measure just as the physicist does. If consciousness exists, my dream of making psychology a branch of physics is destroyed. Consciousness upsets my program, my goal, my ideal. Therefore, consciousness is unreal.' In this statement, a desire is being used to wipe out a fact of reality. The primacy of consciousness is being used to deny consciousness!

"A philosophy that rejects the monism of idealism or materialism does not thereby become 'dualist.' This term is associated with a Platonic or Cartesian metaphysics; it suggests the belief in two realities, in the mind-body opposition, and in the soul's independence of the body—all of which Ayn Rand denies." [Objectivism:The Philosophy of Ayn Rand "Chapter 1 - Reality"]

So Rand's supposed inability to find a place for "mercy" in her ethical philosophy, if so, would not be because of her naturalism or physicalism, because she was not a physicalist at all. And it was not because she did not believe in God, as Piper suggests:

"The new fact of reality is that God cannot be traded with as a man. There is nothing that man can offer to God that is not already his."

Since her ethics has nothing to do with any relationship except one's own relationship with other men, what could or could not be traded with God is irrelevant. For those who believe in God, this information may be paramount, but for those who do not, it means nothing at all, and either way, has nothing to do with that aspect of ethics that deals with the relationships between people.

Mercy Versus Justice?

Look again at Mr. Piper's criticism of Rand: "'Men must deal with each other as traders not as looters and parasites.' The Christian, on the other hand, is instructed: 'bless those who curse you' (Luke 6:28). In short, Ayn Rand has no place for mercy, whereas Christianity has mercy at its heart. ... If she was right ..., then I think her system was consistent at the point of demanding only justice."

Piper has made "mercy" and "justice" antagonists, as though justice contradicted mercy. Since he quoted Rand as the example of justice, "Men must deal with each other as traders not as looters and parasites," the opposite of justice would be for men to do just that, deal with each other "as looters and parasites." If mercy is the opposite of justice, is dealing with each other as looters and parasites mercy's ideal? I know this cannot be what Mr. Piper intended.

Mercy and justice are on the same side. There is nothing less merciful than injustice, especially an injustice which causes the innocent to suffer. This is where I think Mr. Piper and others misunderstand Rand.

Two Mistaken Views

One aspect of Christianity that I have always admired is the fact it is a religion of individuality. One's relationship with God is between the individual and God. Salvation is an individual matter, not a collective one.

One cannot read the Bible without being aware that the God described therein is not only a God of mercy, but a God judgment, and justice. It has always seemed to me, Jesus was not very merciful to the money changers in the temple. But it was just. So there are two things I think Mr Piper is mistaken about with regard to Rand's views:

The first is related to the fact that all behests of Scripture, such as "bless those who curse you," or "be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another," [Eph. 4:32] are to individuals—individuals dealing with other individuals. Rand would have no objection to an individual forgiving a wrong, for example, if that wrong was done to them personally. In her personal life, Rand was both kind and generous to others, and patient almost to a fault. Of course you'll never learn any of those things if all you read is what is written by those who despise her. [For something different, you can read the book, Facets of Ayn Rand, by Mary Ann and Charles Sures, online.]

The second mistake is about Rand's emphasis. Moral or ethical values are always first, personal, but they also dictate what is right and wrong in human relationships, and that is where the emphasis against altruism always is in Rand. Be as altruistic as you like in your personal relationships, if that is your choice, but in terms of any social policy or political laws, altruism and mercy are always cover-ups for injustices and the worst kinds of evil. "Feed the poor," if you choose to, but "It is not right to take the children's bread, and cast it to dogs." [Mat. 15:26] It is not right to take the hard earned dollars of American citizens (thou shalt not steal) and send them to some foreign country while taking the credit for being generous politicians (thou shalt not bear false witness). Help the indigent if you choose, but it is still true, "If any would not work, neither should he eat." [2 Thess. 3:10]

Rand clearly believed if by altruism is meant "self-sacrifice," which is sacrificing a higher value to a lower one, or even a negative one, it is always wrong, and self-destructive. Mr. Piper made that very clear. He seems to think that "mercy" in some way reverses that. But I think he misunderstands his own religion here. This is only my personal opinion, of course, but I do not think the Bible teaches altruistic self-sacrifice anywhere.

Several times in the first three Gospels there are words similar to these: "If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me." This might seem to be a description of altruistic self-sacrifice, but it is not. For example: "Verily I say unto you, there is no man that hath left house, or parents, or brethren, or wife, or children, for the kingdom of God's sake, who shall not receive manifold more in this present time, and in the age to come life everlasting." [Luke 18:29&30] Remember that altruistic self-sacrifice is sacrificing a higher value to a lower one. That is not ever recommended in the Bible. The recommendation of temporal sacrifice is based on the simple principle of sacrificing the immediate (lower value) for the sake of the long term (higher value), which for Christians, is the permanent. If one truly believes what is sacrificed during their sojourn in this world is far outweighed by the rewards, however great the, "sacrifice," it is not altruistic. Even the sacrifice of Jesus was not altruistic. It was because of the "joy that was set before him," (higher value) that he, "endured the cross," (lower value). [Hebrews 12:2]

I've always wondered why Christians embrace the word "altruism." It is a distinctly anti-Christian idea. Auguste "Comte coined the words altruism and sociology and developed what he called 'human religion' which we now call Secular Humanism."

Ayn Rand, nor I, would agree with Christians about what their highest value is, but for me, I would be disappointed in anyone who did not seek to live entirely in line with their highest values, which in Christian terms, I believe, would be to live a "Godly life." But that does not mean a miserable life. "Godliness is profitable unto all things, having the promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come." [1 Tim. 4:8] And, God, "gives us richly all things to enjoy." [1 Tim. 6:17]

—(12/16/09)