50 Years After Atlas Shrugged: A Mystic Reads Rand
Introducing a religious Libertarian's response to the creed of a Libertarian Atheist
by Jonathan Wilson
June 11, 2005
I. Introduction to the Article Series
A. Discovering the Libertarian Atheist
The partisan divisions in American society are painted in broad strokes by a media obsessed with summary and sound-byte. Thus we have red states versus blue states, liberal city populations versus conservative town and country populations, the gender gap, and liberal versus fundamentalist religionists.
These generalities obscure whole perspectives that are part of America's cultural strata. I will now paint in somewhat finer strokes, although still risking generalities, one such strata in the thought-world of the United States: the Libertarian Atheist.
I do not mean that all Libertarians are atheist – far from it. There are plenty of anti-federalist groups that fit under the umbrella of Libertarian political philosophy, and many of them are established on religious principles. The Libertarian Atheist, like all Libertarians, is a free-market individualist who lobbies to limit the powers of the national government.
The Libertarian Atheist is an anomaly in the assumptions of today's media pundits. According to policy wonks all atheists, agnostics, and lapsed religionists are supposed to be pushing the socialist agendas of the Democratic Party's left-wing. And yet, godless Libertarians abound. When my wife worked in the corporate world, she was challenged by a co-worker, a self-avowed godless Libertarian, to read a particular novel that would introduce her to a world-view with which she had little experience. That novel is Atlas Shrugged, written by Ayn Rand.
My wife survived three hundred pages before she returned the copy to her co-worker. That was in 1995. We thought no more of it until 2003, when it was recommended to me by a close Libertarian friend. The paperback version I bought is 1063 pages. It is slow-reading, not at all like the compulsive page-turners of pulp fiction. After nearly two years of fits and starts I finished the novel in May 2005.
Neither of the terms "Libertarian" or "atheist" are found within its pages. This is a title that I apply not as a pejorative, but as a description: The heroes in the novel propound a philosophy of Libertarian atheism in word and deed. This philosophy is called "Objectivism," of which Ayn Rand is the founding thinker and apologist.
As she articulates Objectivism through her characters, Rand's atheism is as pointed and specific in its polemics as is her economic philosophy. Those of a religious persuasion who are defensive about their faith would find in her criticisms enough reason to dismiss her philosophy outright.
I am religious. I am a church pastor, a Biblicist and an evangelical. For those of you interested in nuance, I am not a "fundamentalist." Earlier articles on the Partial Observer demonstrate that I am neither neo-conservative nor a fan of the Bush Administration. In fact, in the 2004 elections I voted for Libertarian candidates.
My concern here is not to defend my religion from Rand's critique by attacking Objectivism in turn or by treating Rand's entire project as contemptible. In fact, there is much about Rand's philosophy with which I agree. Instead, my aim is to demonstrate that her diatribe against theism is grounded on either her misunderstanding of religion's content, or, the misrepresentation of that content by mistaken religious apologists.
B. Background to the Novel
Atlas Shrugged appeared first in 1957. According to its own notes and prefaces, the novel's author, Ayn Rand, was born in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1905. As a young girl exposed to the great novels of European authors, she resolved to become a novelist herself. She lived through the Bolshevic Revolution and experienced first-hand the confiscation and collectivization of her father's pharmacy and periods of near starvation. At the age of 20 she obtained permission—from a not quite thoroughly paranoid Soviet state, to visit relatives in the United States. She arrived in America, never to return.
She got started in Hollywood, where she met and married Frank O'Connor in 1929. In the 1930's she began to write her novels. We the Living was published in 1936. As an autobiographical account of her home country's plunge into socialism, the novel was roundly criticized by American intellectuals enamored of the Soviet Union's own press releases. The Fountainhead appeared in 1943 and became a best-seller. In 1946 she began Atlas Shrugged which was published in 1957. What was not possible due to the pro-Stalinist naivete of American intellectual society in 1936, was received very well in the Cold War environment of 1957.
Her intellectual pilgrimage bore its fruit in the Objectivist philosophy which she founded, centered on Aristotelean premises:
She used her novels as a narrative platform for her philosophy. Her heroes come in two shapes: they are able to articulate the objectivist philosophy, or, they experience the truth of the objective philosophy instinctively but need to learn how to articulate it and to live into its virtues. Atlas Shrugged is the full flower of objectivism; it is Ayn Rand's opus and her final novel. After its publication she became an evangelist of objectivism and turned her attention to non-fiction apologetics.
The hero of Atlas Shrugged is John Galt, the young inventor of advanced technologies who becomes the sage of objectivism. He has a circle of disciples and a circle of avowed enemies. Most of the point-of-view is centered on two genius business executives: First is Dagny Taggart, a female who in a world of glass-ceilings is raised to corporate vice-president. Her spineless brother, meanwhile, inherits the presidency of the vast private enterprise called the Taggart Railroad. Second is Hank Rearden, a steel manufacturer who is able to produce a new and superior alloy.
The novel describes a United States in which the national government drifts further toward collectivization and social entitlement at the expense of a diminishing industrial output. What must prevent this trend is a revolution begun not by the masses, but by the elite, who are galvanized by John Galt. The elite are the industrialist geniuses, the presidents and CEO's of various cutting-edge corporations, who choose to voluntarily withdraw from the system as their profit incentives are removed. Dagny and Hank are the two last industrialists to hold out, trying to work within the increasingly collectivized systems. These industrialists, the minds that produce innovation from which the world benefits, are "Atlas," the Greek god who holds up the world. When Atlas shrugs, the world topples over.
Much about the story is an anachronism by the time of its publication. No pro-Stalinist intellectuals remained outspoken in the USA by 1957. In the world of today, with the collapse of the Iron Curtain already 14 years gone, it is difficult to suspend disbelief and imagine that Rand is writing about a real world. This is one of the chief reasons why I took so long to complete it. Rand does not talk about computers, and commercial air travel is hardly mentioned. The story is set in the industrial world of the 1930's and 1940's, when trains were used more than cars, cigarettes were ubiquitous, and the Bolshevism she experienced before fleeing Russia still presented itself as a real threat because misguided American intellectuals were sold on Stalin's propoganda.
The climax of the novel is a sixty page radio address by John Galt in which he spells out the principles of Objectivism. It is in this address that the polemics against theism are most pointed. This address has also been excerpted from the novel and reproduced as encapsulating Rand's themes. The Libertarian who told me about the novel had only ever read the speech.
It is important, in my opinion, for the Libertarians of today to read the whole novel if they are going to read John Galt's speech. Considering that Rand experienced in her own family the brutality of collectivization in Russia, and considering the pro-Stalinist intellectual environment in the United States in the 1930's, much of what John Galt has to say can be comprehended. To divorce Galt's speech from those contexts will lead to its misapplication by misinformed zealots. I know that the Bible is often abused by religious zealots in the same way – by divorcing words from the context in which they were spoken.
C. A Mystic's Response
Rand shows no quarter to the religious, those whom she calls "preachers" and "mystics." As an evangelical Biblicist, I fit Rand's label of the "mystic." I will embrace that label so that all readers can understand where I am coming from: I do believe in prayer in that I believe that prayer is a conversation for guidance with an invisible, personal,transcendent intelligence that is not "me," it is God. There is no better way to describe the experience of the mystic. Aspersions cast on mystics are cast on me.
Rand accuses religious leaders with cultivating an environment of mediocrity and entitlement by preaching a message of "brotherly love," which is Rand's pejorative short-hand for what, to her, is the religious justification for one's exploitation by another. The religious are accused of teaching an ethics in which another's need equals one's obligation to act on that other's behalf.
This is a damning criticism. Many have indeed experienced sermons from mystics that have attempted to induce guilt for one's prosperity, while inducing pity for the poverty of others. Some Christians reading this will wonder why I refer to Rand's comments as "damning." Some Christians proudly wear Rand's critique as a badge of honor, calling it a "social gospel" in which personal greed is set aside and the needs of the other are placed ahead of the needs of the self. This, in the minds of many Christians, is called "justice."
I agree with both sides, actually. Christians, this is not a copout, and Objectivists, this is not a contradiction, either. I believe that authentic human compassion has in view the redemption of the other. Rand's novel is filled with the story of compassion with the view toward redemption. Her heroic characters forgive each other their sins when it is in their pleasure to do so. What Rand is objecting to is a condition for which language in the 1950's had not yet produced the term: Co-dependency.
A collectivization which deprives producers of their profit incentive is not justice. Most Christians who acknowledge the deprivations behind the Iron Curtain now grasp the full redemptive power of a free market. Taken to an individual level, co-dependency occurs when one person is sustained in a self-destructive cycle by exploiting another person. The wife who works in order to pay for an unemployed husband's alcoholism is a co-dependent. As a church pastor I have counseled such exploited people to end the co-dependency by separating from the exploiter.
When it comes to co-dependency, an exploited compassion is never redemptive. Exploited compassion always feeds the cycle of self-destruction. This is what Ayn Rand describes with righteous indignation, and I share her indignation. It is often the case that the only light of redemption to shine in a self-destroying exploiter's darkness, is when the exploiter discovers that you have a hard nose and a spine and that no gravy train runs down your tracks.
On the basis of this common ground, my hope is that the Libertarian Atheist will read these essays with as open a mind as I employed as a Libertarian Mystic reading Ayn Rand. Here is a summary of my arguments which I will develop over this series "A Mystic Reads Rand":
About the Author:
Jonathan Wilson serves Cuyler Covenant Church in Chicago. He is spending the winter of 2005-06 in Halle, Germany for an evangelism training, having received a leave of absence from the congregation.
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