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“John Galt is a Heathen!” The Inconvenient Atheism of Ayn Rand

The following paper was presented at the Seventh Annual Telos Conference, held on February 15–17, 2013, in New York City.

The banking crisis of 2007–8 became interpreted by many commentators as a failure of the neo-liberal economics that had been internationally ascendant for approximately three decades. Following the government bailout of the banks, even some leading evangelists for laissez-faire capitalism, such as Alan Greenspan, came to reflect on “flaws” within their ideology.[1] The younger Greenspan had been a disciple of Ayn Rand, whose fiercely individualistic philosophy had been popularized in her best-selling novels The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957).[2] Yet the political fallout from the banking crisis provoked a resurgence of interest in Rand’s work,[3] with some on the political Right arguing the crisis had actually been provoked by state involvement in the economy. It was contended that the U.S. government had believed that large financial institutions were “too big to fail,” thus emboldening actors within these organizations to take far greater risks than they would otherwise have contemplated. In this regard Ayn Rand has even been referred to as a prophet of the crisis. Rand argued that government control over the economy would tend to induce deep problems that would then be blamed on the free-market and the avarice of businessmen. Consequently, demands would then be made for greater government control and more public spending. However (and as the plot transpires in Atlas Shrugged), these interventions only serve to make economic conditions worse as the creativity of entrepreneurs is further stifled by regulation. This explanation of the crisis has been influential within the renewal of the populist Right, evident in the “Who is John Galt?” banners that have appeared at numerous Tea Party events and anti-Obama protests.

Rand’s fictional figure of John Galt possesses all the characteristics she believed were worth admiring and aspiring to. In Atlas Shrugged Galt refuses the “collectivist” ethos of his workplace and secretly organizes a strike by the best business minds in the United States, with the aim of demonstrating that national prosperity is dependent upon such people being free to innovate. John Galt is thus the ultimate “alpha male,” a leader who is unrestrained by popular wisdom and who has the bravery to pursue his own projects without any notion that he should sacrifice any part of himself to others. Indeed Galt became an inspiration to many successful real-world entrepreneurs, including a number of the Silicon Valley pioneers.[4] Within a sixty-page monologue in Atlas Shrugged, Galt’s character is used by Rand to outline her philosophy of “Objectivism.” Galt divides the world into those who create and innovate as against those who effectively “mooch” and “loot” the wealth created by others. Rand’s influence on sections of the American Right has been considerable. There were echoes of her thinking in 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s dismissal of what he considered to be the “forty-seven percent” of Americans “who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.”[5] Romney’s vice-presidential running mate, Paul Ryan, previously cited Rand as “the reason I got involved in public service” and encouraged his employees to read copies of her books.

However, as much as Rand has inspired many on the Right, she has also been the cause of considerable embarrassment. Rand’s advocacy of the “virtues of selfishness” sits uneasily alongside many strands of conservatism that tend to be skeptical of philosophies that claim to be founded upon objective rationality. Her social attitudes, including support for abortion rights and sexual freedom, dovetail much more closely with the American libertarian movement than with mainstream conservatism. However, even many of Rand’s devoted fans are often troubled by a significant aspect of her worldview, i.e., her atheism. Key to Rand’s attack on the concept of self-sacrifice is her rejection of the idea of a God to whom the individual should be subservient. Indeed, she is deeply hostile to Christianity and its emphasis on altruism. A key feature of John Galt’s objectivist monologue is an attack on Christianity and the notion of original sin. This doctrine, it is contended, encourages the contradictory idea that people have “free will” yet have a built-in tendency to do wrong. The knowledge of this tendency generates guilt, which one must then atone for by attending to the concerns or “rotting sores” of others. For Rand, altruism is directly evil as it prevents individuals pursuing their own ends and projects, which in turn harms the society that depends on such creativity for its wealth.

Rand’s atheism presents multiple difficulties for many of her supporters. In particular, there is the challenge of trying to reconcile admiration for Rand’s philosophy with devotion to evangelical Protestantism or other strands of Christian thought. This is a problem especially when sections of the Right are so critical of what they view as the damaging influence of secular thought on American society. Atheism is often regarded as an indicator of liberalism or socialism, following in a conservative tradition that earlier counter-posed itself to “Godless Communism.” The key argument is that without belief in God there can be no ultimate foundation for ethical behavior, and hence atheists will be prone to moral relativism, or else to become enthralled with dangerous worldly philosophies. Hence Rand’s followers on the Christian Right will tend to downplay or ignore her atheism. In other instances her atheism does lead to groups or individuals having to (publicly at least) distance or dissociate themselves from her influence.[7] Shortly before he became selected as the Republican vice-presidential candidate, Paul Ryan succumbed to political pressure to publicly disown Rand, and did so by emphasizing her lack of belief in God, stating: “I reject her philosophy—it’s an atheist philosophy.”

Though atheism is not prevalent among thinkers on the American Right, it is not as uncommon as it is sometimes supposed. For example, a number of prominent neoconservatives have been atheists, though this is rarely overtly admitted. Authors such as Leo Strauss and Irving Kristol appeared to be privately atheist but were nonetheless convinced that religion was good for the masses, discouraging them from adopting selfish, hedonistic, and nihilistic approaches to life. Kristol advocated “a double standard of truth. Let men believe in the lies of religion since they cannot do without them, and let the handful of sages, who know the truth and can live with it, keep it among themselves.”[8] Thus atheism is deemed acceptable for responsible intellectual elites, but also understood as too dangerous an idea to popularize more generally. Such neoconservatives advocate strongly pro-Christian approaches to their politics, convinced of the role religion can play in providing social cohesion and comfort.

In this regard Rand’s approach to religion could scarcely be more different. For Rand the influence of Christianity, with its emphasis on altruism, was corrosive to character. Indeed she described the teachings of Jesus as “the best kindergarten for Communism.” Having fled a life in Communist Russia, Rand was clear that it was not atheism that produced totalitarianism, but rather collectivist and altruistic attitudes. For Rand, Christian morality had to be directly confronted and indeed replaced with her objectivist ethics. Much of Rand’s animosity to Abrahamic religion emerges because it asserts a being “higher” than Man, and thus immediately lends itself to philosophies that downplay the significance of the self.

Rand’s popularity on the American Right is doubly ironic. First there is the obvious difficulty of evangelical Republicans championing the views of such a public atheist. Of course, theoretical consistency is not always a feature of popular political discourses. Yet Rand’s rejection of altruism confers an ongoing vulnerability for Christians identifying with or promoting her views. Second there is the fact that many on the Christian Right insist that political and theological positions cannot, and should not, reasonably be treated as distinct in the way many secularists suppose. In this vein they have presented various practical challenges to the established idea of a constitutional separation of Church and State. However, in the case of Rand’s philosophy, some on the Right appear to find it easy enough to separate her politics from her (a)theology.

However, Rand’s atheism is not only inconvenient for many on the Right. Over the last decade radical strands of atheism have obtained significant publicity, most notably the new atheists such as Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins. The popularity of new atheist texts has arguably provided a boost for many campaigning atheists and radical secularists who seek to challenge the role of religion within American society. A related “identity” politics has emerged around atheism, with groups campaigning against the social or professional discrimination sometimes experienced by non-believers. These developments correlate with a huge increase in the number of Americans self-identifying as atheists since 2005.[9] At the same, atheists continue to be one of the most distrusted minority groups.[10] One issue for campaigning atheists is that although they stress the attractiveness of atheism for those of all political persuasions, in practice there are often strong ties to versions of “progressive” thinking, including broadly liberal, left-of-center worldviews.[11] Within such circles strong links are made between a rejection of God and “rationalist” forms of thinking. The fact that fundamentalist Christian views are often found among political conservatives serves to reinforce an atheist-liberal versus theistic-conservative dichotomy that often suits the campaigning purposes of both sides. For radical atheists it can be helpful for Christianity to be linked with reactionary ideologies, which in turn assists them present the spread of atheism as part of a sweeping away of repressive traditions. At the same time, linking liberalism (or almost any kind of anti-conservatism) with atheism can serve a useful political purpose for conservatives within a predominantly Christian country. Indeed a difficulty for campaigning atheists can be that those who may doubt the existence of God but have right-leaning political tendencies may be reluctant to associate themselves with a cause dominated by progressives. Given this context, once might expect such atheists to make more reference to Rand, who, after all, has been one of the most prominent and widely read atheists in American history. Christopher Hitchens did attempt, unsuccessfully, to have a section of Rand’s essay “Requiem for Man” included in the anthology of atheist work he assembled, titled The Portable Atheist (2007). However, such efforts are the exception rather than the rule. This may well be because Rand’s broader politics are considered so obnoxious by many atheists that they decline to give any of her views any further attention. More specifically, Rand’s overt promotion of the virtues of selfishness is a dimension of her work that radical atheists have a strong incentive not to associate with. As Susan Jacoby comments “Rand’s devotion to tooth-and-claw social Darwinism, her insistence that people owe nothing to one another, represent a stereotype that religious believers commonly use against atheists.”[12]

Slavoj Žižek argues that Rand’s philosophy represents a kind of “over-conformism” with capitalism that can ultimately be counterproductive for Rand’s own cause. He appears to suggest that in her excessive identification with capitalist ideology, she ends up having to openly defend the worst features of the economic system. However, what is perhaps more ideologically significant is the populist Right’s selective appropriation of Rand. Even as interest in her work has revived, there is still a marked reluctance to engage with the totality of her thought. The suppression of her atheism has been necessary for political forces unwilling to confront the challenges she poses to Christian worldviews. In response to the question “Who is John Galt?” it ought to be emphasized that he is an atheist, however inconvenient that may be for entrenched political narratives.

Notes

1. Edmund L. Andrews, “Greenspan Concedes Error on Regulation,” New York Times, October 23, 2008.

2. Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead (New York: Bobbs Merrill, 1943); Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged (New York: Random House, 1957).

3. Oliver Burkeman, “Look Out For Number One: American Turns to Prophet of Self-Interest,” Guardian (UK), March 10, 2009.

4. “Love and Power,” episode one of BBC documentary series All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, produced by Adam Curtis.

5. Michael Cohen, “Romney’s 47% gaffe makes him 100% unsuitable to be president,” Guardian (UK), September 18, 2012.

6. Jane Mayer, “Ayn Rand Joins the Ticket,” New Yorker, August 11, 2012.

7. Gary Weiss, Ayn Rand Nation: The Hidden Struggle for America’s Soul (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2012).

8. Irving Kristol, Neo-Conservatism: Autobiography of an Idea (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995).

9. Press Release, Red C Opinion Poll, Global Index of Religiosity and Religion, WIN-Gallup International, available as PDF here.

10. W.M. Gervais, A.F. Shariff, A. Norenzavan, “Do you believe in atheists? Distrust is central to anti-atheist prejudice,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 101, no. 6 (2011): 1189–1206.

11. “Nones on the Rise: One in Five Adults have no Religious Affiliation: Social and Political Views of the Unaffiliated,” The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

12. Susan Jacoby, “The Ayn Rand revival: economics, sex and atheism for dummies,” Washington Post, April 20, 2011.

13. Slavoj Žižek, “The Actuality of Ayn Rand,” Journal of Ayn Rand Studies 3, no. 2 (2002): 215–27.

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