How Ayn Rand Influenced Me, and Reconciling Objectivism with Religion

October 22nd, 2009

At Volokh, Ilya Somin writes an interesting post about Ayn Rand, titled “Assessing Ayn Rand: “An Utterly Intolerant and Dogmatic Person Who Did a Great Deal of Good”. Ilya discusses how his libertarianism was never influenced by Rand, despite her prominence to spread the cause of libertarianism in the 20th Century.

I was never much influenced by Rand or impressed by her writings. I became a libertarian in high school primarily as a result of reading Friedman, Hayek, Nozick, and Thomas Sowell – and because being a refugee from communism prevented me from becoming a left-liberal, as would otherwise have been likely. I also read some of Rand’s books at that time. But I wasn’t impressed with her effort to defend free markets based on her theory of the “virtue of selfishness.” or her “Objectivist” philosophy. Many of her ideas seemed poorly developed or superficial. I was also turned off by her intolerance for disagreement and her lack of serious effort to engage with opposing points of view.

Frequent readers of my blog will know that I am a fan of Rand. Just check out all of my John Galt posts.

I had a much different experience than Ilya. My libertarianism was largely informed, if not guided by my experiences with Rand. While in College, I considered myself strictly a conservative. I favored limited government and individual rights, but I didn’t really know why.

My 1L Semester at Mason, in our Law & Economics Seminar, Professor Rustici (one of the best Professors I have ever had) asked us to read Capitalism, the Unknown Ideal. Let’s just say it rocked my world. Rand systematically explained why capitalism is the economic system of government most compatible with individual liberty and freedom.

After reading Capitalism, I ventured to conquer Atlas Shrugged. As I was working 40 hours a week and attending law school as an evening student, I could only manage 20 pages a day. It took me nearly 6 months to read, but I was enraptured by every minute of reading that amazing book. I began seeing parallels between the stories Rand told, and our society sliding towards statism. I subsequently read the Fountainhead, the Virtue of Selfishness, and other Rand works. And I was hooked.

These works helped me understand why I favored limited government, and why individual liberty is essential to a persons being. Every day, I strive to make all my actions rational, and try to do nothing that will hurt another.

More after the jump, and reconciling obejctivism and religion.

One of the most significant points Somin makes centers around Rand’s insistence than anyone who considers themselves an Objectivist must adopt her philosophy in toto. In fact, Rand detested religion, and considered a belief in a higher power as totally antithetical to the principles of Objectivism.

Rand also believed that one could not be a true supporter of free markets and limited government without also endorsing Objectivist views on a wide variety of non-political subjects, such as her atheism, her “Romantic” views on art and literature, and what she considered to be her rationalistic theories of love and romance. Over the years, she cut herself off from nearly all of her friends and admirers, often because they had expressed disagreement with some relatively minor part of her views.

Some commenters and others doubt that Rand actually believed that true support for capitalism and a free society requires endorsement of her views on religion, literature, and other nonpolitical issues. However, Rand repeatedly stated that Objectivism was a unified philosophy that had to be accepted across the board. As Burns shows in her biography, this was one of the reasons why Rand was so intolerant of other libertarian thinkers – and even members of her inner circle – who disagreed with elements of her philosophy even though they agreed with her on most public policy issues. She also claimed that religion was intrinsically “anti-man” and inherently hostile to freedom and capitalism. Rand expressed similar views about the need to adhere to the correct views on literature and other issues, in order to consistently support freedom.

I am fully cognizant that a belief in objectivism requires a rejection of religion. I am also fully cognizant that a belief in Judaism requires not working on the Sabbath. Yet, I follow neither. Does that make me a bad Jew, or a bad Objectivist? Maybe. But does that require that I reject the fundamental premises of both belief systems. I don’t think so.

No one is perfect. We all fail. To reject a belief system because you cannot adhere to 100% of the doctrines would relegate most, if not all people, to a meaningless life.

Life is about a journey, a pursuit (of happiness) if you will. I try as hard as I can to do as much as I can. I like certain aspects of objectivism, much like I like certain aspects of religion. If picking and choosing makes me a hypocrite, so be it.

Perhaps a person who believes in God would not have been welcomed into Rand’s inner circle, but fans of liberty can still read Rand’s work, learn from it, and preach the gospel.

Who is John Galt?

Update: I received a fantastic comment from a friend on facebook. He wrote:

Very interesting post, Josh. As you know I consider myself ethnically and culturally Jewish but do not observe at all. What I have not been able to reconcile with picking-and-choosing what religious commandments to observe is this: if I believe in God and his commandments, then who am *I* to pick and choose which of the 613 to obey? This isn… Read More’t just an issue of blatant hypocrisy like driving to synagogue on Saturday or Yom Kippur, or being “Jewish” for two weeks out of the year, but goes deeper into one’s relationship with the religion.

I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts on this, because this is something I’ve been thinking a lot about myself. Sure, one can choose to follow one part of Rand’s philosophy and not another. But God, if you believe in him, is obviously a higher authority. After all, we don’t pick and choose what parts of the Constitution to follow!

My response:

In large measure, I feel that I am free to “pick and choose” (as you call it) because God created me this way. Hashem gave us all the power to think and reason. If he wanted to, he could have disabled our ability to live outside the dogma of religion.

Now, just because I can “pick and choose,” doesn’t mean I should “pick and choose.” I try, to varying degrees of success, to follow as many tenets of religion as I can. But, I’m still human, and this is how G-d created me. Not as a perfect automaton, but as a rational being attempting to figure out life

Does that make sense? That is how I rationalize things for myself. Works for me, may not work for others.