The Bible And Ayn Rand

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.


Holy Books

When I was in college, I read everything Ayn Rand wrote–and was immensely influenced by it.

The Cold War was still a reality, and Soviet communism was a genuine menace, ideologically and geopolitically. Rand’s books were a corrective (okay, an over-corrective) to the notion that the individual should live for the state, and her lack of balance was understandable coming as it did from someone who had escaped the Soviet Union when she was still a teenager.

Over the years, Rand’s books and philosophy took their place as one aspect of my own broader exploration of political philosophy. I still think they are a useful expression of  radical libertarianism, even though the demise of the Soviet Union and communism have made her work seem increasingly dated and shrill.

People can agree or disagree with Rand’s philosophy, but what has bemused me is the appropriation of bits and pieces of her writing in ways that I think would probably infuriate her. Case in point: the head of a state agency who told a colleague of mine that he required his employees to read two books for inspiration: Atlas Shrugged and the Bible. Ayn Rand, a committed atheist who considered religion a weakness, would have been appalled.

I also had to laugh at the rash of bumper stickers and letters to the editor a few years ago from people self-identifying with Rand’s hero, John Galt. Virtually all of them were arguing for government policies that would benefit businesses–tax breaks, subsidies, regulatory changes and the like. Most of their arguments echoed those of Rand’s villain, James Taggart–the sniveling parasite who embodied the corporate behaviors of which Rand disapproved–rather than the ideology of her (very unrealistic) protagonist.

As the current political season heats up, we are once again seeing references to Rand–Eric Cantor, the architect of the GOP budget is said to be deeply influenced by her philosophy, and left-wing bloggers mutter darkly about her evil and pervasive influence–and I can’t help seeing parallels between the way people read Rand’s books and the way they read the bible or the Koran or the Constitution–which is to say, very selectively.

Homophobes point to three or four passages in the Christian bible to justify marginalization of gays. Anti-Muslim bigots point to isolated passages of the Koran to paint all of Islam with a broad, terrorist brush. People who don’t like the implications of government’s obligation to treat citizens equally and their belief systems neutrally use isolated provisions to justify revisionist interpretations. Those on the other side of the philosophical fence respond with their own cherry-picking.

Ayn Rand, like those who wrote our Constitution and other “holy books,” was a product of a particular time and place. In her case, she was reacting against a repressive, totalitarian regime. She really can’t be faulted for failing to recognize the threat posed by a radical individualism that didn’t exist in her world, just as Karl Marx can’t be faulted for failing to recognize the dangers of the communist revolution he was promoting.

Ideally, we should all read widely–Rand and Marx, bible and Koran. But if we can’t read widely, at least we should read carefully.

I think about that every time I encounter a “bible-believing” Christian who identifies with Ayn Rand.