A Reason for Faith: 6 Fatal Misconceptions
As a dialogue begins between advocates of Ayn Rand's objectivist philosophy and professing Christians, it's vitally important to clarify terms.
February 21, 2013 - 8:40 am
Previous articles in this series:
The title of the talk, “Capitalism: The Only Moral Social System,” was irresistible to a newborn activist bred from the Tea Party. As a lifelong conservative, I had always felt as though capitalism was morally superior to any alternative, but had not encountered a claim as bold as this. The speaker was Craig Biddle, editor of The Objective Standard. His thesis was not that capitalism was the best social system, or the most efficient, or the most tolerable among acceptable choices. His claim was that capitalism is the one true good, the only way to go, and that any other system proves profoundly bad.
Biddle’s argument was compelling, built upon observation of reality and application of reason. He took us through the mind’s eye to a far-flung island where we were marooned alone without a single piece of technology. He asked us how such a castaway would survive. What would have to be done? Through what means would it be done? What could prevent it?
In order to survive and thrive, human beings must act rationally to obtain and keep values. A castaway requires food, shelter, sanitation, recreation, and a means to escape or attract rescue. To obtain these things, the castaway cannot rely upon instinct like an animal. Rather, he must apply his mind to the task at hand. He must discern what can be safely eaten, how to fashion tools, how to construct shelter, how to trap and kill animals, how to effectively use the raw materials around him to affect his survival. Ultimately, the only thing which could prevent the castaway from doing these things, aside from his willingness and ability, is brute force from another human being.
Therein lies the objectivist ethic. What human beings need in order to survive and thrive is not provision, but the liberty to act upon their own judgment. Put another way, liberty is life. To deprive a man of his liberty is to deprive him of his life, to drain or contain him. Therefore, the recognition and protection of individual rights are essential.
Hearing this for the first time, I felt as though I had found the Holy Grail of conservative apology. While natural law evoked a Creator which secular leftists could simply deny, this objectivist argument stood firmly upon reason and the uncontestable facts of reality. How is it that this was not being echoed across conservative media, I asked myself. Then I got my answer.
Biddle concluded his talk by turning a critical eye toward faith, religion, and Christianity in particular. He argued that Christianity promotes altruism, which is the opposite of the egoism required for human survival. A castaway employs egoism, living for himself, seeking that which perpetuates and improves his life. An altruist lives for others – for the poor, for the tribe, for the state, for God. The path of altruistic sacrifice leads to destruction, Biddle argued. With that, he lost me. As a Christian, I was not about to renounce my faith in support of a compelling political argument.
It was roughly a year from that first exposure to objectivist philosophy that I was confronted with it again, this time in a breakout session at the Tea Party Patriots American Policy Summit in Phoenix, Arizona. Yaron Brook, president and executive director of the Ayn Rand Institute, offered a presentation on how morality informs the cultural battles in our political discourse. Like Biddle, he laid out the case for the objectivist ethic. Unlike Biddle, he avoided the topic of religion. That was until I rained on the parade by asking him about God during the Q & A. Forced to disclose his atheism, he lost most of his audience.
After his talk, I approached Brook and told him that I thought the arguments he and other objectivists were making in support of individual rights were fantastic, but doomed to obscurity so long as they were tied to criticism of religion. When you come after Jesus, you turn off a huge segment of your audience. Brook shrugged and unapologetically declared that, as an atheist, reconciling faith with reason was not his job. It is up to the Christian to examine their faith and determine whether it makes any logical sense.
That exchange stuck with me and motivated a study of Objectivism and a review of Christian apologetics. What I found was, far more often than not, Christian critics of Ayn Rand do not understand what Objectivism really is. Likewise, far more often than not, Objectivist critics of Christianity do not discern between what professing Christians have said or done and what the Bible actually teaches. Here are 6 fatal misconceptions which prevent an essential dialogue.
6) Selfishness Is Bad
In our culture, selfishness gets a bum rap. We hurl the word in spite, and receive it defensively. We have been taught from a young age that the fundamental difference between heroes and villains is that the former live for others while the latter think only of themselves.
In her non-fiction follow-up to Atlas Shrugged provocatively titled The Virtue of Selfishness, Ayn Rand reclaimed the word to advocate egoism. She explained:
The meaning ascribed in popular usage to the word “selfishness” is not merely wrong: it represents a devastating intellectual “package-deal,” which is responsible, more than any other single factor, for the arrested moral development of mankind.
In popular usage, the word “selfishness” is a synonym of evil; the image it conjures is of a murderous brute who tramples over piles of corpses to achieve his own ends, who cares for no living being and pursues nothing but the gratification of the mindless whims of any immediate moment.
Yet the exact meaning and dictionary definition of the word “selfishness” is: concern with one’s own interests.
Rand expounded upon the importance of applying reason to the question of what is in one’s own interest:
There is a fundamental moral difference between a man who sees his self-interest in production and a man who sees it in robbery. The evil of a robber does not lie in the fact that he pursues his own interests, but in what he regards as his own interest; not in the fact that he pursues his values, but in what he chose to value; not in the fact that he wants to live, but in the fact that he wants to live on a subhuman level (see “The Objectivist Ethics”).
An example frequently touted by advocates of Objectivism is the graft of Bernie Madoff. His crimes are conventionally thought of as selfish, since he sought profit by victimizing others. However, a rational assessment of Madoff’s scheme concludes that it was not in his rational long-term self-interest. Look at his life today. Where is he? What is his reputation? Who loves him? On what can he rest any sense of pride? His crimes were not in service of a rational ego.
Even so, an entrepreneur like Steve Jobs who has stolen nothing from anyone is nonetheless regarded as selfish for not being as charitable as Bill Gates. Yet Jobs’ pursuit of his rational long-term self-interest provided a higher quality of life for billions of people living today and yet unborn. While Gates’ pursuit of his own interest has also benefited billions of people, his willingness to give his money away has earned him far more accolades.
Selfishness, concern with one’s one interests, is the well-spring of life on Earth. If we never acted selfishly, if we never concerned ourselves with our own interests, we would surely die.
5) Being Selfish Precludes Charity, Kindness, and Love
Christians tend toward disgust when first encountering Ayn Rand’s description of selfishness as virtue, perceiving concern with one’s own values as disregard for everyone else. Commentator Tom Hoefling responds typically:
According to the philosophy of Ayn Rand, the firefighters who went up the stairs of the World Trade Center on 9-11-2001 were fools. The men who rushed the cockpit on Flight 93 to stop the plane from being crashed into the Capitol or the White House were idiots. The soldier who gives his life for his buddies or for his country is to be scorned for his ignorance of Ayn Rand’s immoral “morality.”
An objectivist friend of mine, a fellow Tea Party traveler, recently bid farewell to her only son as he shipped out to become a Marine. She does not think her son a fool.
Rational egoism does not produce a short-sighted self-centeredness which ignores all context. On the contrary, true selfishness recognizes the value of relationships and takes joy in rational giving. The sentiment that giving is better than receiving recognizes the selfish gain which occurs through gifting. Why else would we watch our loved ones open presents on Christmas morning? If it was just for them and did nothing for us, what would be the point?
Firefighters do not run into burning buildings in order to die. They run into burning buildings in order to more fully live. Soldiers do not enlist to die for their country. They enlist to live free. No one throws their body on top of a live grenade because they seek to die for their friends. They do it to protect those whom they value.
The use of the word “sacrifice” in our language distorts the true motivation behind service. It is not a sacrifice for a parent to divert time from other interests to invest in raising their child. It is not a sacrifice for a police officer to run toward gunfire in an effort to restore the peace. It is not a sacrifice for a husband to spend his life savings on a desperate effort to cure his sick wife. These actions, commonly thought of as sacrifices, are actually winning value trades. Raising your child is worth more than indulging a hobby. A chance at curing your spouse is worth more than money. Neutralizing a threat to the public is worth risking grave injury or death, because life can only be truly lived if free from brute tyranny.
4) Atheism Leads Inexorably to Communism or Fascism
In his recent debate with objectivist advocate Dr. Andrew Bernstein on the question of whether Christianity is “good or bad for mankind,” Dinesh D’Souza fell back upon a tried but not so true equivocation. If Christians are to share responsibility for the historical atrocities of Christendom, D’Souza argued atheists must share responsibility for the historical atrocities of atheistic regimes. It was atheism which enabled the rise of communism and fascism, he claimed, casting objectivists like Ayn Rand alongside tyrants like Hitler, Stalin, and Mao.
D’Souza proves half right. Not all Christians, nor Christianity itself, can be blamed for the crimes of Christendom. As an objectivist, Bernstein ought to appreciate the fallacy of guilt by association. However, it hardly serves D’Souza to point out that fallacy only to turn around and use it against objectivists. Atheism is not the distinguishing characteristic between capitalism and communism. Capitalism distinguishes itself through its recognition of individual rights.
Ayn Rand was born in Russia and raised in the Soviet Union. She despised the statists in her midst and was thrilled at the chance to immigrate to America. There was likely no greater critic of communism in her day. She put native-born American intellectuals to shame as she decried the tyranny from which she had escaped, even as her American critics admired it. Rand was way ahead of the curve when it came to recognizing the threat posed by the Soviets and their sympathizers in the West. To equate her philosophy with communism or fascism is to admit utter ignorance of what she advocated.
Rand’s philosophical accomplishment is so earth-shattering and counter-intuitive that it has yet to be widely perceived. Prior to Rand, natural law or the notion of God-given rights was the only alternative to the statist claims of the Left. This perceived dichotomy informs the view that Judeo-Christian values square off against atheism in a contest between liberty and tyranny. Rand tipped the scales of that battle by proving the dichotomy false. She demonstrated through reason that liberty is — objectively — the only moral condition for man. She proved that men are not properly regarded as the means to the ends of others, that they own their own life, and that they must be free to pursue their own happiness. Though an atheist, Rand bolstered the audacious claims of the Declaration of Independence by solidifying them in the facts of reality.
If objectivists “took over the world,” Christians would enjoy unprecedented religious freedom. Though atheistic, Objectivism could never result in the tyranny of communism or fascism.
3) Christianity Suppresses Reason
Having considered three crucial misconceptions of Objectivism, let us now turn to misconceptions of Christianity. We should note that objectivists generally know how their philosophy is misunderstood. Christians, on the other hand, frequently contribute to misconceptions of their faith because many are sadly unsure why they believe what they believe. For that reason, these last points may be as enlightening to professing Christians as they are intended to be for non-believers.
I cringe whenever I hear Christians concede that reason is antithetical to Christianity. The sufficiency of scripture stands among the central doctrines of biblical Christianity. So some professing Christians attest that any appeal to reason somehow rejects sola scriptura. To be frank, this is nonsense. Holding to the sufficiency of scripture limits the scope of supernatural revelation, not the scope of human knowledge. The Bible does not tell us how to grow crops or build homes or fashion automobiles or generate electricity. With apologies to the Amish, utilizing technology is not an extra-biblical conceit. To violate the sola scriptura doctrine, a Christian must turn to an extra-biblical source for supernatural revelation. Reason is not a means toward supernatural revelation. So the Christian need not reject reason as an idol.
While it is true that Christendom — the history of human institutions professing ecclesiastical authority in the name of Christ — has suppressed reason by persecuting heretics and resisting science, biblical Christianity advocates individual conscience (Romans 14) and freedom of thought. It is actually unbiblical to suppress reason.
Furthermore, an entire branch of Christian ministry known as “discernment” specializes in applying reason to determine whether emergent teaching from professing Christian pastors and authors is consistent with scripture. If it were true that you could believe anything under Christian premises, as Andrew Bernstein asserted in his debate with Dinesh D’Souza, then discernment would be an exercise in futility.
The difference between Christians and objectivists is not that the latter apply reason while the former reject it. The difference is the epistemological context in which each operate. While objectivists maintain that human knowledge is limited to the observable, Christians accept evidence of divine revelation. Contrary to Bernstein’s characterization, believing in biblical revelation does not open a Pandora’s Box of unlimited fantasy. Christians do not believe a burning bush can speak. They believe an all-powerful God can speak through any means He chooses to employ. Christians do not believe that the dead can come back to life. They believe that God can resurrect that which He created in the first place. Christian doctrine is logical in the context of Christian epistemology.
2) Christianity Is Altruistic
To achieve understanding, we must define our terms. We have considered how selfishness is defined in mainstream culture, as opposed to how Ayn Rand defined it. We touched upon a similar distinction regarding sacrifice. While giving your life for something you value more — like the life of your child — makes rational sense, giving it for something you do not value is a true sacrifice.
Altruism must also be defined, as it stands opposite the egoism Rand advocated. Like sacrifice, altruism holds a sacred place in our cultural discourse. Yet, as we explored while considering the true meaning of selfishness, many of the acts we regard as altruistic are profoundly self-serving. While we think of our armed forces as serving the country, they actually serve their own vital interest — a free nation in which to live in peace and pursue happiness. While those of us who have not served benefit immensely from the actions of those who have, imagine the conceit required to assume any given solider weathered his or her duty with you personally in mind. It’s a fair bet they think of their own life, of their friends and family.
Objectivism defines altruism as living for others at the expense of your own interests. Think of depriving your child of desperately needed medicine in order to give it to a stranger, or taking your life savings to pay for the care of someone else’s sick spouse while neglecting your own.
Objectivists like Andrew Bernstein accuse Christianity of advocating such altruism. They point to the teachings of Jesus Christ, such as those regarding the care of the poor, and the atoning death of Christ on behalf of sinners as examples. Yet, again, we must consider context in order to understand what the Bible actually teaches. Christ’s death on the cross was not a sacrifice in the objectivist sense, but a willing trade of his earthly life for something He valued more — the eternal lives of human beings he loves. Like a parent giving their life to save their children, Christ served his own interest.
Likewise, what may appear to be an altruistic Christian lifestyle is actually self-serving. Pastor John Piper of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis has generated controversy with his concept of Christian hedonism. What may sound like an oxymoron makes sense once explained. Piper demonstrates from scripture that “God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in Him.” In other words, the purpose of life is to achieve eternal satisfaction. It’s a cosmic win-win where obedience results in complete fulfillment, much in the same way a child heeding his father’s warning to stay out of a busy street results in safety. God knows what we need. We need Him. When we surrender to that, we are fulfilled. It is entirely about Him, but nonetheless serves our interests. It’s an arrangement Ayn Rand might have appreciated, where a self-existent God created men to glorify himself.
1) Christianity Condones Theocracy
In his debate with Dinesh D’Souza, Andrew Bernstein claimed that whenever Christianity has been the dominant philosophy in a culture, theocracy has followed. He chronicled the well-known history of the church and its incestuous relationship with the state.
While the history of the church cannot be denied, it is hardly fair to single out Christianity when the vast majority of human history is a chronicle of irrational tyranny. Classical liberalism based in Enlightenment reasoning is the brief experimental exception.
Biblical Christianity does not prescribe an earthly theocracy. As explored previously, Jesus claimed a kingdom not of this world. First-century Christians did not seek civil authority to force their worldview upon their neighbors. The apostle Paul instructed the Roman congregation to submit to earthly authorities when it would not compromise their faith. Christian politics can be summed up simply – Christ is King no matter who is president. The minutiae of human government may remain the realm of human reason without offering threat to the Kingdom of God.
We must pause here to acknowledge that many professing Christians believe otherwise, subscribing to various forms of dominion theology spanning the ideological spectrum from Jim Wallis’s Sojourners on the Left to the Seven Mountain Mandate on the Right. However, the authority for what is Christian remains Jesus Christ and his Word revealed in scripture. Such efforts toward a kind of theocracy are not advocated in the Bible. Rather, Christ commissioned his followers to “make disciples of all the nations.” Far from promising earthly dominion this side of glory, our Lord warned that true Christians would be scattered amidst a sea of pretenders. Matthew 17:13-23:
Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.
Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.
Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” And then will I declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.”
Therefore, judge Christianity not by the actions of any who claim to be Christian, but by the doctrine found in scripture. By that standard, non-believers need not fear a Christian theocracy, and can be assured that true Christians will stand alongside them in condemnation of any attempt to impose tyranny.
Having given much consideration to the content of the recent debate between Dinesh D’Souza and Andrew Bernstein, and having knocked down some major barriers to understanding, we will wrap up next week with a vision of how Christians and objectivists can ally politically despite their fundamentally different worldviews.
The Next Part in the series: