A few days ago, a commenter asked me to write something about Ayn Rand. Since I have opinions about lots of things (I know, you’ve noticed!) let me begin by suggesting that a lot of her “fans” haven’t really read her books, and those who have, read them rather selectively.
We used to call it “cherry picking.” Researchers now have a more scientific term: “Confirmation bias.” We tend to accept at face value information that is consistent with what we already believe, and to disregard more “inconvenient” facts.
We all do it, although most intellectually honest folks try not to. And that brings me to my favorite story about Ayn Rand and the Bible.
Several years ago, I was working with a colleague who had a contract with the State of Indiana to do some research; I no longer recall what it was about. (My participation was minor.) He came into my office after meeting with the head of the agency for whom he was doing the research, and he was practically doubled-over laughing: the agency head was an outspoken Republican conservative (this is Indiana, after all) and a proud devotee of Ayn Rand.
It seemed he’d given copies of Atlas Shrugged and the Bible to everyone on his middle-management staff, and told them they were the most important two books they’d ever read.
Ayn Rand, of course, was a strident atheist. It is impossible to read any of her books–and I’ve read all of them–without being hit over the head (over and over and over)by her absolutely un-biblical worldview. Her philosophy is the utter antithesis of the Sermon on the Mount, in particular.
I read Rand’s books when I was in college, and I am continually amused by the self-proclaimed Christians who claim to have been profoundly influenced by her writing. Assuming they really read her books, they must read them the same way they read their bibles: very selectively.
Both critics and fans of Ayn Rand read her without context. She had escaped at a young age from a grim, totalitarian communist society in which the collective took precedence over the individual, and she was (over) reacting to that experience.
That over-reaction wasn’t unusual. Most ideologues I’ve known have had a desperate need for bright lines–this is bad, so its opposite is good. Good guys versus evil-doers. No shades of gray, no ambiguities. Their need for clarity, for an open-and-shut, prescriptive philosophy is so strong that when they recognize that a belief system they’ve embraced is flawed in some way, they will frequently shift to its opposite, and cling to that philosophy just as fervently. (Ex-communists helped launch National Review, and Ronald Reagan started out as a New Deal Democrat.)
If you have a need for clarity, Rand will supply it. (The Bible won’t, despite the protestations of the culture warriors.) And that brings us back to cherry picking.
The Christian conservatives devoted to Ayn Rand–the folks who drove around with “I am John Galt” bumper stickers, who equate taxation with theft and call people who depend upon the social safety net “looters”– somehow manage to miss the militant atheism as they read her books.
They read their bibles through a similarly selective lens. They are quick to quote Leviticus (“If a man lay with another man”) but somehow miss the far more numerous exhortations about helping the poor, the widow and the orphan. You’ll rarely hear them quote the bit about it being easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.
I think it was Simon and Garfunkel who wrote: “a man hears what he wants to hear,
and disregards the rest.”
Next time someone cites Ayn Rand to you, ask him (it’s likely to be a “he”) if he agrees that religion is a sop for weaklings, and there is no God. If that shocks him, you’ll know that Rand isn’t responsible for his worldview–she’s just a prop.