Atlas Shrugs but Should I Care?

Categories: Atheism, General, Politics
by on March 31st, 2011

A new movie is coming out and hopefully it will be coming to your neighborhood. Its based on the best-selling novel, Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. Here’s a trailer:

The plot of Atlas Shrugged is . . . monumental– too long to describe but essentially it is a story of capitalists and entrepreneurs who go on strike in response to Government interference with the market. The enigmatic John Galt pledges to stop the motor of the world in order for society to see that capitalism and especially entrepreneurs are the Atlas that hold up the world. It should be a good movie and will definitely spark debate about government, business, and the value of individual achievement. Any way you look at it, Ayn Rand is an important philosopher for us to examine and her thought, like all thought should be brought captive to Christ. Strong evangelicals have wrestled with Rand for years:

In my judgment, Ayn Rand was a very important intellectual voice in America and must be seriously reckoned with if for no other reason than the wide readership her novels have received and are still receiving in the 21st century. But there are other reasons. When first reading Atlas Shrugged and especially the speech of John Galt, which Rand says is the briefest summary of her philosophy,I was continually provoked to deeper and clearer perception and thought. I did not share the undifferentiated condemnations against her fiction . . . But even more, Ayn Rand was right on some fundamental issues.

So says Evangelical rock star and self-proclaimed Christian hedonist, John Piper. In his piece, The “Ethics of Ayn Rand: Appreciation and Critique”, he attempts to come to terms with the Russian born Anarcho-Capitalist  as a Christian and as someone who confesses a penchant for Rand’s thinking. When I first stumbled upon this essay I too was intrigued. Piper and I have a lot in common. Besides both being Christians, we both have a grudging admiration of Ayn Rand. Mine could be more accurately called a Love/Hate relationship. I sometimes hate that I love reading Atlas Shrugged and Rand hates pretty much everything I love dearly–charity, altruism, self-sacrifice, and (oh yes) God.

I should point out that for the past several years I have continually been surrounded by Randians and Neo-Randians (don’t get me started on the differences) at my previous graduate school. Some of these were thoughtful, kind and well respected. Others seemed to be zealots for the Rand’s self-decreed philosophy: Objectivism which espouses individualism as the cardinal virtue of “selfishness.” These Randians seemed to treat Rand as a secular saint. What was important was Rand’s thoughts on independence not independent thought itself. Prominent Anarcho-Capitalist Murray Rothbard echoes my sentiments about what he calls the “cult of St. Ayn”:

The Rand cult was concerned not with every man’s individuality, but only with Rand’s individuality, not with everyone’s right reason but only with Rand’s reason. The only individuality that flowered to the extent of blotting out all others, was Ayn Rand’s herself; everyone else was to become a cipher subject to Rand’s mind and will.

I suppose any philosophy can become a cult if enough people surrender to the cause. But what is this ideology? Well if you want the succinct version just look in the middle of her novel Atlas Shrugged where John Galt addresses the nation with a near 100 page diatribe of what Rand believed. I’ll confine myself to her own summa of the summa again from the mouth of Galt:

My philosophy in essence is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity and reason as his only absolute.

In short Rand held to a rational atheism and an ethical egoism. I think we all know what Atheism is. Its important however to emphasize that for Rand, atheism was the only rational course. Rand once met Conservative guru and devout Catholic, William F. Buckley at some function.  Buckley reported that Rand’s only substantive comment to him was that he was far to intelligent to believe in God.

Ethical egoism, on the other hand is not as well known. Ethical egoism is the view that what determines something is a good ethical reason for an individual to do or not do something is if it contributes to his own flourishing. Rand intended this to mean that an act is the right thing to do only if it is in the self-interest of the person doing the act. Those last two sentences are not equivalent. It may be that my individual flourishing is intimately tied up with the flourishing of others. In which case, charity may be reasonable even for an egoist. In fact, Christian philosopher Scott MacDonald makes a convincing argument that Thomas Aquinas advocated a kind of rational egoism as the basis for Christian morality “Egoistic Rationalism: Aquinas’s Basis for Christian Morality.” In Christian Theism and the Problems of Philosophy) However, Rand’s egoism says explicitly that our flourishing cannot be dependent on the flourishing of others. In Atlas Shrugged, Hank Rearden sums up his philosophy with one clear statement:

I swear by my life and my love of it that I will not live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.

Rand’s hero is not only self-sufficient but one who holds no moral obligation to care for the poor, the disabled, or the destitute. And that is where Rand and I part ways. I will certainly decry the folly of state-coercion of people to care for the less fortunate as immoral. I cannot, however, ignore the obligations placed on me by Christ. Of course Rand would think those kinds of obligations, obligations to others beyond refraining from force or fraud, are a sign of weakness. They are human sacrifices:

Man’s mind, say the mystics of spirit, must be subordinated to the will of God… Man’s standard of value, say the mystics of spirit, is the pleasure of God, whose standards are beyond man’s power of comprehension and must be accepted on faith….The purpose of man’s life…is to become an abject zombie who serves a purpose he does not know, for reasons he is not to question.

This blog itself is testament to the rashness of that claim. MCOI is dedicated to the flourishing of our reason. Far too many Christians are zombies but that does not mean Christianity is a form of necromancy. So what is at the heart of Rand’s distaste for Christian values? In her Virtue of Selfishness, Rand makes the axiom Never “grant the unearned or undeserved, neither in matter nor in spirit.” Put simply there is no place for grace in Rand’s worldview. And if there is no place for unearned grace there really is no place for love–not love in the Christian sense. There is room for what gets called love when song-writers talk about “lovin” as in (and I’m dating myself here) Def Leppard’s “Gimme all of your lovin” “Lovin” in this sense is self-interest elevated to a form of pagan worship. But true agape simply cannot exist in Rand’s world.

I do hope that the Atlas Shrugged movie sparks debate. I hope it fires up a debate about the unholy alliances between big business and government, the morality of free markets, and what it means to live with integrity but I will be watching the movie with a kind of bitter sweet angst because its sad to see such powerful talent and such a brilliant mind such as Rand, stumble on pride and miss grace.

Perhaps more about Rand as I reread Atlas Shrugged and see the movie.

4 responses to “Atlas Shrugs but Should I Care? ”

  1. J. Jackson says:

    Good commentary. Loved your quote that “far too many Christians are zombies but that does not mean Christianity is a form of necromancy.” But ZZ Top did “Gimme All Your Lovin’” :)

  2. Mike 71 says:

    I live my life by reason, not be Christian, or other forms of mysticism and superstition! That is why I don’t care for superstition!

  3. jkmiles says:

    J. Jackson,

    yes, my bad. But isn’t there a def leppard song that has that line in it: “Gimme all of your lovin gimme all that you’ve got” ? I could swear that’s DL.

  4. jkmiles says:

    Mike, is it your contention that reason and Christian thinking are incompatible?

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